I once bought a book on how to read faster but (between you and me) I never finished it. The reason I’d got it was that I’d found, as I worked my way through a chapter, that I would frequently pause, stare out of the window, and play around in my mind for a long time with some item my eyes had just spotted on the page.
One of the delightful things about science fiction (and it’s not alone in this) is that, if it’s well written, readers can either keep closely to the story all the way through, or can pause, take time out to examine things, and explore whatever side-tracks they like before returning to the main path.
And what is of course particularly intriguing about the whole field of literature is that the journey of the writer and of the reader passes through a world that belongs to neither completely. The writer can never be certain how a particular reader will interpret, or respond to, something s/he has written.
What happens in the space between writer and reader is, fortunately, outside the total control of either. This space is a free area, and is blessedly indefinable and beyond the reach of algorithms. The faces of the characters as they look on the reader and on the author are different. The landscapes, closely depicted though they may be, are never the same. The sounds described in a novel fall in other ways on the ears of their creator than on those of the person hearing them through the book.
And it is the writer’s mind that must be the first to enter this strange, magical realm.
To step inside, perhaps we can begin by asking ourselves how one sets about writing science fiction. As there are various branches of it, rather than attempting to “generalize”, I’d better move quickly to my own area, that of humorous science fantasy. Perhaps I can talk first about the humorous part of it, suggesting, a little later, three things that I believe important to consider when writing in this field.
One of the problems, if you’re asked about humour, is that you’re being invited to step outside it in order to give answers. It’s a bit like being asked to leave a warm house, look back at it, and describe the heat from the logs in the fireplace. Analysis is interesting, but it can take you into the cold.
Anyway, I’ll do my best, and try to keep the door at least partly open.
Humour and creativity are so strongly intertwined that they seem to feed each other for the sheer fun of it, and the best place to start enjoying the whole process of writing -and reading- a humorous novel (science fantasy or other) is floating on the uplift of a cheerful mood.
“Ah”, some will say, “that all sounds fine enough, but how do you get that kind of cheerful mood working on the first page, especially as the last thing the reader’s just seen is the amount s/he’s just had to shell out for the price of the book, emblazoned in bold letters on the front inside cover?” Well, the answer, I think, is that there are a whole lot of ways of doing it, and this will probably mean using a fair amount of paper (recycled preferably) or screen area in order to come up with the right one. But lift the mood we must, for that’s the business we’re in. So let’s look at three of what I believe are the tasks of the humorous writer. (We’ll look at the science fantasy side of things a bit later).
Setting The Mood
Start in the right frame of mind. One doesn’t actually have to be prancing and leaping about just before sitting down in front of the word-processor or the blank piece of paper, but having a cheerful approach certainly helps to get things going well.
All this of course has to do with the very business of writing humour anyway.
Funny things (of the “ha! ha!” kind, I mean) will already have occurred to you (I hope) at random times before you sit down to write. If you have been fortunate enough to have been able to jot them down (see my comments on this below), you can always take them out and ask yourself if you might be able to use one of them, possibly in an adapted form, as a launch point.
Starting off being funny is a good way of giving yourself permission to go on being funny. Most of us probably remember times in our lives, very likely at school or in some formal surroundings, when we have come out with something funny “at the wrong moment”, and have been severely frowned upon, or worse. Because of these experiences we can easily develop a habit of mentally glancing around before allowing ourselves to come up with something funny.
Sitting down in front of that rather formal blank paper or screen is the moment when you can nudge yourself and, preferably, laugh at the pompous stiffness of the situation. Once you have done this, you don’t need to think anymore about needing permission to be funny. You’re now in the mood to be, and the part of your mind that’s so good at seeing the funny side of things can start to hand you the material to put down. In a couple of words, my suggestion is: “Get informal”.
(We have to remember, of course, that we are talking here about mood, rather than technique. And we should also recall that having a good sense of humour means being able to distinguish between what’s funny and what isn’t. But at this early stage, it’s probably best just to treat these moments as a kind of personal fun brainstorming session. You can edit all of it later if you feel the need to).
Establishing Your Humorous Writing Style
Perhaps I could define humorous writing style as part the “tone” that the reader will give to the writer’s voice and part description of people, things and events “polarised to humorous take”. You have begun with a nice cheerful floaty mood, and so your writing style may be considered as already established from the first few lines of your book.
This style will usually run most smoothly when you are writing strongly humorous material, but it may also have “work to do” at certain stages in your book where the reader needs to be informed of certain less funny things in order for the plot to become clear. Here, polarising things to humorous take is going to play a key role. The polarising will also probably tell you, if it finds it’s getting a bit overworked, that you need to interrupt a passage, whether briefly or more lengthily, with a digression into something with more strongly humorous material.
The kind of book you want to write will determine for how much of it you will want to use this writing style. Some authors decide at the outset that they want their book to be a continuous uplifter of mood, and will maintain their writing style accordingly. Others conclude that showing the serious elements of reality from time to time does no harm, and that it may well enhance people’s appreciation of the humour elsewhere in the book.
I would suggest, however, that it’s a pretty good idea to have worked out the kind of book you are writing beforehand. Following a series of intensely funny chapters with a slide into drawn-out and intensely miserable reality might convince some deconstruction-undestruction-post-modo experts that you have created an outstandingly new genre, but I think it’s likely to leave many readers feeling seriously let down. But the choice is, of course, entirely yours.
Developing and Using Funny Material
I strongly believe that a writer’s material should be their own original work, unless they are quoting something that they have permission to use, and they acknowledge its source.
Ideas for humorous material often occur completely spontaneously, and making sure one has some way of noting them down as they occur is of course very important. One can run through one’s notes fairly frequently and see if one can elaborate on these ideas or adapt them to particular stories or situation-pieces that one is considering writing.
I believe it’s also important to do some mental “gym-work”. For example one can, as a practice session, write a scene or piece of action in a purely factual way and then re-write it in a humorous way. This kind of exercise can help to keep one humorously fit, rather than just fitfully humorous. I believe, too, that it makes one more likely to come up with the kind of spontaneous material mentioned earlier.
Another useful thing to do can be to keep a diary in which you list as many of the events of the day as you have time and space (and inclination) for, but expressed from a humorous perspective. Not only will this keep your humorous writing nicely limbered up, it will also add to the store of material on which you can draw in the future.
Let’s turn now to the science fantasy side of things. A great deal has been written about this genre, so I will limit my coverage to just one theme, or else this article will be too long.
I suggest that a useful, and fun, approach to this is to set oneself a challenge. In the same way that the rules for rhyme and metre spur poets’ creativity by requiring them to embark on a search for ideas that will enable them to satisfy the poetic structure they are using, adopting an apparently tough goal is a good way of coming up with ideas.
Let’s imagine, for example, that one has just, very understandably, dismissed as puerile the notion that one could write about the moon having an intelligence. That, many would say, is the stuff of fairy tales, and totally inappropriate for the field of adult science fiction or science fantasy. One might laugh and ask oneself (in a question that seemed a funny contradiction in terms) how on Earth anyone could possibly make the moon intelligent. Well, let’s set ourselves the target of doing just that, and see where it could lead us.
One’s mind ranges round a bit, and lands on that funny question of a moment ago.
Supposing you turn it on it’s head (to continue larking about with words).
-Supposing you ask: “How could the moon possibly make anyone on Earth intelligent?” If it had been able to do that, could it not be said to have developed an intelligence, a remote one, of course, but one far less remote now that the intelligence has visited it on a number of occasions.
And is it not conceivable that this intelligence might perhaps serve at some far future time to assist the moon’s very survival? (Perhaps it could even turn out to be a future intelligence, other than human, that had evolved over a very long period of time).
Well, whether the moon played a role in the very early development of life is a subject I do not propose to enter into here. However, I think one starts to get more clearly onto terra firma (apologies!) if one talks about the influence that lunar cycles and related factors have exerted on the subsequent development of life on Earth. And part of this development has been the development of intelligence.
“Ah!..” many people would say, “…That doesn’t mean the moon has any kind of plan for survival, nor any guarantee that some future intelligence would help it to survive!”
“Exactly so”, one might reply, “Nor, as far as I know, does a gene have a plan for survival or reproduction. It might seem that way, but in fact it is circumstances favouring its qualities that can lead to its survival or reproduction. Same thing for the moon”.
And so the idea might be developed, for example, that the moon -rather than being simply a large piece of rock- has characteristics that have given it a remote (disembodied) intelligence. An added advantage of this, by the way, is that if it were to lose its present head (humans) it might be able to grow another one, even though that might take a while!
I don’t know whether you will consider that this might be an interesting idea to explore in a science fantasy. I just rather wanted to suggest how the process of generating ideas in this field can sometimes work.
I think I’ve written rather a lot in this piece, and had better stop now. I send you all my very best wishes for your future writing.
Born in the UK, D.S. Morgan has travelled and worked abroad extensively.
Morgan was awarded 1st Prize in the WH Smith (Belgium) 1990 Writing Competition by a professional jury of 5 publishers’ representatives, and has written poetry, comic verse and song lyrics. The Bend in the Sky is his first novel.
The Bend in the Sky can be purchased from The Bend in the Sky.