The Flaws That Hold Us Back

Reading & Writing

Every writer, no matter how brilliant she or he is, eventually becomes aware of the flaws in their work. They’re usually things we can’t do much about because they stem from our personalities, and going against the grain is very difficult. JG Ballard and Arthur C Clarke have often been criticised for not writing more rounded characters, but if they had would it have detracted from their main purpose, to explore big ideas? I wonder if Jim Ballard ever sat down and thought ‘I must make this character more likeable?

In much of Tom Stoppard’s earlier writing he would kill a scene stone dead in order to make a clever verbal joke. Stephen Sondheim is regarded as the greatest of all theatre lyricists but is a technical fusspot more concerned with the purity of internal rhymes than he is with character. Many female British crime writers make the cardinal mistake of giving their male investigators too many feelings – these are men who are rarely in touch with their inner femininity. I’ve lost count of the number of times a copper looks back at a colleague and starts mentally beating himself up about saying the wrong thing. That’s simply not how men think.

Equally, there are many male writers who cannot write female characters. One bestselling author I personally know is utterly incapable of writing woman’s roles – but he mystifyingly remains in the Top Ten lists. Some authors can only ever write one book over and over, disguising and permuting it. Others, like myself, hop about too much, part of the short-attention-span generation.

I’m always being pulled up by editors who want more scenic detail in my writing, but I assume my readers stay with me. You don’t need to know the colour of the leaves on the trees. Inevitably, though, I return to certain themes. I’m a middle-class white male, and some subjects are bound to keep arising.

Recently I completed the first draft of a thriller set in the Middle East, in which I suppressed my natural instincts to be warm, to make jokes, to introduce fantastical elements. I kept everything very straightforward. Two people read it and detested it – a friend in New York thought the setting ‘uniformly unpleasant’, and an agent here thought it unsaleable. I was trying something new. I still think they’re wrong and it’s good, and as it has only been judged by a sample of two, I should return to it at some point.

My good friend Joanne Harris has a hit every time she writes about France and food, and softer sales when she writes more edgily – but her big secret is that she’s a rock chick at heart and can write what she likes – unfortunately the public is keen to retain a single image in their collective head for each author’s style.

It’s something that affects most of my fiction-writing friends. Jake Arnott, looks like an East End gangster and found fame writing to that image, but he has many other excellent styles. China Mieville doesn’t take new readers where they think the book they bought will go – the terrific, mad ‘Kraken’ is hardly about the theft of a squid at all.

The answer is to write to the chocolate cake principle. This is the idea that when presented with a bowl of fruit or a chocolate cake, people choose the fruit because they think they should, but when presented with the same choice after a hard day’s work they pick the cake as a reward. I should probably write a mad, surreal, fantastical funny novel that flies off in all directions – in theory, I’d have a ball and my energy would transmit itself to the page.

Unfortunately there’s the market to think of. Right now, it’s deeply conservative, backward-looking, repressed. So in the meantime I’ll have to iron out my naturally perky personality and do the glum stuff – outside of Bryant & May stories, of course!

12 comments on “The Flaws That Hold Us Back”

  1. Peter Lee says:

    I actually like the fact that Ballard doesn’t really go to town on his characters. In “Concrete Island” for example – my favourite of his books – he basically tells you the name of the character, the car he drives, that he works in the city, is married and has a mistress, and leaves the rest to you. Maybe I’m a terrible person for this but I’m more interested in the story the book tells, and page after page of back-story into how the main character doesn’t like cheese, how he got his limp, where he went on childhood holidays etc. just seems irrelevant, as do descriptions of clothing.

  2. BangBang!! says:

    I sometimes get into the habit of a reading authors because I liked a couple of their books and then realise that really they’re all the same story (Jeffery Deaver I’m looking at you). Your good self and Neil Gaiman are the only two I’ve actually stuck with. It’s a pity that authors can’t just set themselves free sometimes and still get published. Are you any further forward with your idea of on-line publishing, Admin?

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Do you remember the descriptions of characters after you’ve read them? I’m not sure whether I do or not. I have impressions in my mind but not details, unless the details are stressed like “a glaring red scar that twisted its way from the outer corner of her right eye to the edge of her jaw.” All of those background things are only important if they affect the story or if the character is in a series and then they should be added as needed and the series goes along.

  4. Peter Lee says:

    Helen – Personally I don’t. Whenever a book is adapted for a film I’m always a little bewildered by the outrage that invariably erupts from those who claim the actors don’t look like the characters when I can’t actually remember what the character “looks” like. Granted, I may remember some detail, such as when I first read the Harry Potter books I remembered Harry had glasses and a scar, but that was all, and when I read the Bryant & May books the images I had for the characters was of (please don’t shout!) John Le Mesurier and Mick from “Time Team”, but there are also times when I’m reading books and I end up imagining the characters are just a kind of “everyman”, or sometimes me. The only time a character has really stuck in my head has been Lisbeth Salander in the “Millennium” trilogy, and when I saw the first stills from the films I thought Noomi Rapace was just perfect, and exactly as I’d pictured her.

  5. Mike Cane says:

    >>>Unfortunately there’s the market to think of.

    Oh FFS. Write it, sell it direct via Kindle. Sure, if it doesn’t sell big you might not make a bundle but you’ll have had a hell of a time and isn’t *that* worth than money?

  6. Mike Cane says:

    *worth more. Hate it when typos sneak in. Bugger.

  7. Gretta says:

    I remember admin describing Arthur as a jumble sale on a stick(or words to that effect), and really, you don’t need any more than that to know exactly what Arthur looks like.

    I seem to recall that Agatha Christie wrote under the name Westmacott when she did romance novels, so it sounds like not a lot has changed. What a fickle bunch readers are. Or is it that publishers just think that readers are easily confused?

    If you were to change your name with every genre leap, admin, we would have to start refering to you as Alias. ;)

  8. glasgow1975 says:

    I’m sure I remember in an entry about your UK v US books that the US books cut out a lot of ‘scenic description’, I take it it’s the UK editors that are wanting more of it? :p

  9. Amy says:

    I agree with Mike. If you’re excited about it, do it. It’s worth the risk.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    And the bit about the UK editions having more description just gives me another reason to order from UK. I read a book for the words and the more words for my money the better. That sounds weird coming from a Gormenghast resister but I want to know where and when I am and with whom, even if their faces are a little blank or blurry.

  11. Angelia says:

    I agree with Mike and Amy that it’s worth the risk to write something that feels good, that excites you. Isn’t that the point, or am I a l’art pour l’art idealist?

    I love it when my favorite authors dabble in other styles, stretch and grow as artists. That’s the moment when they move from the “brain candy” shelf in my head to the shelves reserved for authors whose work I respect more. I don’t actually disrespect the “brain candy” authors, but since they tend to retell the same stories, I can hardly credit them with much growth, nor can I credit them with challenging me as a reader.

    As for detailed descriptions, as in the green of the leaves, well, the issue for me is whether the description adds to the narrative. If it augments the scene, the mood, the characters, or if it contrasts with a desiccation of some sort, then yes, tell me about the green leaves. If knowing the leaves are green doesn’t serve a purpose, then my imagination can fill in bits of setting, leaf color included. The same is true of descriptions of characters.

    Some examples:

    Scenes. In China Mieville’s The City and The City, we need to know what Beszel and Ul Qoma look like, the architectures that separate them. We also need to understand how the crosshatching works, how it appears to the residents of both cities. Without the details, “unseeing” makes no sense, nor does Breach. Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night is also written in first-person, but in this case, detail takes on particular significance. E.G. hardly describes London at all, which is perfect. We only need to know that to E.G., London is the “Great Leviathan”; no further descriptions are necessary, nor are they possible. The lack of detail is crucial, for it helps us view London the same way E.G does: it is an omnipresent, indescribable, and powerful entity that lives, breathes, and consumes. The descriptions of Evenwood, however, are necessary. How E.G. describes it lets us inside his head and heart regarding the estate and its importance to him.

    Characters. In the case of Arthur Bryant, just knowing he looks like an unmade bed is enough since everything we learn about his personality (including the esoterica on his bookshelves and desk) fills in any gaps in physical description. He’s introspective, sometimes playful, sometimes surly; thus just knowing he’s rumpled and wrapped in a moth-eaten scarf suffices and suits him perfectly. In contrast, Peter mentions Lisbeth Salander, a great example of a character whose every physical detail we need in order to understand her and her relationship with the world around her.

    All that said, I don’t skip descriptions. I appreciate details for what they are, even if they don’t really support the narrative well. Learning the US market is detail-phobic saddens me. What’s worse, that novels are edited to suit supposed “American Tastes” is horrifying. I knew record companies used to do that for foreign albums released in the States, but I had no idea that happened (is happening?!) with books as well. Oh the humanity. With my rambling as evidence, I acknowledge I am not one of those detail-phobic Americans.

  12. Lulu says:

    Bryant & May fan here. Your descriptions are so well done that I have already been thinking about actors to play their parts. Then I cringe, thinking about how either the large or the small screen would mangle your books. Best left to the rich imaginations of your readers….

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