Inside Writing 2: Why You Need To Know What You’ve Written

Reading & Writing

The steps between thoughts must be cut shallow.

I was once in California and made the mistake of walking across a part of the beach surfers considered to be theirs. They threw rocks at me until I retreated cut and bruised. I had never really encountered aggressively stupid people before and it came as a shock to me.

A few years ago I had the temerity to write a novel that the SF community decided fell into their territory, and one of them threw rocks at me.

The book was ‘The Sand Men’. It received an excoriating page-long review in an online subscription magazine, and the editor chivalrously called me to warn that I was about to be roasted at considerable length in its pages. He needed to warn me because in the very same issue they were running a short story I had given them for free.

I could have pulled the story but I took it on the chin. Also, I thought discerning readers might spot a gap between the article saying how awful the book was and the short story from me beginning a few pages later. The review (which I would post here if I had kept) was hysterically vitriolic and revealed too much about its author’s personality. As someone who had been a reviewer for three decades, I knew this to be an absolutely fundamental error.

I was not hurt so much as worried that if one person could misunderstand a novel so completely there would be others. A few days later the surrealist writer D Harlan Wilson took two pages in the Los Angeles Review of Books to champion the novel, saying, ”Fowler presents a more compelling representation of gender dynamics than JG Ballard ever did. In fact, The Sand Men is essentially a novel about gender relations and the oppressive, destructive hammer of patriarchy, especially as it relates to race and class. Fowler untwists Ballardian dynamics and lays them much flatter, simplifying what, in my view, no Anglophone writer has managed to do like Ballard.’

I wondered if I had unknowingly written a more intellectual novel than I had intended. I certainly hadn’t written it for the space opera brigade, who seem to be uninterested in character development or internal states of mind. They wanted big gadgetry, spaceships and battles with alien empires all called The Splang. I love the other kind of SF, the cerebral novels that show us what happens to people in unusual states.

Now I’m thinking of risking the same opprobrium again. I want to write a novel featuring children that is not aimed at them, in the same way that Richard Hughes wrote the shocking ‘A High Wind in Jamaica’. I did something similar with ‘Little Boy Found’, a terrible title I was saddled with that misrepresented the book. I should have explained what it was more clearly. Writers are often so grateful to be published that they don’t push back.

Moral: Research your genre before you wade into it. Be clear about what exactly you have written. Remember that the steps between thoughts must be cut shallow. The readers you think you’ll get may not be the ones you actually get.


14 comments on “Inside Writing 2: Why You Need To Know What You’ve Written”

  1. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I enjoyed The Sand Men – perhaps because I have always preferred the SF without the Splang.
    As for the critics – it probably isn’t PC to say that some opinions are more important than others, but I appear to have just said it.

  2. brooke says:

    “…written a more intellectual novel than I had intended.” You often do,,,e.g. Plastic. Please carry on.

  3. admin says:

    No. Brooke. Have. To. Dumb. Down. And. Be. Popular.

  4. Richard says:

    The scifi audience seems a bit scary online. I only tangentially see some of the Doctor Who traffic on Twitter, but what I do see is confusingly vitriolic about the writing. If that’s what bucolic Brit SF endures, then Christ knows what the Star Wars/Trek stuff is like.

    I imagine a thick skin is a requirement to write in SF. Or just never scrolling down the comments section.

  5. Brian Evans says:

    All the above is why I don’t do “social networks” such as faeces book and twatter. They are full of sad failures who were the sort who used to write poison pen letters. I like the old saying-“Those that can, do-those that can’t sit back and endlessly criticise.”

  6. Roger says:

    SF writers – some SF writers – do have an odd attitude to “outsiders” moving into their territory. If the outsider says they’re writing SF they’re sneered at as trespassers; if they deny they’re writing SF – like Margaret Atwood – they’re accused of dishonesty.
    There’s nothing wrong with big gadgety spaceships and battles with alien empires all called The Splang (except the ones called the Splong or the Spling) if they’re done well – the Norse myths updated!.

  7. kevin says:

    ” . . . a novel featuring children that is not aimed at them . . . ” Hmmm. Having never read A High Wind In Jamaica, all I could think of was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and the film Kids by Larry Clark.

  8. admin says:

    Wrong idea, Kevin. Read the Richard Hughes. In it, children en route from Jamaica to England are taken by pirates (It’s set in the mid 19th cent but was written in 1929), but their amorality and casual cruelty of the children undermines the morals of the pirates – it was very controversial in its time.
    A film version (with a very young Martin Amis!) timidly bowdlerised the material.

  9. John Griffin says:

    ‘Plastic’ was, for me, begging for a sequel.

  10. brooke says:

    novel featuring children that is not aimed at them…see also Lord of the Flies, Roth’s Call It Sleep, Huckleberry Finn (child abuse, slavery, plains feuds that make War of Roses seem benign, epidemics), and many others.

    The Bluest Eye is a remarkable portrayal of the world as seen by children. High on my list of novelistic achievements.
    And yes, Plastic does deserve a sequel.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Loved Sandmen and wouldn’t call it SF at all. I would like to see how your book about children would turn out. High Wind is a disturbing book if you think of children as being benign. They aren’t.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    Brian – I’m totally with you on the ‘social media’ thing. Full of loud voices with absolutely nothing to say, hiding behind keyboards, pontificating on subjects on which they have zero knowledge. I really have no time for people like that. And yet they are all over the internet like shit in a field. Stupidity breeds stupidity, and, of course, you can’t argue with them. Bastards.

  13. Andrew Holme says:

    Blue Remembered Hills, a wonderful Dennis Potter film featuring children, but not about them.

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    There is a splendid radio version of A High Wind in Jamaica, the book is as said, the court case really does bring certain cruelties home. What is done to survive.

    I enjoyed Sandmen and would like to know what happens next. I’d put it in the SF genre, definitely in the techno thriller side.

    What you have to remember about social media is the shouters are a minority, but are vocal and across the world do had upto a sizeable number. If you see the nasties, report, block and say why you did this. Ignoring these people emboldens them, they think people secretly agree with them, this is based on bystander theory in social science/sociology (not to be confused with bystander effect/apathy which is more social psychology.)


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