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