First strike and the back foot

I've just watched an interesting response to an online debate between two authors. The details are irrelevant, except for the fact that these authors know each other well. One of them said something to the other that offended the lurking audience, and a backlash ensued in which some folks declared they'd never buy another book by that author because he was such a beastly, horrid man. (And variations on that theme.)

The interesting thing for an old spin doc like me was that the alleged insultee pointed out that the alleged insulter was a mate of his and that this was just blokeish banter. The context of the original comment, though, was completely lost because all the audience had seen was this apparently obnoxious statement. But it was too late: the author was already on the back foot, and judging by the reactions of onlookers, no amount of explaining and contextualising is going to change the minds of those who now think he's a grade-A bell-end and have boycotted his titles. The myth (I'm assuming the insultee knows if he's been insulted or not) has been born.

There are some lessons here for us all. Remember that I can make a politician look like a normal human being, so I know a bit about reputation management and how to put a parade-ground shine on a turd.

1. First strike. (Which can also be an own goal. The strike doesn't always come from the other side.) First strike is everything in PR. Rebuttal is for losers, even if you're right, you can prove it, and the first strike was so wrong it could bend space and time with its wrongness. Once something has happened and escaped into the wild, it's very hard to turn it around in the court of public opinion without a long campaign of drip-drip case presentation, no matter how right or innocent you are. I won't get into prebuttals and all that stuff, nor the dark art of bogus first strikes, because that's bound to end in tears. Just remember that humans form impressions quickly, so think before you write or say a word.

2. Context will bugger you every time. Relying on audiences understanding the context and tone of a statement is risky, especially on the internet. (It's bad enough in other media.) At the source, a comment may be clearly signposted and understood as banter between mates. Once a few lines are taken out and quoted elsewhere, though, they can become something very different. By the time the words are separated from the original source by three, four, five degrees or more, all the average punter can see is a statement that looks on the surface like a poor advert for someone's attitude to life. It may well be completely misleading; but it's a soundbite, and those have a life of their own, as anyone who's edited a TV interview will confirm.

Rebuttal and attempts at explanation end up being like Snopes. Everyone could check before rushing to judgement to see if X really said what he or she was quoted as saying, or if urban myths have any basis, but generally people don't. Most people, even apparently smart ones, swallow what they're told and never think of checking it. Fair enough: you could spend your entire life checking every word you hear and read, and become paralysed by mistrust and paranoia. But the more outrageous the words I see, the more I'm inclined to go back to the source. No journo worth their salt would take something at face value without making sure someone had said what was claimed, and I don't mean checking some half-arsed wiki page, either. But very few people can or want to do that amount of digging, and it doesn't occur to others because they're subconsciously cherry-picking the meaning that reinforces their world-view. Seeing what you expect to see is another hard-wired human trait, as I often find when I read a mind-boggling headline that suddenly becomes much more mundane on further, slower scrutiny.

And that's without misquotes creeping in. When readers shopped in stores and didn't spend so much time online, you could eat kittens and nobody would connect your eating habits with your product. Now that readers will search for your name online, your kitten-eating comments will be there, and they'll judge you accordingly. Even if what you originally said was about feeding kittens rather than fricasseeing them. People often don't read what's in front of them.

3. Like it or not, the way you present yourself in public may affect how people see your product and even if they buy it or not. In the good old days, the public rarely had a chance to find out what an actor, artist, musician, or writer was like in real life. In many ways, I wish that were still true. There are people whose behaviour I really don't want to know about, but it's hard to ignore it when it makes news headlines. Backlash is an issue for anyone in the public eye. (And these days, the bar for public eye is much lower than it used to be – like when your prospective employer finds that stupid stuff you posted on FB.) There's backlash. Some of it is conscious: people often don't want to line the pockets of someone who beats his wife or a woman who racially abuses staff. On a more subliminal level, poor image can taint everything you do. There's an actor whose movies I can never watch now because I can't get his behaviour off-screen out of my head and separate him from whatever role he's in.

Moral of the lesson: reputation management isn't only for politicians and CEOs – or even just for writers, come to that. By all means be yourself on the internet, unless you're a dick, in which case keep it to yourself. But it's easy to look like a dick when the audience can't or won't see the context in which something has been said. At which point, I'll switch from spin doc advice to journo advice; when it doubt – leave it out.

Picking your battles: censorship and self-censorship

Schleteva, Galibi, Nazani. And Westerham Falls, Maine. They're all places I write about, but you won't find them on any map. Okay, you'll find Maine. That's real. But other than the obvious, I made them up for the purposes of fiction. (Schleteva isn't Ukraine, by the way, nor is Galibi. Too far west, and I was already writing G.I. Joe by the time the Ukraine crisis kicked off.) Why invent a location when the world is full of great places to set a story?

One of the problems with fiction is that it has consequences in the real world, which is why you see all those boilerplate disclaimers at the front of every book and the end of every movie reminding people that it's all fiction and not intended to refer to anyone who actually exists. Of course, there are always writers who file off the serial numbers from real life, which doesn't help in a court case, but a lot of us really do make everything up. Because it's fiction. That's what it means. Characters like and dislike things, and expressing that is a central part of characterisation. Characters also disagree with each other.

So how far do you go? Readers sometimes think that writers invent places because it's easier than researching them. Actually, it's relatively easy to do the level of research you need without even visiting a country. But some of us still invent towns and countries because there isn't a real location that fits what we need, or because we want to avoid trouble in a world where someone always seems eager to be offended. In some ways, it's harder to invent a place because you still have to shoehorn it into an existing county, country, or continent. I spent days working out sunrise-sunset times, climate, and distances and consulting people with local knowledge to make Nazani and Westerham credible but clearly invented.

It might seem over-cautious, but I recall when Beirut threatened to sue the producers of Homeland because the city was depicted as being a place where terrorist incidents occurred. (Ironically, within days of that story, there was a pretty big car bomb.) Then there was the more recent row when a character in a Dan Brown book didn't much like Manila and the city took umbrage. There's a long list of cities that didn't like the way they appeared in TV shows.

But a city doesn't actually need to stand a chance of bringing a case to court to cause problems for writers. The storm-in-a-teacup nature of the internet means that a small but vocal group can take offence about anything and scare retailers enough to get items taken off sale. Indie authors will relate the story of Kobo panicking and pulling all its indie titles off its site last year regardless of genre – even children's books – because someone got upset about erotica being available. A big company can probably cope with its products being taken off sale for a while, but for individual authors, it's a potential disaster. It's not beyond imagination that a country could apply pressure to a retailer too.

So some of us tend to play safe these days because we're not big companies and we can't weather those storms of irrationality. What might be good rebound publicity for a big name can be crippling for those of us further down the food chain. If you're going to have a fight about controversial material, sometimes it's better to keep your powder dry for the battles that matter, like tackling controversial subjects.

A footnote on characters: useful people to have around

I'll start this with a caveat: like any writing advice I give, it might not work for you, may contain nuts, and probably isn't valid in some states. But if it sheds light for you as a writer or a reader, that's great. You never know.

This is part of the ongoing thread on creating and writing characters. I'm more of a howdunnit and whydunnit writer than a whodunnit type, and when you couple that with a very tight third person POV technique, you have certain challenges, not least of which is relaying things the reader needs to know. There are certain character types I'm always happy to see show up in my stuff because I know they'll be a big help when I need to do that. Incidentally, this applies to all fiction; it's handy for games and comics too.

It's the character who isn't in any specific camp, i.e. almost an outside observer, or who knows so little about the situation that another character will have to explain stuff to them, or who has greater knowledge and needs to impart that to others. (Gamers will be familiar with the latter concept.). You've probably spotted that this instantly saves you from clunky exposition of the kind where two qualified experts who know perfectly well what's going on explain the bleedin' obvious to each other like an episode of CSI. There's quite a choice: child, alien, spy, reporter, doctor, dispatcher, sentient computer, and so on. They can all ask questions and observe things that fill in the information gaps the reader needs.

I don't recommend deliberately shoehorning this kind of character into a story, though, because if they don't fit naturally then the cracks will show up pretty fast. I always start from the position of working out what kinds of people would find themselves in a given place or situation. The character needs to grow naturally from the premise you've set up.

Sometimes people ask if I use certain types of characters because I happen to know at first hand how those characters operate in real life. Sometimes I do know exactly how outsider characters do their jobs (journalists) but sometimes I don't (psychologists) so it's not about writing what I know. In the G.I. Joe comics, Siren is the head of PR for COBRA, and that's a job (minus COBRA, naturally) that I've done. But her story in the series isn't about how she operates as a spin doc: that became irrelevant the moment that I realised that her story arc had to be about loyalties, about being a parent trying to be around for her increasingly alienated son. So if you're trying to identify an outsider/ observer character, it's not about the kind of job they do and if you have an insider understanding of it.

In the Wess'har books, I have the BBC journo Eddie Michallat, who was always handy for asking questions about why the two factions on the mission and the various aliens behaved the way they did. He's not the only character who could do that, of course, but he could generally provide that extra dimension or stand back and sum up the position that other characters found themselves in. He was the necessary outsider. In Going Grey, I have both the innocent kid who needs things explained to him, and the analytical outsider, Dru Lloyd, whose HR and psychology background enables her later in the book to fill in the gaps about the personal dynamics of the other characters.

And then there's BB.

Having said you shouldn't shoehorn a character type into a book, I realise that it's not always true. I recall walking down the road, deciding that I probably had to have an AI character in this new Halo trilogy I was due to write, and coming up with the core character of BB, Black Box, in the space of a 100 yards. (Yes, characters usually hit me very fast. They just step out the shadows, almost completely fully formed. It's weird, but like I've said, I have a lifetime's database of the human condition to draw on.)

As a smart AI, BB would be a necessary device on board ship, and a natural, expected part of the Halo universe. He could be everywhere at the same time and see everything the flesh-and-blood characters couldn't: that was his actual purpose in the canon, of course, the omnipresent intelligence required to run vast, complex spaceships. But when I sat down to write, BB evolved on the page and became the lynchpin of the entire trilogy, a key to the whole premise of Spartans and the attitudes and predicaments of all the characters around him. In the end, he was both the saviour of his human friends and oblivious of his own tragic origins.

So there's more to these outsider characters than just making exposition easier. They have to punch their own weight as people (alien, human, or inorganic) and be an integral part of the story. You won't always find them, or even need them, but in some kinds of stories, they're worth looking for and developing.

Lowest common denominators: giving the reader some credit

Yesterday, perhaps later in life than I should have, I discovered the word pleonasm.

I love new words. Words have been my living all my working life, and, predictably, I've built a substantial vocabulary. So finding a new word is relatively rare these days, and it's a real buzz to rush to the dictionary. It never occurs to me to skip the word or guess its meaning, although I do try to spot the etymology to see if I can break it down before I open the SOED. That's just a bit of fun.

I assume readers look up words too. I make few assumptions in life, but I'd hazard a guess that anyone who reads fiction is also capable of using a dictionary, and probably enjoys words as well. It's even easier if you're using an e-reader. All you have to do is tap the screen for a definition.

I was thinking this morning of a couple of occasions when editors suggested readers wouldn't understand a specific word I'd used. (Not military jargon – just an ordinary word.) In my experience, editors don't generally read a manuscript that closely, so maybe that's why a few instances stand out. The idea of readers being unable to cope with one unfamiliar word or phrase baffles me. I don't mean solid pages of highly technical or obscure language. I mean occasional words, and nothing pretentious, either; just uncommon words.

"They won't understand that word," an editor told me. "Can't you change it?"

"No," I said. I don't pick words at random. They're specific to the situation, the character, and the scene. "Readers can do what I do – use a dictionary. It's obvious from the context anyway."

None of us has a perfect knowledge of any language. We all need a dictionary sometimes. Smart people know what they don't know and look things up; it's how we all learn. Much of my early education came from seeing words I didn't understand and consulting a dictionary, then reading more widely about the topic. And, of course, I don't know what other people don't know. Once you start censoring words as possibly being too hard for an unknown person who might or might not buy your book, then your writing begins a death spiral of sterility.

In one case, an editor objected to the phrase "stood out like the Eddystone lighthouse," on the grounds that American readers "won't know what it is." Look, if you don't understand what a lighthouse is, and how conspicuous those things are – their whole purpose is to be seen – then you're probably under seven years old, and grasping the term "lighthouse" will be the least of your problems when reading my books. The suggestion (from an American, by the way) that American readers were too dumb to understand an English place name struck me as pretty patronising. If you're an American, as nearly all my readers are, then you might not know where the lighthouse is (most Brits don't, either) but you know what a lighthouse is and why the character uses that term, especially as the paragraph expands on it. As the character is English, he wouldn't refer to a lighthouse in the USA. It's the right saying for the right character. And that was my criterion for using it.

If you read my novels, you know that I generally write plain. Each scene, as I said in my last blog entry, is seen through the point-of-view character's eyes, and expressed entirely in their language – every line, not just the dialogue. That's all part of building the character and putting the reader in the character's shoes. That means the language will vary in its complexity and vocabulary, but it will never be an exercise in elaborate style to show the reader how many fancy words I know, or purple prose for the sake of it. It's as simple or as complex as it needs to be to convey meaning. In fact, if you notice a style at all, then I've failed in telling the story and keeping you immersed.

But the occasional unfamiliar word in a novel isn't going to throw anyone. (Especially not in SF.) Write what you feel needs saying to tell the story, and don't second-guess the reader. They can probably handle whatever you throw at them. They're smart like that.

Understanding character and tight third person POV

My mate Jim, another writer, made a really interesting observation when he listened to the sample chapter of the GOING GREY audiobook. Like me, he doesn't normally buy audiobooks, but he was struck by how clear the change of character point-of-view was. He said that he'd be interested to know if audiobook listeners find it easier to understand tight third person POV than book readers; the POV changes can be very striking if the narrator can do radically different voices, as Euan Morton can.

If you read my stuff, you'll be familiar with very tight third person POV. It's third person, but so tightly confined to each character's observations, view, experience of the world, and even linguistic style that it's more like a constantly changing first person perspective, i.e. it's highly subjective and the focus is narrow, confined to only what the character knows, sees, or feels. I flag that up like a shovel to the face in every scene, via the POV character's attitudes, dialogue and thoughts. There's no "neutral" narrative between the dialogue lines. The whole scene is their thoughts and words, written in their style and language. And as the characters switch, so does the style.

Many writers do multiple third, and some do very tight third, but I do multiple very tight third with large casts of characters, as many as eight, and that means the reader has to do a bit of work hopping from head to head with each scene, seeing from behind each character's eyes. No two characters see the same situation the same way. They're like real people. We don't agree. We can witness an event and come away with radically different memories of what happened and totally different opinions on whether it was a good thing or not.

So there are no helicopter views in my books and no authorial voice. I don't have one. I only see what the characters see, and after 25 novels, I've refined that to an automatic method I don't even have to think about while I write. I just switch it on and off. If I ever need to step outside the POV characters' knowledge, then I have to use epigraphs. They're worth their weight in gold if you do tight third. They can also add a kind of punctuation to the plot.

That's my main selling point, though: creating three-dimensional characters. The story is how differently characters see the situation, and how differently that makes them react to it and to each other. Most readers understand that they're inside someone else's head, scene by scene. Some don't get it, though, and look for a common authorial POV throughout. Actually, some people don't get third person POV at all, let alone tight third or multiple POVs. Jim and I spend a fair bit of time discussing why some people don't understand that it's the characters talking and thinking, not the writer, and that not all the characters agree on reality.

I have no evidence beyond observation of unscientifically tiny samples (the proportion of readers who don't get third person POV and who also mail me) and trying to roll back from the end result, i.e. the misunderstanding. This is just my rationalisation. I think some of it might be how people have been taught, and some might be their own psychology.

Just so we're clear, this is how I write characters. The purpose of writing for me is exploration, being in someone else's mind and seeing the world their way for a little while. My characters aren't people I know and they're not me or anything like me. I don't need a soapbox, because I used to be a journo, and I have quite an audience, so if I had a message to give you I've got lots of other avenues to do that anyway, not least of which is social media. So characters for me are a step into the unknown – not necessarily fun, but always educational. And then I step out of them and go back to being me, albeit altered a little by the perspective of a stranger. Once or twice, I've been altered a lot by seeing a situation from a character's perspective, and been turned around 180 degrees on an ethical issue. That's unsettling. But either way, the books write me. It really is like being exposed to real people who tell you things that don't fit your own worldview at all.

Why do some readers struggle with the concept of characters having – literally – a point of view? Well, there are people who can't imagine that others don't think the same way that they do, and I mean can't, not that they're self-centred. They really struggle to imagine how someone else would feel. I'm not sure how much of that is hard-wired and how much is down to their environment in infancy and early childhood, but some people just aren't able to think that way.

Then there's poor teaching. Sorry to mention that again, but English literature is frequently taught by people who've never written in earnest and don't understand how writers work. It's much more pragmatic and dull than they think. There's also the artificiality of having to produce an analysis that will satisfy an exam board, and it's the vexed question of "what the writer means." Only the writer knows that. It's one thing to say, "When I read this book, this was what it meant to me." It's quite another, as I've said in the previous blog, to claim you can ever know what a writer intended and indulge in teach-yourself-psychology about a complete stranger. I get mail from readers asking me who the good guys are in my books because they can't tell who's right. I reply that I have no idea – the reader has to make up his own mind about people, just as we do in real life. We all believe different people. We don't universally agree who's right and who's wrong. If we did, the history of the world would have been very different and lot less eventful. When I get that kind of mail, it looks to me like the product of bad teaching. The reader's very aware that he's seeing the viewpoints of different characters, not an author's, but he's been taught to look for a "message" and a "right answer" placed in the book by the author, and he can't find either.

That's because there aren't any. Really, there aren't. The clue is in the weight of the multiple POVs. They all have a valid point to make. It is, in a sense, what I was taught to do many years ago: balanced reporting. I recall an editor telling me they felt "seduced by sin" because they found one of my characters sympathetic even though the character's views repelled them in real life. All I was doing was portraying a person who thought that way. Nobody thinks they're a monster, and one man's monster is another's saint anyway.

The nearest I have to a message is a stated aim to tell the truth in fiction. Theme isn't message, by the way. Theme is the reference point you use to make sure your book isn't rambling all over the place. (Although, if you've got the characters clear in your head, it shouldn't.) It's your checkpoint. Sometimes you start with a theme and stick to it: sometimes it changes because the characters go in a direction you'd hadn't seen coming; and sometimes you only find the theme when you're well into the book and it emerges by itself, but it's still only the "vibe" – not a manifesto, unless you decide to make it into one.

I accept that a lot of lit fiction does set out with some kind of message, and is often the author's viewpoint through the filter of a story. There's the much-derided stereotyped novel of the English professor or starving writer embarking on self-discovery. Personally, I'd poke my eyes out with a rusty nail rather than read that, let alone have to spend months writing it. I want something different from my existence, a radical change of scenery and something that might even change my mind about the world, a bit like travel. I don't want to know how it ends when I begin, even if I need to start with a rough idea simply to decide on an initial direction before the characters take over the wheel. In some ways, I'm more like the reader than the writer; I want to be amazed. And, of course, I also write because I bloody well need to eat and keep a roof over my head. It's what I do best, and as I get older, it's possibly the only thing I'll be able to do to earn a living.

So if you read a book and you think it's full of all kinds of viewpoints, some of which strike a chord with you and some of which make you want to boo and hiss the character, then you're probably right. It's the clamour of different voices. There's no right answer or hidden message. The sound of approaching hoofbeats, as they say, is far more likely to be a horse than a zebra. (Unless you're in certain parts of Africa, of course, but I digress.) Or maybe a cigar really is a cigar. I'm sure we could work up a book of analogies on that.

Anyway, back to the original point that Jim raised to start all this discussion. If multiple third person POVs, tight or otherwise, are something you sometimes struggle to distinguish from a central authorial voice, either as a reader or as a writer, it might be useful to listen to a book in audio after reading it and see if it changes how you think. If you do try this, let me know how you get on, because Jim and I are genuinely curious about the differences in perception – whether they're ingrained or the product of the medium.

Stone curries and the eye of the beholder

A book is a different thing for every reader. Really, it is. I don't just mean that readers have different opinions on books. I mean that the book itself will tell a different story to each person on the basis of their life experience, culture, and even age. It'll even tell the same person different stories depending on when they read it.

You might recall my blog about a reader who contacted me to say how he'd read a book of mine at two points in his life – the first while he was a young, single soldier, the second time when he'd become the father of a little boy. It was, he said, like reading the book for the first time again and finding it was completely different. He saw a different story because the "extra material" in his head, the experiences that were triggered when he read certain lines, were those of a man whose life had changed.

A book or any other work of fiction exists only at the point where it creates an effect in someone's brain. So readers write the part of the book the writer never gets to see.

There's no point in telling readers what they ought to see in your book: they see what they see, and that's that, because it's the end of a complex perception process. If they tell you they know what you meant and what message you were sending, it's okay to argue with that, because just as you can't tell them what they think, they can't possibly know what was in your mind when you wrote the story. It requires an understanding on both sides that however non-linear a story a book might appear to tell compared to something interactive like a game, it's still a malleable thing subject to many filters, both in the writer and the reader.

I understand that when I write, the most I can do is tell the story and then let go of it. Some readers know that they're seeing a blend of writer and reader that turns into something unique for everyone, almost like two genomes combining and then being further complicated by the expression of genes. Others are convinced that there's a single meaning and that the writer is sending a message. The fact that the message swings wildly between readers – this one thinks you're a communist, the next thinks you're a paid-up Nazi – tends to confirm the theory that everyone reads a different book, and it's not my view of the world they see but their own.

Whatever English lit teachers tell you, there's no definitive meaning, and unless the writer has explained why they wrote it and what they intended, then teachers don't know the writer's motivation and subtext either. With dead writers, they can get away with that. But a college lecturer once contacted me to announce that he'd written a feature referencing me and asked if I'd like to see it. It wasn't the analysis of the books that bothered me: everyone sees a book through their own filters, as I've said, and he seemed to like the novels. But he presumed to also write about my personal politics, which he didn't know anything about because they stay well out of my books, and he got them badly wrong. When he asked my opinion, I pointed out that he could have asked me easily and not attributed views to me that I actually didn't hold.

He wasn't terribly gracious about it. In fact, he was pretty rude, and made it clear that he believed writers had no idea what they thought. He seemed to have no grasp of the fact that many writers don't trot out their own politics in every book but actually create diverse characters with varied opinions to entertain others. It's just a story. It's not advocating a lifestyle.

A friend who's an academic from a different background said that attitude was fairly common with literature profs, and that they operated from the basis of having an opinion and then trying to prove it was fact, ignoring everything that didn't fit. I'm not entirely sure that's unique to literature, but I was at least glad that the guy didn't do a real job requiring hard data, like running a nuclear power station.

Anyway, I finally found a really good example of the malleable nature of even the simplest stories. Years ago, I came across an Indian folk tale about a stone curry. It's a common folk story around the world, sometimes known as stone soup or nail soup: a couple of guys arrive in a village asking for food and shelter, and then take out a bag full of stones (or nails, or other inedible objects.) They ask if someone can give them some onions to make a stone curry, because they have these amazing stones that have a unique flavour. While they're chopping the onions, they ask other villagers if they can just provide a few potatoes so they can bring out the flavour of the stones. Eventually, they have a huge pot of curry bubbling away, another villager provides rice, and the villagers sit down to eat. The two guys are feted as wonderfully generous. Then they finish the meal, fish out the stones, and go on their way to do the same thing elsewhere the next day.

Now, when I read that story, it was told as a tale of two con men putting in nothing of value but leeching off the gullibility and generosity of the villagers. Recently, though, I've seen it interpreted as a parable about the value of cooperation and sharing. I still struggle to see the story that way. The facts are the same: the characters do the same thing. There are clearly at least two stories here, probably more, but I can only see one, informed by my own life experiences and cultural filters.

And, for the record, the curtains were ******* blue.

(If you haven't seen that perfect analysis, the NSFW reference is here.)