How important is it to future proof your story? I don’t tend to write a lot of contemporary fiction so it isn’t much of a problem for me, but I do read a lot, particularly action stories trying to be set in the universal ‘today’, and sometimes I think the book suffers for not being edited with the future reader in mind.
Recently, when I read a description about a supposedly cool character wearing shoulder pads and torn jeans I was completely pulled out of the story. This is one of the main reasons why I don’t tend describe what a character is wearing unless it is important to the story. This year’s dashing may be next year’s try-hard.
The book I’m reading now was published in 2000 and it keeps referring to the World Wide Web as if it is something exotic and daunting. The characters also carry on highly confidential conversations on their mobile phones, despite the fact that they are being hunted by every law enforcement agency in the world.
Both these things severely date what is an otherwise contemporary book, and the author is going to great pains never to refer to a date, as if they want it to remain contemporary for years to come. If only he had done a little more research on mobile phones to learn how non-secure they really are, which is something Prince Charles and Camilla taught the whole world a few years later.
I was travelling the world in the year 2000, so I have a pretty good recollection of what technology was around then. I was regularly emailing my friends with travel updates, and internet cafes (note: internet cafes, not World Wide Web cafes) were everywhere –even the middle of Fez where many of the other buildings still didn’t have electricity!
The point to telling you this is that back in 2000 access to the net was already becoming a big priority for many people. No we didn’t tweet, post Facebook updates or blog, but we were tapping into it regularity. It clearly wasn’t going to remain a mystery to many people for much longer. So perhaps the author should not have laboured on for so long about the WWW as if using it put his character above the average Joe.
I’m not saying it is easy to predict what is going to be normal in ten years time, and I’m not saying that I never get it wrong either, but I think if you are trying to write the eternally contemporary novel you have to be prepared to put in the hard yards and do some serious research about the technology in your story. And even the best stint of research won’t keep you story current forever.
Which makes me wonder why the author does try so hard to hide the year? What is so wrong with anchoring a story in a certain year or decade? I love to read books that are unashamedly set in the 80’s or 90’s. I’d actually be tempted to write one today so that you can have some mystery without mobile phones and CCTV at every corner.
At the end of the day it is fiction, I don’t believe that the magic is diminished if we know it didn’t really happen because the year 2000 was over a decade ago and we would have heard of that virus if it had really been threatening the world. When we read old science fiction and their technology is way off the mark of what really happened, it doesn’t undermine our enjoyment of a good story, we understand it was written in a different time. If this book had mentioned the decade, instead of sending me searching on the copyright page, I’m sure it wouldn’t have annoyed me anywhere near as much as it did.
I’m still hung-up on the idea of my unwritten horror story. I’m now digging myself into an even deeper conundrum; do I actually want to write a horror story? I was talking about it with a friend the other night and I realised that I don’t think I want to write horror stories any more. So that begs the question, even if this story in my head is great, is there a point in writing it when I don’t want to have to follow it up with more?
Something that writers and (more to the point) publishers have gotten hung up on is branding. What do you as an author write? The thinking is that if someone buys your book and likes it, they will only buy your next book if they can be assured that it will deliver something similar to the previous experience. Hence the rise and rise of trilogies, quadrilogies and series outside of the fantasy genre where it has always been a given.
I really dislike this idea, one look at my reading list and you will see that I try to read as widely as possible; everything from chick lit to scientific theory, so it is annoying to me that as a writer I have to be limited to just one genre if I want to be published. Often I’ll like an author’s style, and I’m willing to follow them along any story they want to take me to. Stephen King is a classic example with his fantastic sci-fi, classic horror, poignant coming of age and contemporary fiction (I know he also writes fantasy buy I’ve only just purchased the dark tower and haven’t yet started reading it).
Of course I’ve said it before, Stephen King did not just get to say ‘I want to write a story set in a prison about a man who is wrongfully accused of the murder of his wife’ and his publisher said ‘sure, easy sell’. He had to deliver a string of horror novels first, and even then he had to publish Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption in an omnibus with three other tales, and it was erroneously called a ‘tale of the supernatural’. So even back in the 70’s & 80’s branding was alive and well and impinging on the creativity of writers.
So this all comes back to my horror story conundrum. I finally decided not to write it. My horror story days were behind me and I had been working so hard to milk the one idea I had landed on that I thought I should just give it away. But just because my brain likes to surprise me on a regular basis on Thursday night I had a strong desire to pick up a pen and pad (I never write longhand) and in one sitting I wrote a full horror short story from start to finish. I didn’t even know it had been brewing.
Maybe it’s time for a pseudonym?
Back in the 80’s I was in the Ash Wednesday bushfires. I didn’t lose my house, but my school got evacuated, we saw the flames in the distance, and my Mum and I had to prepare the house (tennis balls in the gutters then lots of water everywhere) in preparation to flee – my father did not come up and help us because all the roads into the hills were cut off by fire, including the freeway.
That was fear.
This week, for the first time ever recorded in May, a fire raged through the Adelaide hills. It was no Ash Wednesday, but it has burned down buildings and killed countless native animals. The smoke has been so strong at times that smoke detectors are going off in people’s houses around me. This morning ash peppered all the spider-webs around my house. Despite knowing how far away the fire is, it sets off a churn of uncomfortable emotions in my stomach.
What truly amazes me is that while I sit comfortably miles away in my home and get nervous, there are staff and volunteers going out and risking their lives; driving down tracks which may get cut off; going into areas that are as dry as tissue paper with flames and cinders raining around them as the smoke turns the day into an eerie twilight.
The Country Fire Service (CFS), like a million other quiet organisations that rely on volunteers, are what makes living in our community possible, and I don’t know that we really appreciate how lucky we are to have them until we need them. They are such wonderful, courageous, generous people that you can’t help but rediscover your faith in humanity.
Just for the record, as of my writing this on Saturday night, it has just started to rain and the fire is contained, let’s hope it is enough to let the fire fighters get a well-earned rest.
I know I’ve talked about this before, but I have encountered it a few times this week and I’m just stunned at the extent to which it is practiced out there. Of course I’m talking about reading the end of a book before you read the rest of the book.
My discussion about the Nook a few weeks ago prompted a friend to tell me that she also found it a bit more difficult the flip to the end to see if she liked how it all turned out. WHAT!?!?!? And she’s a writer!
This week I have been reading a book called ‘The Well of Lost Plots’ by an author I normally LOVE, and I think with this book he thought it would be funny to write the book without a plot. I got to page 121 and I could not with any confidence say what it was about –I was quickly losing interest. I bemoaned this loudly to my colleagues so one suggested I flip ahead and read the end to see if it was worth sticking it out. Then someone else piped up and said they would never read a book without looking at the end first to make sure they were going to like it.
So poor writers are out there desperately trying to set up red herrings, invested emotion, hopes, dreams and fears for their readers, yet for a big chunk of the population there is no element of surprise. Surely knowing a character is alive in the last chapter would have to diminish your concern when they get themselves into a tight scrape in chapter seven?
This got me thinking, would you ever write a book differently if you knew that the last chapter was going to be read before the first? Maybe that is why there are so many books out there with that kind of meaningless ‘tie-up’ chapter at the end where we see everyone acting relieved and conveniently tying up all the little lose ends.
I don’t think I’ll change my endings, but it is certainly something to consider. We always think, as writers, that you need to grab your reader in the first paragraph, often spending weeks on perfecting it. Maybe we need to think about putting a lot more work into that last paragraph as well!?!