Today’s guest is science fiction/fantasy author Storm Constantine! She is the author of more than 30 books and a great number of short stories (including two stories in Para Kindred, a newly released collection of Wraeththu short stories she edited with Wendy Darling), and she is also the Managing Director and Commissioning Editor of Immanion Press. Her Wraeththu books are some of my favorite books of all time for their beautiful writing, vivid characters, and compelling ideas about a future with a new race of hermaphroditic people. I was thrilled when she these accepted my invitation to participate in this month’s series, and she’s here today talking about the craft of writing.
I’m passionate about writing and care about the fate of new writers. In a recent blog of my own, I wrote about the standard of writing I’m coming across nowadays, in terms of grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation – essentially the tools of the trade. This generally refers to books I find self-published as E-books. But after reading a couple of recent printed short story anthologies, I’m driven to say that the poor standard of writing also extends to the actual story-telling.
The fault lies partly in the depth – or lack – of editing. There are still some remarkably good editors out there – Newcon Press’s Ian Whates being one of them, as many of his contributors will attest – but it seems to me some editors appear to see their job when compiling an anthology as simply checking the spelling and worst of the grammatical woes, (and maybe only with Word’s built in grammar and spelling checkers), but who don’t offer comment on how a story might be strengthened or refined. Many new writers begin their careers by contributing short pieces to magazines and anthologies, which now also extends hugely into e-publishing. And some of those new writers, while showing obvious promise and talent, need guidance to help hone their craft. I can remember working early in my career with editors like David Garnett, Ellen Datlow and David Pringle, (to name but a few who spring to mind – there were many), who would make great suggestions for how a story might be improved. Sometimes their advice might sting, but it was always pertinent. Perhaps nowadays, in this age of entitlement, writers are less open to such invasive editing, even if they need it, so editors will therefore be less inclined to offer comment for fear of it being badly received or rejected. I myself have had authors withdraw work from Immanion Press because they weren’t willing to make constructive changes. Strangely enough, the writers who are most open to positive criticism are generally the most talented. It’s as if they’re hungry for ways to improve their work. Writers of poorer quality are usually the ones to have a tantrum if you offer any form of criticism. There are exceptions, of course, and some weaker writers crave learning, while some excellent writers are strict about not having a word of a piece changed. I’m just speaking generally.
What I fear most about the advent of e-publishing, and the fact that a lot more people have an avenue to get their stories into virtual print, is that they don’t have the benefit of the apprenticeship that writers of the past enjoyed. Companies – and in some cases I refuse to call them publishers – don’t appear to care about nurturing a writer and helping them evolve. I don’t blame the writers who I see publishing flawed work – they simply have a gut-deep desire to write. The contract between writer and editor was always the hand of discipline, how to refine your work, tighten and improve it. I don’t believe that some of the E-books I see nowadays have had any of that applied to them. In one case, I saw an allegedly historical novel so full of wince-making anachronisms, it was almost unreadable. Even watching period TV shows would have given the author a basic idea of what was and was not feasible in the time they chose to write about. No research, no awareness of the era in which the story was set. And the publisher just accepted this manuscript and published it. That is no favour to the author. I wanted to read that book because the idea for it was great – a really good ghost story – but the ineptitude of the writing, and the lack of research, lost me about a third of the way through and I had to stop reading it. The ghosts were the most credible thing about it.
In the past editors were shepherds, who guided the writers in their care to greater accomplishment. Nowadays, most new writers only have friends and family, or perhaps other fledgling writers, to rely upon for feedback and criticism. And in many cases they lack the guidance concerning the very basics of their craft – the words they use to conjure images in the minds of their readers. I was not taught full English Grammar at school, because by that time the powers that be had shaved it from the curriculum. All we learned was the basics. When I began to write seriously, armed with ideas that editors liked, which secured me the initial contracts, I had to teach myself the intricacies of my craft, and this required personal effort as well as taking heed of more experienced editors.
With all this in mind, here are points I offer to new writers I work with, and which I also drummed into my students when I taught creative writing. They are what I learned, and in some cases, when I did learn them, it was like a light being turned on:
1. Learn the tools of your trade. Educate yourself concerning grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation. There are many books out there to teach you. Once you know the rules, you have the authority to break them. And once you are proficient with your tools, a new world opens to you. You’ll have far more control over your writing, and how to guide your readers through what you write, so they’ll read every word as you intend for them to be read. Be clear. Be concise. Use your tools.
Grammar is the power. It sharpens prose and guides a reader to the meaning of your words. If your grammar is sloppy, your reader might need to re-read sentences to get the meaning, and in those moments, you’ve lost them. They’re no longer immersed in the story, they’re struggling for meaning. Verb forms are part of grammar, and the more active a verb the more exciting it is to your reader. Develop an ear for grammar. For instance, which sentence sounds more powerful to you? ‘She is lying at my feet and is bleeding’ or ‘She lies at my feet and bleeds’? The more active form of the verb – the latter – is inevitably stronger. Put strength into your writing by using more active verbs. Avoid passive verbs as shown in the first example. Verbs are just a component of grammar; there is much more to it, of course. But it is fascinating to learn and once you see the results you’ll be glad you learned it.
Syntax. This is the right words in the right order. Simple example: what’s better? ‘The black cat crept between the shadows’ or ‘between the shadows the black cat crept’? Both say the same thing but which is sharper, more meaningful? Syntax also involves seeing yourself as a camera, focusing in. What do people notice first? It’s dark, it’s cold, there are beetles beneath your feet. Mention the beetles first, then mention the cold and the dark, and your reader might have thought of any temperature and time of day when reading about the beetles. Focus. Use a film-maker’s art. That is syntax.
Another part of syntax is the music of your prose. It’s not only poetry that’s poetic. Words and sentences have rhythms, even in the sparest style of writing, and the best writers sing to you with their words. Having an ear for this subtle rhythm helps bring out the song.
Spelling. This part is simple. Just spell the words correctly and people can understand your writing better.
Punctuation. This is an art in itself. The different punctuation marks denote pauses, and you use these to guide the speed with which your readers read your prose. The longest pause is the full stop or period. A comma is a much shorter pause. Colons and semi-colons are in between. Dashes and brackets (parentheses) are also used to control the reader’s eye, so that the sentences are read as if you were reading them aloud. They help you place inflection. There are rules about clauses, which need the embrace of commas, or the sharp report of a colon or semi-colon, that are more to do with grammar, but be aware you can put inflections on your words merely with deft punctuation.
2. Write about what you know, because this again gives you a voice of authority and makes your work credible. If you want to write about what you don’t know – research. Meticulously. Give your work authenticity so that your reader is never jerked involuntarily out of the story by inaccuracy or something not credible. If you’re writing about fantasy worlds, invest them with a level of detail and history so that readers feel they are stepping into a world that has existed for thousands of years. You don’t have to slap this on with a trowel, but just subtle details here and there, and lore of the past. As an example, recently I wrote a supernatural story about certain aspects of the Catholic Church set in the 1950s. I found myself researching details every few paragraphs and changing the story because of anachronisms. These were just tiny details, such as who would have had a phone in those days (few), would a blue collar working man have eaten lunch in a pub (no), would a poor working-class family have had a fridge (again, no). Things we take for granted in our modern world can’t be included in a historical, or often not even in a fantasy story, depending on the kind of world you’re creating.
3. Read, read, read. Analyse the books you like and figure out what works for you with them. Apply these rules to your own work. Also figure out what disappoints you, or what you don’t like, and avoid that in your own writing.
4. Write from the heart. If you love what you are writing, the chances are greater that others will love it too. If it’s your first novel, write the book you’ve always wanted to read but have never found. But be aware you have to abide by points 1, 2 and 3.
These four points merely skim the surface of learning the writer’s craft. There is an old quote that the pen is mightier than the sword. But to me it’s also true that the pen can be a sword. Words are indeed powerful and learning their deep and complex magic is not only beneficial to your craft but an intriguing journey, a quest.
Of the many women writers I love to read, here are a few recommendations. I list these authors because to me their style of writing is like sinking into a scented bath; they are experts with prose. I won’t list individual books because there are so many; I recommend dipping into any of them. Gaie Sebold’s work I discovered only recently, but the two stories I’ve read so far have been brilliant. So, my list: Susan Hill, Alice Hoffman, Tanith Lee, Gaie Sebold and Diane Setterfield. Those really are only a few of my favourites, and I’m open to recommendations also.
After seventeen years of being professionally published, Storm decided that the only way for her books to stay in print for any length of time was to publish her back catalogue herself. With Immanion Press, she intends to rectify the typical fate of books, which is to have the “shelf life of a magazine”.
Storm underwent a cursory art college education, but found it too restricting creatively. After a series of mundane jobs, she began writing seriously, and her first book, “The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit” was published in 1987 by Macdonald Futura. Storm has written approximately 1.5 books a year ever since!
In the 80s and 90s, she frittered away some time managing bands, and caught the publishing bug from producing fan club magazines. After giving up the musical distraction, Storm embarked on the fiction project, “Visionary Tongue”, which was a regular magazine of dark fantasy/fantasy/sf stories. She enlisted the help of several writer friends to act as editors, so that up-and-coming writers would have the chance to work with a professional, and pick up tips about their craft and the industry.
Immanion Press is undoubtedly an extension of what Storm began with Visionary Tongue. As well as her own work, and the back catalogue of friends and writers she admires, Storm is keen to promote new talent.