THE COMMANDMENTS OF HDM FANFIC
Copyright (C) Ceres Wunderkind 2003
HDM fanfic... Oh, my!
I’ve written reams of the stuff, under the noms de plume Jopari, Daisy and Ceres Wunderkind. Let me say straight away that I don’t believe that this makes me a better writer than you. It does mean that I’ve probably made more mistakes than anyone else, though, and it’s those mistakes and the things I hope I have learned from them that I would like to share with you.
This article is about avoiding mistakes when you are writing HDM fanfic, based on my own experiences. I’d much rather pick holes in my stories than other people’s; I know mine better than I know theirs, and it seems unfair and presumptuous to pick on other writers or hold them up as examples of bad practice. I’m not really trying to generate cheap publicity for my own stuff. Really.
By the way, this article is a conflation of a series that were first published on Bridge to the Stars in May, June and July 2003. They are, I believe, still archived there.
Ok, let’s get going:
COMMANDMENT 1: THOU SHALT NOT REUNITE THOSE WHOM PHILIP PULLMAN HATH PARTED
Right. This is the big one. Have a look on fanfiction.net. There are a few hundred HDM fics posted there. Now count up how many are predicated on the idea that Will and Lyra will get back together again. Is it half of them? More than that? I’ll lay ten to one that three-quarters of those stories feature the reunion of the Terrible Two in one form or another. More often than not there’s a window the angels missed, or some magic device that bridges the gap between the worlds and before you know it – usually by chapter three – our young lovers are back in each other’s arms and everyone can go "aaah".
Or, in my case, "yuck".
Look, people, I know why this happens. The ending of TAS is brilliantly written. It has a profound effect on the sensitive reader. It can leave you feeling upset for days, and the first reaction is to try to think of ways in which this terribly unfair (or so it seems) conclusion can be reversed. The temptation to rush to the keyboard and fix Philip Pullman’s ending is hard to resist.
But wait. Please. Think about it a little. This book is "stark realism", as PP has said. Or to put it another way, bad things happen to good people. It’s simply the way the universe is made. If you reunite Will and Lyra you’re contradicting the whole story structure that PP has spent over a thousand pages setting up. Your daemon cannot live very long in another world. Knife-cut windows create soul-sucking Spectres. Dust leaks into the Void if you're not careful. A sacrifice has to be complete and irreversible if it is to have any meaning. It’s all as straightforward as that. Those are the rules you follow when you write HDM fanfic. If you don’t follow them you’re not writing HDM fanfic; you’re writing stories whose characters happen to have the same names as those in HDM.
There’s another thing. As I said back there, it seems that three-quarters (maybe I exaggerate for effect, but I’m not far out) of HDM fanfics are reunion stories (or tearstained why-can’t-we-be-together-as-we-were-meant-to-be angsts). That’s ridiculous! How many pages does PP dedicate to the falling-in-love / separation sequence at the end of TAS? Fifty? Sixty? Everything from the chapter entitled "Morning" onwards, anyway. That’s a tiny proportion of the trilogy as a whole – less than ten percent. There’s so much more to write about, and PP – bless his cotton socks – has left any number of gaps just waiting for the enterprising writer to exploit. There’s so much he hasn’t told us about the society of Lyra’s world; its daemonology, technology, history, geopolitics. There are many, many other characters waiting to have their stories told. Why are there so few fanfics about the Ci’gazzeans, or the Gallivespians, or Iorek Byrnisen, or Lee and Hester, or Lord Asriel?
Please think about it. There’s a whole wide multiverse out there, just waiting for you to come and play. Will and Lyra’s story is only a small part of it and it’s over so far as being together is concerned. Let them be.
Lastly, some of you are going to accuse me of hypocrisy. You’re going to say, ‘Wait a minute. I read this story of yours (thank you!) in which there was this magic car that Lyra took a ride in and got to Will’s world and they were reunited. Who are you to say I can’t do the same thing myself?’
You’re quite right. I did do that. But I also made sure that they could only stay together for two days and that it gave a lot of pain and distress to many of the other people involved (Judy Parry, Davey, Arthur). I’m sure that if Will and Lyra had been able to stay together for longer they would have found that they had grown apart, and their second separation would have been a very bitter thing indeed.
COMMANDMENT 2: REMEMBER THY DAEMONS; FOR OTHERWISE THY CHARACTERS WILL BE INCOMPLETE
I wrote a story once, quite a long one. It was set in Lyra’s world and the protagonist was a fifteen-year-old boy who met and fell in love with Lyra, even though she was at least twenty-five years older than him. It may have been love, or it might have been no more than a teenage crush. At the same time, there was a girl who liked the boy and wanted to get closer to him. It was only two-thirds of the way through the story that the protagonist realised that his love for Lyra was never going to be reciprocated – not in the way he wanted, anyway – and the girl eventually won his affections.
The boy had a squirrel-daemon, and their relationship was one of mutual love and companionship. The girl had no daemon at all.
That’s right – no daemon. Not because she was from our world, or was a witch whose daemon was in hiding, but no daemon. I’d completely forgotten about him. He had no name and no form, no existence.
How on earth could I have done that? Bring a character into a story and miss out one of her most important attributes? What an idiot! I was trying to be too clever. What I mean is; I was trying to avoid introducing her like this:
I looked up. It was Jane, a girl who worked at the dressmaker’s across the street. She was about five foot six tall and weighed around eight stone. She had short bobbed chestnut hair and green eyes and her daemon’s name was Adlestrop. He was hedgehog-formed.
There’s a lot of that sort of stuff out there. I hate it. I don’t want to be handed a character’s description all in a lump – I want to find out about him or her as I go along.
It may be that I was deferring describing Jane’s daemon until later in the story, but that I forgot about it in the pell-mell of driving the plot. That’s possible, and it lets me off the hook (a little), but actually I think I had made a much worse mistake than that. I didn’t care about Jane. I didn’t care enough about her to find out everything about her, so I could tell my readers about her or show them how she lived her life.
If I didn’t care enough about Jane to find out the name and form of her daemon, why should anyone else care about her, especially Peter?
There’s another related danger area; and that is to forget about a character’s daemon in the heat of the action. PP does this occasionally; Pan isn’t mentioned very much when Lyra first comes to our Oxford. It’s as if PP is so keen to show us Lyra’s reactions to this new world that he forgets about Pan. It’s easy to do – after all, most characters in most stories don’t have daemons (or similar creatures, for example the Dragons of Pern). It’s intrusive if you keep harping on about the daemon and his or her thoughts, but there’s a balance to be struck between giving an unnatural (to us) emphasis to the daemon and forgetting about him or her for pages at a time. In particular, it’s very easy to drop a character’s daemon from the narrative and only bring him or her into the story when there are daemon-like things for him or her to do. I’ve made that mistake any number of times. So has PP, but he's Big Phil and he's allowed to.
Otherwise, let rip! Daemon conflict, daemon naming, daemon birth and death, working daemons, daemon abuse – the worlds are your oyster. Use your imagination...
COMMANDMENT 3: THOU SHALT MIND THY LANGUAGE
What do I mean? No swearing allowed? No, of course you can use profanity, so long as it's in character and the reader has been given fair warning, by the story's rating and/or a note from the author. I once wrote a tale in which Will Parry (he was aged around 15) used the f-word a couple of times. I was told off for this by an fanfiction.net reviewer so I revised the story and took one of the occurrences out (leaving in the one where he swore at Mary Malone). The example I removed was what you might call "casual" swearing – mere decoration of speech – whereas the one I left in was said in a stressful situation, where its use seemed justified.
But this leads on to the main point I want to make about the use of language in HDM fanfics. I’ve seen any number of reviews where the reviewer – meaning to praise the writer – has said that a story is "just like PP would write it".
No, it’s not.
And even if it were, that wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing. PP’s style is pretty good and certainly to be emulated, but copied? No. Definitely not. Your story may be set in PP’s multiverse and use his characters but it’s not written by him. It’s written by you. It’s your story. The harpies want you to tell it in your words and your voice.
But… there is a limit to how far you can go down this track. Sooner or later you’re going to bump into an unalterable fact...
HDM is English. I mean UK English. The two main protagonists live in southern England during the last decades of the twentieth century and that’s where they spend their lives (most of the time!) The whole atmosphere of HDM is English. This gives American writers of HDM fanfic a bit of a problem. It’s the same problem I’d face if I were trying to write a hard-boiled whodunnit set in downtown LA in 1952:
Arizona-born Private Investigator Henry Higgins was walking down the pavement. It was a bright sunny day in mid-July and the thermometer read 22 degrees. A red Mustang pulled up on his right, soul music blaring from its radio. ‘Excuse me, mate,’ said the driver, getting out of the right-hand-side of the car. ‘Would you please assist me with getting this wardrobe out of the boot of the car?’
‘Right you are,’ answered Henry, and the two men set to work with a will.
What’s wrong with this picture? The mistakes fall into four categories. First there are the simple errors of fact:
Then there are the errors of nomenclature:
What about the dialogue?
Doesn’t sound very American to me!
Lastly, the style in which the story is told doesn’t match its content. "The two men set to work with a will" is a very long way from Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane.
Of all these errors, the most serious is in the dialogue. After all, the narrator could be describing the scene from an English point of view with an English readership in mind. But the dialogue – that's spoken by American characters and it's got to be right. The same is true for Will, Lyra and their friends, where it's appropriate. Obviously Lee Scoresby is a special case. How convincing is the dialogue that PP puts in his and Hester's mouths? Does it sound Texan to you?
Now reverse the situation and you’ll see how difficult it can be to write a story with a convincingly English atmosphere if you’re not English yourself. You'll need to be careful if the effect is not to be jarring.
So – write in your own voice, but remember the milieu in which your story is set. For guidance, Lyra’s world resembles the world of Sherlock Holmes, with certain… changes. PP is a big Holmes fan, by the way. Will’s England is my England which, despite the insidious cultural effects of Hollywood movies and Fox TV, differs from the USA in any number of ways, from the size of the cars people drive to the materials we use to build the houses we live in (we don’t have many wood-framed buildings here).
How to get it right if you’re not English yourself? Easy! Re-read HDM, concentrating on the passages in TSK which deal with Will’s home life and Lyra’s experiences in our Oxford. Read other stories set in contemporary England, or at the time of Sherlock Holmes (roughly the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries).
Meanwhile, I’ll try to work out how I would go about writing a Buffy fic…
COMMANDMENT 4: THOU SHALT NOT SEND WILL OR LYRA TO HIGH SCHOOL
Let’s talk about Will first. In many ways, his life is unchanged. We’ll assume that all the difficulties that result from his having accidentally killed somebody (it was Moxie’s fault, wasn’t it?) have been sorted out. Further, let’s suppose that Mrs Cooper the piano teacher looked after his mother well and that he’s gone home again. He’s friends with Mary Malone, and will be for the rest of his life, PP says, but he’s living in Winchester again. Alternatively, he may end up staying in Oxford with Mary. It makes little difference – in the end he’ll have to go back to school.
In Will’s case, this means the local Comprehensive, more than likely. PP has said that he thinks that Will is going to become a doctor when he grows up. This implies that he’ll do very well academically. You need good A-level results to get into medical school. Ideally, Will would be at a Grammar School, but I don’t think he’d have got in. Entry standards to Grammar Schools tend to be very high. Nor do I think he’ll go to a boarding school. The fees for private secondary schools are very high (GBP 20,000+ p.a.) and even though scholarships are available for the sons of Army officers there’s no mention in TSK of Will going in for one. Entry to the Public (i.e. private) School system is by examination at age 13. Private schools (known as Preparatory Schools) exist in order to get pupils through this Common Entrance examination. Will would have had to be attending one of these schools at the start of TSK if he were to go to, say, Winchester College which is one of the best (and most expensive) Public Schools in England.
What’s it like, then, at Westgate, or the Pilgrim’s School? It depends on the school. Numbers first – the school will have between 800-1500 or so students. There will be 30-40 to a class. It may be single-sex or co-educational. The school may be biased towards sports or take them less seriously.
What are the kids like there? That’ll vary, according to the area in which the school is situated. Winchester is a prosperous middle-class town in the south of England, but it has its rough spots too. As the school is comprehensive, intake is selected by area, not income or ability, so a school which serves a middle-class part of town will be less rough than one which doesn’t. Wherever he ends up, the opportunities will be there for Will to get the academic results he needs, so long as he works hard and steadily and keeps his head down. I can see him doing this, but as a result he may well not get very involved in the social life of the school. For example, he may well not go out with girls much (for whatever reason...).
I leave the rest up to you, but remember: It won’t be a High School on the American model. It’s not very likely, for example, that many of the pupils will own a car or drive to school. There will be discos, school plays and school sports teams. Will may go to a separate Sixth Form college to take his A-levels, which you sit at age 18 and are needed for entrance to university.
There are some examples worth checking out: Feigned boy’s The Aftermath on fanfiction.net is pretty good on Will’s school life. And the film Gregory’s Girl is good too, as well as being touching and funny.
Now for Lyra. Her future is clearly mapped out in the last chapter of TAS, although new information may turn up in Lyra’s Oxford to modify it in ways I can’t predict. She is going to a school for girls which Dame Hannah Relf appointed a young woman (unnamed, but she's described as "clever" and "kindly", so she sounds like a younger edition of Dame Hannah herself) to set up and run a few years previously. This school is attached to St Sophia’s College, but is not part of it. Lyra will take extra-curricular lessons with Dame Hannah in the reading of the alethiometer.
How many fics have I seen where this establishment is described as Dame Hannah’s School? Or where the good lady is shown as being the headmistress? NO! Read TAS! It’s not like that!
Why did Dame Hannah set up this school? I’d suggest that, as Brytish society has been run by a male-dominated Church and State for hundreds of years, the education of girls has never been regarded as being very important. Mrs Coulter, for example, was not part of the establishment and her power was unofficial, depending ultimately on the willingness of men to go along with her ideas. Dame Hannah (remember that "Dame" is the female equivalent of "Sir" – she’s effectively been given a knighthood) must be a very exceptional woman indeed to have become the head of an Oxford College. She’s now in the position to help other very able girls to realise their full potential through education. In medieval Europe, the only way a woman could undertake a life of study was to become a nun. With the recent undermining of the power of the Church and the Magisterium (God’s dead, remember?) the school is set to expand.
So, what’s it like at St Sophia’s School (if that's what it's called)? We know it’s a boarding school, and we presume that Lyra will live there, returning to Jordan College in the school holidays. Lyra’s Oxford may make this clear. It’s probably quite small – perhaps there were no more than 50 students and four or five teachers there to begin with. What are the girls like? I’d guess that either they have rich and influential parents or they are very clever. Lyra defers to nobody when it comes to her ancestry – she’s as blue-blooded as any of her classmates – but although she’s pretty bright she’s woefully uneducated. It’s going to be tough for her, those first few terms, catching up with the other girls in her form and learning to live with them. She won’t have much time for moping over Will – she’ll be too busy working and making new friends.
There it is – St Sophia’s is not a High School either. There are no boys, no dating (I should think not!) and not a lot of social life. The girls will probably have traditionally English names like Rosemary, Alison, Emma, Mary and Mabel, not Kylie, Chantal or Krystal. Don’t model the place on films like Heathers, or 10 Things I Hate About You. My own ideas about Lyra's school feature in the story The Adventure of the Lost Alethiometer.
COMMANDMENT 5: THOU SHALT GIVE ELAINE PARRY AN EVEN BREAK
It really is too bad. Basically, Elaine Parry's only functions in HDM are:
I don’t know what PP had in mind when he dreamed up the character of Elaine, but I think he badly short-changed her. She exists in the passive mode only, as a means for the author to point up the characteristics of Will and Jopari. So, Will is determined and protective (he protects his mother first, then Lyra). Will loves his mother (but later falls in love with Lyra). In both cases his love is stronger than the metal of the Subtle Knife. John Parry is faithful to Elaine, to the extent that it leads to his death at the hands of a witch (but he was dying anyway).
Notice how, when I’m describing Elaine’s effect on others, I’m using parentheses to qualify those effects?
How old is she? It’s easy to picture her as an elderly bag lady, muttering at passers-by from a park bench, but actually she can’t be very much older than her mid-forties. She may well be only half-way through her life.
Fanfic writers don’t have much idea of what to do with her, post-TAS. She dies (conveniently), or she’s confined to an institution (not very likely these days) or Mary moves in and looks after her (why?) or they all go and live together in Oxford. Occasionally she responds to medication and gets better or else she’s forgotten or given a one-sentence dismissal. We mustn’t let her get in the way of the Grand Reunion, must we?
I’ll confess to having committed the same sins myself (in Intentions). It’s very tempting, and it’s hard to see how she could actively contribute to a story. But there must be a story for Elaine Parry. Why did Jopari marry her? There must have been something – some good reason. What was it like being married to a soldier? What really caused her mental illness? Could Will inherit it from her and be living in fear that it might manifest itself in him? Or was it an our-world form of Spectre attack?
Please somebody, write a decent story about Elaine. I thought I’d found it in James Jago's The Silver Bird but actually, although the story is heaps of fun, it takes Elaine a little too far beyond what we know about her (she turns into a gun-toting action/adventure character) to be altogether credible. Nice try, though, James!
HOWEVER... These Foolish Things by Enitharmon shows that good things come to him who waits, that not all bread cast upon the waters is wasted and, in addition, that chickens do occasionally come home to roost.
Thank you, En.
COMMANDMENT 6: THOU SHALT NEVER CEASE IN STRIVING TO LEARN THY CRAFT
OK, so you've decided to write an HDM fanfic. It's going to be exciting and original, especially that amazing climax in which two opposing fleets of Zeppelins do battle over the plains of the Republic of Texas. Gosh and golly! You just can't wait to get those words down! But hang on a minute...
I recently heard the BBC producer John Tusa talking on the wireless about his new book On Creativity in which he asked a number of well-known poets, musicians, writers and composers about what makes them tick as creative artists. One thing that stuck me very forcibly was that he said that every person he spoke to preferred to emphasise the hard work and craft of what he or she did, rather than the inspiration which produced his or her ideas. Or, to put it another way:
Genius has an infinite capacity for taking pains
Writing HDM fanfic is no different from writing stories based on Lord of the Rings or the Adventures of Noddy. It’s different from writing original fiction in that you can skip a lot of the background set-up work that you would have to do if you were creating an entirely new set of characters, story and background. So "Mary Malone" will do, rather than "Mary Malone, the dark-haired physicist and lapsed nun in her mid-thirties". So far, so good. A certain amount of the writer’s burden has been lifted from your shoulders. You can concentrate on building your own original characters and story, knowing that your readers are already on the same wavelength as you are. But it’s still down to you to tell your story in a way that makes it as easy as possible for your readers to appreciate it. That means making sure that your writing style is as transparent and communicative as you can make it and also that it is free from static and snow.
Let me explain. You’re listening to the radio – the DJ is playing a tune you really like, but there’s continual crackling and buzzing on the sound. Or you’re watching The Golden Compass on TV, but the signal is poor and the picture is blurry and snowy. The tune’s great, the movie’s great, but it’s no fun. You can’t enjoy it, because the interference keeps getting in the way.
That’s how it is when a good story is marred by typos, grammatical errors and poor layout.
Layout first. I just read an HDM fic. It was about eight hundred words long. That’s about a page and a half of typed-up text on paper. And it was all in a single paragraph. It probably wasn’t a bad story, but I never got far enough into it to find out. You can avoid this mistake if you remember that screen real estate is free. No trees have to die. Leave lots of white space. Follow the well-known rules for paragraphs and speech. That’s my first point. The second one is not to muck about with fonts. It’ll look messy; and worse; your reader might not have your favourite spiffy font installed on his or her computer. The result will not be what you want! Lastly, if you’re intending to post your story on fanfiction.net be aware that they block the majority of HTML tags, to prevent people from doing things like posting a story that consists solely of links to other sites. It’s a good idea to use your word processor’s option to save your text in HTML format and to check the result against the list of legal tags. I know for a fact that this article would not be correctly laid out if it were to be posted to fanfiction.net in its present form.
Next, grammar. I’m not going to lay down the law on this. There are plenty of grammar and style guides out there and people who’ll be happy to teach you. And another thing – there’s a long-established rule which say that whenever one person pontificates in public on the subject of grammar, another person will spot those very same errors in the first person’s writing! All the same, here are a few of my least favourite things:
That’s enough on grammar. Now for typos.
I can’t type for toffee. Like Pooh’s spelling, my typing is good, but it wobbles. The letters come out all over the place, spaces get mixed up with capitals, capital letters carry over into words. I’ll never make it as a concert pianist – my fingers don’t work right. So I do what I can, and let Word’s spell-checker spot my mistakes for me. The trouble is, spell-checkers are stupid. They can’t tell that you should have written "where" instead of "were" or "and" rather than "an". Once your spell-checker has done its stuff, you must go over your text again and check it by eye.
This leads me neatly on to the subject of proof-reading. I won’t reiterate what’s Anastacia’s already said in this column about beta readers. A good beta reader is pure gold. Sometimes, though, you can’t find one and you have to do the job for yourself. Here’s the best guiding principle I know:
Time is an excellent beta reader
It’s so tempting to put your epic up as soon as you’ve finished it. But don’t. Put it aside for a day. Look at it again. Ah… now you’ll see a few things that could be improved. Good, fix them. Now put it aside again. Go and do the things you put off doing while you were in the throes of writing your story. Pet the dog. Talk to your friends – they’ll appreciate it. If you can bear it, wait an entire week before going back to your story. I promise you that you’ll be astonished and quite possibly mortified by all the mistakes, inconsistencies, repetitions, homophones and other horrors you’ll find in it. You’ll have given yourself a chance to see the story as (almost) a new reader and now you’ll be in a much better position to change it from being merely good to great.
There’s another thing – paper is your friend. You can spend ages going through your story on the screen and you’ll find lots of things that can be improved. Great. But if you print your story out on paper and go over it with a highlighter and a pencil you’ll find lots more. It seems that every time you change your story’s format you see it anew.
One last hint: try reading your story out aloud. You may want to find a discreetly hidden place to do this J . It’s a superb test of how well your sentences flow and how good your dialogue is. If your prose stutters when you speak it, there’s something wrong. If your sentences go on so long that you lose track of what’s supposed to be going on, there’s something wrong. If your dialogue doesn’t sound like colloquial speech, there’s something wrong (unless your characters are speaking formally, of course).
To finish off with, one last rule to do with transparency and communication: KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. The next writer who offloads a sentence like this: "Stunned, awed and amazed by the radiant effulgence of her parents’ rapturous apotheosis, Lyra threw herself joyfully into Will’s ardent embrace." will get a personal visit from Ceres Wunderkind and the Style Police. You won't enjoy it!
COMMANDMENT 7: THOU SHALT NOT BITE OFF MORE THAN THOU CANST CHEW
(Waking up) ‘Yes? Who’s that?’
‘It’s me, Persephone. You can call me Percy if you like.’
‘OK, Percy. What can I do for you?’
‘I’m after some advice.’
‘Oh yes? (Ceres swells up with pride and vanity) What’s that about then?’
‘I’ve read this book called The Amber Spyglass…’
‘But I don’t think it ended right. I’ve decided I want to write a new book to finish it off properly. A Volume Four.’
‘Oh, I see. You mean where Will and L…’
‘No! No! Well, probably no.’
‘But maybe. Yes, Ceres, I know what you’ve said about reunions. You keep going on about it. Me and my friends think you’re a mean old grampus and nobody loves you.’
‘You have divined the secrets of my soul.’
‘If you have one. By the way, meet my daemon Psyche.’
‘Anyway, I want to write a Volume Four to end the story the way I want it to end, and I wonder if you’ve any hints’n’tips to offer me.’
‘Yes. One big one. Don’t.’
‘I knew you’d say that. No wonder nobody loves you. I bet you pulled the legs off flies when you were a kid.’
‘It was rats, actually.’
‘Whatever. Anyway, why shouldn’t I write Volume Four? Suppose I promise not to do that bad thing that upsets you so much. What do you say now?’
‘Why? Why are you being so negative?’
‘Because I want to make you stop and think about what you’re doing. ‘Specially, I want you to do some sums.’
‘Maths? You want me to do maths? But this is creative writing we’re talking about here. What’s maths got to do with it?’
‘This. How long’s a novel?’
‘Same length as a piece of string.’
‘Correct. But when you look on your shelves, how many pages do you find in most of your books? About?’
‘Let me think… two hundred, three hundred?’
‘Yes. Two hundred and fifty pages is a good average. How many words do you think that comes to altogether? A typical page has about five hundred words.’
‘One hundred and twenty-five thousand.’
‘Right! Now, how long is the longest story in the HDM category on fanfiction.net?’
‘Fifty thousand words or so. That’s Dark Nation’s groovy The Only Ones Left.’
‘Yes. It’s not finished yet, so perhaps it’s be eighty thousand words when it’s done. Do you know how long Dark Nation’s been writing that story? I’ll tell you – at least a year. You see; creative writing takes loads of time and determination. Just for comparison, when he’s writing Philip Pullman spends every morning in his shed and doesn’t leave it until he’s hand-written a thousand words. This generally takes him until midday. Then he takes the afternoon off for thinking time and watches Australian soap operas. So it would take PP, who’s a full-time professional writer, eighty days to write a story of the length that TOOL is likely to turn out to be. That’s sixteen weeks solid. A full-length novel would take him fifty weeks.’
‘I can write faster than that! A thousand words’re nothing at all! I can write three or four times that quickly!’
‘And do it as well as PP?’
‘Oh, indeed. Don’t forget that you’re not a professional writer. There are a million and one other things you have to do in addition to writing. Living a normal life, for a start.’
‘All right. But I still want to write an HDM novel. I’ve got this great idea!’
‘I’m glad to hear it. But look, a novel needs more than just one great idea. It needs lots of great ideas, and they all have to interconnect and combine with each other to make a big, involving, complex story that folks will want to read. That takes a lot of thought, a lot of work, and a lot of commitment. Have you written a very long story before?’
‘Er, no. I’ve got plenty of ones I’ve started, but they all seemed to peter out after a while.’
‘Look on fanfiction.net and you’ll find many more just like it. They all say they’re going to be Part Four and they all give up after a few chapters. I’d guess they failed because the author ran out of time, or motivation, or ideas. Very few attempts at full-length (even by fanfiction standards) stories have succeeded.’
‘You’re such a downer!’
‘I’m being realistic. But look, there’s another way. Although there are all these failed novels on fanfiction.net you can find some real gems too.’
‘Whatever floats your boat. MSTs have been banned from fanfiction.net, though. No; I’m talking about short stories. A short story can be anything from two thousand to ten thousand words long – less for a short-short. It’s the essence of a short story that it’s based on one – just one – really good idea. It has one major character and one story thread. I’m not counting stories which are continuations of, or in a sequence with, other stories here, by the way. If you’re doing that, you need to take an EastEnders, ER or NYPD Blue kind of approach and move several sub-stories along each time.’
‘Like you did.’
‘Yes. I didn’t know I was writing a fix-up novel until I got settled into The Clockmaker’s Boy. That was when I realised that I had an overarching narrative – the rivalry between Lyra and her half-sister Elizabeth – which I had to try to bring to some kind of a resolution.’
‘You mean you made it up as you went along? You didn’t plan it all out in advance?’
‘Shush!’ (Ceres stares at the ground, red-faced)
‘Oh! Did I hurt your poor delicate feelings? Sad liddle diddums!’
‘Erhem! Look, Percy – what I’m saying is don’t try to run before you can walk. Go through your stock of ideas, choose the best one, and try to make a short story out of it. Don’t set yourself an impossible target; just a challenging but achievable one. If you’re lucky, you’ll create something that satisfies you and gives pleasure to your readers. If you’re very lucky, you’ll find that your idea, or your main character, takes on life beyond the confines of a short story and forms the basis of something bigger. I’ll give you an example. The science fiction writer Larry Niven wrote a short story called Down and Out about a starship pilot who hijacked his vessel and took it to the heart of the galaxy, returning to our solar system millions of years in the future. It was a good short story, but in Niven’s mind there was more to it than that, and it eventually became the launching-pad for a trilogy of novels. The same thing might happen to you.’
‘If I’m lucky.’
‘If you try. Here’s my last piece of advice. Rent the movie Ed Wood (1994) or read the book Nightmare of Ecstacy by Rudolf Gray. They're about a film director and scriptwriter who loved and believed in his work. Everyone mocked him and, frankly, he wasn’t very good, but his self-belief drove him on just the same. He tried and tried, and in the end his efforts didn’t amount to very much, but he didn’t let that stop him. It’s one of the truest and most heartbreaking accounts of artistic endeavour I know and Ed has become a sort of personal hero to me. Cheerio, Percy. Bye, Psy. The best of luck to you both.’
I’ve had it with mimsy little stories.
You know the kind of thing I mean. They’re small in scale, small in ambition and (thankfully) short in length. They deal with subtle feelings, relationships and the little victories and defeats of everyday life.
Nothing much happens in these stories, and what does happen is mostly internal to the characters' heads. A change of mind, a realisation of love, a determination to change.
All terribly well-meaning and heartfelt, I’m sure. All very close to emotional truth. All beautifully expressed. And all terribly, terribly, terribly boring.
Let’s go back to the source, shall we? HIS DARK MATERIALS, by Philip Pullman. Is this a quiet book? A small-scale enterprise? An unambitious little roman à clef? No, it damn well isn’t. It’s quite gargantuan in scope. Just for example, have you any idea what the body count is in HDM? No? Neither have I, but it’s sizeable; John Woo territory at least.
HDM is full of big themes, treated in a big manner. Everything is at least two orders of magnitude elevated above so-called reality. There’s love, death, betrayal, religion, war, hatred, repression, blasphemy; the whole enchilada. It’s exciting – there’s a lot at stake. Huge sacrifices have to be made – of life, and more than that. Good grief, you’ve read the thing. You know what I’m talking about.
So it’s no good trying to write HDM fanfic as though it were intended for publication in the People’s Friend. I don’t want to read a story, however well-crafted, that exists only to make some cosy, wry comment on the human condition. Not in the context of HIS DARK MATERIALS, I don’t. I want characters to reveal their inner thoughts in their actions. I want forward momentum. I want plot, dammit! Plot is like the bass and drums in a song. They’re what drive the song along – they’re the rhythmic background to the words, chords and melody. Without them, you’ve got nothing but some ghastly introverted singer-songwriter hunched over an acoustic guitar. It’s meaningful, yes. It echoes my innermost feelings, sure. Is it exciting? No. Sorry dear, but it’s not exciting at all.
Have I ever written that kind of story? Yes, I have, but I’m trying not to do so any more.
Am I contradicting what I said last week, about not trying to write yet another Part Four Epic? No, I’m not! I said that a short story needed one – just one – great idea. I never said that just because the story was short in length, it had to be stunted in its ambition. The example I gave – Larry Niven’s Down and Out – is only 15-20 pages long, but it encompasses a whole future society, two forms of immortality, a cool starship and a timespan (relativistic) of several million years. That’s more than one good idea, but I’m sure you get the picture.
COMMANDMENT 9: THOU SHALT WRITE MEANINGFUL REVIEWS
Are you a review junkie? Do you live for those words of praise in your inbox? Are they all that keep you going when your muse has decided to clear off and spend two months’ holiday on a Mediterranean island with her demi-god friends?
That’s OK. I understand completely. I like getting reviews too. A review means something:
It means that your story affected a reader (who was attracted by your story’s title and synopsis) enough that he or she wanted to let you know about his or her reaction to it. It means your work has been noticed and appreciated, and in a busy world like ours that’s something to treasure.
One good way to get reviewed is to write reviews yourself and let other writers know that you’ve read their stories and found something that strikes you as interesting and that you'd like to talk about. Many writers will want to reciprocate and comment on your work too.
So; what’s a good review? How about:
This is total garbage. You so suck. Kill yourself now and save the world.
Fantastic! This is sooo sweet!
Is the first one bad and the second one good? No! They’re both shite. Why? Because neither of them says any more than I hate this story or I like this story. As a rule you see more of the second kind of review that the first – on fanfiction.net anyway. Nobody likes to look like a sourpuss, after all.
How do I think you should write reviews? Here are a few guidelines:
Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up
Very funny – but didn’t that say more about the acerbic Miss Parker than it did about the book, which has been read and loved by millions?
COMMANDMENT 10: THOU SHALT REMEMBER THAT IT IS ONLY A STORY. DON'T TAKE IT SO SERIOUSLY!
Firstly, and most importantly: the Culture doesn't really exist. It only exists in my mind and the minds of the people who've read about it.
Iain M Banks – A Few Notes On The Culture
‘Know then, Jack, that we rule here, as your lords and masters rule in their own country – your country. Know also that the borders of your country and ours are not fixed, but ebb and flow, so that sometimes your world of fire and iron invades our quiet lands and sometimes our world of mists and silence overlays yours. Has it not happened before; that myths and legends – as you call them – have strode across your wide hills and green fields, sword-girt and mystical? Do you not know of Arthur and Excalibur? Or of Joseph of Arimethaea and the Isle of Avalon? Or of cunning Odysseus and the sacking of Troy?’
‘We call them stories. Sometimes we believe them and sometimes we do not.’
‘Nevertheless there is truth in them, would you not say?’
‘Yes, my Lady. We call it a higher truth, or a deeper one.’
'You are wise to do so.’
Peter Kendell – Beyond The Fields We Know
‘Come with me. You have a story to tell – your story. We all have stories, and we must tell them honestly, truthfully, or not at all.’
Ceres Wunderkind – A Gift Of Love
A few minutes later there was not a rabbit to be seen on the down. The sun sank below Ladle Hill and the autumn stars began to shine in the darkening east – Perseus and the Pleiades, Cassiopeia, faint Pisces and the great square of Pegasus. The wind freshened, and soon myriads of dry beech leaves were filling the ditches and hollows and blowing in gusts across the dark miles of open grass. Underground, the story continued.
Richard Adams – Watership Down
‘Tell them stories.’
Philip Pullman – His Dark Materials
…but live a normal life too. It’s only a hobby, a little bit of fun. Nothing else really, just words, words, words.
Ceres Wunderkind, July 2003