Wednesday, 15 May 2013

When in doubt, simplify

I don’t really know what’s made me want to write this post but it’s something I’d like to share. Sometimes I feel caught in the middle of the two main sides of my life – that is, my stories and my uni studies. The whole idea of science vs imagination is something I’ve thought about since I was in my early teens; how the two have often contradicted each other, and led to quite a lot of confusion for me. How is it possible to make sense of one or the other, or even both together?
Even though I have a BSc degree, science doesn’t come very naturally to me. A lot of it, I mainly understand because I made myself understand it. I used to think when I was younger, where was the room for daydreaming and magic in a path of logic and facts? When I saw a tree, my first thought wasn’t on photosynthesis and nutrient uptake – it was imagining I could see gnomes using the bark markings as camouflage!
Stories – another thing I’ve been doing since childhood – are a different matter. I grasp them a lot easier. I was the kid who the teachers told to “get your head out of the clouds.” But It can be very easy to give up if a story doesn’t go your way. Stories are strange and definitely have a mind of their own. You have to keep a leash on them to a point; otherwise they’ll run away with you. Demand the characters to do stuff because you ‘know what happens to them’, rather than ask them politely... they’ll just spring something unexpected on you! Cue the writer’s block!
Just like I’ve learned how to adapt for science, I’ve also learned how to combat the same spanner which writing sometimes throws in the works. It’s different for everyone so I only have my own personal experience to go on. But for me it all comes down to a basic rule: When in doubt, simplify.
Stories have grey areas. They are three-dimensional. They’re a weird sort of extra state of matter that’s solid as a rock, but which will slip through your fingers like water if you try to hold onto them too hard. They are real and breathing because you, the author, have them as your reality. If I don’t feel as though I am completely consumed, I know something’s not right. I treat my characters as real people because they are real to me – I spend time getting to know them and their world, before I know they’ll trust me with what they have to say. There is research; planning; more research; mental conversations with cake on the side! And this is all before a single word is written.
When in doubt, simplify.
A layered story – a believable story – will try to run away from you. When I feel that starting to happen, I take a step back and think, “Okay, what is the basic principle here? What is hidden underneath all this white noise, trying to get out through what I will write?” If I forget all the problems I’m trying to figure out, even if it’s just for an hour or so, then the answer might fall straight into my lap.
Many authors don’t actually become novelists until later life; they may have experience in their own fields or their own personal lives which they can then bring into their fiction. Deborah Harkness, author of A Discovery of Witches, got inspiration from her background in history. Stephen King found a muse for The Shining from a real hotel. And although it’s dipped in fiction, Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden stems from her own mental battles. These are all brilliant stories, all enriched by subtle weavings of reality which play off what readers can find familiar. That’s why they work.
I’m very lucky in that I’ve managed to achieve my writing dreams at a young age; but even though I’m still a student, I have my own fair share of experience that I can draw on. To go back to the science stuff I mentioned before; if it wasn’t for focusing on that for eight years of education, my stories would probably be much shallower. It helped me plant my feet on the ground while my head was in the clouds. It gave me an understanding of the real world, but yet fuelled my stories in a way I probably never would have gone otherwise. Geography taught me the lay of a glaciated landscape, which I used for the Elitland in Blindsighted Wanderer; biology showed me how gills work, which I applied to the Asrae. Rather than just slapping these ideas into my stories simply for effect, I understood them, and believed in them even more because of it.
And now I’m older, I can see how they’re not as far apart as I once thought. Because both studying science and writing a novel rely on asking questions. If you don’t wonder how a tree survives, or how a gnome might hide in them, you’ll never know, and you’ll never get to share it.
Anything can inspire; anyone can be inspired. It doesn’t matter if you decide to change course, or take two paths at once. They don’t need to be separate because it seems like that’s where they belong. Exploration is one of the keys to writing, so why not break the mould? But if everything starts to run away and try to take you on a wild ride, just strip it away; then you’ve got no excuse but to look at it with a fresh eye. Who knows what you might see? Simplicity is an amazing thing.

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