Transparent Head Syndrome by Jim Anderson

First published on multijimbo, 2nd November 2019

silhouette-human-headI first learned about transparent head syndrome during a critique session at the Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference, though it is with some significant regret that I cannot remember who first used the term, but it is a term that has rung in my brain ever since.

On the surface, it’s a straightforward syndrome. A writer writes as though they have a transparent head, so that the reader can see not only the words on the page, but also the picture and form of the story that the writer was trying to move from their own brain onto the page.

I’m at present revising an old story, preparing it for its (next) journey out into the world, and I am beginning to realize how tantilizingly labyrinthine transparent head syndrome can be. It all comes down to balance. There are aspects of this particular story, and all other stories, that I am happy to be direct about; to provide up front to the reader, so that they don’t have to work too hard to find them.

But there are other aspects that I think the reader would enjoy working out for themselves, where I leave the trail of breadcrumbs and following them, the reader makes their way out of the forest. Too much of this, I am happy to admit, makes the reading too much work for some readers, and so what I’m struggling with in this particular story is where I want to situate this point of balance.

But transparent head syndrome is much wider. I talk to my students about transparent head syndrome and how best they can express their answers to the questions I’ve asked of them, be these the weekly exercises or the more formal tests and examinations. How much do we need to write, is a common question asked by students, and one answer here is, write enough to persuade a reasonable skeptic, as ultimately unsatisfying as this answer sometimes proves to be.

Usually, I ask my students to write more, because however clear their vision of the solution in their head, they aren’t always bringing this clarity to the page, and ultimately this is what underlies transparent head syndrome: bringing clarity for the reader to the page, without needing to have sight of the author’s hidden internal intentions to make sense of what’s been written.

All of this applies to administration as well, both the writing of policy documents and also to the meetings where we discuss their merits. I have on more than once occasion been in a meeting, only to leave with no clearer an idea of expectations or direction of travel than I had when I entered the meeting room, and on not-rare occasion less of an idea.

I am confident that these are not deliberate attempts to obfuscate, any more than an author attempts to obfuscate the arc of their story. (Which is to say, accidental most of the time, and when not, then with some reason behind it.)

But this extended contemplation of transparent head syndrome is changing how I try and run the meetings that I chair, and how I engage with the meetings I don’t chair. And it is working its way into how I write mathematics, and how I write all of the other things I write, fiction and not.

jim_andersonJim Anderson  is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Southampton, and is also the Associate Dean (Education and Student Experience) for the Faculty of Social, Human and Mathematical Sciences. Beyond mathematics, he practices the traditional Japanese martial art of aikido and writes science fiction and fantasy.

Jim is on-line at http://www.multijimbo.com

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Write What Someone Knows by Ben Jeapes

First posted on the Milford blog inMarch 2017

“Bad books on writing tell you to “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW”, a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.” – Joe Haldeman

And yet Joe Haldeman’s novel The Forever War was heavily influenced by his experiences as a Vietnam vet. I’m nowhere near brave enough to disagree with Joe Haldeman but fortunately I don’t think I have to. We agree from different directions.

Five Lies Creative Writing Teachers Tell makes the same point. It’s good but often misused advice, and it’s the misuse that gets dealt with on that link: the advice being hammered in to the point where you’re not even allowed to use your imagination. As the writer points out, J.K. Rowling isn’t really a wizard, but “The good tutor will get to know you, and encourage work which is attentive to your experiences”.

I would take that further: “your or at least someone’s experiences”.

Because, yes, writing has to start with what is known. My most basic level of knowledge is knowing what it is to be alive. I’m a human being with a place in the world – sensory input going 24/7, human relationships, knowing what I like and what I don’t. A character on a page has to give the impression of a similar level of existence. If you can’t believe they existed before you opened the book, or that they will go on existing after you close it, then the author isn’t writing what they know.

But with that given, then it’s time to start making stuff up. Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity is told from the point of view of the native of a planet with a surface gravity 700 times stronger than our own, which is laughably petty compared to the world of Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg, where it’s 67 billion times stronger. Neither author can claim first-hand knowledge of such environments, but they too can start with the basic knowledge of being alive and take it from there.

My type of science fiction tends to be closer to home, with mostly human characters. I’ve never time travelled – but I have been in some fairly insalubrious third world slums, so if I want to imagine a European city of previous centuries, that’s what I picture. I’ve never worn a spacesuit, but I have scuba dived: I know the sounds and sensations and slightly claustrophobic feeling of being enclosed by your personal life support system, keeping you alive bare centimetres from an environment that could kill you, simultaneously giving you immense freedom and severely curtailing your possibilities. I’ve never been in a spaceship, but I’ve travelled by aeroplane, so I know that illusion of normality coupled with the ever-present knowledge at the back of your head that you’re in the belly of a fantastically complicated machine hurtling through the sky several miles above the ground and that isn’t normal at all.

The Teen the Witch and the Thief coverOther things I have done: driven a car; sailed a boat; grown up in an army family; fired several types of gun; stood on the floor of an active volcano; walked up Snowdon, across Salisbury Plain and through an Indonesian rain forest (not all on the same day); flown an aeroplane under supervision; taken off, flown and landed a glider solo; been in unrequited love. I’ve never divorced, had a serious illness or died, but friends have and (sorry guys) you can bet I was paying close attention. And each of those experiences, or scenarios developed and extrapolated from them, has appeared in my published writing.

The Comeback of the King coverTed, the titular teen of The Teen, the Witch & the Thief, has a stepfather Barry with whom he doesn’t get on. An unexpected pleasure of writing The Comeback of the King was being able to give new depth to Barry that was entirely consistent with what we learned of him in the first book, but which showed a lot more sympathy. The reason: between writing the first and second books, I became a stepfather of a teenager myself. I tip my hat to all Barrys everywhere.

Alumni of the Milford writers’ workshop have access to the Milford Skills List. Everyone who attends gets a chance to write down a few areas of expertise that they are willing to share with other members. And fantastically useful it is too. I was recently able to quiz a retired GP on the best kind of fracture to have, from a dramatic point of view, and how to perform a field amputation. I doubt she has any direct experience of the latter, but again, based on what she does know she was able to extrapolate.

So there you have it – write what you know, or failing that, find out what someone else knows, and write that. And then do something new with it.

 

bjeapes01Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 7 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer. His first Milford was at Margate in 1991, which shows (a) how far Milford has come in the past 26 years and (b) qualifies him as a Great Old One, in Milford terms at least. www.benjeapes.com

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Mind The Gap: Communicating Information to Your Audience by Sam Tovey

As a writer, it can be frustrating to learn that the story in your head is not the same as the story your audience is reading on the page.

Whether it’s a plot point, some description, a character motivation, or even the emotional resonance of a particular scene, there can be something that seems completely clear to you, but falls flat when you share it with your audience.

It’s that dreaded moment when someone tells you that they just didn’t ‘get’ it.

While it’s tempting to ignore that kind of criticism (“You don’t understand my genius!” etc.), it’s worth considering whether you have a problem with the gap. The ‘gap’ of course being whatever was lost in translation between your brain, the page and the reader’s imagination.

Mind the gap

This was one of the most important lessons that I took away from Milford. I submitted a short story with a twist ending, and while the story as a whole was positively received, that twist failed to land for most of the group. It turned out that I hadn’t explained the twist as clearly as I thought I had: I’d left some of the details too vague, and had included some dialogue that appeared to contradict the whole point of the twist itself. This left my readers doing too much guesswork; causing them to ask questions or come up with interpretations that I never intended for them to have.

In short, I’d left too large a gap between what I meant, and what I’d written.

The trick to managing the gap is knowing what details you need to make explicit and concrete, and what details you need to omit or leave vague and open to interpretation. And it can be very difficult to figure that out when you’re the one telling the story: you’re so close to what’s going on that you can’t see the wood for the trees.

So if you’re having problems with the gap, take a step back and ask yourself what your goal is: how do you want your readers to feel? What information do they need to know in order to understand what’s happening? Have you conveyed that to them in the simplest, clearest, most evocative way?

Try to put yourself in your reader’s shoes: what questions might you have about the situation being presented? How would you expect the characters to react? What predictions might you make about where the story is headed?

Think about your work at the sentence level: what specific words are you using, and how might a reader interpret them? Ask yourself if there’s any scope for miscommunication.

In most cases, the key is to err on the side of the obvious. If you’re describing a setting, make sure you’ve highlighted a couple of specific, vivid details. If it’s the way a character’s feeling, make sure to show their emotions: let them smile, or cry; give them sweaty palms if they’re nervous, or a red face if they’re angry. For plot points, make sure all the information has been clearly established; start with the most necessary details—the whos, whats, wheres and whys—before you layer up the complexity. And if you’ve left out some of these details, make sure that you’ve done so deliberately.

Of course, the best way to find out how people are reading your story is to actually get people to, you know, read it. But hopefully, if you’ve spent time trying to anticipate your audience, you’ll find that what you’ve written is clear enough to convey everything that you intended.

And if that’s not the case, don’t sweat it! Just ask yourself these questions again, and remember, you can always fix a story in the edit.

Sam Tovey is an English Literature graduate living in Bristol, United Kingdom. He is a Dream Foundry finalist, an alumnus of the Milford SF Writers’ Conference, and has been published in The Colored Lens. You can find more of his work at: www.samtovey.com and follow him on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/toveywrites.

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Two in a Row: Fantasycon and Bristolcon by Jacey Bedford

These are two of my favourite conventions, but unfortunately they fell on consecutive weekends this year, which made for a tiring ten days. I’m still recovering.

Fantasycon, which I always think of as an ‘industry’ convention took place in Glasgow at the Golden Jubilee Conference Hotel, in Clydebank, Glasgow on 18th – 20th October. It’s overseen by the British Fantasy Society, but this year was run by a new team and there were a few blips which will hopefully be corrected when the same team runs the 2020 event in Sheffield.

Glasgow view

The view over the River Clyde from our Golden Jubilee Hotel room

The convention hotel was excellent for this event. Strangely it’s attached to an NHS hospital and was originally built for private customers, but when that aspect declined, fell into NHS hands. The hotel and hospital are actually attached to each other (which means hotel residents can access the hospital shop, coffee bar and canteen). Rooms are extremely comfortable (4*) and the beds are a delight to sleep in. The meeting rooms are adequate for convention needs. It’s out of the city so there are no restaurant facilities within walking distance, but the hotel restaurant (to my surprise) managed to feed everyone, though they were not allowing bookings, and the menu was more limited on the Friday and Saturday. We arrived on Thursday which offered a full menu.

The convention itself felt less well attended than usual, with fewer publishers and agents, though it might have been simply that there was a lot of space in the hotel. Some panels and book launches suffered from not enough audience. Maybe it was just the distance that put off attendees from the south. We flew up from Manchester as the flights were barely more expensive than the train (and since Sunday train services are notoriously unreliable, flying seemed like a good option).

Panels… what can I say? I sat on three panels. One of them I asked to sit on. It was called ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ and as it was about all the effort put into publishing a book (in addition to the author’s) it was right up my street. The moderator emailed to introduce us all in advance. The other two panels with very similar themes (on animals in fiction) were less well attended. Panel notifications were sent out much later than usual, and many of them were not clear about who was supposed to be moderating. This echoed through the whole weekend with many panels starting with ‘Who’s the moderator?’ RJ Barker moderated one of the animal panels I sat on and kicked it off with some very left-field questions, which made it great fun.

Green Man's FoeQuaestorThere were a few authors I knew from Milford. I spent a lot of time with Terry Jackman, David Allan, who launched his new novel, Quaestor, and Sandra Unerman, as well a Juliet McKenna who was there to plug her new book, Green Man’s Foe, published by Wizard’s Tower Press.

We flew home on Sunday afternoon, missing the banquet and the awards ceremony.

Then, with only three days to catch up on work I was away (by train this time) down to Bristolcon, via a day in Bath for <ahem> historical research which partly turned into a Christmas shopping trip. I met up with my friend and we spent Thursday night in Bath and then moved on to Bristol (just 11 minutes away by train) to the Double Tree by Hilton. Bristolcon is only a one day con, but coming from Yorkshire I can’t get there and back in a day, so I always have to arrive on Friday evening and depart Sunday morning. My train service is the one that goes from Aberdeen to the West Country (and back). As I pick it up at Wakefield, it’s a steady four hour journey, which gives me time to catch up on my reading.

Bristolcon is a small, event but interesting, and there are lots of writerly friends there. There are two programme streams and two workshop streams, plus a dealer’s room, so there’s plenty to do. They sprinkle ten minute readings between the panels, which means they are well attended. The panels are thoughtful and varied. I also went to a workshop by Doctor Bob on building alien biology, which was funny and fascinating. She’s a great speaker.

The hotel is always welcoming, the bar food is decent, and they make good Pimms and lemonade, but oh dear, the mattress was ‘tired’ which made the bed brutally hard. I don’t remember it being that bad in previous years, so maybe the beds are in need of renewal, or maybe I just got a bad one. I must have woken seven or eight times during the Friday night with appalling back ache. As a result I fell asleep during one of the panels I really wanted to see. (Apologies to the panellists.) Luckily my friends tell me I didn’t snore! The second night was saved from complete disaster by asking for four extra pillows and building a nest in the bed.

The convention isn’t responsible for the state of the beds, of course. I guess most local Bristolians don’t stay there anyway since it’s only a one day con. All in all, sleep quality apart, I really like Bristolcon, and will be back again next year.

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The Nature of Story by Jim Anderson

Babylonian world

The Babylonian World

I have spent some time this weekend pondering the nature of story.  Part of this arises, I think, from my 2019 reading project and my current exploration of ancient Babylonian wisdom literature.  And part of this comes from working through the revisions on a story that I need to fix before I submit.

Procrastination being one of my strengths, I paused in my revision to ponder the question, why do we tell stories, and why did we start?  I want to be able to assume that of course, we humans have always told each stories, sitting around our fires as we distracted each other from the beast in the night.
I think this is a safe assumption to make, if only because we have been telling each other stories every since.  And like cooking, which allowed for the improved release of energy from food, I think it’s safe to assume that composing and telling each other stories are amongst those aspects of being that make us human.
Gilgamesh

Epic of Gilgamesh

Ancient Babylonian wisdom literature is interesting, because these pieces are among the oldest written record we have.  The pieces are not traditional stories; rather, they are, as the name suggests, records of admonition of how to behave in the eyes of the gods.

I’ve been reflecting on this, and it occurred to me.  We had not long been living in cities; these stories come to us from a time when we have only (relatively) recently established our earliest cities and perhaps part of what we were doing was teaching ourselves the skills we would need to live together, in larger and larger groups.
Today, the stories I read and that I (try to) write have their primary purposes to entertain, but also to educate.  There is a circle here, because we are still, in a different sense, learning to live with one another.  We are still learning how to behave as individuals so that we don’t disadvantage others, and however much we have learned to date, we have much still to learn.
And so, a project.  Read the ancient Babylonian wisdom literature and ask the question, what are we trying to teach each other through these stories?  And what are the parts of this education that are still relevant, and how do I build this into my own stories?
And there is always more to do.
Babylonian wisdom lit

Babylonian Wisdom Literature

jim_andersonJim Anderson (on-line at http://www.multijimbo.com) is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Southampton, and is also the Associate Dean (Education and Student Experience) for the Faculty of Social, Human and Mathematical Sciences. Beyond mathematics, he practices the traditional Japanese martial art of aikido and writes science fiction and fantasy.

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The Art and Craft of Critique


Jacey Bedford
The Milford Conference each September is a full week of peer-to-peer critiquing. Fifteen writers sit down each afternoon to critique each other’s work, but always with the aim of helping the writer to improve what’s on the page.

Over the years my writing has been taken apart and put back together by some of the best in the business. Every writer/reader has their own critiquing style, so in the wake of Milford 2019, I thought I’d ask some of them how they set about putting a critique together. Here’s what they said…

 

 

Terry Jackman 01Terry Jackman
Once upon a time I read the complete text, then went through it again making comments. After a while I stopped the first read through. Basically I’d got better at it – or so I’m told – plus I believe the first impressions are essential. After all, that’s what the ‘real’ readers get, they don’t expect to have to re-read something to understand it. In fact if that happens most of them stop reading?

So now, whether I’m critting or actual editing, I assume the text is considered to be at least reasonably polished, then I make comments as I read – on everything from plot to punctuation – then check back over those to see if they are clear, or need changing in hindsight. Things like something sounded odd, but later I realise it was meant to pull me up so it didn’t need attention after all.

Finally, I add end-notes summing up my more general impressions, good, bad or indifferent, and identify any areas I feel should be reassessed, and why.

And that’s me.

Terry Jackman began writing nonfiction, more by accident than design, before eventually tackling fiction. These days she runs the BSFA Orbit groups and edits-for-hire  between writing and the day job. She also runs the occasional convention workshop, and is strange enough she actually enjoys moderating panels.

 

Jaine Novacon 2012 - credit to Al JohnstonJaine Fenn
I do an initial read-through of the MS, noting any obvious small (line-edit type) issues on the MS itself. Ideally I’ll work from a paper copy but if it’s much more than 5K long I feel guilty about the trees and use the comment function of Word. If anything more ‘macro’ occurs to me as I read (issues with a particular character, lack of clarity on an important aspect of worldbuilding etc.) I’ll make a rough note, not on the MS.

I’ll then leave it for a day or several. If something occurs to me in that time, I’ll add it to my notes.

Ideally I’ll then read through the MS again, adding more to my general notes as I do.

Finally I’ll write things up legibly (because no one can read my handwriting), under a header of ‘general’ for the macro stuff and ‘detail’ for any detailed/line edit notes.

The above applies to short stories – for novels it’s a more complicated process, and I’d be breaking my ‘general’ comments down into the usual headings: character, plot, world etc.

It’s the same process for face-to-face or remote critting, but with face-to-face my typed comments might not be as polished, as they’ll get discussed in the session.

Jaine Fenn is the author of the Hidden Empire space opera series and the Shadowlands duology, as well as numerous published short stories, one of which won a BSFA award. She writes video-games for hard cash and plays tabletop role-playing games for easy fun. These days, she’s likely to politely refuse any chocolate with less than 65% cocoa solids.

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How to Critique Effectively and Influence Your Fellow Writers – By Nancy Jane Moore

theweave200

My favorite writing workshop story comes from my time at Clarion West. We were critiquing a story of mine, and one of the students — let’s call him X — was ripping it to shreds. He got to the end of his rant, and Therese Pieczynski, who was the next critiquer, said, “I anti-ditto (Clarionspeak for “completely disagree with”) everything X just said.”

X got mad! His feelings were hurt, not because someone had criticized one of his stories, but because someone had criticized his critique!

I found the whole thing hilarious. In fact, I think it might be the funniest thing that happened at Clarion, except possibly for the night when we all ended up half drunk in someone’s room watching several of the guys play air guitar to Black Sabbath (you had to be there). While I have often questioned the judgment of people who liked stories I detested, it’s never hurt my feelings that they disagreed with me.

I don’t remember what X didn’t like about my story. For that matter, I don’t remember what Therese liked about it. But I am sure I didn’t pay any attention to anything X said and that I listened carefully to Therese. It didn’t take me long at Clarion to figure out that Therese was great at getting to the heart of what worked and didn’t in a story. To this day, she’s still my favorite first reader; I can list several stories I’ve completely revised because of something she said.

At Clarion, I discovered the importance of finding the right people to critique my stories, but it was several years later, when I attended Milford, that I figured out the most important rule for participants in writing workshops, one that makes it possible for a writer to get a useful critique even from those who aren’t simpatico with their work. Here’s that rule:

The critiquer’s job is to help the writer tell the story the writer wants to tell. 

Milford 2002

Milford 2002. Standing: Neil Williamson, Colin Davies, Alex Lamb, Nancy Jane Moore, Chris Butler, Chris Paul. Seated: Stuart Falconer, Liz Williams, Cherith Baldry, Sandra Unerman, Liz Counihan, Jacey Bedford

The Milford workshop was the most constructive one I’ve ever attended. In a group of about 15 people, including several with significant publishing reputations, not one person used their critique to trash a story or to show off. Every criticism — positive or negative — was intended to help the person improve the story they wanted to write.

It was a refreshing experience, one I’ve never had in any other workshop. It could be that British writers are just nicer — and smarter — than the rest of us, or it could be that I just lucked into the right group at the right time. But from that experience, I’ve come up with five instructions for participants in writing workshops that implement the core rule of helping the writer tell the story they want to tell:

  1. Keep your ego in check. Do not use a critique as a forum for showing off how much you know about the subject at hand. It’s one thing to point out that the writer has erred in their use of physics; it’s another to use this error as an excuse to lecture on either physics or the stupidity of people who don’t know physics.
  2. It’s not your story, so don’t rewrite it the way you would tell it if it were. This can be a difficult rule. For example, if I were critiquing Much Ado About Nothing, I would be sorely tempted to tell Will Shakespeare that Hero’s willingness to marry Claudio in the end is absurd. No woman would ever marry a man who treated her as he did. However, if she tells him to go to hell, the story becomes something darker than the romantic comedy it’s meant to be. My version might make an interesting story, but it’s not the one Will was writing.
  3. Don’t tell the writer how to revise the story to make it publishable if your revision changes what the story is about. This is slightly different from the last rule — a corollary of sorts. I mean don’t tell the writer to change the story to something that fits the current fashion of what gets published. My few forays into love stories usually end with broken hearts or worse, but I don’t want to change them to fit romance guidelines no matter how many times someone tells me how well romance sells. That’s not the story I’m writing.
  4. Don’t waste group time on grammatical nitpicks; you can mark minor errors on the manuscript. And particularly avoid parroting the various canonical rules you’ve learned along the way, such as the ones about the passive voice, the overuse of adverbs, or the error of beginning a sentence with a conjunction. If a sentence isn’t working, try to explain why it doesn’t work instead of falling back on a rule that probably isn’t the real problem to begin with. Besides, telling the writer to revise a sentence that works well just because it doesn’t follow a particular rule shows you’re missing the point. Would you tell Charles Dickens he should rewrite the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities because it’s 118 words long and he uses the verb to be 13 times?
  5. Don’t be nasty. It is possible to tell someone their story sucks without putting it in those words. Believe me, they won’t miss the point just because you’re polite about it.

These rules are for workshop participants, not for teachers. An experienced teacher knows the same approach doesn’t work for every student and every situation. Sometimes a teacher must be very encouraging; sometimes they need to hit the student over the head with the proverbial two-by-four. But peers in a workshop are not teachers, and they should not act as if they are.

brewing_fine_fiction133x200I’ll end with a piece of advice for those on the receiving end of a critique, my take on something Samuel Delany taught me at Clarion: The problem people point out in a story may not be the actual problem. Something else entirely may be out of whack, causing the scene in question not to work. It’s the writer’s responsibility to figure out where the real problem lies.

By the way, the story I mentioned at the beginning, the one X trashed? Despite not taking X’s advice, I sold it a couple of years after Clarion. Selling the story is the best revenge I can think of for a bad critique.

Note: This essay originally appeared in 2010 in Brewing Fine Fiction,  an anthology of essays on writing by members of Book View Cafe.

 

nan300Nancy Jane Moore’s science fiction novel The Weave came out in 2015 from Aqueduct Press.  Her earlier books include a collection from PS Publishing, Conscientious Inconsistencies, and a novella from Aqueduct, Changeling. She is a member of the cooperative publisher Book View Café, where she has published several ebooks and contributed to anthologies. You can follow her on Facebook. She posts on Thursday at the Book View Café blog.  Reprints of some of her stories are available at Curious Fictions.


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