Let me paint you a picture. You’ve just finished your first draft. Corks have been popped, backs have been slapped, and you’re basking in the rosy glow of a job well done.
Except NO YOU’RE NOT, GET BACK TO WORK.
There’s a saying that writing is re-writing, and that’s by and large true, in my experience. It’s very easy to miss stuff on your first go round. But it’s pretty daunting to have just got to the end of a project and then realise that you’ve got to go right back to the beginning again. Whether you’re writing a novel or an essay, you’re always going to make mistakes in your first draft, but often it’s quite tricky to know exactly where to start.
Luckily for you guys, I am a mild-mannered editor by day and I am, like, the best at making sentences. Here’s some quick and dirty tips to use as a starting point.
Check your spelling and grammar…
All the editing lists say this, and it’s because it’s true. If you’re writing fiction, having proper spelling and grammar will help a reader get into the story – they won’t get snapped out of it every time they see a typo. If you’re writing an essay, correct spelling and grammar will make you sound like you know what you’re talking about. (Also one time, at university, our tutor told my seminar group that someone had submitted their dissertation with an accidental swear word in there, so CHECK YOUR TYPOS FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.)
…but don’t stick to it too rigidly.
This really applies more to fiction than non-fiction, so if you’re writing an essay feel free to skip to the next step. Depending on the type of thing you’re writing, sticking to very rigid grammatical rules can sometimes work against you. By all means use the correct punctuation, but forcing all your sentences to fit into a very regimented pattern doesn’t always work well – it can be pretty boring. Mixing things up a bit in terms of sentence structure helps your writing feel interesting, so go ahead and start that sentence with ‘and’.
Take a break.
Go for a walk. Look at some clouds. Have some dinner, or maybe a nap. Anything that will give you fresh eyes, because if you go straight back to the beginning after typing your final sentence, you’re going to be reading what you were going for instead of what’s actually there. Obviously this works better when you’ve got time to take a proper break, but even if you’re writing to deadline this will really help. Maybe just go for a run instead of taking a full week of R&R, otherwise your teachers will be mad at me.
Invest in a thesaurus…
Check your work for repeated phrases. It’s OK to use the same phrase a few times, but if it’s popping up every paragraph you need to re-assess your choice of words. I’ll hold my hands up and say that I used to be so bad for this and only realised I was doing it when one of my friends pointed it out. I was leaning on those phrases so often that they were actually getting in the way of the plot. Fixing it was difficult, but when I did my writing became a lot better.
…but don’t pay it too much attention.
Look. Thesauruses (thesauri?) are great and everything, but they do have a tendency to turn all your prose completely purple. By all means switch up your choice of words, but don’t choose anything that sounds daft.
Get some outside feedback.
If you’ve got time, see if you can get someone else to have a quick look through your work. Even if it’s just your mate proofing your essay at the kitchen table, it really helps to have a second pair of eyes. I’ve got my family and friends to read bits I’ve written for as long as I can remember, and they pick up stuff I wouldn’t have even thought of. (Thanks, guys!)
Read it aloud.
Seriously, do it. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of putting stuff down because it looks good on paper, particularly when you’re writing essays. Don’t make the same mistakes I made, and always make sure it sounds like something a human could conceivably say out loud before you hand it in.
See how it all flows together.
How are you progressing from one idea to the next? Are you following a chain of argument or a narrative thread when you’re moving between topics? This will really help it feel natural, as opposed to checking things off a list. I always find that reading it aloud helps here too. If new topics are introduced in a way that feels jarring when it’s spoken, that probably means I’m not doing something right.
You don’t need to have a cast-iron reason to cut something if you want to get rid of it. It’s your work, and if you decide that it’s time to hack and slash at something you’ve written then chop chop.
It’s enough to decide you’ve gone off something – and if you keep the original version, you can always put it back in if you change your mind.
Trust your instincts.
You know what you want to say, so write it down. These tips are just tips – they are by no means the be-all and end-all of editing. If something doesn’t work for you, don’t use it. Equally, if something else on a different list works better, add it to your list of things to look for. Going over your own stuff can be an incredibly personal process, so you’ve got to do it in a way that works for you.
And that’s it! These are my extremely basic, starting-point tips for anyone looking for some advice on how to edit their own stuff. Hopefully they’re useful. The most important thing is to find a process that works for you. It may take some doing, and you may want to try a few different approaches, but it’ll help you find a way to make your writing really shine, no matter what it is you’re actually putting on paper.
Ah, fanfiction. What a beautiful dumpster fire it can be. If there’s one kind of writing that never fails to get it in the neck, it’s this. I’ve been in rooms full of book lovers who will happily discuss minutiae of sci-fi and fantasy until they’re blue in the face, but mention the word ‘fanfic’ and there’s a tangible recoil. Eyes are rolled, smiles go very fixed, and you can see the other person filing your book-opinions under ‘Not To Be Trusted’. Even working in the publishing industry, where everyone has read everything, you don’t always know what kind of reception you’re going to get when you say you enjoy reading or writing fanfic. It has a bad reputation.
But is it deserved?
When fanfiction is bad, it’s really, really bad, and this is what a lot of people tend to think of when they hear the term. There are some infamously bad fanfics out there. My Inner Life, which contains some of the absolute worst sex scenes I’ve ever read in my life (seriously, the word ‘gushing’ should be banned). Forbiden Fruit: The Tempation of Edward Cullen, which sports some of the worst poetry I’ve ever read and some of the most entertaining typos. And of course, who can forget the goffik granddaddy of them all: My Immortal. They’re all awful. Like, really, really awful, albeit with a silly, slightly Muppet-ey kind of charm.
But this is not the be-all and end-all of the genre. Fanfiction is tied in with a lot of ‘internet culture’ stuff, especially trolling, and it’s often pretty difficult to tell if the really bad fanfics are actually genuine. My Immortal itself is the perfect example of this, because nobody knows who actually wrote it. There’s all sorts of theories. Various people have claimed to know the author in real life, but this mysterious author seems to have been everything from a wannabe-goth schoolgirl to a trio of teenage boys poking fun at fangirls. This all came to a head last year, when someone claiming to be the real author of My Immortal got a book deal about how she wrote the fanfic to cope with the difficulties of the American foster system – and was then exposed as a liar.
As a result of this fanfiction is exposed to a lot of snobbery. People look at stuff like My Immortal and assume it was genuine – which it may well have been, I don’t know. But the difference between fanfiction and other types of writing is that the so-called ‘big names’ aren’t necessarily big because they’re good. Even those fanfics that have managed to break into the mainstream – I’m looking at you, Fifty Shades of Grey –
– aren’t exactly celebrated as masterworks of literature. As a whole, fanfiction is seen as a weird quirk of the Internet Era, like eating laundry pods and obsessing over Shrek. It’s not really seen as something that should be taken seriously.
I really disagree with this.
First of all, allow me to put on my history nerd hat for a moment. Fanfiction is not a modern phenomenon. Modern fanfiction goes back to at least the 1970s – we’re coming up on around fifty years of it now. But if you go further back, you’ll find that people have been using other people’s characters to tell their own stories for centuries. The Victorians, for example, used to re-write the endings to Shakespearean tragedies so that the heroes would survive to get a happy ending. That’s not so different from writing a fluff fic where your OTP get to live happily ever after when one of them gets killed in the show, thanks for nothing, Game of Thrones, HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME.
But it goes back even further. Look at the Arthurian legends. There’s no one source for stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table – as the centuries passed various writers and storytellers added to the legends, gradually building them up into the often-contradictory pantheon we have today. The most fanfic-ey example of this can be seen with the character of Merlin. Before The Vulgate Cycle – which is a group of stories from the thirteenth century, adding to pre-established Arthurian canon – Merlin was a mysterious and ambiguous figure, with no real clarity about his backstory or goals. But then, Robert de Boron wrote a poem all about Merlin which rounded him up to a full-blown edgelord. According to de Boron, Merlin was the result of a demon trying to make the Antichrist by getting a virgin pregnant, but then she had the baby baptised which somehow gave little Merlin perfect knowledge of the past, present and future, plus a bunch of magic powers. This established Merlin as a vital figure in Arthurian canon, setting him up as Arthur’s teacher and advisor, as well as adding famous elements of the mythology like the sword in the stone. And it goes back even further – all the way to the classics, in fact. The Aeneid is essentially fanfiction about one of the minor characters from The Iliad – it just happens to be incredibly well-written and dealing with big, serious subjects like the founding of Rome. When you’re dealing with material like that, it’s kind of hard to remember that it was also written in order to gain favour with the emperor Augustus, and is basically just a toga-wearing NOTICE ME SENPAI.
So fanfic is far from a modern phenomenon. Writing your own works set in someone else’s universe is a fine literary tradition going back thousands of years. Once you acknowledge that, it becomes pretty tricky to keep holding onto the perception that it’s no good as a genre. There are a lot of good fanfics out there – and I’m not just talking about The Aeneid – which get unfairly overlooked thanks to the reputation of titans like My Immortal.
But there’s something else we need to acknowledge about fanfic as well: it’s incredibly useful for writers.
Fanfiction is a great way to start off if you’re interested in writing but don’t really know where to begin. Writing is a weird, isolating hobby that has a tendency to attract a certain tweedy kind of snob. That’s really intimidating. If you’re faced with a room full of people talking about how they write about the intricacies of life and death, or the fundamentally Marxist nature of the human condition, or a controversial take on the banality of mankind, admitting that you want to kind of want to try it too can be excruciatingly embarrassing. There’s a lot of intellectual snobbery about first-time writers, or genre fiction, or women’s fiction, or YA, and wading straight into that before you’re really sure what you’re doing can be a really horrible experience.
But fanfiction has far less of that. Yes, fandoms as a whole can get pretty weird – I’m looking at you, Superwholock – but when you start writing fanfiction you’re starting off in a place where everybody already loves the thing you want to write about. That’s a huge confidence boost. The overall world you’re working in isn’t going to be questioned on principle, because everybody else is working in that world, too. This is hugely helpful for a first-time writer because it allows you to focus on other elements of storytelling.
So: what can writers actually learn from fanfiction?
Characterisation: Fanfic teaches writers how to write consistent characters and stick to an already-established personality. It’s essentially an exercise in character-writing, with the added bonus that you already know the character really well before you start.
Setting: Fanfic shows writers how to fit within the boundaries of an already-established world and in some cases, how to expand on it, too. More importantly, it allows writers to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. Worldbuilding is hella difficult and it’s actually extremely tricky to put together an original and coherent world with its own set of believable rules. Working in a pre-established setting is excellent training for this.
Plotting: Fanfic allows writers to push the boundaries with their plots and try new things. You can experiment – see what works, see what doesn’t, and see what completely blows the universe apart. These are important things to learn, and you’ll likely have to learn them all over again for original projects, but having an established framework for your first few tries makes it a hell of a lot easier.
Structure: Fanfic sites encourage users to post stuff on a chapter-by-chapter basis. This encourages writers to think about structure – you’re thinking about how to write a strong opening, how to end a chapter so your reader will want to keep going – and this is something that isn’t always considered when writing original projects.
Are these things that you can learn from writing your own original projects? Yes. But that doesn’t change the fact that fanfiction can be a really valuable tool for writers and you can really learn a lot from it. The instant feedback you can get from fanfic sites is really valuable because it’s actually pretty difficult to get feedback as a writer. Asking your friends to read your stuff is really nerve-wracking and unfortunately, even if you do ask they just might not have time to read it. You can always submit to competitions and magazines, but that’s a hugely scary thing to do and these types of publications don’t always have the time to give you constructive feedback if you don’t get far in the competition. This is where fanfic sites can really give you a leg up, as you can get encouragement and advice on every chapter. It’s impossible to improve as a writer without constructive criticism, and if you don’t take that first step you aren’t going to get any better.
But there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned so far.
It’s just fun!
Writing doesn’t have to be a super-serious thing – neither does reading. Yes, talking about craft and feedback is important but you can also just have a good time. It’s perfectly fine to enjoy fanfiction and anyone who makes you feel bad about it is being a snob. It’s still reading. It’s still writing. You do not have to be a tortured artiste starving in a garret in order to produce anything of worth, and you do not have to be wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches and smoking a pipe in order to have valuable opinions about what you read. If you want to read or write fanfiction, you go ahead and do it. If you find that it starts up a love of writing or reading that you want to take further, that’s great! If not, that’s great too! Just enjoy the stuff you like to read or write and don’t let anyone try and make you feel bad about it.
Don’t get me wrong. Fanfiction, when it’s bad, can be an absolute pile. But to say it’s bad as a whole is an unfair characterisation of a genre. You get good and bad fanfic in the same way you get good and bad sci-fi. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that a) it’s not the misunderstood brainchild of Tumblr, we’ve been doing this for centuries and b) it has some very real benefits. Things don’t have to be deep and meaningful to have value – they can be fun, or silly, or over-dramatic, or just really really smutty, but if you enjoy them, that is all the value they need. Some people find fanfiction gives them some really useful tools as a writer, and can start themselves off down the path to original fiction – I know that was the case for me. Some people don’t. Either way, that’s fine. You do you.
So. As many of you have probably guessed, I read all the damn time. I read everywhere – in bed, on the train, while cleaning my teeth, while going down stairs (not recommended), while helping my dad paint a fence and while eating my dinner, which explains why so many of my books are covered in paint flecks and curry stains.
But not all books are created equal. The vast majority of the books I’ve read I’ve forgotten about, or disliked, or experienced that special kind of apathy which is way worse than actually hating something. But there are some books I’ll always remember. Sometimes I will look back over my long history as a reader and see distinct ‘before’ and ‘after’ phases in the way I think and the type of things I seek out. Some books leave marks.
These are mine.
The Witches by Roald Dahl
This was my favourite book when I was about six years old and the most goffik little child you ever saw. It was the first ‘scary’ book I can really remember enjoying, and I’m not really sure why – for some reason, the idea of seemingly-normal women ripping off wigs and gloves and masks to reveal their terrifying faces was kind of amazing to me, instead of horrifying. I had it on tape, read by a man with a very sinister British voice who may or may not have been Richard E. Grant. All I’m sure of is that even now, nearly twenty years after throwing that tape away, I can still remember the way the narrator says “Listen very carefully. Never forget what is coming next.”
Awful Egyptians by Terry Deary
This was another book I read at the age of about six or seven, and it sparked a lifelong love of history. For those of you who aren’t aware, this is part of the Horrible Histories series – a series of short history books aimed at kids that highlight all the really gross bits of history. This was the first one I read, and for years afterwards I was obsessed with ‘The Curse of the Mummy’, even though the book went to great lengths to make it clear that it wasn’t real. Horrible Histories was a hugely important part of my childhood, and I read them all until I was well into my teens. I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t picked up Awful Egyptians, I wouldn’t have ended up doing my history degree.
Greek Myths, Retold and Illustrated by Marcia Williams
Another childhood favourite. This was the first book of myths and legends I remember reading. It was a fairly sanitised version of the classical Greek myths, illustrated with silly little cartoons which I can still picture really clearly. I don’t remember much about the way the actual stories were told, unfortunately, as I was really small when I first read this one. However, after I read this book I spent the rest of my primary school years reading all the books of myths, legends and fairy tales that I could get my hands on. To this day I’m still really interested in folklore and mythology, and I can trace it all back to this book.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling
I’ve already touched on my love of the Harry Potter series before, so I won’t go into it in too much detail here. Suffice to say that I read it as a slightly older child and continued well into my teens, and it completely dominated my childhood. My relationship with the series has changed as I’ve got older, and I don’t see it in quite the same way as I did, but there’s no denying it was a hugely important part of my life.
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
Picture this. It’s the mid-2000s and my snotty teenage self is having a crisis: I’m on holiday, but I’ve read all the books I brought with me. The only solution is to drive my family mad. In desperation, my dad finds an English-language bookstore, grabs a Terry Pratchett book (“No, you’ll like it”) and presses it into my hands. I loved it, and I never looked back. This was the moment that ‘proper’ fantasy as a genre unfolded for me – at this point I’d already read Lord of the Rings and had felt kind of shut out by it. I read this book and a door unlocked. It’s not my favourite Pratchett book now, but it is one of the most sentimental, because I can still remember the moment it all fell into place when I was reading it.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
This is another teenage darling of mine. Growing up I wasn’t really allowed to read horror – I got nightmares really easily and my parents didn’t want to make it worse. Obviously, this ended up triggering a massive secret horror phase, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I persuaded them to let me read Dracula because it was a ‘serious’ book, and read it on holiday at the age of about thirteen. I was completely spellbound – and to be honest, I still am. There’s something about the novel which keeps pulling me back, and I find the idea of an ageless, immortal being adrift from his own time utterly fascinating. My copy is falling to bits and still smells a bit like chlorine and suncream, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
This book taught me the value of the slow burn. Again, I read this one as an impatient teenager, and I found the book incredibly frustrating until I was about halfway through. Then, it got weird. When the twist was revealed, I saw the entire book in a completely different light. It completely blew my mind. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this book changed the way I read. Without it, I never would’ve looked at half the books I now consider favourites.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I really love this book. This was another novel that took a while for me to get into it, as I read it when I was a bit too young to appreciate the set-up of the first part. But as I got older, and read it again and again, it kind of blossomed for me. The more I read it, the more I discovered. Over the years it’s become a book I really lean on when I’m finding things difficult, and I’ve really grown to appreciate its bittersweet mix of hope and despair. I’ve listened to the audiobook when I was writing my dissertation, and in the aftermath of a very sudden death in the family, and every single time it’s an incredible source of comfort for me.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
This is one of those rare books that I have to cuddle after I finish, it breaks my heart so exquisitely. I don’t usually go in for stuff set around the Second World War, as it’s not one of my favourite periods of history – I often find war fiction either very depressing or far too simplistic. But The Book Thief paints a vivid picture of life in Nazi Germany and the ways people resisted it, and in a way that isn’t exploitative or sensationalist. It stomps all over my feelings every time and I still keep coming back for more.
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
I absolutely loathe this book, as I have repeatedly made clear. But there’s no denying it had a massive impact on me. I first read it at the height of the Twilight craze, and the first time I breezed through it in a few days and enjoyed it. But then, I read it again – and this time, I slowed down and actually thought about what I was reading. And I hated it. This was the first book that made me stop and look at things critically and engage with the text on a deeper level. I’ve never looked back! My experience of Twilight was by no means positive, but it encouraged me to be a critical reader and actually think about the mechanics of plotting and prose. Credit where credit’s due: I never would’ve started up this blog if it wasn’t for Stephenie Meyer.
And there you have it! It was really hard keeping this list down to ten books, but I managed it without crying once. It’s by no means set in stone. Ask me again in ten years and it’ll be completely different – but that’s one of the best parts about reading.
A while ago I made a short list of some of the books I’d been reading lately. I’m going to do the same thing again, but with a slight twist: everything on this list will be an audiobook.
I haven’t really talked about this before, but I absolutely love audiobooks and always have done. They were a huge part of my childhood, mainly thanks to Stephen Fry’s excellent reading of the Harry Potter series (I listened to them so often that to this day, when I read them myself I can only hear the words in his voice). There’s just something really relaxing about having an audiobook read to you, and a good performance can really make all the difference.
So! Here’s what I’ve been listening to that has really stood out:
Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection, by Arthur Conan Doyle – read by Stephen Fry
This is exactly what it sounds like. Stephen Fry reads the entire works of Sherlock Holmes (apart from the apocrypha) and it’s great. The full recording is about three days long and took me the best part of a month to get through, but it was totally worth it. Fry does an excellent job of creating the right atmosphere for each story and there’s also a short introduction to each of the main collections where we find out more about the Sherlock Holmes canon and how Fry discovered it.
I really liked this one. Sherlock Holmes stories aren’t always my favourite, as a lot of them tend to rely on forcing their characters into pretty restrictive boxes, but Fry’s performance made me forget about that. It was a little strange hearing him do all the accents, as I’m just so used to him having the most English voice in the world, but he got the voices right. My only complaint is that I still don’t know how to pronounce Inspector Lestrade’s name right, as he used both ‘Le-straahhhd’ and ‘Le-strayed’ and now I don’t know how to speak. But all in all a really great collection.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee – read by Sally Darling
This one has a special place in my heart. The first time I came across this particular recording was when I was writing my dissertation. I didn’t work very well in the university library, but needed to use lots of books on short-term loans, so what I would do was to take out a bunch of books, transcribe as many direct quotes from the useful passages onto my laptop and then take them all back three days later. My eyes hurt so much it felt like all the moisture had been systematically removed from each eyeball with a syringe. Do not do this.
Anyway. When I wanted to take a break, I needed to close my eyes. But I wasn’t sleepy – I just needed to not be staring at screens or tiny print for a while. So I was idly scrolling along when I came across this audiobook, and decided to listen for a while just to see if I liked the performance.
And it was perfect.
Sally Darling got the pace, the accent and the tone spot on for me. It was exactly like an older Scout had plonked herself down in my chair and was just telling me about her life. I was completely transported. Years later, after a death in the family, I’d listen to this audiobook again, and it was exactly what I needed: comforting, bittersweet and rich, without shying away from all the nasty things in life. After all that, no other performance can compare.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson – read by Richard Armitage
I got this one as part of The Monster Collection, which is a three-in-one audiobook of Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein and Dracula. All three stories are read by different actors but it was Jekyll that really stood out. (For what it’s worth, Greg Wise and Rachel Atkins did quite a good job on Dracula, but I didn’t really think much of Dan Stevens reading Frankenstein – the voice he went with was a bit too woeful for my tastes, even though I can see why he made that choice.)
Damn, Richard Armitage. Damn. This man can really read a book. His performance was genuinely electrifying. He has the perfect voice for scary stories, managing to get just the right kind of slow-build menace in the scene-setting, but the really stand-out part was when he was reading Jekyll’s confession right at the end. As he was describing his transformation his voice started slowly changing, becoming low and scratchy as Jekyll transformed into Hyde – he did an amazing job of showing the transformation through his performance.
Discworld series, by Terry Pratchett – read by Stephen Briggs
I’m cheating slightly by listing a series, but it’s my blog and I don’t care. You didn’t think we’d make it this far without me raving about Discworld some more, did you?
There’s actually three different narrators for the Discworld audiobooks, but for me Stephen Briggs is the one that ready stands out. Nigel Planer reads the earlier unabridged ones, and he does a decent job, although some are better than others. Tony Robinson reads all the abridged audiobooks, and while he’s probably the better performer I am 100% not here for abridged audiobooks – don’t give me that nonsense, I don’t care that it takes a day to read it through, don’t cut out the story.
Sorry. Anyway, Stephen Briggs reads the later unabridged ones, and for me these are the best of the lot. He gets the voices and the tone just right, no matter which character he’s reading for, and best of all he seems to have a really intuitive understanding of the Discworld universe, which really makes a difference. It’s little things, like making sure all the dwarves in his Discworld audiobooks speak with a similar accent, that really gives his readings the edge.
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak – read by Allan Corduner
I really don’t know why I bought this one. I love The Book Thief, even though every time I read it, it punches me in the face. So far, it is the only book I feel the need to cuddle after I’ve finished reading it. I don’t know why this is.
I was kind of sceptical about this one at first. I just love the book so much, and there’s nothing worse than having a narrator ruin your favourite book by getting the voices all wrong. But I’m happy to say I was proved wrong. Allan Corduner does a great job on the accents and the tone for each character, and he can really carry the emotional weight through his narration. I haven’t finished this one yet, but I know that I’m going to cry.
And there you have it! A short list of stuff I’ve listened to that I’ve liked. Ta-dah. Feel free to discuss in the comments (and leave suggestions if you want, I always like recommendations) but please do tag up your spoilers. Apart from Frankenstein. It’s been out for two hundred years, it’s a little late for spoiler warnings now.
About a month ago, my friends and I went up to Edinburgh.
I had the best time. By some miracle the weather was amazing and we had glorious sunshine for all our trips to Edinburgh Castle, Arthur’s Seat and the Palace of Holyrood – which was just as well, as a lot of the museums we visited were crammedwith very creepy mannequins and I couldn’t have dealt with it in the dark. But it was a pretty hilly city, and we had to regularly refuel with tea and cake.
One of the places we went to was The Elephant House.
The Elephant House is a small café just opposite the National Museum of Scotland. It’s a little small, a little crowded, and the back room is filled with an eclectic assortment of chairs and tables, in a way that reminded me of going round someone’s house to see they’ve set up for a barbecue or something. I had a hot chocolate and my friends had some tea, and because we’re all used to London prices (a.k.a. “re-mortgage your house if you want another slice of cake” prices) we were all pretty happy with it.
But that wasn’t why we went. We went to The Elephant House because that is the place where JK Rowling wrote some of the early chapters of the Harry Potter series.
We had a full geek-out. We sat in the back room, by a window overlooking Edinburgh Castle, which was apparently the very place where the first draft of Harry Potter was actually written omigod you guys one of us could be sitting on the same chair as JK – and we were totally calm and mature adults about the whole thing. We didn’t even cry.
But the really nice thing was that we weren’t the only ones doing this. Our table was an old desk with working drawers. I pulled one open and found that it was crammed with letters, all written by visitors saying how much they loved Harry Potter. And that wasn’t all we found. Even the loos had been turned into a kind of shrine:
Harry Potter was a huge part of my childhood. I read all the books. I had the audiobooks too, and listened to them so often that to this day I can only hear the words in Stephen Fry’s voice. I’ve seen the movies, I’ve bought the merchandise, I’ve written fanfiction which (thankfully) is now dead and buried. But visiting The Elephant House really brought home the fact that it wasn’t just me. I got oddly emotional in those toilets, because it was so clear that people from all over the world had come to see the birthplace of Harry Potter in just the same way that I had done.
But Harry Potter wasn’t just a huge part of my childhood. It has also been a pretty constant feature of my adult life, and these experiences haven’t been quite so nice. The seventh book wasn’t the end of the franchise, though perhaps it should have been. Rowling’s efforts to continue the world of Hogwarts beyond that haven’t gone down so well. Her expansion of the wizarding world has been met with accusations of cultural appropriation. The follow-up play, The Cursed Child, was an incredible spectacle but, plot-wise, left a lot to be desired. And most disappointingly of all, Rowling has continued to support the casting of Johnny Depp in her Fantastic Beasts movie series: a man who tacitly admitted to domestic abuse in his official statement of separation from his now ex-wife, Amber Heard.
All of these things have changed the way I view JK Rowling and her series. Now, I’m much more sceptical of any new Harry Potter development. I’m less inclined to support a project just because it has Rowling’s involvement. Part of me wonders if, when I reminisce about the series, it’s not the books I’m nostalgic for but the way I felt when I first read them. They were an important part of my childhood, that’s true – but now, I am no longer a child.
Does this mean I don’t enjoy the series any more? If you mean the expanded HP universe, well, kinda. If you mean the original books, it’s a solid no. I still love those books. They were such an important part of my life that it would be kind of hard not to. Changing my mind about them would be almost like suddenly despising a childhood teddy. But it has made me look at them in a different light. Now I’m not afraid to look at them critically, or to share my (copious) opinions about them. I still enjoy them, but I can acknowledge that they have flaws, and that the author holds views that she and I don’t share. Despite everything that has happened since the final book was published, it was a formative series for me and I still appreciate having had it in my life.
And then, I left the toilets.
So if you’re ever in Edinburgh and want a cup of tea and a muse about children’s books, I can recommend popping along to The Elephant House. Perhaps you’ll pull a JK and inspiration will strike, and there’ll be different graffiti in the toilets the next time I go. Or maybe you’ll just sit at a table in the back room, pull open a drawer that you didn’t know was there, and you’ll find this:
Picture this. You’ve just picked up a copy of a classic book. It’s the kind of thing that people study in English lessons or write dissertations on. People you know can quote one or two of the lines off the cuff. There’s about seventy million adaptations of this thing, usually featuring Hollywood’s latest chiselled British darling as the leading man. Cultured and intelligent people read this book in tweed jackets and discuss it over port, and now that you have finally got a copy, you’ll be able to talk to them about it instead of sitting in the corner and hoarding all the cheese.
So, you read it. And it’s kind of disappointing.
This has happened to me too many times to count – especially the part where I eat cheese in a corner instead of joining in a conversation. I’ve read quite a few classic books and it’s very rare that they live up to the hype. Part of this is probably because hype is kind of everywhere now, and when you’re in the middle of a constant cycle of “This feels-wrenching drama will stop your heart and set your soul on fire” -style advertising, it can be very difficult to go into stuff believing that this heart-stopping, soul-searing experience is actually going to happen to you.
But it did also get me thinking. On my Strong Female Characters series, one of the things that came up most often for classic books was that when they were originally written, their characters were ground-breaking. Now that time has passed, they’re not. The way that we receive and interpret stories depends entirely on the context in which they are read, and this includes time and place. Meanings get lost over time. The definitions of words change over the years, and implications that might have been obvious to a historical reader are lost on a modern one. Similarly, readers bring new interpretations to historical texts because we are looking at those texts having grown up with ideas that hadn’t been conceived when they were first written. Context is everything.
Plots and clichés are an excellent example of how stories have changed over time. Modern readers expect different things from the things readers expected fifty years ago, let alone a hundred years ago. Ideas that were original and unsettling when they were first introduced have been used so often that the shine wears off and they become clichés.
We’ve all seen this cliché before – in fact, I had a lot of fun with it in one of my Book Recipe posts. A bunch of people are invited to a mysterious old house, there’s probably a murder or two, and our plucky detective eventually discovers that the culprit was the butler all along! What shock. What horror.
But it’s worth remembering that when this trope was first introduced, it wasactually shocking. Servants were not just people who came to a rich person’s house, sloshed some bleach in the toilet and then went home. They lived with them. They washed and dried their clothes. They cooked their food. They made their beds. They helped them dress. They helped them wash, sometimes, or helped them clean their teeth. It was incredibly difficult to have secrets from a servant, because you had to depend on them for so many things. The idea that the person who cleaned the lipstick off the collar of your shirt, who swept up the pieces of your mother’s favourite vase, who saw how many cigarette butts you left in the bottom of your ashtray could also be plotting your death – it’s kind of horrifying.
It’s not just clichés. What is acceptable in terms of plot has completely changed. This is something that dates way beyond the invention of the novel. In the original epic fantasies – stories like The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Beowulf– storytellers would often take time out to send their heroes off on interesting little sidequests because they were fun and exciting. Sometimes these are pertinent to the plot, sometimes they’re completely irrelevant. Then, with the gradual move away from storytelling as a spoken form, there’s a trend to keep the plots more linear. You’ll still get little anecdotes off to one side sometimes, but generally these all serve a purpose for the story as a whole (probably because by this point editors had been invented). And then, later still, you have the move towards modernist fiction. In modernist fiction the idea of a plot can go completely out the window if that’s what the author wants. There’s more of a focus on mood, style and ideas, and most of the time that makes my head hurt a bit. We’ve come to expect different things from stories, and so we’ve rolled them out into new shapes.
This shifting definition of what is and what is not acceptable for a plot also affects characters too. Over the past few years there’s been a move towards stories that are more character-driven than plot-driven, and this changes what people expect from a protagonist. Stories where a character gets sent on a quest because of ~*Destiny*~ are slowly being replaced by stories where a character goes on a quest because they’ve decided to do it. It’s no good to have a protagonist who just sits around waiting for the plot to happen – much more compelling are protagonists who go and makethe plot happen for themselves. The classic example of this is the characters in fairy tales. When the stories were originally told the characters weren’t really much more than archetypes. You had your handsome prince, your wicked witch, your pure and beautiful girl, and that was about it. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of detail about the characters’ personalities. But when you look at modern adaptations of fairy tales, the characters tend to be a lot more fleshed out. Writers will make a lot more effort to give them goals, preferences and personalities so that they can move away from the archetype. The perfect example of this is Belle’s character in Beauty and the Beast. The Disney film went out of its way to establish Belle as a bookworm who felt isolated by having an interest that nobody in her village shared – something which is completely absent from the original fairy tale.
But this cuts both ways. As expectations move forward, some characters are going to get left behind. Details about characters are lost because modern readers aren’t reading literature in the same context as it was written. Take, for example, the first mention we have of Mr Bingley in Pride and Prejudice. We’re told that when he was seen about town he was wearing a blue coat, and we don’t get any more detail than that. For the modern reader, this illustrates the gossipy nature of Mrs Bennet and not much else. But for the Regency reader this was a pertinent detail. Blue dye was expensive and not many people wore it. The coat itself is a piece of outerwear and worn in the daytime, so it wouldn’t be the fanciest piece in Mr Bingley’s wardrobe. The fact that Mr Bingley’s coat he wears for slouching about town is blue would have spoken volumes to the Regency reader – it’s signalling that he has mad stacks of cash.
But it’s not just the minor details that get lost in translation. What constituted a radical and ground-breaking character a few centuries ago is now seen as old hat. This is particularly obvious in female characters, as the social and political capital of women has changed so much over the past few hundred years. When she was first introduced to readers, Lizzie Bennet was radical by anybody’s standards. She was cheeky, she got her clothes dirty, she turned down a marriage proposal from a man she didn’t love. But two hundred years on these things aren’t radical any more. They’re normal. Modern readers go into Pride and Prejudiceexpecting a character who’s radical and game-changing, and meet someone who is pretty conventional by today’s standards. It’s not hard to see why some people might find this disappointing.
…I’m kidding. But it is a question that’s worth asking. How come some stories have lasted for centuries while others have been forgotten?
I don’t have a definite answer, but this is what I think. Let’s jump back to fairy tales for a moment. Yes, they’re vague, and yes, the characters are basically fill-in-the-blanks exercises. In this case, that’s what works in their favour. As the detail just isn’t there, this means the reader, listener or writer can fill it in themselves. It’s easy to make a new adaptation of a fairy tale because the basic shape of the story isn’t tethered to time, place or the personality of its characters. Cinderella can be a cyborg, Snow White can be a vampire, Red Riding Hood can be a werewolf (and yes, all those stories do exist). These are stories that have got legs.
More complex stories are harder to preserve because so much of a story’s meaning is enmeshed in a social and cultural context. I talked about this briefly in my worldbuilding post so do look there for more detail, but what’s important to remember is this: what informs a setting also informs its characters. This applies as much to historical fiction as it does to fantasy epics. Stories written hundreds of years ago are caught up in a framework of cultural norms and societal beliefs that probably isn’t there any more. This is why editions of Shakespeare’s plays and Jane Austen novels so often come with big wodges of footnotes at the back – they’re crammed with references that modern audiences just wouldn’t get without some serious background reading. Going in blind would be like showing a doge meme to someone from the 1500s and expecting to get a laugh. At best, you’d get a ‘sayest thou what?’ and at worst, you’d get burned as a witch.
But obviously, more complex stories do last. We’ve got Shakespeare’s plays, we’ve got The Iliad, we’ve got The Journey to the West. Countless stories have outlived their authors and gone on to become beloved classics for generations of readers. There’s no hard and fast reason as to why this is. It isn’t just good writing, compelling characters and an interesting plot that makes a story get remembered. You’ll still need all those things, but there’s always something else in the mix as well – some mysterious alchemy that lets good mature into great. I don’t know what this is. If I did, I’d probably have my own island or something.
Context is everything. Unless the details of a time and place are meticulously preserved, as Shakespearean scholars have done, then modern readers will miss something and the original meaning will slip away. But modern readers bring their own contexts too, and can shed new light on old stories. Adaptations aren’t always a way for an author or a movie studio to make a quick buck: done right they can be a thoughtful and compelling examination of something we thought we knew. Readers and audiences have new opportunities to see familiar stories with fresh eyes, and that’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten. Perhaps that’s as close as we’ll get to seeing the impact of these stories when they really were new.
Stories that have lasted have something in them that speaks to people regardless of time and place. It can be anything from a feeling to a turn of phrase. Maybe it’s Shakespeare’s description of loss in MacDuff’s speech from Macbeththat speaks to you, or maybe it’s Cinderella’s message that no matter how bad things may get, things will, one day, turn out all right. Whichever classic you pick, there’s something there that has spoken to hundreds, thousands or even millions of people. And whether you like or dislike the actual story, it’s always worth acknowledging that that is truly extraordinary.
There’s nothing quite like a good setting. Previously on this blog I’ve talked about characters and clichés, and that hasn’t really left a lot of time to talk about the other elements of a good story. Setting is one of them. It’s easy to forget that the right setting for a novel can transform it, elevating the events of the plot into something really special. Rebecca would be nothing without the vast, chilly halls of Manderley. Dracula would not be nearly so frightening if the Count’s castle was a three-room flat in east Croydon.
Setting is a hugely important part of writing. In fantasy and sci-fi, the term gets all fancy and becomes ‘worldbuilding’, although it’s essentially the same concept. There’s just more of it, because instead of telling the reader where your characters are, you also have to tell the reader why they’re all holding laser swords and why it was a bad idea for them to steal the unicorn’s bouquet on a full moon. Worldbuilding can be one of the most memorable things about fiction. It can take on a life of its own, allowing the setting to be examined and discussed apart from the characters who inhabit it.
The basic elements of setting and worldbuilding are pretty similar. No matter what genre you’re writing in, you still need to know where your characters are standing. Broadly speaking this can cover a lot of different elements – culture, geography, climate and the physical layout of the scene would all come under this umbrella. These elements make a story convincing regardless of its genre. They get included in most stories that aren’t about two characters having conversations in featureless white rooms. Of course, rather than just having big lumps of description sitting around uselessly these can then be used to reflect mood and create atmosphere within the story. As a general rule of thumb this is true of both setting and worldbuilding – the only real difference between the two is that in worldbuilding, the author tends to make more of it up.
So – how do you actually go about creating a rich and compelling setting? Description. While it can get quite frustrating to pause the action and set the scene, it’s impossible to have a complex and detailed setting without settling in for a paragraph of description every now and then. But when it’s done well it doesn’t feel like a pause. In some of the best fantasy settings – like Middle Earth, Discworld and Hogwarts – this scene-setting feels more like an opportunity to explore than something that has to be skimmed over.
Real talk: this is super hard.
Obviously writing is pretty tricky to begin with, but worldbuilding is a whole other level. Setting a scene can be difficult, but if it is set in some variation of the real world it’s easier for the reader to make assumptions based on the details of the scene. For example, if a writer describes a group of people all in black heading for a church, the reader is likely to assume that they’re heading to a funeral. It doesn’t always have to be the case – in fact, turning assumptions on their heads is one of the most fun things an author can do – but the assumptions have to be there for that to happen, and details from the setting is what plant such ideas in the readers’ minds. You have none of those connections to rely on if you’re building a fictional world. If writing is like learning a new language, then putting a fictional world together is like making up your own language from scratch.
There’s a couple of forms this tends to take.
The Pocket Universe
These are fictional universes that have their bases in the real world in some capacity. This is where you’d find stories that diverged from the real-world timeline – where the Titanic never sank, or where the Germans won the Second World War. This is also where you’d find stories about worlds within the normal world, such as Harry Potter – stories about unusual societies that have been kept secret and are stumbled across by some hapless protagonist.
Pocket universes have a lot of benefits. As they are rooted in the real world, it’s easy for the writer to draw on a lot of common cultural touchpoints, which requires less explaining to the reader. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time making up fictional animals for your characters to eat, or describing the odd clothes they wear, you don’t have to – you can cut straight to the plot. However, they’ve got a lot of drawbacks as well. Rooting your pocket universe in the real world will usually mean that at some point, you’ll have to deal with all the boring parts of reality. This pops up a lot in the Harry Potter universe, when everybody wonders why wizards don’t have formal education for their kids before the age of eleven. In alternate histories pocket universes present another problem – the vast amounts of research a writer has to do to make them convincing. It’s not enough for an author to say that the Germans won the war: readers will want to know how, and when, and who is alive now and who isn’t, and whether the Sixties still got to happen. Don’t write one of these unless you’re prepared to hit the books.
A Whole New World
This is the other kind of worldbuilding and it’s exactly what it sounds like. These are the fictional universes that have no link to the real world whatsoever. They can be inspired by real-world societies, and often a lot of them are, but they are emphatically not on Planet Earth in any kind of capacity. This is where you’d find a lot of fantasy stories – anything from Game of Thrones to Discworld to the entire works of Tolkien – and some sci-fi stuff as well.
Starting from scratch also has its own particular set of benefits. As an author you have complete creative freedom: anything goes. Terry Pratchett proved this when he created the Discworld – the planet is a giant flat disc, supported by four massive elephants all standing on the back of a cosmic turtle swimming through space. As I said, anything goes. It’s also easier to suspend disbelief. The lack of cultural touchpoints works in your favour here, as the reader isn’t automatically comparing it to things they’re already familiar with. However, these also have drawbacks. Making up a fictional world from scratch is so much work. You have to come up with vast amounts of detail, most of which may never make it into the finished book but you just need to know they’re there. You’ve got to establish your own cultural touchpoints and make these clear to the reader, but you’ve got to do it in a way that doesn’t seem stilted or weird. And you’ve got to make all of this completely watertight, because there is nothing readers (and editors) love more than poking holes in things.
So. Which is better? That depends: on your preferences, on the story you’re trying to tell, on the kind of readers you’re writing for. These things would also affect the level of detail you go into when setting the scene. But no matter which one you choose, the most important thing to remember is this: it doesn’t stop at description.
One of my favourite kinds of worldbuilding is when an author can do it through their characters. It’s a lovely way of integrating scene-setting with character development. Characters are products of their worlds, therefore their thoughts, actions and beliefs are a part of worldbuilding. This is particularly important in historical fiction. Choice of language can make or break both the scene-setting and the character’s internal monologue – if an author picks a phrase that sounds too modern, it can completely smash the readers’ suspension of disbelief. In historical fiction this presents its own set of problems as of course, modern and historical thoughts and beliefs are wildly divergent.
One of the easiest ways to illustrate this is the way that historical fiction treats corsets. I was talking about this with my colleague the other day (thanks, Cat) as we’ve both worked on historical fiction before. Corsets in fiction have become more symbolic than anything else. They’re something for the feisty heroine to cast aside before she becomes a pirate or rides off into the sunset. But this wouldn’t work in reality. Corsets were structural underwear and all the rest of a woman’s clothes were designed on the assumption that a corset would be worn. They make you stand and move differently and if you’d worn one all your life, taking it off would feel really strange. Casting the corset aside is a nice piece of authorial shorthand – look at how emancipated our female lead is! – but without it all the seams of her clothes are in the wrong places, everything is scratchy and she’s going to get terrible back pain from having to use underdeveloped muscles all of a sudden.
My point is this: clothes are worldbuilding. The way characters think about clothes is worldbuilding. The way they care for their clothes is worldbuilding, and so is what the clothes are made of. Worldbuilding is not just about describing landscape and weather – it’s about clothes, food, slang, morality, social norms, marriage, relationships – I could go on. In short it’s about how characters fit into a setting as a context, and how that context affects them. Take, for example, Terry Pratchett’s description of the dwarves of Ankh-Morpork. Pratchett’s dwarves only acknowledge one gender, and thus most of the dwarves in the Discworld series present as male. When one of them decides she wants to present as female, it causes a massive cultural uproar, going against centuries of dwarf lore and tradition which go on to affect later books in the series. This introduces the reader to a whole new section of Discworld society, the factions within it, the conflict this brings about and how this manifests to other characters. This is very detailed worldbuilding, and it’s all done without a landscape in sight.
Worldbuilding is incredibly hard. It requires a lot of work, careful thought and research, all of which can really get in the way when you just want to jump to the plot. But it also helps make better stories. When the characters and the setting work in tandem, that’s when the setting feels the most vivid and a book really comes alive. It makes for rich and rewarding stories that a reader will remember. Despite all the hard work, I think it’s always worth it.