Irony is the contrast between the expectations of a situation and what is actually the case. It is probably the hardest concept to define in literature. My current definition: an e-book publisher who only accepts submissions via the snail mail.
In writing, to quote Fowler, irony is when “the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same”. So, it doesn’t mean a sad coincidence or incongruous event are ironic (Alanis Morissette got the definition wrong, but that is still a brilliant song). And if you get it wrong … you are in good company. I know I get it wrong all the time.
i·ro·ny (from Dictionary.com)
a. a technique of indicating, as through character or plot development, an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually or ostensibly stated.
b. (especially in contemporary writing) a manner of organizing a work so as to give full expression to contradictory or complementary impulses, attitudes, etc., especially as a means of indicating detachment from a subject, theme, or emotion
in·con·gru·ous (from Dictionary.com)
2. not harmonious in character; inconsonant; lacking harmony of parts: an incongruous mixture of architectural styles.
3. inconsistent: actions that were incongruous with their professed principles.
co·in·ci·dence (from Dictionary.com)
a striking occurrence of two or more events at one time apparently by mere chance: Our meeting in Venice was pure coincidence.
I have a tendency to forget that my readers can’t ‘see’ my characters unless I paint them a word picture. This was particularly brought home to me when I read a book about writing screenplays (not that I plan to right a screenplay), and the author talked about giving each character a physical quirk as well as a distinct way of speaking. So, I am writing a short story where one of the characters has eyebrows that communicate nearly as vividly as his speech patterns. Who knew it could be so much fun?
I have used distinctive appearance in the past. I’ve was writing about albino bad guys years before Dan Brown. (Really! But my antagonist wasn’t a self-mutilating murderer as well.) I had decided it was ‘lazy’ characterisation to make your characters looks too different from normal. They had to be ‘special’ for who they were and what they did, and not what they looked like. And yet … sight in one of the most important of the human senses. We feel more empathy with a blind person than with someone who has no sense of smell. So it is important that your readers can ‘see’ your characters.
So, when I am putting my character files together, I make sure I include some pictures that capture their ‘look’. The internet makes it easy to hunt down people that are nearly spot on to what you want your characters to resemble. I find it inspires me to paint their portraits.
I have always known that Isaac Asimov is the main reason I write Science Fiction. I read ‘I Robot’ when I was eight and never looked back. But there have been a bunch of other authors who have inspired me.
Diana Wynne Jones: I love all her books, but my favourite is ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’. Was there ever a more feisty protagonist that Sophie?
Terry Pratchett: The Discworld books are the perfect example of how good characterisation can carry forward a good plot.
Neil Gaiman: No one does adorkable creepy better than Neil. His most famous creation, the Endless, are perfection.
Michael Pryor: I first read ‘Heart of Gold’ and I was hooked. His Steampunk series are among the best you will ever read.
Ged Maybury: It was Ged who actually introduced me to the concept of Steampunk.
Angela Carter: The mistress of the short story and the novel. Her feminism coloured her writing but never overwhelmed it.
Angela Slatter: No one can write a modern fairy tale with the style of Miss Angela. No one.
So … who inspires you?
Am I the only person on the planet who obsessively reads ‘How to Write’ books simply to see other people’s writing processes? It fascinates me how very differently every writer approaches their craft. I generally find that every writer’s main piece of advice is “WRITE”. This may been rather obvious, but you would be amazed at the amount of people who think and talk about writing and yet never sit down in front of a keyboard to capture those gems.
My own keystone to writing is “READ”. I suffer from the writer’s version of verbal diarrhoea. But my writing had an important phase that many of the ‘How to Write’ books seems to ignore. Input = Output. The more I read, be it fiction or non-fiction, the more ideas are suggested to my muse. Even reading the newspaper will often give me several great ideas.
So, should I be reading only high quality work? Not really.
Sometimes, what I learn is what NOT to do.
Just over two years ago, I moved towns. I was moving back close to somewhere I had lived before, but I really only had two friends in the area I was moving into. I spent a year finding my feet again.
I joined a writing group, which helped matters immensely. But the writing group only meets once a month. I’ve made friends with everyone in the group, but it is only a small group of people.
Then I became active in the Steampunk community, and wow, have things changed. I have to turn down invitations, because I simply can’t keep up with everything that is going on. I have made a LOT of friends, and reconnected with one woman I was friends with in primary school, and all these friends are warm-hearted people who enjoy the Steampunk alternative lifestyle. Most of these people I met firstly through social media. Some I met at conventions and events.
As a writer, I hadn’t really considered that there could be a whole group of people that would share my interests. I came to Steampunk through the literary arena, but have branched out into many other fields, like cosplay and themed events. I think it is marvellous, because I like to have a life outside of the boundaries of my head. Better yet, knowing a group of highly creative people seems to keep my own creative juices lively.
I would recommend reaching out to your own community.
Can breaking gender stereotypes become a stereotype in its own right?
I am currently writing a short Dieselpunk story, where a young woman is the inventor of the world’s ugliest car. Her fellow protagonist is an elderly male poet who wants to capture the essence of speed in words. I have suddenly realised this means my story can’t pass the Bechdel test.
For those who don’t know, the Bechdel Test is any story where:
- It has to have at least two women in it,
- who talk to each other,
- about something besides a man.
However, I don’t want to throw in an unnecessary character just for the sake of passing the test. And there is a certain irony is using an elderly white male as my ‘feminine’ voice, as the poet.
So that is my conundrum for today. Do I gender-swap the poet to a woman? Do I add another character? Do I accept the fact that this story won’t pass the Bechdel test?
You might ask why this is important to me. It is because I want to write stories that don’t define women (or men, for that matter) as stereotypes by their gender. I have found gender biases creeping into my work when I get tired or lazy.
For the past month, I have been taking part in a one hour writing race on a Wednesday night. I have found these races quite inspirational. When I sit down, I know there is a group of us all writing away … and I feel like I am part of a community.
The race also seems to kick-start my muse. I don’t aim for speed at these events, but to write continuously for an hour without any reference to my internal editor. The results often surprise me. I thought I would write a great deal of rubbish, which turned out to be wrong. I have found I tend to take more risks. It seems to sharpen my ear for dialogue. My own urgency seems to be transmitted to the page.
I am very sorry I didn’t join these races sooner.
I’ve spent my whole life thinking about books and writing. Some of my very first memories are being read to by my father, from the Disney picture book version of ‘Peter Pan’. I could point to that being a strong indication as to why I prefer the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres over all other literary categories. I was seven when I attempted to write my first story.
This is my list of techniques, painfully learnt over the past fifty years:
1/ Just keep writing. This might be self evident, but you would be surprised at how many times I ‘think’ I am writing when what I am doing is just thinking. It is all about bum on seat. Taking notes. Keeping a notebook and pen handy for taking notes. I’ve met a lot of people who talk big about writing that novel … and never do.
2/ Input equals output. There are ideas and inspiration everywhere; the newspaper, your daily walk, listening in to conversations on train trips, in other books and in movies. A real writer should never be bored. Even waiting for a bus should give you something to work with.
3/ First Drafts are for your eyes only. It took me a long time to realise that a first draft needed be readable for anyone but yourself. I suppose this is because I started writing before I had access to a computer. When you have limited resources for editing, you want to get things right first time. Now I know that there is nothing more important than getting the idea down while it is fresh.
4/ Knowing when to stop. This is the skill I lack the most. I tend to edit, edit, edit. There has to be a time to stop and send your baby off for other eyes to see.
5/ Overcoming Writer’s Block. I always have more than one writing project on the go. If I am stuck on one, I will go work on another. If I am completely stuck … a long walk and a shower helps me. I put this down to ‘overload’, as I suffer from the writer’s version of verbal diarrhoea. Too many messages at once ‘freezes’ me, and I need the break to give my brain the chance to shift the traffic jam.
6/ Read. If you don’t love to read, you don’t love to write.
This isn’t a long and complex list. You would be surprised at how long it took me to learn all these lessons – except for the last one, which I’ve known all my life.