Feedback: Bad is the new Good

Today, I had a short but thought-provoking conversation with a colleague.

I forget how we got onto the subject, but he told me that his wife was keen on watching The Apprentice – I got the impression that this was mostly because (as a teaching assistant) she enjoyed watching arrogant young people getting what was coming to them for once.

The premise of the show, as I understand it, is that the various candidates are divided into teams and given tasks to do. Gradually, their numbers are whittled down until only one is left, who wins the prize of getting to work with Alan Sugar. However, in one particular show, which involved designing a posh pudding and selling it (how hard can it be to sell cake?), the team that came last was given a particularly excoriating assessment of their failure.

“But we did market research!” they said (or so I was told). “And lots of people said our pudding was wonderful!”

Aha,” said Lord Sugar. “You shouldn’t be listening to the people who say it’s wonderful – you should be listening to the negative comments.”

And Lord Sugar, when you think about it, is exactly right.

The feedback we want to hear is that our product (whether it’s cake or a book) is amazing, wonderful, and so on. We don’t want to hear that our book is tedious trash with cardboard characters and a nonsensical plot.

But it’s necessary to be brave and listen to the negative feedback, because those are the people who are pinpointing potential weaknesses. You can never please all of the people all of the time, no matter how hard you try (one look at the reviews on Amazon will tell you that), but if you’ve got several people all telling you that your main character is as dull as dishwater and they don’t care what happens to him or her as long as the story ends soon, it’s a fair bet you need to make some changes.

Good feedback is great for the ego – but it’s the negative feedback that tells you where you need to improve.

The Human Connection

I read a lot. Constantly. And, being a lover of urban fantasy, I read a lot in that particular sub-genre. The thing about genres is that there is pretty much only a handful of story structures. There are also a lot of tropes which come up over and over again. So, you pretty much know what you’re getting – the fun is in how the author puts his or her own spin on the-real-world-but-with-magic.

The thing is, I can usually tell whether or not I am going to like a book within the first few pages. The plot has hardly got started, we’ve only just been introduced to the main character – and already I’ve got a pretty solid yes or no feeling.

Today, I was thinking about how and why that happens. Why is it that I’ve already decided whether or not I like a book before the author has really had time to get to the good parts? Isn’t that just a bit unreasonable?

Then I remembered Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat. It’s a book about screenwriting, but it’s applicable to writing any sort of fiction. And the point he is making in the title is not that he really likes kitties, but that a good way of showing your kick-ass hero(ine) in a human light, so the audience (or reader) can connect with him (or her) is to show him/her doing something spontaneously nice, or cute. This sounds like kind of crap, until you actually think about it.

Take Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files – Harry Dresden, the hero, is your standard hardboiled PI; he has no money, he’s behind on the rent, he can kick ass when required, et cetera et cetera yadda yadda. But he keeps (or did, at the beginning of the series) a box of paperback books in his office for when he’s got no work to do. That makes him human, and someone I could potentially like. I mean, he reads. That’s something I can relate to.

In J.D. Robb’s In Death series, Eve Dallas, kick-ass murder cop, thinks the vending machines are out to get her. Her department-issue car develops a new and interesting fault (or gets trashed) in nearly every book, and her very old office computer sometimes prints out in Chinese. And someone is stealing her candy… She may be the best at solving murders, but everyday technology tends to get the better of her (plus, someone is stealing her candy).

One potentially very good series that I’m sorry didn’t carry on was Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces series. Excellent books – although not for the squeamish. The series was cancelled by the publisher after only three full-length books. The reason, I believe, was that sales weren’t as good as projected from the reception of the first book. Looking at the reviews, I think one major reason is that readers were finding it hard to relate to the two main characters. Far from Saving the Cat, the reader was given the impression that one of them, at least, was far more likely to sacrifice it unhesitatingly. This is not hero-like behaviour. Personally, I liked the hard-edged storytelling, and I liked the fact that the main character, Ray Lilly, was an ex-con trying to put his life back on track – an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary events and attempting to cope. But Ray and his employer, Annalise Powliss, did not save the cat, and for that, I think, their series was axed. (Personally, I think they did save the cat, but I possibly I was seeing a different cat.)

So, to go back to my point, I think the reason why I can tell whether I’m going to like a book or not is whether – within that short opening section of the book – the author has given me a way to connect with the main character on a human level, rather than simply portraying them as the Kick Ass Hero(ine). Have they, in fact, saved a cat?

Technology: fiction turning real (or not)

The iKettle

The iKettle

I love technology. The picture is of the iKettle – advertised on Amazon as the first-ever wifi kettle. With your iKettle, you can switch it on via your smartphone with an app or set it to switch on at a particular time; you can invite your friends around for a cuppa via the ‘share’ function, and it will ask you whether you want a cuppa when you arrive home.

Totally cool. I want one.

OK, I’m probably not going to get one, because while totally cool, it’s also kind of useless. It’s a gadget ahead of its time. One day, all kettles will be wifi-enabled. The days of a watched kettle never boiling will be over, because we’ll switch our kettles on via our phones, and only amble into the kitchen when the water is ready. However, at the moment, it’s just a bit excessive. And expensive. Saving 5 minutes of kettle-watching doesn’t mean enough to me that I would spend nearly £100 on a wifi-enabled kettle.

But kettles aside, we can already control home heating and the lighting via smartphone. We can pay for small items in shops via smartphone. Your smartphone is personal organiser, clock and calculator all in one.

If anyone has read Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth, first published in 1975, they will recognise the fictional ‘minisec’ as the modern smartphone. Likewise, in J.D. Robb’s In Death series (first published in 1995), heroine Eve Dallas wears a ‘wrist unit’ which supplements her ‘comlink’ – which items of technology bear a striking resemblance to a smartwatch paired with a smartphone.

Star Trek‘s replicator is now – sort of – available in the form of 3D printers, at least for non-food items. A tractor beam has been created at Dundee University.

On the other hand, some science-fiction technology predictions are being shown to be way off the mark. Aldous Huxley’s one-man light aircraft in Brave New World (the flivver) has never got off the ground in reality, despite several attempts – not the least being the Ford Flivver.

Both Isaac Asimov and J.D. Robb have a lot of robots (‘droids’ for J.D. Robb) in their books; robotics just hasn’t taken off in the way it was predicted to do twenty years ago (or fifty or a hundred years ago). We don’t have robot servants; producing a robot that will replicate even some of the functions of a person is proving to be much more difficult than originally thought.

Even for robots, though, there is still hope. Although the human-like robots of Isaac Asimov and J.B. Robb (let alone Star Trek‘s Data) are proving to less attainable than originally thought, you can already get a robotic vacuum cleaner  and robot ‘carers’ for the elderly are in development.

But the picture is actually more complex than what is technologically possible. As the Japanese have been discovering, it’s one thing to manufacture a robot – it’s quite something else to get people to use it. At the moment, it seems that the complexity of the technology isn’t the only reason that robot servants and helpers are looking relatively unlikely for the future – it’s the fact that people prefer to be looked after by other people. People are happy to use robot vacuum cleaners, or robotic chairs or toilets – or even a robotic pet, up to a point. But it seems that a line is drawn when it comes to something that looks and seems to act like another person.

Is the resistance to humanoid robots simply the reaction to something new and strange – or is it deeper than that, a deeper desire to draw a line between People and Not People? With a vacuum cleaner, it’s a pretty simple concept: it’s not a person, it’s a device. When we’re talking Commander Data, though, a robot who looks and acts like a human, where do we draw the line? Is he a person or is he a device (a question that was considered in one episode of Star Trek.)? There are already ethical questions being asked about the use of robots in caring for the elderly.

Then there are the advances that weren’t predicted at all. J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas still uses cash (‘credits’) instead of simply tapping her wrist-unit or comlink against a reader to make an electronic payment – yet we are starting to see not only tap-to-pay near-field-communications payments but also software that allows money to be transferred electronically between friends. In Star Trek, a character might have a number of PADDs, indicating that the tablet-like devices possibly come preloaded with information, or only have a very limited capacity – yet in the real world, we only have one tablet computer (usually) and download the information we want, then delete it when we don’t need it any more. References to ‘book disks’ in several series is jarring – now we have electronic book readers, we don’t use disks to load books onto them: we download directly from the internet, or download to a desktop computer program and then transfer. No disks involved.

What changes will the future hold? Robots haven’t taken off the way it was originally envisaged, and we don’t all have a personal flying machine, but computers have mostly exceeded authors’ expectations, with smartphones and smartwatches now able to control our homes and keep us in touch with our friends and with the news. But the most difficult thing about writing new technology, I think, is not the technology itself, but how people deal with it.

Authors did not predict our human reaction to humanlike robots, or the changes that social media, coupled with smartphones, have made in people’s daily routines. This isn’t surprising – there are always going to be some ‘misses’ along with the ‘hits’. But it does mean that anyone writing science fiction needs to learn from the mistakes of the past, and pay attention not only to the real technology that caught on (smartphones) but the technology that didn’t (humanoid robots).

Really good science fiction isn’t just about inventing some great new technology – it’s about telling the human story around it.

Revealed: Firkins Bakery Conspiracy

The last thing you want when driving around a roundabout is to catch, out of the corner of your eye, some fascinating text which demands a second look. This morning, I caught sight of a newspaper headline board that said “REVEALED: FIRKINS BAKERY CONSPIRACY” and nearly ran into the back of the car in front, which had chosen that moment to slow down to almost walking pace to make the exit.

I spent the rest of the journey trying to work out what the headline could have been about.

The “REVEALED” carries connotations of scandal and excitement, of journalists in greasy-spoon cafes or on rainy street corners paying for information with used banknotes. Or maybe a long-running undercover investigative operation, with journalists putting the Public’s Right To Know above their own personal safety as they infiltrate the notorious Firkin Bakery Gang. Then an all-night-long marathon job, to get the story put together and ready for the morning edition, with journalists and editors going home for a shower as the sun rises over the quiet streets, satisfied in the knowledge of a job well done.

A CONSPIRACY requires a group of people working together, usually in secrecy and often outside the law. Crowded, smoky rooms at the back of dingy little shops, running a wide-ranging blackmail and extortion scheme based on threats to reveal prominent people’s consumption of confectionery – or in a penthouse office at the top of a high-rise in a big city, plotting a hostile takeover of the world-famous Firkins Bakery (purveyors of cake-related delicacies to the rich and famous over the world, since the days of Marie Antoinette).

Or, with the addition of an apostrophe, was the conspiracy the brainchild of the mad scientist Dr Firkin, plotting to add his dastardly secret formula to the world’s flour, turning the bread-eating population into mind-controlled zombies?

Then I arrived at work and looked up the full story – which proved to be, if not quite as exciting as I had imagined, definitely more than a little bizarre! Truth may not be quite as strange as fiction, but it comes pretty close.

Language, culture and religion

I’m currently learning French, German and Spanish on Duolingo (French and German to regain what I learned – then forgot – at school, and Spanish just because), and an interesting discussion came up on their forum.

One of the courses that made it into beta last month was Arabic>English, which means that once it’s stable Team Arabic will start on the ‘reverse’ course, English>Arabic. This is one I’m looking forward to, as I’ve been wanting to learn Arabic for years – and I’m looking at a new job in which Arabic will be useful.

However, Arabic as a language, and Arabic culture, are both very much intertwined with Islam as a religion. Someone asked, how was Duolingo going to manage to teach Arabic without also teaching religious stuff? Cue an interesting discussion of the fact that most languages seem to have religious bits and pieces in them – even when used in a completely secular sense.

Terry Pratchett said it best:

“Dwarfs were not a naturally religious species, but in a world where pit props could crack without warning and pockets of fire damp could suddenly explode they’d seen the need for gods as the sort of supernatural equivalent of a hard hat. Besides, when you hit your thumb with an eight-pound hammer it’s nice to be able to blaspheme. It takes a very special and strong-minded kind of atheist to jump up and down with their hand clasped under their other armpit and shout, “Oh, random-fluctuations-in-the-space-time-continuum!” or “Aaargh, primitive-and-outmoded-concept on a crutch!”

But in English, as well as ‘bloody hell’, ‘damn’, ‘Oh God’ etc, we have ‘goodbye’, which is a contraction of ‘God go with you’. Granted, the religious quotient of English is substantially less than that of Arabic, but it’s hardly absent.

So it’s quite interesting to think that religious imagery and terminology are not entirely the preserve of the religious. When they enter the common vocabulary, the ‘religious’ element fades and they gain a new, secular meaning and a place in secular culture and communication. From a writing perspective, it’s something to bear in mind: speaking Arabic colloquially involves a lot of “Insha’Allah”, even if you’re not Muslim, and as Terry Pratchett points out, what, as a committed atheist, should I be saying when I stub my toe?

Authors I admire: Jim Butcher

Jim Butcher is one of my favourite authors. Nobody is going to accuse him of writing great literature, but his books are damn good fun. However, what I admire most about his books is not the characters, or the world-building (though they’re both pretty good) – it’s the plotting.

With Butcher’s books, I can tell that he has plotted not only each book, but the whole series, in advance. Little incidents in earlier books turn out to be important in later books. Major characters don’t just show up; they’re hinted at earlier.

Take Butcher’s latest book, Skin Game (Harry Dresden book 15). One of the new characters in it, who turns out to be quite important, and whom there are signs that we will see more of – was foreshadowed in an earlier book. Not in any obvious way, but the groundwork for believing in him as a character had already been laid. So we, as readers, already have a conceptual slot to put him in, and we also have some background knowledge that fleshes out the character without Butcher having to do any tedious explaining.

In another incident, a character does something appallingly stupid, meaning that a whole bunch of assumptions that readers have made over previous books suddenly have to be junked. Now, when some authors do that, it’s really disappointing. You feel cheated. The author has suddenly changed direction on you with no warning, and that’s just wrong. But when Butcher does it, once you’ve got over the shock, you sit back and you think “Yeah…. he’s absolutely right.” Because this particular incident made me re-evaluate that character, and made me realise that I’d been wrong (and so had everyone else) all along. That what I’d expected would happen wouldn’t have been the right thing at all. That the stupid thing that the character does was not the result of Butcher needing a sudden plot change and sacrificing readers’ expectations for the quick fix, but entirely due to the fact that Butcher knows those characters and his world a lot better than his readers do. The incident to which I refer did not end up making me feel betrayed, but instead made me realise that I’d been wrong about that character all along – and that the ‘stupid thing’ was actually inevitable. The character would have done it, or something like it, sooner or later. In some ways, that moment of revelation was one of the best parts of the book.

This beautiful plotting means that you never have one of those “WTF???” moments, as a major baddie suddenly appears out of nowhere, or the series as a whole gradually veers off course (and possibly over a narrative cliff). Instead, you not only have a great story, but – as you read the series – you get to sit back and admire the sheer artistry of what Butcher is doing with the series as a whole. Everything interlocks, like a puzzle. There are no flabby bits flopping around looking significant at first but turning out to be irrelevant. It’s tight; it’s efficient. It works. Things move on, move forward.

He’s also subtle. You don’t get big flashing lights that say “Hey! Small but significant point here!” It’s only after he gets to the denouement that you figure out where all the little signposts were. Not only does this preserve the excitement of the books because you can’t always predict what’s going to happen next, but you also get to re-enjoy previous books as you realise the true significance of bits to which you hadn’t really paid much attention.

Butcher’s Dresden Files is the best demonstration I can think of that careful plotting means that a series of books is greater than simply the sum of its parts. And you know what? Spotting the hooks in Skin Game makes me want to read the next book just to find out what they mean…

Who’s your audience?

I subscribe to the Writer’s Digest free emails (I don’t actually pay for stuff – how much money do you think I have?). Sometimes, I read it and think “What, really, give your heroes some believable faults and your villains some good points so they’ll seem a bit more human? I never would have thought of that…”

But yesterday, there was an email that really made me think, and I told my husband about it, and made him think too. It was this one – about whether you should write for yourself, or for the reader. To some extent, it’s a no-brainer: you should always write for the person who is going to be reading it. If that’s only going to be you, then write for yourself. If, someday, you hope someone else will read your stuff, then you’d better factor them in too.

But what really made me think was how specific the author of that post got – his strategy was to make a sort of ‘ideal reader’ character in his mind, and write the book for her. And I think that’s a really good idea, because it forces you to focus.

Commenters on the article objected, and suggested that if that’s what you were going to do, then why not just write for yourself – or for someone you knew? It comes down to the same thing in the end – you’re writing for one person, who standards for the population of readers you hope to attract.

But, thinking about it, it’s not the same thing at all. It’s all about how specific you are. If you write for yourself, then you’re being very specific indeed – there’s no-one who knows more about what you like than you do. And you know all your little quirks and idiosyncrasies (even if you don’t recognise them). So by writing for yourself, you’re effectively writing for the only person in the world who fits that description. If you write for someone you know, you still know quite a bit about them, and real people have all sorts of little quirks, so you’re still narrowing your focus.

But if you make up a character, you can make him or her into a sort of everyman. Lawyers know about this: law is full of these people – the ‘Reasonable Man’, the ‘Moron in a Hurry’, the ‘Man on the Clapham Omnibus’, ‘Equity’s Darling’. They are cardboard cutout sort of people who each stand in for a population. We know some of their characteristics, but they don’t have individual quirks because their function is not to be individuals. Your made up character isn’t a real person: he or she is the shadowy Reasonable Reader, with just enough of a personality to perform one single function: that of keeping your book focused and on track.

So my project for this week is to work out who, and what, my Reasonable Reader is. And thank goodness that article was published now rather than in six months’ time. Lucky, lucky, lucky…