Stephen Dedman has been just about everything in SF over the years: the author of excellent novels like The Art of Arrow Cutting and Shadows Bite, more than 120 short stories published in an eclectic range of magazines and anthologies, editor, magazine head honcho, bookshop owner, international man of mystery, and guru. He’s also my very good friend, and was best man when I married Luscious Lyn. We get together nowhere near as often as we should, due to distance, but with new work constantly appearing (he’s currently due to appear in Midnight Echo #6, Exotic Gothic 4 and Zombies versus Robots, and it’s only Saturday…) he’s always somewhere close in fictional form. He’s always pretty damn close to the top of the list when I’m inviting people into writing ventures, and my League of Treacherous Carrots was no exception.
Ars gratia artis, pecunia gratia deus
I’ve loved museums for as long as I can remember, but have spent relatively little time in art galleries. Tempt me with a few dinosaur skeletons, a moon rock, a mummy case, some suits of armour, experimental aircraft or even vintage cars, and I’ll walk straight past a load of Pollocks without a second glance. It’s not that I don’t respect visual artists (well, some of them, anyway); it’s more that many are communicating in a language that I have never made much of an effort to learn.
That said, there is one art gallery I visit whenever I’m in London; indeed, if I were pressed for time, I would go there and skip the famous Museum of Natural History just down the street. It’s the Victoria & Albert, and quite apart from its delightfully high weirdness factor, much of it is devoted to design: artistry applied to things that serve a purpose beyond adorning a wall or a courtyard. Things that work.
Which conveniently brings me to the art in writing. The main thing I look for when I write a scene, or a sentence, is whether or not it conveys the information I wanted to communicate – i.e., whether or not it works. If not, I rewrite it until it does.
Of course, tone and style and pace also convey information, so I have to get those right, too. Sometimes I want to suggest beauty; sometimes horror; occasionally both at once. Someone once said that prose should be like plate glass, not stained glass, and sometimes that’s true. Sometimes, however, I need coloured glass, or frosted glass, or half-mirrored glass, or slow glass, or glass that’s cracked and crazed so that it distorts the images, or glass so dirty you only get a vague impression of the shape of whatever’s outside. Or inside. Imagine, if you will, that you’ve come around to collect the rent from an unreliable tenant, a young woman who sometimes calls herself Marie Jeanette though she was actually born in Limerick and christened Mary Jane. The window of the room is filthy, as befits her trade and the area. Spitalfields is a perfect name for it; if there truly was a white chapel here, it would be so besmirched with soot and mud and obscene graffiti that not even God would know his own house. You knock on the door of Mary’s room, but there is no answer. You do your best to peer through the grimy window, and discover that the pane is cracked and can easily be dislodged. You reach in, and push the threadbare curtain aside. What you see, sends you running to the police.
No-one alive knows what sort of blade or blades Jack the Ripper used to mutilate Mary Kelly; one was at least six inches long, but must have been small enough to hide in the clothing of the time – lethal, certainly, but probably cheap and commonplace, deniable, furtive, sly. Now look at this display of katana from the V&A.
Try to see this weapon through the eyes of the swordsmith who took pride in making it beautiful, or the samurai who took equal pride in wearing and wielding it as an ostentatious reminder of the prestige that only comes from generations of loyal service to the emperor combined with the power to kill with utter impunity. Both blades can cut, both can slaughter, both are serviceable tools in that sense, but they are not the same.
Words are the writer’s tools, and our language is blessed with many thousands of them, a vocabulary so large as to dwarf even the V&A’s wondrous hoard of strange apparatus. When I want to tell a story, I have a choice of devices which I can use in different combinations, but as Mark Twain once said, the difference between the right word and the almost right word, is like the difference between lightning and a lightning-bug. Some phrases guide you from A to B, step by step; others transport you without giving you time to catch your breath. Some are subtle and simple as a Zen garden, some as big and brash and boastful as elephant armour. Some of them reshape landscapes, interior or exterior Some of them frighten, or wound, or caress, or tickle. .
And sometimes, it may suit the writer’s purpose to distract you by playing music on a pipe organ shaped like a tiger eating an Englishman.