story craft #18 Steeping (or China Mieville’s Teapot Brain)

Mike GristStory Craft Leave a Comment

indexI have figured out how China Mieville writes.

I did this by watching several interviews he was in, and noticing one thing- China Mieville uses the word ‘steep’ quite a lot.

In this video interview he used it, and in this article, and this one, and this one. In this single word lies what I believe to be the secret to being China Mieville. In a word, it is preparation. In another word, it is teabags.

Ever since I read Mieville’s book The Scar 10 years ago I was kind of awed by the world he put together, the way he wrote about it, the way it engaged me even though nothing really happened and the main characters were largely spectators to a grander plot that, itself, was really one big non-event.

But his descriptions of the raft-city Armada blew my mind. How could anybody write like that? Where did it all come from? The density, the breadth of vocabulary, the endless twisting sentences. Each time he did it, though it was sometimes annoying, was fascinating. How did he do it?

Back then I thought I could take him. China Mieville. (See this blog for others who have tried and failed). I had some catching up to do, sure, he published his first novel King Rat to critical acclaim in 1998, when he was only 26, but I was only 25 at the time and figured I could get there soon. I was working on a novel as well, one that I intended to combine dense poetic wordage with a proper clean story running through.

I settled to write, and partly I wanted to write like China. I revved myself, dug deep, and spewed out writing in a fit, kind of a trance-like state, trying to replicate in my own way the overwhelming richness of Mieville’s prose. Density, folks, weight! I bled purple on to the keyboard, lavishing made-up adjectives in triplicate, knotting my clauses multiple levels deep, lost in the flow.

Readers did not respond favorably. Impenetrable, they said, exhausting. I read one page and I need to take a breath. It’s too breathless, too thick, and I don’t even know what’s happening.

I underestimated Mieville, that’s apparent now. He did not just dig deep and write. The man is smart, certainly, but he is also steeped.

I believe steeping is the secret to his success. The process of steeping involves a depth of research I’d never considered for my fantasy or sf. It involves getting deep into a topic or multiple topics, burying your brain so thoroughly that it actually warps under the load, forming new pathways, taking on new shapes, twisting as though to accommodate a new language.

An example of this is academic writing. I have read back on papers I wrote and been amazed at the amount of stuff I knew and was able to express in a short space of time. Not only references but also concepts, technical jargon, theories and complicated shades of meaning as theorists dissent and split hairs.

I believe this is how Mieville writes. He has his Phd, so he’s no stranger to assembling a thesis from many disparate parts, weaving together an argument in prose. I think he does it for his fiction too, in much the same way a kid researches for a school project. But of course, China engages at a pretty intense, academic level.

Plus he seems to be freakishly smart.

For example, with Mieville’s early novels like King Rat, Perdido Street Station, and The Scar I think he was probably pre-steeped, in Lovecraft, Peake, and maybe other tangly, twisty, word-debauched styles.

For works about London (like unLundun, also previous books which are medieval city-based like King Rat) he read and researched medieval London, through history, fiction, whatever he could get his hands on. He read through and made notes, pulling out locations and words he liked, world-building (he has confirmed this is largely what he does) until the notes reach critical mass.

For Iron Council he researched the western, along with gender politics, socialism vs. capitalism (this is his forte anyway and his Phd area, so he was pre-steeped) and others.

For Kraken it was kraken, witchcraft, and conspiracy theory. For Embassytown it was heavy linguistics theory.

He steeps himself, absorbs the palette of concepts, jargon, theories and dissent, then writes a phantasmagorical combination of it all together. It’s like he’s an actor disappearing into a role, taking on not only the accent and appearance of the characters he writes about, but also everything they would know, and the world around them too.

It’s good stuff, and clearly works for him. It makes him knowledgeable in all kinds of arcane areas, because he’s always researching and steeping. I would guess he loves it. It really is a full time job, with all of weirdness out there functioning as his exo-brain.

It was the video interview (linked at start) that brought me near to this conclusion. I’d always imagined he must have to really craft his sentences, work endlessly to pack them full of juicy odd words, but in fact this is how he speaks. He uses words easily (amongst them the pet word steep) that most people don’t think to use. He throws out references most people won’t get, from obscure academics from decades ago, written in other languages. It is what is in his brain, because he has steeped it.

His brain is a tea kettle, knowledge is the tea bag (or tea grains, since he pulls from numerous areas), and his books are the cups of tea decanted forth.

So how can we use this knowledge for our own betterment? Well, we can do the same thing- steep our own brains. And with that, I realize I actually have done this already, oddly enough in the three of my stories that had the most success, which were published by pro or semi-pro magazines.

For Bells of Subsidence I did a brief steep in string theory, moebius strips, and bells. I made notes as I went along, and kept all the key stuff at the bottom of the story as I wrote it, like an artist’s palette, colors to draw from.

For Bone Diamond it was diamonds, bones, and the geography of ancient Egypt. For Cullsman #9 it was Dyson spheres, where theory contributed essential ingredients to how the story worked out.

It seems to work. It is a much better, less exhausting system than just trying to bleed originality onto the page straight from your forehead. The words and ideas are out there, floating in a tea-baggy aether, just waiting to be sopped up, steeped, and poured into bone china.

That pun to finish.


PS- In case anyone complains, my blog won’t write his ‘e’ with an accent, that’s why it’s not accented.

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