Writing on a Wall (part 2)

I’d like to continue the theme of my last blog, where I discussed established principles for writing text on a wall. These apply not only to museums and galleries, but other public spaces such as information boards.

It goes without saying that the writing should be grammatically correct. Less obvious is that sentences need to be kept short. People are reading wall text standing up, an arm’s length or more away. They may be tired and suffering ‘museum back’, and could easily be distracted by something more enticing in the gallery. Sentences beyond 15 words in length become increasingly challenging to read and some people will give up. By 25 words half the audience has been lost, and almost no-one is still reading at 30.

Punctuation is also the enemy of the curator. The ideal sentence contains no punctuation other than the full stop. A comma gives the reader an opportunity to pause, and indeed to stop reading. Subordinate clauses can make the meaning hard to follow, and people forced to back-track to fully understand may simply not bother. Colons, semicolons, em-dashes and brackets are beyond the pale. Question marks can appear patronising, can’t they? Exclamation marks can look childish – just ask the kids!

Without being simplistic, common words are preferable to long and obscure ones. Archaeologists ‘dig’ rather than ‘excavate’. Instead of them ‘evaluating’ or ‘elucidating’ or ‘extrapolating’, plainer English explanations need to be explored.

The objects are cool – so the text should be cool too.

Within these guidelines, the writing still needs to be fluid and engaging. Museum curators can borrow principles from magazine writers, who are aiming to entertain and inform without lecturing. The use of active verbs is preferred: “The dockers unloaded the ship” rather than “The ship was unloaded by dockers”. Excitement can be injected, where “The soldiers charged onto the beach” rather than “Soldiers were landed on the beach.” Weak nouns are also discouraged: “the soldier was brave”, he did not “display bravery”. This fights against the novelist’s training to avoid adjectives, so the truck “struggled to climb the steep hill” rather than “struggled due to the hill’s steepness”.

The above guidelines make it challenging to still write interesting text. Breaking up long sentences requires some skill and imagination. The text can become choppy. There is also a temptation to use a lot of T-words, namely The, Their, Them, They and That which makes for boring reading, especially when used for successive sentences such as in this paragraph. Curatorial knowledge is essential, good writing skills help, and editing to a ‘House Style’ becomes critical.

When you are next in a museum or gallery, have a look to see how many of these principles have been applied. You’ll never read a museum text board in the same way again.

With thanks to Guernsey Museum for use of images from their exhibition ‘Engage Warp Drive’.



Tell me something I don’t know

“Tell me something I don’t already know,” says Gordon Gekko in ‘Wall Street’. I’m rather like that when choosing a novel. I used to like science fiction because it was not us/here/now, and dislike kitchen sink dramas for the same reason. I know what it’s like to struggle in a grim northern town, I don’t want to read about it.

 Sci-fi and fantasy is escapism and we don’t learn many facts from it, unless very hardcore. One of the appeals of Tolkien is that you can research his world, learn Quenya and the lists of kings but ultimately the whole thing is made up. Movies and TV drama have a difficult relationship with facts, given they need to telescope timelines and adapt the story to whatever budget/set/costumes are available. It is dangerous to come away from something even as well made as ‘I Claudius’ thinking you are secure in the information you have absorbed.

 Historical fiction is a great learning tool – or as a writer, it is a teaching tool. For this reason, the facts need to be right and as much of the background must also be populated with truth. If I trust Patrick O’Brian I will learn a great deal about the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars. Thrillers work in a much more us/here/now world which has both advantages and disadvantages. Much prior knowledge of the world can be assumed (readers know what the CIA is and are familiar with the concept of televisions) but there is a parallel danger in that those well-educated readers will also have detailed knowledge of much else. There is still scope for learning, however. I learned a lot about the Sahara as a young man reading Desmond Bagley’s ‘Flyaway’. Getting the facts right helps the suspension of disbelief. We allow the characters to survive deadly scrapes and fall into plots with unlikely regularity in part because everything else around them is so real.

 I strained credulity very little in writing Glint of Light on Broken Glass. Our three young people inhabit a very real island in 1913 and are pulled along by the riptide of history. Yes there is a magic-realist element, but I hope I’m forgiven for it given that everything else is solid and grounded. I also hope that readers will learn something they don’t know – something to take away about Guernsey in days gone by and its critically threatened language.

 Writers can also make things up with such authority that they are taken as real. John Le Carre famously invented a whole vocabulary for MI6, ‘moles’ and so forth, in such a convincing way that we have come to believe it. When lecturing, I’m aware that I only need to know 5% more than my audience about the given subject to be the expert in the room. I applied this thinking to the Jeffrey Flint books, all of which touched on obscure areas of archaeology or history. However as a writer my audience is potentially the whole world, not 70 people on a rainy Tuesday evening. One reader will be an expert in Soviet rifles, third century Roman armour or actually live in that obscure Greek town where your story is set. So the writer must strain an extra muscle to shrink our own spheres of ignorance to the point we can gloss over the bits it is not necessary to know.

 With luck, the reader will come away from the novel thinking “I never knew that…”

Glint of Light on Broken Glass is now published in paperback and e-book





Against a Dark Background

Space Operas we grew up reading such as Star Wars or Star Trek take interstellar travel for granted. They don’t even worry about the science – just push a button and engage the warp drive. Much science fiction literature takes the same route. In  Ian M Banks’ Culture series for example, the Culture are so far in advance of humanity that they smile at our lack of understanding of their technology. As Arthur C Clark said, advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The hardcore end of SF, for example And Weir’s The Martian, takes a close-to-real look at space travel. In reality, putting humans into space is difficult, dangerous and hideously expensive. A human in Star Trek: First Contact on beaming aboard the Enterprise asks ‘how much does all this cost?’ Jean-Luc Picard merely explains that the economy of the future doesn’t think in those terms.

IMG_1182.JPGSuspending disbelief requires us to assume that there are technologies we have not yet  discovered that will take us from the crude rockets of today to the ion drives and warp drives of Space Opera, with artificial gravity to boot. Its only a blink of an eye historically from the sailing ship to the steam ship to the nuclear submarine; we went from unmanned Sputnik 1 to moon landing in 12 years. So our modern view of scientific progress expects that we will continue to progress. At some point a Stephen Hawking of the future will go ‘ah, so that’s it!’ and we will have a Theory of Everything; once we fully understand the principles that operate the universe, we should be able to invent those magical technologies.

But suppose they do not exist? Suppose the Theory of Everything proves there can be no warp drives, transporter beams or artificial gravity. The only way we can reach the stars will be aboard ‘Space Arks’ taking decades or even generations to reach their destination. But what if the experiments on human biology resulting from lengthy missions  aboard the ISS show the body cannot cope with more than a year or two in zero gravity? Or that humans could not survive long missions in deep space with solar radiation frazzling our DNA. If so, there will not even be ‘space arks’. Mars may be as far as astronauts get – and those heroes may have to accept that it will be a one way trip.

In 1950, Enrico Fermi posed the question that has become known as the Fermi Paradox.  If intelligent life is not an event unique to Earth, there should be countless other civilisations amongst the 100 billion planets estimated to exist in our galaxy. If this is true, we can’t be the first to invent space travel, and the others may have a couple of million year’s start on us. So where is everyone? Earth is such an obvious place for the alien Space Arks or even robot probes to head for. Yet they are not here, and there is no verifiable evidence they ever have been.

Maybe the Fermi Paradox demonstrates that interstellar travel is impossible.

One of Ian M Banks’ non-Culture novels is Against a Dark Background. The storyline takes second place to the key idea, in which a planet is situated so far towards the edge of the galaxy that there are very few stars in its sky. The limits imposed by the laws of  physics mean that its inhabitants can never leave. Everything that can be invented has been invented, then in some cases forgotten. Every political system has been tried, every religious experiment exhausted, and wars are fought over the same terrain for the same list of causes. Resources are basically what can be recycled.  Progress has been replaced by stagnation.

So is that humanity’s future? In a hundred years time, in a thousand years, in ten thousand years? If we can’t stretch out beyond our solar system, and nobody else can reach us, perhaps we’re stuck on this rock forever.

Image: Chris Foss, concept art for Guardians of the Galaxy (author’s collection)

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