The Science Fiction and Fantasy world is awash with awards. This may be partly due to its generally collegiate nature; for instance, it’s also awash with writing conventions and workshops. But given that it is also awash with markets, at least for short fiction, it’s difficult to see who has time to read the many nominees, let alone judge them.

Whatever, which of the following two views would you say is the most accurate interpretation of what such awards actually constitute:

  1. They’re a great way of recognising writers’ achievements, across a wide range of experience. They add to the inclusive and friendly nature of the genre. They help writers build their careers.
  1. They encourage derivative, crowd-pleasing writing with the result that writers’ work becomes like Frankenstein’s monster: a patchwork of bits ripped-off from other writers, barely functioning but sort of noticeable.

This is interpreting through the choices offered to you. However, another perhaps more expansive interpretation would be to say that neither of these choices is relevant to me. I write because I’m trying to firstly connect to an idea, emotion, theme, quality, character, and secondly to put it into a story that will inspire, amaze, rapidly remove socks, etc. If someone wants to give me a prize for it, fine, but I’m going to carry on doing it whether it wins awards or not.

This is interpretation by values and it exists in a different vector to black and white choices.

If we go back to ‘seeing’ for a moment, what you actually see when you see is obviously determined by whether or not you’re restricted to the choices on offer. For example, if you watch a stranger walking towards you, they present to you a range of physical elements that you can ‘see’. Their clothes, for example; their body; their hairstyle; their skin colour and so on. And you can interpret these. If you’re Sherlock Holmes you can interpret a lot of facts – at least what should be facts – from these physical details. If you add in, as Holmes would, the physical way in which the person walks, you’ll interpret even more about them.

However, let’s say the stranger walking towards you is beautiful, according to what you find beautiful. Then, as she draws nearer, you experience that shock to the nerves upon seeing that her facial features match exactly that template in your heart for ‘the one’. Even better, as you see her eyes for the first time, you interpret the smile/shine there as a sure-fire indication that she possesses exactly the right mix of intelligence, warmth and sexiness that confirms you and she are going to fall in love.

Somewhere in those last moments, however, interpretation may well have given way to romantic extrapolation. It might not matter to you, especially if she agrees to go out with you. But it has to matter to a writer.

A writer who produces work that is more than sum of its parts is only concerned about his own created world, not anyone else’s. But that created world, while hopefully exciting and stimulating and surprising to his readers, comprises an exact combination of accurate observation and insightful interpretation.

I once attended the Fortean Times ‘Unconvention’. The Fortean Times is a monthly publication which continues the work of Charles Forte. Forte collected information that was in his words ‘damned’ because it couldn’t be explained – like raining frogs. He said: “I conceive of nothing, in religion, science of philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear for a while.”

I was sitting in the audience, witnessing a presentation by Ken Campbell who, amongst other things, was once called, “A one-man dynamo of British theatre.” And it was a great show he put on at the Unconvention, covering a vast range of topics. At one point he talked about why ‘Anne of Green Gables’ is such a favourite with the Japanese – because it was given to Japanese POWs in the US and they loved its message of redemption. Campbell used it with UK prisoners too and said they always blubbed. (After the show I read it and blubbed too.)

Anyway, at one point, the man in front of me turned to his girlfriend and said, “Welcome to the wacky world of Forteana.” This made me cringe, partly for its crude attempt to impress by association. But also because it implied the man was speaking from his own created world. He wasn’t; he was just wearing the T-shirt of somebody else’s. The irony in that situation was that Campbell clearly was not working out of anyone else’s world – including Charles Forte’s – but his own.

So, the effectiveness of our interpretation is directly governed by the integrity of our own created world. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to writers. But for a writer who wants to be more than the sum of other writers’ parts, it’s a vital consideration.

For now, I believe these are some key ingredients in effective observation and interpretation:

  • Observation founded in seeing things as they actually are, not the way we expect them to be
  • Observation that builds a platform for the instinct to find the truth behind the purely physical
  • Observation that has a purpose, e.g. understanding characters better

Which leads to:

  • Interpretation based in considering your characters as they consider themselves, not in the way you consider yourself to be
  • Interpretation that opens the door for your characters to do surprising but believable things
  • Interpretation that extends the wisdom of the author which in turn expands the intelligence of his characters which in turn elevates the reader