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Two Kinds of Writing?


Original citation:
Jones, Diana Wynne. "Two Kinds of Writing?" The Medusa: The Journal of the PJF 1 (1990): 1-4.
Reprinted by kind courtesy of Will Shetterly


I write what is often called speculative fiction. Usually I write it for children, but recently I wrote a novel specifically for adults. This was something I had long wanted to do - really ever since I discovered that quite as many adults read my books as children do; and several grown men confessed to me that, although they were quite shameless when it came to hunting through the juvenile sections of libraries and bookshops, they still felt incredibly sheepish on a train reading something that was labelled "Teen Fiction." Why? I wondered. The assumption underlying their sheepishness seemed to be that teenage fiction counts as just close enough to adult fiction to be seen as regressive, whereas if they are seen reading a children's book that counts as research. In neither case are they assumed to be enjoying the book for its own sake.

Silly though this seemed, it struck me as hard on them. So when I was asked if I'd like to try my hand at an adult novel, I most joyfully agreed. To my great surprise, writing it and after that receiving the comments of an editor revealed all sorts of additional hidden assumptions about the two kinds of writing. Most of these were quite as irrational as the shame of a grown man caught reading teenage fiction. They ran right across the board, too, and affected almost everything: from the length of the book to its style and subject matter. And nearly all of them - this was what disturbed me most - acted to deprive me of the freedom I experience when I write for children. Furthermore, when I thought more deeply about these assumptions, I found they reflected badly on both kinds of writing.

To take the most obvious first: I found myself thinking as I wrote, "These poor adults are never going to understand this; I must explain it to them twice more and then remind them again later in different terms." Now this is something I never have to think when I write for younger readers. Children are used to making an effort to understand. They are asked for this effort every hour of every school day and, though they may not make the effort willingly, they at least expect it. In addition, nearly everyone between the ages of nine and fifteen is amazingly good at solving puzzles and following complicated plots - this being the happy result of many hours spent at computer games and watching television. I can rely on this. I can make my plots for them as complex as I please, and yet I know I never have to explain them more than once (or twice at the very most). And here I was, writing for people of fifteen and over, assuming that the people who read, say, Fire and Hemlock last year have now given up using their brains.

This is back-to-front to what one usually assumes, if one only looks on the surface, but I found it went much deeper than that. At first I thought it was my own assumption, based on personal experiences. Once when I was doing a signing, a mother came in with her nine-year-old son and berated me for making The Homeward Bounders so difficult. So I turned to the boy to ask him what he didn't understand. "Oh, don't listen to her," he said. "I understood everything. It was just her that didn't." It was clear to both of us that his poor mother had given up using her brain when she read. Likewise, a schoolmaster who was supposed to be interviewing me for a magazine explained to me that he had tried to read Charmed Life and couldn't understand a word, which meant, he said, that it was much too difficult for children. So he didn't interview me. He was making the surface assumption, that children need things easy. But since I have never yet come across a child who didn't understand Charmed Life, it occurred to me that he was making the assumption about himself. But it was a hidden one and, when I came to write for adults, I realized that it was something all adults assumed. I grew very tender of their brains and kept explaining.

This makes an absurd situation. Here we have books for children, which a host of adults dismiss as puerile, over-easy, and are no such thing; and there we have books for adults, who might be supposed to need something more advanced and difficult, which we have to write as if the readers were simple-minded.

Anyone examining this rather surprising assumption will see that it comes all tangled up in at least one other one: that books for adults are supposed to be longer. Everyone appears to know this. There are jokes about the fifth book in the trilogy - for longer seems to mean "lots" as well - and it would probably startle most adults to discover that an average children's book picked at random from my shelves (it happened to be To Tame a Sister by Gillian Avery) runs to 260 pages of very small print, that T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone is only a few pages shorter, and that Arthur Ransome's series of thirteen books average 350 pages each (and, by the way, The Sword in the Stone is first in a set of four). Nevertheless, in spite of knowing this, when I came to write for adults, I found myself assuming I was writing something long. It was very exasperating. Though the finished book is actually slightly shorter than Fire and Hemlock it carries in it, despite my best efforts, all the results and implications of this hidden assumption.

A long book, it follows, is going to be read in bits. Therefore you have to keep reminding your readers of things, even if they do use their brains. Some adult writers trust their readers so little that if they have, say, a hero with blue eyes who comes from Mars, they call him "the man from Mars" every time they mention him, and interlard this with "the blue-eyed man from Mars," or occasionally "the man with blue eyes." I swore a great oath not to do this, but it hovered, and I had to fight it. Hovering over me also was the notion "This should be the first in a trilogy" (which is another way of having things read in bits) and I kept worrying that I was not only bringing the book to too definite a conclusion but that I was also obliged to set up a world in great detail in order to be able to use it again. Now, having come to my senses and started to think about these assumptions, I ask myself why. A book should conclude satisfactorily; to leave the ending for the next volume is cynical (and annoying for readers). And as for having my world there in detail, it was when I realized that I was actually being deterred from considering the sequel by the assumption that adults have to be reminded of the plot and action of Book First between the lines of Book Second - this despite a host of really good ideas - that I began to feel this was absurd. When I wrote Drowned Ammet I did not feel it necessary to recapitulate Cart and Cwidder: It would have been largely irrelevant anyway. I took the usual course of those who write for children and relied on my readers having the nous to pick up the situation as they went along. So why should I assume adults are different?

The answer seems to be: because publishers do. It was around this area that I began to run foul of the assumptions of my would-be editor as well as my own. A "long" book naturally entails various kinds of padding. Apart from the kinds I've already mentioned, the most obvious form of padding is description - whether of the galactic core seen from the vertiginous skin of a spaceship, or the landscape passed through on the Quest. Unfortunately, descriptions are where children stop reading, unless something is being described as an essential part of the story. I agree with them. I have long ago discovered that if I know what a given scene looks like in exact detail I do not need to describe, because it comes over in the writing, in phrases and not as a set-piece. But I knew the assumption was different for adults. I used my usual method, but I added a hundred percent more describing. The would-be editor objected. "Too short" and "I don't get enough of a sense of wonder," were the phrases used. I bit back a retort to the effect, "But you should get a sense of wonder if you stop to imagine it!" Adults are different. They need me to do all that for them.

Perhaps the difference is merely that they need me to do different things. I started writing for children at a point where all but a few children's books were very bad and inane. So inane were they that my husband used to fall asleep, when reading aloud at bedtime to our young, after a maximum of three sentences. The resulting outcry convinced me, not only that I could do better myself, but that it was imperative to put something in the books for the benefit of adults who had to read them aloud. I always do this, which is what makes me so amazed that I think of adults as a different animal when I come to write a book specially for them. But - and it is a big but - I am always aware that the different thing I am doing for the children is writing something that can be read aloud. This has nothing to do with subject matter: it is purely a matter of the cadence of a sentence. If a sentence can't be spoken with ease, then you rewrite it. When I started the adult novel, I thought, "Oh, good. I don't need to think of that. What freedom!"

Oddly enough, this revealed another hidden assumption. Adults expect a more "literary" turn of phrase. This does not necessarily mean more polysyllables - though as a lover of words I seized the chance to use those - but simply the kind of sentence that does not reproduce the way we all speak. It has hanging clauses and inversion and is long - and here was a terrible discovery: more clich=E9s lurk in those literary turns than ever appear in any spoken kind. For the sake of freedom from forms of words that others had overworked, I had to go back to assuming that this, too, was going to be read aloud.

But I came out of a billow of turgid sentences still assuming that writing for adults gave me more freedom, for instance, in the way I could tell the story. I could split my cast of characters up and flip from one to another. I could have a short section on Tod, outcast on Earth and bewildered by it, followed by a longer account of Flan, who is in a pocket universe having a nervous breakdown, and then jump to Zillah accompanying a centaur into an alternative world. Everyone concerned with children's books assumes that children have trouble with this kind of narrative method and I got gleefully to work. Then I realized that this freedom was equally illusory. Adults may expect this, but it is also the narrative method of Dr. Who, and anyone who can follow Dr. Who can follow this in their sleep.

But there really is greater freedom in writing for adults, you will be saying. What about the actual content of the story? All of sex, violence, politics, and the arcane skulduggery of science or magecraft would be mine to use. Yes, despite the fact that I had used all of these in Power of Three, I did assume I had this freedom. I did. The measure of that freedom can be seen from my saying with increasing uneasiness as I wrote, "This isn't like any adult speculative fiction I ever read!" My would-be editor echoed this exact phrase, dubiously, and followed it with, "And you seem to be mixing sf and fantasy here." Oh dear. These are simply not problems writing for children. The new and different thing is welcomed. Numerous teachers and librarians refuse shelf space to writers like Enid Blyton, on the grounds that they always write the same book; and as for the mixing of genres - well, there is only the one and that is books for children. For children, if I want to send a decrepit starship full of witches to a quasi-monastery in another adjacent universe, no one turns a hair. But adults are handicapped by terminal assumptions about what goes with which genre. If they think I am writing fantasy, then my belligerent witches must go on a Quest armed only with swords and spells and either on foot or horseback; and if what I am doing is to be science fiction, no one aboard my starship is allowed magic, but only scientific principles not altogether yet proven, such as an ability to travel faster than light.

Does nobody find these unspoken assumptions absurd? There is another: sex. Contrary to most popular belief, children's books concern themselves vastly and outspokenly with sex, for two main reasons: first, because children are so frequently abducted and raped; and second, because children have to spend so much of their lives dealing with the sex life of their parents - particularly when those parents are divorcing. True, scenes of explicit sex between adults are not much use to children - it affects them rather like the drunk across the street affects you when you happen to be cold sober and in a hurry - but most of them can't wait to grow up and try it. But when such scenes are an essential part of the story, no one makes any bones about putting them in. They run the whole gamut, too, of human emotions, through rapture, tragedy, and comedy and all the smaller emotions besides. Now when I came to write for adults, I assumed I had the same freedom, and more. And this surface-assumption of mine fell foul of another underlying assumption as soon as my would-be editor read the book.

My witches were invading a place full of polite and largely innocent quasi-monks. Apart from the fact that they were all witches, each woman was as different from the others as may be, a real person in her own right. So, as usual, I sat down and thought carefully, "Now what would really happen, to this real woman in this situation? And to this and these real men?" The answer is various on both sides, a lot of guilt, a lot of pressure from inside and outside the group of women, and an awful lot of whoopee at some point when enough people relaxed enough. In the course of it two-thirds die, two get badly victimized, one falls into a clinical depression, one gets blackmailed, everyone's judgement goes askew and one woman runs away and nearly gets her small child killed. The assumptions I had ignored came out in my would-be editor's response: "It's all so nice." I said, "I beg your pardon?" The reply was, "Well, most writers would take this opportunity to make everything miserable and tragic - and you had one pair fall in love." I had. It seemed to me that they would, those particular ones. In fact, they did it without any help from me. Now what's going on here? I thought. I am assumed to be writing fantasy. Therefore, it seems, where adults are concerned, one must only write of sex in fantasy in a tragic and elegiac way. People are not supposed to behave in the way that people would. Oh no. Surely this is only one editor's aberrant assumption? But I fear not.

This kind of thing cuts down the freedom one ought to have when writing for adults to a point which I find claustrophobic. It gets worse when I realize that there were certain sorts of story which I didn't even consider. To take two examples, I knew I couldn't write anything like Vivien Alcock's The Monster Garden or Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden. The Monster Garden is simply a rewrite of Frankenstein, in which a modern girl called Frankie (!) accidentally grows some protoplasm from her father's lab into a creature. As in all children's books, nothing turns out as you'd expect (which is part of the beautiful freedom of this branch of writing), but this plot is unavailable for adults because everyone knows it's been done before. Adults are supposed to be sophisticated about this. In that case, would someone tell me why people keep writing the one about the female warrior with the map in the front? Or why Frankenstein is a no-no, while everyone is free to re-use The Lord of the Rings? The rationale of these assumptions escapes me.

Tom's Midnight Garden is a branch of time-travel writing (loosely related to that of Dickens in A Christmas Carol) in which a ghost from the past takes a lonely small boy to explore the house and countryside as it was in his grandmother's day. It is most elegantly and exactly done and rightly a children's classic, but what adult would accept a plot like that outside Dickens? This really raises the whole large question of time travel, which I will reserve for a later date, only pointing out here what seems to be the hidden assumption: Adults can only accept time travel on a fairly gross scale. Time travel up or down a generation or so is only allowed for breeding purposes (either with one's mother or one's niece). Otherwise one has to go back to, say, Roman times or way back to our origins - and then only when provided with plenty of anxious archaeological explanations. Personally, since I like more modest time-trips better, I think this is a pity.

In fact, it is all a pity. Every hidden assumption I discovered seems to be felt as a law, or a rule, or an absolute difference between two branches of writing, and I cannot see they are any such thing. They shackle the speculative fiction written for adults and reflect badly on that written for children - since the final hidden assumption has to be that since fiction written for adults is so puerile, how much more so must fiction written for children be? This, I know, is not the case. But let no one argue that these hidden assumptions about writing for adults are not there. I assure you they are. I felt every one of them like a ball and chain when I tried to do it. I think it is high time people started examining them in order to free the wealth of good stories cramped under this load of old iron. For, when all is said and done, it is telling a good story, and telling it well, that is the point of both kinds of writing.


Diana Wynne Jones is the author of quantities of excellent books, all of which should be read by discriminating adults, on trains, with shameless enthusiasm and the occasional audible giggle. Her novel for adults, A Sudden Wild Magic, will be published in the United States by Morrow in 1992.