From The Page To The Canvas: SF Writers Make Art

It used to be, everyone who wrote science fiction was a scientist, or full-time scribbler. But now, authors like Audrey Niffenegger, Rudy Rucker and Mary Robinette Kowal also make art. We talked art/SF with them.

Audrey Niffenegger is the author of The Time Traveler's Wife, soon to be a movie, and the forthcoming Her Fearful Symmetry. She's also an artist, engraver and bookmaker, part of the T3 artists and writers' collective. She teaches Interdisciplinary Book Arts at Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, and has published two graphic novels: The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress.

And Niffenegger says that being a visual artist has definitely helped her to create storytelling that's more visually oriented. "I think that drawing, in particular, has trained me to observe and to be able to visualise things clearly. I teach a writing class for visual artists and I have found that they almost always excel at description, they seem to often possess the ability to organise and develop their train of thought very tangibly. I imagine this is due to constantly having to organise 2D space, it does carry over into the laying out of fictional worlds."

From The Page To The Canvas: SF Writers Make Art

Rudy Rucker, meanwhile, is the author of numerous science fiction novels, including the Ware series, The Sex Sphere, Mathematicians In Love and Postsingular. He's been taking photos forever and has been doing paintings, often connected to his fiction, for several years, and has had some gallery shows recently. "All along, I've made little pen and paper drawings of my scenes before writing them, but now I enjoy the more heavy-duty process of breaking out my kit of acrylic paints. I took up painting when I was writing my historical novel about the painter Peter Bruegel, and I started using paintings for pre-visualization while I wrote Frek and the Elixir. A painting takes longer than a drawing, and I get more deeply into it. My sense is that I'm using a different part of my brain when I paint a picture­, as opposed to when I'm revising my written outline. It's like visiting a different muse."

Mary Robinette Kowal won the Campbell Award for best new SF writer, and has a story collection coming soon, called Scenting The Dark And Other Stories. She also has a novel coming out, called Shades Of Milk And Honey. And she works as a professional puppeteer, both making and operating puppets. She explains:

Performing and building puppets definitely has an impact on how I see the world and that directly influences what is important to me when I'm writing. But really, to answer this properly, I should probably back up a bit and explain what it's like to perform as a puppeteer. Puppetry is a form of acting. The main difference between an puppet actor and a "meat" actor is the tool we use to communicate with the audience. In both cases, it's about creating a believable character. A traditional actor inhabits their tool — their body — and learned to use it unconciously since the day they were born. Some might have to retrain it, but for the most part, it's so familiar, one doesn't think about the body as separate from the self. Make sense? With a puppet actor, my tool is external to my body. I had to learn to use a puppet as an adult and very consciously had to work to learn what makes something look alive. I had to learn to break body language down into pieces of discreet information so I could duplicate them with this tool. Ultimately, a puppeteer wants to learn to do all of this so naturally that it requires no more thought than a traditional actor requires to work their own body.

Here's her demo reel:

Visualizing characters, imagining plots:

And Kowal says that the biggest impact of her puppeteering experience is in how she thinks about creating believable characters, and plots that flow from their actions. That focus on "body language" has allowed her to portray lots of different characters, whether a dog, a badger, or a little boy. And one aspect of body language is that "every movement counts, because most puppets have no facial expression." That carries over to fiction, because every movement her characters make have to count as well. "If my character picks up a glass, it has to be for a reason, preferably one that expresses an emotional state as well as a plot point. "

And similarly, Rucker says that his painting has helped him figure out where a story should go next: "Painting gives me a different way of being surprised." Sometimes, when he's not sure what should happen in an upcoming scene, he'll get out the paints and "see what happens."

From The Page To The Canvas: SF Writers Make Art

"If a narrative is 'storyboarded' — even in one's imagination — then the action of the plot will be more grounded," says Stephen Stanley, the only SF writer ever to place in both the Writers Of The Future and Illustrators Of The Future contests and the art director of Shimmer Magazine. "Drawings and sketches of setting, scenes, characters make excellent reference materials (non-visual writers can do the same by collecting photographs and images from magazines and web searches). Perhaps the act of personally drawing reference material makes the elements more real to me, and therefore more real when written. It doesn't hurt."

Stanley says he'll pre-visualize a character or a setting, before he writes, and one crucial question is how much visual detail to include: too much and the story gets bogged down. But not enough, and the story loses vividness.

"I've always sought to provoke the reader with a steady flow of powerful images," says Rucker. (Anyone who's read earlier works like Wetware or The Sex Sphere, or newer stuff, like the ultra-trippy Postsingular, knows this to be an understatement.) But like Stanley, he seeks a balance between strong images and story flow. "I like to keep things moving with action, dialog, and the stream of consciousness of the main character. Absorbing a story is quite different from looking at a painting. With a painting you have a synoptic view, that is, you can overview the whole scene at once. But in reading a story, you have to build the scene in your head by processing a linear sequence of descriptions. I don't like to overdo the visual description in the "fine writing" sense, which can be a pain for the reader. My goal is to put in just enough description so that when the reader looks back on the scene, they have a mental image similar to the one I started with. I don't mean that I want to be stark or minimalist, what I mean is that I like the conciseness of poetry­, where you line up exactly the right words and phrases to set off the intended response."

From The Page To The Canvas: SF Writers Make Art

Niffenegger's Time Traveler's Wife is full of memorable images and telling descriptions, and she says that including a strong visual element is a good way to ground the story when you're dealing with fantastic elements like time travel or (in her new novel) ghosts. But too much visual detail can detract from the reader's imagination, she adds: "I do try to be careful about which things I render fully and which things I am vague about. I have found that letting readers fill things in for themselves can be effective. In the new book I am more spare with the visuals. I spend a lot of time inside various characters' minds, and most of these people are not especially visually aware."

Page 2: Worldbuilding Is Like Painting A Picture