Thursday, November 27, 2008

How Big is Your Gob?

Structuring multi-viewpoint narratives

My first attempts at writing novels, The Zael Inheritance and Dragonchaser, took the simplest approach to viewpoint characters possible: show all the action through a single character's eyes. There's nothing wrong with this method--just because it's simple doesn't mean it's facile. If it's good enough for Jane Austen, it's hard to argue that the form is unduly restrictive.

The Dog of the North was my first foray into a more ambitious approach. Those of you who've read the novel will realise why it had to be told the way I told it. The Last Free City, as it stands, takes things a stage further: three viewpoint characters, two of them involved in the same events. So many viewpoints creates a range of difficult choices which the single-strand narrative doesn't have to address.

The first choice I have to make is on the length of individual viewpoint scenes. When I was writing The Dog of the North, the first draft alternated Arren and Beauceron's viewpoints frequently (probably 2-3,000 word chunks). When I wrote the second draft I made the sections two or three times longer. Longer sections mean more immersion in the individual narratives, but more dislocation when they do change.

The Last Free City is currently written in short viewpoint chunks. The average duration between switches is 3,000 words for Todarko, the protagonist; 1,200 for Oricien, who exists primarily to provide an additional perspective; and 3,500 for Malvazan, whose story takes place a quarter of a century earlier.

I now need to decide whether to make the bites bigger (not straightforward with Todarko and Oricien, who because they are taking part in the same events, cannot be sliced and diced as easily as Malvazan, who can be dropped in whenever I feel like it).

I have an instinctive aversion to chopping and changing viewpoints too rapidly, but it need not be too dislocative. GRR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series deploys up to a dozen viewpoint characters in a book, often with very short chapters. Philippa Gregory often uses three viewpoints in her Tudor novels, sometimes in chapters as short as a single page; and in The Constant Princess, although most of the story is told through Katharine of Aragon's eyes, it mixes first and third person with dizzying (and not totally satisfactory) rapidity.

Another writer we've often discussed here, Joe Abercrombie, changes viewpoint less frequently. He uses around half a dozen viewpoint characters in the First Law trilogy but he gives them longer intervals on the page before switching. It may be significant that Abercrombie strongly differentiates the voices he uses, from the Dogman's earthy demotic to Glokta's cynical disgust. I tend to differentiate less (this comes back to the question of ventriloquism versus exhibitionism I've discussed before).

There is no right answer to this. Frequent viewpoint changes will have a different effect from longer narrative intervals. (One of these differences, as David Isaak has mentioned elsewhere, is that frequent changes increase the pace of the narrative, implying that you might want shorter sections towards the end of a novel). It would seem a sensible observation that, the more viewpoints you have, the shorter the sections should be (otherwise you risk keeping characters out of the limelight for too long).

At the moment I'm inclined to keep the sections broadly the length they are now. I suspect that Oricien's sections might be so short because I haven't given him enough to do (his three early appearances are his longest), and some of the scenes I've narrated through Todarko's eyes in retrospect should be Oricien's.

The size of bite you choose to take is ultimately a subjective one, driven by several factors: who is best placed to narrate given scenes in the plot; the primacy of one character's perspective over others; control of the flow of information to the reader; the pace of the narrative; and the trade-off between dizzying the reader and wearying them.

I remember now why I used to like single viewpoint...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Terminus Est

As fans of Gene Wolfe--or indeed Latin-speakers--will know, "Terminus Est" means "this is the end".

And this morning I have finished the first draft of The Last Free City. That's right. Finished. Reached the end. Have a whole story from start to finish. Its quality remains to be seen, and editing will start soon (there's already one fairly major structural question I can see that I need to answer) but none of that matters at the moment. There is no feeling like finishing the first draft of a novel (it even beats being accepted for publication).

So for now I'm just going to enjoy it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


It was a surprise yesterday to get an email from Will, my editor at Macmillan. I am so deeply into The Last Free City at the moment that it's easy to forget that The Dog of the North still has a commercial existence. Will's email was to show me the a first proof of the cover for the paperback edition. I hadn't seen it before so I opened it with some anticipation but also a little trepidation...

I can't share it the image at this stage, because it's still in draft, but what I can say is that it's significantly different from the hardback. It's also, and this is purely a subjective judgement, bloody brilliant! It's more obviously a fantasy novel, but manages to avoid the garishness which mars so many fantasy covers. Where the hardback used black, orange and blue-white as its palette, the paperback is a study in what might be called "burnt sepia". It's a restricted palette but it's also a very effective one. I'm delighted that the "city in flames" illustration, while updated, remains on the paperback too. I've never written a story in which something hasn't caught fire, and to see flames on the cover thrills this closet pyromaniac...

Now, back to The Last Free City, where I am hoping to write the key scene of the novel tomorrow.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


There are some moments of insight in the writing process which are so astounding, so perfect, as to make the entire business worthwhile.

A couple of months ago I wrote a blog entry lamenting the necessity of sacrificing my bloody and dramatic opening scene. To recap - I had written a scene in which the novel's antagonist is revealed in his true colours: a cruel, dangerous and manipulative character. Later, I decided to write an entire strand of the book from his viewpoint. The problem was that this approach was not compatible with the opening scene: if I show from the outset how he ends up, I drain much of the narrative interest--and the reader's sympathy--from this strand of the book.

This morning, I woke at 4am with the solution--a simple tweak I can implement in half an hour, which allows me to keep the same opening scene at the beginning and still get to tell the villain's story. What's even better is that it improves on the original idea I'd had for his story, and builds in a new and more dramatic payoff for the reader.

Sometimes the most complex problems have the simplest solutions.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Why I Write

The Guardian has an interesting feature called "Why I Write", in which professional writers answer a standard set of questions. I am on reasonably safe ground in assuming The Guardian isn't planning to contact me on the subject; but, in much the same way as I have my Hugo (and indeed Nobel) acceptance speech done and dusted on the off-chance, here's how I would respond if I were asked. If I suggest that other bloggers might like to do the same, I can even appear up to the minute in today's web-savvy world by referring to it as a 'meme'.

What was your favourite book as a child?
Lyonesse, by Jack Vance. It's also my favourite book as an adult, which says a lot about me, most of it unflattering.

When you were growing up did you have books in your home?
Yes. Very little of it any good (my section of the bookshelves was largely devoted to books about dinosaurs) but there was always something to read...and I was always reading.

Was there someone who interested you in reading and writing?
My mother taught me to read before I started school, so by the time I developed a sense of self, it was of someone who read. Once I started school, my teachers all said that I had a gift for writing; initially at least, my interest in writing was entirely ego-driven; there was nothing else I was good at so I enjoyed the acclaim. I must have been a pretty disagreeable little brat.

What made you want to write when you were starting out?
I didn't make a serious attempt at writing a novel until I was nearly thirty. I had got to the stage where if I didn't do it then, I never would. I had run out of excuses. I'd always known that I'd been a writer from the day I discovered Jack Vance when I was about 13, but it took me a long time to do anything about it.

Do you find writing easy?
Yes. But I find writing well difficult. The more I write, the more ways to fail I discover.

What makes you write now?
However much of a struggle it is sometimes, there's nothing like the feeling of peopling your own world. And some people are kind enough to say they like what I write: I'm not sure I'd have the endurance to carry on with no audience at all. It's certainly not for the money!

What preparation do you do before writing?
Preparation? Preparation H. You're sitting down for a long time...

Do you have a daily routine?
An hour in the evening every weekday, interspersed with the occasional intensive week off work. And daydreams, without which none of the rest can happen.

How do you survive being alone in your work so much of the time?
'Survive'? It's one of the perks of the job... I think writers need to be people who enjoy solitude, and as an only child it's always been part of the landscape for me. For as long as I can remember I've been dreaming up my own fantasy worlds, often more real and more compelling than the one I inhabit. The downside of such a temperament is a propensity to morbid fancies.

What good advice was given to you when you were starting out?
In my ignorance and folly I didn't realise I needed advice, so I didn't get any. But writers are a very supportive bunch, and there's no shortage of it out there if you're receptive to it.

What advice would you give to new writers?
Read, write. Repeat as necessary. You need to read extensively to equip your toolbox, and you need to write to learn how to use the tools. I'm sceptical about many creative writing courses, but if you find a good one that fits the way you think, it's like gold-dust.

Is there a secret to writing?

What are you working on now?
As so often, a saga of political intrigue, treachery, coolly disdainful heroines and heroes who aren't quite as clever as they think they are. And plenty of swordfights.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Approaching the End...

Readers of ::Acquired Taste will be well aware that the first draft of The Last Free City has been a messy production. Now, at last, I am getting to the end of it: probably one key setpiece and two valedictory scenes to go. While in one way I'll be glad to see the back of it, in others I'm curiously ambivalent. With the end in sight, I'm reluctant to take the plunge and finish it off.

I think there are several reasons for this. First and foremost, however much of a pain it's been to write, I've lived with the story for over six months, and there will be a kind of emptiness when I've done with it. No longer will I be trying to guess how it all turns out, because I'll know. I'm also reluctant to finish because I know how much scope there is to mar the entire novel by botching the ending. Once again I have to remind myself of the mantra that everything can be fixed in revision...

The last reason I'm putting off finishing the first draft is that I'll have to move on to editing, always my least cherished task. It requires a critical discipline and ability to see the whole while attending to the part, which does not always come easily. And editing, unlike drafting, requires critical evaluation: this is the point at which, potentially, you see your first draft as a disaster. Does the whole hang together? Do the characters in your head live on the page? Do their relationships work? Is there too much exposition? Are the locations vivid? Have I abused my comfort phrase "by no means"? Has a new and irritating comfort phrase arisen?

Really, it's a wonder that anyone dares re-read their work...

* * *

The subject of artistic failure brings us squarely to Quantum of Solace, the new Bond film. I have a moderate appreciation for action films, but I thought the first Daniel Craig outing, Casino Royale, was excellent, managing to fuse credible characterisation with a coherent storyline and proportionate action sequences.

Quantum of Solace, on the other hand, disappointed on almost every level. A feverish scream of action sequences, devoid of logic, plausibility or an underlying plot, rapidly degnerated into turgid self-parody. Although 30 minutes shorter than Casino Royale, it left me bored long before the end. The courageous and intelligent decision to cast Craig, an actor of both range and presence, as 007 was wholly wasted in a film where he is required to do nothing but run, jump, shoot and pilot a variety of internal-combustion powered vehicles. The virtues which made Casino Royale such a pleasant surprise, the adherence to traditional narrative disciplines, were wholly absent.

A dismal catalogue of crashes and bangs, Quantum of Solace left me neither shaken nor stirred.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Last Free City - Good News and Bad News

Other than the odd splutter, my cold is now firmly kicked into touch, and I can review with a head no muzzier than usual progress on the misbegotten work in progress. Like Richard III, it feels like it's been in the womb for two years and no doubt will be born with teeth...

My aim when writing first draft is to write 1,000 words a day, and on average I've achieved that over the past ten days, with a novel twist: I've managed minus 1,ooo words a day. At the beginning of November I had 135,000 words "down and dusted": now I have 125,000. At this rate of progress, by mid-February I'll have nothing at all.

Bummer, eh? Well, as it happens, perhaps not. If I reframe the problem to look at how far from the end I am, things are much sunnier. At 135,000 words, I thought I was probably at the end of Act III, and probably looking at 190,000 words for the total (boo! big book=high production costs=high retail price=miserable sales=end of career). I was contemplating taking out one of my three viewpoint characters (the "early life of the villain"), a 40,000-word strand. This would have been a shame: stroppy adolescents are fun to write and fun to read, particularly when they're devious little sods...

Then I had a much better idea. The plot loop which kicked in at about 125,000 words and launched Act IV could be ditched with comparatively little pain: it separated hero and heroine at a point where their relationship had become the focal point of the novel, and introduced a new location which undercut the carefully-built claustrophobia of the first 125,000 words. So Act IV goes; 10,000 words are chopped, and suddenly we're on the verge of the denouement. I'm already at the end of Act IV, and I hadn't realised it. It makes for a tighter, neater narrative structure and a pacier escalation towards the conclusion. Whatever was I thinking of in adding a wholly unnecessary sea-voyage? (other than the chance to write a sea-battle. That can wait...).

Yesterday evening I sat down and wrote out the remaining plot on one side of A4. I know who betrays whom, who survives the final bloodbath, who gets the girl, and who doesn't. I know who slides off into the shadows to pull strings another day, and who must survey the wreckage of their schemes.

For the first time, the end is in sight...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On the Big Screen...The Page Turner

I've been laid up at home with a wretched cold this week, a situation with few advantages (Sky Sports News soon loses its appeal). On the plus side, though, it's allowed me to catch up on some films I've been meaning to watch for a while. One of them, The Page Turner (2006) was so good that it almost made the cold worthwhile.

It's a French film (actual title La Tourneuse de pages) and on the surface looks like a reheat of an old staple, the Evil Nanny (see, e.g. The Hand that Rocks the Cradle). In the prologue, promising young pianist Melanie fails an important piano exam because one of the examiners, concert pianist Ariane (Catherine Frot) distracts her by signing an autograph. Melanie never plays the piano again.

In the main body of the film, however, the adult Melanie insinuates herself into Ariane's household and exacts her revenge by destroying the family. It's a very French film (it has echoes, for instance, of Chabrol's coolness of tone) and resolutely avoids any hint of moralising: it could never be remade by Hollywood without a radically different, and surely less satisfying, ending. This complete refusal to judge any of the characters by director Denis Dercourt is one of the film's great strengths.

The viewer also has to admire the way in which Dercourt constructs the film. There are no histrionics: one swoon and one moment of surprising violence aside, this is a film where all of the action takes place under the surface. It's a slow film, with plenty of space for expression; but it's never anything other than wholly absorbing.

The other magnificent feature of the film is Deborah Francois' portayal of Melanie. She hardly seems to act at all: Melanie moves in slow motion, never quite smiles, and expresses emotion only through her eyes. It's a stark, understated performance from which the viewer can never look away. She never raises her voice or her hand, but her few half-smiles are enough to show how implacable an enemy she is.

The Page Turner is a brave film. Audiences weaned on action thrillers or the synthetic emotionalism of soap operas will look in vain to see the cogs moving. Dercourt realises that drama need not mean explosions and emotion is no less powerful for being restrained.

If revenge is a dish best served cold, The Page Turner, a masterpiece of chilled understatement, is only a few degrees above absolute zero.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

"Gemmell Award-nominated Tim Stretton"

Yes, you heard it here first: The Dog of the North has been nominated for an award - the inaugural David Gemmell Legend Award for Fantasy. Fantasy novels published in 2008 are eligible.

As you might imagine, this is rather less impressive than it sounds. Not because the Gemmell Award isn't an excellent thing (there is certainly a gap in the market for an award recognising fantasy as separate to science-fiction) or because there are no good books on the list (it includes A-listers like Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan and Steven Erikson), but because the nomination criteria aren't exactly rigorous. If your book meets the eligibility criteria, and your publisher puts it forward, you're on the longlist, which currently stands at about 60. This will be whittled down to a shortlist of five by a public vote (i.e. you, gentle reader, can vote for it) after Christmas.

Despite the low bar over which I've had to leap to get onto the list, it's still very pleasant to be nominated for a prize--particularly one as good as the Gemmell Award. When voting opens, be assured you'll read it here first! (along with extensive instructions on how to register your vote...).

Meanwhile, progress on The Last Free City continues apace. After my "spreadsheet moment" at the weekend, I've been able to put the resulting clarity to good use. New scenes and relationships, conflicts expected and unexpected, are springing forth with a long-forgotten fecundity. If there's a lesson here, it's to plot the next one a damn sight more tightly before I kick off...

Monday, November 03, 2008

Lost in Space

Working on The Last Free City at the weekend, I had to admit that I had literally 'lost the plot'. With the main narrative three-quarters complete, I had taken the decision to retrofit a second viewpoint character into the same events, and I had merrily been writing these new scenes, dropping them in at what seemed like the right place.

On Saturday it became apparent that I had lost track of the 'golden thread' which glues the nuts and bolts of the stories together. I needed to write a scene of political intrigue (well, it was that or a swordfight...) and I realised that I couldn't remember which events had already happened and which were yet to happen: I was living inside an ongoing continuity error. At this point I made the only tenable decision in the circumstances: stop digging.

Instead, I soothed myself by creating a spreadsheet comprising three columns: first, the 'day' in the story; second, the events happening to the first viewpoint character; and finally, the events happening to the other viewpoint character. This was a couple of hours very well spent. I now know what happens when, and to whom, for the first three-quarters of the story - and it also demonstrates very neatly when a particular character is offstage for too long.

It's surely no coincidence that I sat down to write on Sunday in a more relaxed frame of mind, and wrote a new "filler" scene early in the novel: 2,000 fluent words, it seems to me like one of the best scenes in the book.

I've never written a story where I've tackled so many scenes out of order--and I hope never to again. It plays havoc with continuity, pacing and character development. Yesterday, for instance, I introduced a new place-holder character who immediately became so interesting I wish I'd known about her sooner: I can tweak subsequent scenes to accommodate her, but, however beguiling she is, I'm not going to restructure the story around her.

There are two ways all this can end: either the mess will be so pervasive that it can never be unravelled, and the underlying clutter will be apparent even in the finished work; or the final draft will be so richly textured, so allusive of the chaotic vitality of the city I am trying to represent, as to leap off the page with the texture of van Gogh. At this stage, mired in muddle and counter-muddle, I know which way I'm betting--but the prospect of a better outcome, however remote, is enough to keep me honest...

What about the rest of you who are writers? Have any of you managed to fashion a triumph from first-draft chaos?