Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hey, an award!

This one comes from Alis Hawkins, fellow Macmillan New Writer and author of the excellent Testament (now out in paperback).

This is the award:

Leaving aside the curious grammar of the award citation, it's always good to be appreciated. We don't do this for the money (what money?) so the only external validation we get is the approval of our readers and peers - so thanks, Alis!

The award is also a meme, the rules of which are thus:

Here are the rules of the meme:
1. Put the logo on your blog.
2. Add a link to the person who awarded you.
3. Award up to ten other blogs.
4. Add links to those blogs on yours.
5. Leave a message for your awardees on their blogs.

1 and 2 are already done and dusted. 3 is more difficult as Alis has already stolen a couple of my favourites, but here are some other sites I keep an eye on and are always worth a read. Click on the author's name to go to the blog.

Faye L. Booth
Another MNWer, Faye is never afraid to give it both barrels. Her fiction is as recommended as her blog.

Jane Smith - How Publishing Really Works
Jane's blog is full of down-to-earth advice on the ins and outs of the publishing industry. Not for the dilettante or the easily discouraged, but if you're serious about finding a commercial publisher for your work, mandatory reading.

Sam Hayes

Another blog from a practising novelist, with some detailed and practical reflections on the craft of writing.

Matt Curran
Matt, formerly of Macmillan New Writing, now flourishing in the mainstream, keeps a blog where he writes about his works in progress--particularly interesting in addressing how to balance writing, real life and the need to earn a living.

Emma Darwin
Another novelist's blog--do you see the pattern yet?--Emma's is recommended for the critical insight she brings to bear on the craft of writing. She critiques manuscripts to a professional standard and this forensic intelligence runs through the reflections on her blog.

Still here? What are you waiting for?

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Glory That Was Rome

I have blogged about this before, but some things bear repetition. Yesterday I finished watching the second and final series of Rome, the HBO mini-series charting the history of the Roman republic from Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon to the Battle of Actium. This, surely, is just about as good as television gets: excellent writing supported by first-rate casting, all retailed at leisurely length.

In reflection, it's the characters and not the plot you remember (there is a lesson for all writers here): Polly Walker's Atia, at once repellent, manipulative and yet oddly pitiable and sympathetic; James Purefoy perfectly capturing Mark Antony's debased populism; Simon Woods' chilly egotism as Octavian. Those are just the standout performances, but there's hardly a dud among the huge cast.

I am not one of those who think that TV/film is inherently inferior to written fiction (although I do think it's very hard for a movie adaptation to do justice to its source material). In particular, I think that the mini-series format is one of the very best narrative art forms available. The 90-minute movie inevitably sacrifices something of either plot or character development because of the constraints of the format. The soap opera form never has a resolution (even though individual stories may); it merely repeats itself ad nauseam. The seasonal drama, even when it is done well, is essentially the same every week (for aficionados, that's part of the appeal, viz: Bones). But the mini-series has room to breathe, while also reaches a conclusion. Rome consists of 22 50-minute episodes, none of which stands alone. It is one extended narrative, an experience far closer to reading a novel than watching a movie is. The form allows sustained character development across an ensemble cast; it permits changes of pace and tone; it can afford digression (usually, in Rome, via the interpolation of frequent sex scenes...)

In Rome, every major character has time for significant growth: the obscure can rise and fall again, and all the stories reach a conclusion. It's hard to imagine a 90-minute movie mirroring this achievement. Even the very best of them (for instance The Page Turner, reviewed here) must work through subtlety, shorthand, indirection. A good director can turn this constraint into a strength, but there are options available to a mini-series which simply can't be replicated by a movie.

If you haven't seen Rome, I can't recommend too strongly that you track it down now. And I haven't even explored the interesting relationship between the show and the Shakesearean treatments of the same period in Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra. That must wait for another day...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Not a Review

I have sworn off reviewing other Macmillan New Writing titles: in many cases I know the writer, and even where I don't my objectivity may well be questionable. I'm not, therefore, going the review the latest one I've read, Restitution by Eliza Graham. It's not a review, is it, to say that the book is every bit as good as its predecessor, Playing with the Moon, and that anyone with a taste for good fiction is likely to enjoy it?

Neither is it a review to state my admiration for the way in which the writer weaves the personal destinies of a handful of ordinary characters into a backdrop of events leading up to and during World War II; the unobtrusively excellent prose with which the story is retailed; or the satisfying way in which each chapter unfolds into the next.

And it is certainly not a review to say that I am delighted to hear that Eliza has a deal with PanMacmillan for another two novels.

I go back to my editing fully satisfied, then, that I have held fast to my rule not to review Macmillan New Writing titles.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Kids' Stuff...

Yesterday was the last of my literary appearances following the publication of The Dog of the North. This was at the "Just Write For Kids" Club in Chichester, run by the enthusiastic Becky Edwards, herself a writer of children's books. "Just Write" meets once a month for children aged 6-13 who get together to have fun writing stories, and Becky invited me along as a guest local author. My books aren't aimed at children, but this wasn't a book-selling exercise: it was a chance for the young writers to meet someone who was lucky enough to have been published and perhaps take some encouragement from it.

In fact, the kids there didn't need encouragement. They were all amazingly enthusiastic, and in most cases couldn't wait for me to finish so that they could tear off and get on with writing their own stories--a healthy attitude I can only endorse. At the end of the session some of the writers fed back the work they had set down during the morning. The standard was very high--not just were the stories lively and enthusiastic, many of them deployed some sophisticated narrative strategies. There were some real talents on display, and by providing a structured forum in which they can develop, Becky's group gives them a chance to develop their skills and maintain their enthusiasm for writing.

Becky had asked me to go along as a favour but I came away thinking that I was the one who had got the most out of the morning. It was inspiring to work with a group of people who enjoyed their writing so much. "Just Write For Kids" is a great idea and I hope it goes from strength to strength.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why Should I Read...?

The Persian Boy
Mary Renault, 1972

I can probably trace my love of historical fiction back to Mary Renault, whose exotic tales of Ancient Greece fired my imagination at an impressionable age. The Persian Boy has long been my favourite, an emotionally charged and meticulously researched tale of the final years of Alexander the Great.

The story is recounted in first person through the eyes of Bagoas, Alexander's eunuch lover. In such bald summary it sounds sensationalised, but this central relationship is crafted with such care and intensity as to lift the novel far beyond the normal run of historical fiction. This is not costume drama: it is a love story which happens to be set in the past. The development of the relationship is charted against Alexander's conquest of the east and his eventual destruction by jealous rivals. Alexander himself springs to life, his great gifts offset by his equally great flaws. Curiously, Alexander is much more vivid in this novel than its predecessor, Fire From Heaven, in which he is the protagonist.

The Persian Boy seems to me an exemplar of historical fiction in two ways. Most importantly, the characters feel different. They may have a recognisably human array of feelings and foibles, but they exist in a world almost unrecognisable to a contemporary audience. Renault's characters are not twentieth-century men in robes - their mindset is at once alien yet plausible. The central relationship is not one the contemporary reader might be expected readily to empathise with, but it's carried off with such bravura that few will find it anything other than wholly compelling.

The other excellence of the book is the way in which Renault integrates her research. Almost every event is drawn from a primary source, but so smoothly are they integrated into the shape of the whole narrative that it doesn't read like a plot culled from Quintus Curtius and Plutarch. Renault uses her research as it should be used, in the service of the whole, and not an end in itself.

Few novels have drawn me as strongly into their world, both physical and spiritual, as The Persian Boy. Nearly forty years after its publication, it remains as vivid as the day it was published.

How has it influenced me?

The Persian Boy has much in common with fantasy, in its creation of a richly detailed world alien to the reader's experience. That Renault's world is historical and mine is not is a relatively minor distinction: in both cases the reader has to be convinced to invest emotional and intellectual energy to inhabit the writer's territory. The biggest lesson for me from Renault is that characters must be--credibly--of their own time, and not the writer's. It sounds obvious, but it's an insight many writers fail to draw. The Dog of the North would never have had a religious subplot, something important to the world of my novel rather than today's world, were it not for The Persian Boy.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

  • Do your research, and then forget it
  • Having a viewpoint character who is not the "star" of the story can lend an interesting perspective
  • If you are going to the trouble of creating a setting very different to our own world, don't neglect to make your characters culturally different too

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Choosing what to write

I'm never averse to stealing someone else's good idea and calling it "homage" (on a blog, "meme" does the trick as well). David Isaak posted recently on the pleasantly alliterative topic Why We Write What We Write - a thought-provoking question. It's one I'd never asked myself before, at least not in that form. I've got a pretty good idea why I write; on some level I've made my peace with the long lonely hours and performed the calculus that tells me it's worth it. But what I've never done is question why I've ended up in the particular genre I inhabit.

My intial lazy response when I read David's post was to say, "well, I write what I like to read". And as far as it goes, it's true enough. (It would be perverse, after all, to write what I didn't like to read: I'm not cut out for chick-lit). At the Macmillan New Writers soiree last year, it became apparent that I was about the only one who enjoyed re-reading my own work, so my knee-jerk reaction is perhaps not too far from the mark.

On the other hand, it's not the whole story. "Why Should I Read...?", my ongoing list of books I've loved and recommend to others, contains about 35 books. Of those, less than a third are ones you'd find on the Science-Fiction and Fantasy shelves of a bookshop. Only three are fantasies written primarily for adults. I don't, in fact, read that much fantasy: I'm at least as likely to read historical fiction, popular history, 19th century fiction, hard-boiled crime, and sports. But I've never written, or seriously aspired to write, in any of those fields.

So how did I end up writing in a genre which no longer makes up a large proportion of my reading? The cynic may suggest that all of the genres above require research, a structured activity to which I am largely averse; but so does fantasy, even if it doesn't require quite the adamantine rigour of historical novels.

In the end I arrive at two conclusions, neither of them especially flattering: programming and emulation. The first literature I really loved was speculative fiction: when I became a voracious reader, just before my teens, it was science-fiction and fantasy I devoured with indiscriminate relish. And somehow, that got hard-wired into me. Even though I can't read many of the books I loved then, speculative fiction became my default setting.

Which brings us to emulation. Because one of the writers I stumbled across in those early years was Jack Vance. From the day I first started to read Vance, he became the touchstone for literary excellence and, unlike anything else I read at that age, he remained there. So when I started to write seriously myself, the benchmark was Vance, even if it was not one which could be achieved.

In the end, then, the question has quite a simple answer. Why do I write what I write? Because somewhere, deep down, even now, I still want to be Jack Vance. And that doesn't seem such an unworthy ambition.

Monday, January 05, 2009

How watching DVDs is writing by another name...no, really!

Christmas is a time of goodwill to all men, a time to take stock of our lives and reflect on how we can be better people next year. No, scrub that: it's a time of almost total indolence and self-indulgence, which is why we like it. Who'd come back for all that self-abnegation stuff year after year...?

Which is one way of saying I didn't get too much done on the book over the holidays (although what I did get done was very useful and takes me a long way forward on the second draft). What I did instead was a lot of DVD-watching. We picked up two great series, Bones Season 1, and Rome, the HBO mini-series.

One of the curses of the writer's life (and there aren't many) is that you can never just read a book or watch a TV show: instead, you're always filtering it through some kind of critical process, noting the tricks the creator has used, and filing things away for future use. It doesn't mean you don't enjoy the experience, but it's a different kind of enjoyment. What do I do that they're doing? What don't I do?

I've blogged about Bones before so I won't say too much about it again. Perversely, one of the things I most admire about it is that it's formulaic: part-CSI, part X-Files, structurally it does nothing you won't find elsewhere. It has twin protagonists, male and female, oozing unresolved sexual tension; a nicely differentiated supporting ensemble; wisecracks; slick plotting on both an episode and a series level. But it's not really about plot: Bones stands or falls on the quality of the character and relationships. The success of the show is, I suspect, at least about the actors as the writers: the stars, David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel, have "chemistry" (whatever that is...) and conceal the fact that the plot is largely the same every week. In every story I've ever written I've tried to put in a relationship like that (strangely, it was my first attempt, The Zael Inheritance, which was the most successful), and I also respond to the way the show mixes the comic and tragic. That's a very difficult trick to pull off, and completely fatal if misses even by a hair's breadth.

Rome has few similarities with Bones, but one common feature is that it's not really about the plot. If you have even a basic working knowledge of the Roman Republic, you know from the start what's going to happen to the main characters (particularly since the show doesn't take too many liberties with history). Again, the characterisation is fully-textured: there are few stereotypes, and no stock villains (although there are plenty of subtly-nuanced ones). Rome is structured as an ensemble piece: the two nominal protagonists, the odd-couple legionaries Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pollo, have to compete with the historical giants of the time, Caesar, Pompey, Mark Antony et al. That's one of things I like best about it--the way it merges the individual stories of the obscure figures, just trying to live their lives against a background of civil war--with the grand drama unfolding around them. I'm trying something similar in The Last Free City so it's interesting to see the way it's handled here.

If there is an underlying similarity between Bones and Rome it is this emphasis on character over plot. That's odd, given how tightly both are plotted (Rome in particular marshals its huge cast with an excellence all the more commendable for being invisible). But the plot is the backdrop against which the characters shine. The lesson, if there is some general point we can extract, is this: the more competent the plot, the less you notice it (at least in the kind of fiction I enjoy).

There: having spent some time in documented reflection on how I've lazed the Christmas holidays away on the sofa, I can return tonight with a clear conscience to find out what happens when Caesar pursues Pompey all the way to Alexandria--where a queen-in-waiting named Cleopatra is lurking...