Friday, March 26, 2010

Taking a Break

::Acquired Taste is in recess for a week or so. We're off to North Wales to do some field research into Edward I's castles along the coast (not that the trip has been sold to the family on that basis, but we'll cross that drawbridge when we come to it).

You'll see that I've given the blog a facelift to compensate for the lack of new content (and also to get rid of an irritating glitch with the position of the comments boxes).

Normal service will resume after the Easter break.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

In the interests of fairness...

A while ago I outlined the significant difficulties I had in enjoying Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning Tudor epic, Wolf Hall. Some writers are just plain bad, and that's the end of it, but Mantel clearly isn't in that category. In the interests of balance, therefore, I thought it only right to read an earlier work, and fellow Macmillan New Writer Aliya Whiteley recommended Beyond Black, a story of mediums in the Home Counties, the banality of evil and the evil of banality.

In its humour--beyond black, indeed--its ability to seed everyday events with boredom and menace at the same time, and its freewheeling imagination, it actually reminded me very much of one of Aliya's books. It married lightness of touch with darkness of purpose in a way which was at once chilling and very funny. I won't give too much of the plot away (if you haven't read it, now is the time to do so), but her portrayal of the spirits beyond the grave will live long in the memory.

In some ways it makes Wolf Hall seem an even greater achievement. All the things I had hoped to see in that novel, Mantel can do, because she pulls it off in Beyond Black. She chose not to as her artistic accommodation necessary to find Cromwell's voice. From my own perspective I'd rather she hadn't, but it's hard not admire her virtuosity and control of voice.

I'll read more of Mantel's work in future--but perhaps not just yet.
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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

More on Dragonchaser

I'm delighted to say that Andreas Irle, proprietor of the highly respected Editions Andreas Irle, has finished his German translation of Dragonchaser. We are now hopeful of a publication date later this year, although Andreas is also busy translating Jack Vance's autobiography for the German market.

We also have a fine cover design now, created by Ralf Kübler. The book has a new title for the German market, 'Serendip' (or Serendipity in English) being the name of the hero's racing galley.

I'm excited to be published by such a prestigious small press, and also to have a greater market presence in Germany, where there seems to be an appetite for my work.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior

How cool an idea for a book is this?

In the autumn of 1502 three giants of the Renaissance period - Cesare Borgia, Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli - set out on one of the most treacherous military campaigns of the period. Cesare Borgia was a ferocious military leader whose name was synonymous with brutality and whose reputation was marred with the suspicion of incest. Niccolo Machiavelli was a witty and subversive intellectual, more suited to the silken diplomacy of royal courts than the sodden encampments of a military campaign. And Leonardo da Vinci was a visionary master and the most talented military engineer in Italy. What led him to work for the monstrous Borgia? And what attracted him to the cunning Machiavelli? This improbable collusion of three iconic figures of the Italian Renaissance unites three mighty strands of the period - war, politics and art. As each man's life unfolds, so does the Italian Renaissance.
It's not mine, by the way, and if you like the idea, the book already exists. (with the same title as the post). It's written by Paul Strathern and has been fast-tracked to the top of my reading pile. I don't know whether it can live up to the promise of the scenario (scarcely possible, I'd say) but you can see why I'm excited about it. Since The Fall of the Fireduke is likely to feature an extensive miliatary campaign I'm hopeful this can provide some imaginative sustenance.
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Monday, March 22, 2010


On Thursday evening I was stuck in a featureless hotel room in Somerset with a laptop and no internet connection. Writers among you will know that these are propitious circumstances for work, and I spent a couple of hours knocking out the first thousand words of the new Mondia story. Once back home I spent some time over the weekend polishing further. The result is the first 3,838 words of the new Mondia novel, now provisionally entitled The Fall of the Fireduke.

The first scene works relatively well, the subsequent ones less so, but at this point that is neither here nor there. What is important is that there are words on the page and characters going about their business.

I know this is a disappointment for those who wanted to see War of the Midget Trolls, but I'm hoping my readership will bear their disappointment with fortitude...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Series of Unfortunate Events

I've mentioned occasionally in previous blog entries my dissatisfaction with novel series. Publishers generally like them because they create a recognisable brand and thus an opportunity to build a readership--which of course generates sales. Some writers, perhaps, enjoy writing them because much of the imaginative spadework is already done, as well as providing a steady income. (Other writers can soon come to feel straightjacketed by them, of course).

The most dangerous series are the open-ended ones, where the writer is encouraged to go on and on, until ultimately they weary the reader's patience. Where the writer has a clear arc in mind--a trilogy, say--there is less peril; and where the identity of the protagonist changes from novel to novel (Jack Vance's Alastor series, for example*) it's easier to maintain freshness.

The format that lends itself most readily to hackwork is the open-ended, same protagonist (OESP) approach--for instance, Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta novels, or Agatha Christie's Poirot. It's truly depressing to see an original idea and likeable protagonist rot on the vine, like Scarpetta. Poirot, being almost devoid of characterisation from the outset, has actually worn rather better.

This is brought to mind as I read Philip Kerr's If the Dead Rise Not, his sixth Bernie Gunther mystery, about a Marlowesque private eye trudging the mean streets of 1930s Berlin. It's a great idea, and Gunther is an engaging character; but I'm sensing that we're getting to the end of the road here. I don't know the nature of Kerr's contract, but it might be time to let Gunther slip quietly into the sunset.

Some writers can break the rules, and give us an OESP series which doesn't fall off in quality. Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels are perhaps the best example, and Ian Rankin's Rebus books pack a bigger punch at the end of the series than at the beginning. In each of these, the protagonist grows and changes over the series, and at first I thought that was perhaps the defining characteristic of successful OESPs. But Scarpetta changes too (albeit in melodramatic and rather unconvincing ways). And another of the archetypally successful OESPs, Richard Stark's Parker series, has a protagonist who really doesn't change at all across a long series of novels: Parker is still the same amoral bastard in 2007 as he was in 1960. Success is not about character growth, then.

Instead, I think what makes an OESP tolerable beyond about three or four novels is authorial voice. O'Brian and Stark are highly contrasting writers, but each can nail and maintain a compelling voice to which the reader wants to listen again and again. (Although Stark 'lost' the Parker voice for 20 years, before seamlessly picking up again in the late '90s). Kerr's Gunther novels have a distinctive voice, but in a narrow register and perhaps excessively reminiscent of Chandler, which is perhaps why we're seeing the series lose energy.

Two of my favourite Macmillan New Writers, LC Tyler and Brian McGilloway, also specialise in the OESP. In both cases I anticipate enjoying their work for some time to come: Tyler's addictively dark Herring novels fuse, as I've said in the past, Wodehouse and Calvino, a niche not richly populated; and McGilloway gives us not only a unique setting but prose of almost invisible excellence.

The success of writers like O'Brian, Stark, Tyler and McGilloway shows that the format can be artisically as well as commercially satisfying--but anyone who wants to embark on the same route should think, too, of those writers who lack the deftness to bring it off. And you may love your protagonist now--but will you be able to say the same in twenty years?

*is it immodest on my own blog to mention Mondia here?
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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Another Review

Strangely, The Dog of the North continues to attract more attention in the US, where it's not formally published, than in the UK. Here's what Library has to say:

On the way to her wedding in the city of Croad, Lady Isola is kidnapped by Beauceron, the Dog of the North, whose allegiance lies with the Winter King of Mettingloom and whose personal ambition is to conquer Croad. In the city itself, a lowborn youth named Arren grows to become a valorous knight with a destiny that far surpasses his birth. Many stories combine in Stretton's richly woven tapestry that depicts a land of fractious city-states and the lives of the people who affect the world's direction.

VERDICT Combining a hint of Renaissance Italy with a Shakespearean gravity leavened with touches of humor, the author of Dragonchaser and The Zael Inheritance has created a vividly detailed world that should appeal to fans of David Drake, Midori Snyder, and George R.R. Martin.

Can't complain at another 'Shakespearean', or a comparison with GRRM. Nice to see a nod to the humour too!

Given that most of my fan mail (not a huge sample size, admittedly) comes from Germany, it may well be that I am less popular at home than in at least two overseas markets.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

British Fantasy Society Forum

Margaret Thatcher famously said "there's no such thing as society"*. On this, as on many other things, she was wrong, particularly if she was referring to the British Fantasy Society, which is in rude health. They have started a new forum where the great and not-so-good among fantasy writers can hang out, and answer questions if anyone asks them.

Why not pop over and have a look? You may see some familiar names, including Macmillan New Writers.

*as did Caesar in Allan Massie's excellent eponymous novel
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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Walking the Walk

I've been spending a lot of time recently refining my ideas for my next Mondia novel (sorry, Aliya, it still doesn't have a title). It would bestow too much dignity to call what I've come up with a plot, but I have a number of characters and several distinct story strands.

I've taken to doing a lot of walking recently, and I've reached the conclusion that this is fundamental to my composition process. I simply cannot sit in front of a screen and generate characters or storylines. I need to be physically active, but most activities are unsuitable for one reason or another: running is too strenuous; cycling requires too much attention to my surroundings and immediate safety; and swimming is, well, just too wet. But walking, with its relaxed pace and insistent rhythm, is just right. Every good idea for War of the Midget Trolls* has come on foot.

I know from snippets on other writers' blogs that I'm not unusual in this. Is there anyone out there who doesn't get their best ideas when they're out walking?

*Aliya - not really...

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)?

How do you know when a relationship is The Big Thing? When that initial attraction, viewed through a haze of testosterone*, is built on something more enduring? There comes a time when flirtation or casual dalliance is met with a demand for commitment - which is often the time to head for the hills. But sometimes, just sometimes, that commitment is one you're willing to make.

Don't worry. ::Acquired Taste is not going into the relationship-counselling business (which is probably for the best). The whole question of commitment, and being able to tell infatuation from the real thing, is one the novelist has to grapple with every time they come to start a new work. Starting a novel is a big investment: of time, of emotional energy, of hope. It pays to take the time to be sure your idea is one you can live with, possibly for a period of years.

So what do you need to be certain that commitment is worth making? The initial rush of excitment is essential, but it won't sustain you for very long. Here's what I think I need to have in place before committing to starting a novel, although I suspect all writers are different.

1. 'Concept'
This will be very simple: 'poisons at the court of Louis XIV' or 'another Mondia novel'

2. A protagonist
Seems obvious, but unless I know whose story I'm telling, I can't start to tell it. (Your protagonist may become one of several viewpoint characters later on. That's fine).

3. Half-a-dozen other characters
I don't need to know much about what they're like - I'm more interested in what they do, and how that affects the protagonist. More than six or so, and most will wither on the vine; fewer, and I don't have enough sense of the story's dynamic. In The Dog of the North, I had originally envisaged Darrien and Ierwen as major characters. Their roles became so atrophied that most readers will not even remember who they are. On the other hand, Lady Cosetta, Isola's companion, and Davanzato, the scheming Under-Chamberlain, did not exist until I created them as placeholders when writing the first draft. The point is, you never know - so I don't waste time fleshing out characters I may never need.

4. The Big Story
See earlier posts. What are the events that everyone in my imaginary world would know about?

5. The Little Story
How the protagonist's life intersects with the Big Story.

6. An opening scene
It may not end up as the opening scene (it may not end up in the novel at all), but a sense of how the story starts is important.

7. The end
Not necessarily in any detail. It's more about: does the hero get the girl? does he reach his goals? (And in the kind of stories I write, it's important that the answer to both questions is not necessarily "yes").

8. Some way stations
I don't outline in detail, but I need to know the rough flow of the story. This is the hardest part for me. It takes not just effort but a certain cast of thought which isn't amenable to command. From long experience I know that long walks are the best way to pull this off.

9. Milieu
Easy to forget this one; I've spent so much time mapping my imaginary landscape of Mondia that it's hard to see it as a separate task. But if I contemplate writing about something else, it rapidly becomes apparent that this is a major undertaking.

Some writers may need more than this to kick off a novel. Jeffrey Deaver famously storyboards every scene before he starts. If you like to write your way into a story, maybe you don't need as much as I do - although I wouldn't like to take the risk myself.

The perceptive reader will notice that there's nothing about commercial prospects in here. This may betray an amateurish attitude, but it simply isn't a decision factor for me in deciding whether an idea's worth committing to. However saleable the concept, if a story doesn't push my buttons, it won't work. And if the idea's promising enough, the motivation is just to write the story; any subsequent reward is a bonus.

Where that leaves me, at the moment, is in Mondia. Because the commercial dimension is not part of the decision, I'm very closely bound to my emerging story: of Duke Varrel of the Five Cantrefs, and the ruin that his reckless ambition causes. (And some swordfights). Am I ready to make the commitment? Not quite yet: criterion No.8 is not complete. There is real momentum here, though.

My essential criteria do not include having a working title. I like to have one, but I can start without. I can tell you, therefore, that another Mondia novel title is on the cards; but I can't tell you what it's called yet.

*or oestrogen, of course
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