Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The History Man

Over at Hawkins Bizarre, Alis invites us to list our best reads of 2008. I can't remember the detail of what I've read this year, which makes it rather a hard game to play for me. The books that have stood out, not always for the right reasons, include:

1812 (Adam Zamoyski)
Napoleon invades Russia. Then he goes home again.

The Other Boleyn Girl, The Boleyn Inheritance, The Other Queen, The Constant Princess (Philippa Gregory)
A tried and trusted multi-viewpoint narrative approach taking a female perspective on the Tudor era. Succeeds more often than it fails.

Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks)
A haunting evocation of a village isolated by bubonic plague.

The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)
Death guides us through life in Germany in World War II. Quicker to read than summarise...

Sword Song (Bernard Cornwell)
I abandoned this halfway through; a lifeless retread of much better books from his past.

The First Law trilogy (Joe Abercrombie)
Kick-ass fantasy that at once celebrates and subverts the fantasy genre.

One of things that's immediately apparent from this list--which is not exhaustive--is that all of the books are in some way historical: straight history (Zamoyski), invented history (Abercrombie) or historical novels. Am I reading nothing else? I look at my current to-read pile: Henry II (W.L. Warren), 1066 (W.L. Warren), Jerusalem (Cecelia Holland). My Christmas list includes A Time Traveller's Guide to the 14th Century and Young Stalin. Somewhere I have turned into an avid historian, which might just be understandable if I wrote historical fiction (hmm... too much research, too many picky readers).

It does illustrate that fantasy, particularly the kind of fantasy I write, is very akin to historical fiction, but more than anything it's about my mindset. No doubt there are plenty of wryly humorous novels about forty-something middle managers beset by office politics in the beleaguered public sector: but why would I want to read that? I live it... My imagination is fired by stories of other times, other places, and it doesn't much matter if they're made up or "true" (whatever the latter term means in this context).

Next year will be a whole new crop of books, a new series of worlds to enjoy - so roll on 2009!

Merry Christmas to all ::Acquired Taste readers, including the Googlebots which have so assiduously visited the blog throughout the year!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Little Seasonal Nonsense

...or, what I'm doing instead of editing

I've been distracting myself this afternoon with Wordle, a curious application which literally paints a picture with words. Here's one I made earlier:

The size of the word is proportional to its frequency in the text--in this case, The Dog of the North. Click on the image for a larger version.

This was so much fun that I made wordles for all the other novel-length fictions I've written, including the draft of The Last Free City (well, it beats editing it...)


The Last Free City

The Zael Inheritance

You probably have to be a bit nerdy to enjoy this. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then 130,000 words can also be worth a picture...

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ain't nothin' goin' on...

Editing, for me at least, is the least interesting part of the creative process. It's also the least interesting to blog about: at the moment, I'm reading the first draft of The Last Free City, and have noted some things that need changing. You don't say...

If you want to read an interesting and informative post about self-editing fiction, this isn't it. (The good news, however, is that this is: Sam Hayes--or Sam Hayesova as her Slovakian fans know her--maintains an excellent blog with a post on just this topic. Sam's post on editing also works in a link to an excellent Regina Spektor song which is worth the entry fee alone).

My initial view of The Last Free City is that it's not as good as The Dog of the North, a feeling I've long come to distrust. The more whiskers it grows, the more I'll come to love it. There's really nothing unfixably wrong with it. I've planted a few seeds in the story which don't pay off by the end, so I've got to decide whether to shoehorn in the payoffs or drop the seeds altogether. One of the minor plot strands threatens to overwhelm the others. One of the main characters seems underdeveloped. A couple of the scenes probably don't have the right viewpoint character.

On the other hand, some things are better than I thought. I have a minor character so spiteful she is a joy on the page; and more importantly the milieu of Taratanallos, the Last Free City, so malignantly undercuts the title as to create a sense of jewelled menace which is richer and darker than I'd originally conceived.

Over Christmas I'll finish the reading (another 50 or so pages to go) and then it's back to the business end of rewriting. Wish me luck!

* * *
And don't forget to vote for The Dog of the North in the Gemmell Legend Award poll. Voting starts on 26 December and I'll provide full instructions once the lists open.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Why Should I Read...?

1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow
Adam Zamoyski, 2004

Looking down the "Why Should I Read...?" list I am surprised at the almost complete absence of historical fact, as opposed to historical fiction. The omission is a strange one, as I read a lot of history, both out of curiosity and as a prompt for the kind of fantasy fiction I write.

1812 is unique among my list in joining even before I finish it (I've got about 100 pages to go). Some things are too good to keep. Zamoyski's book does exactly what one would expect from the title: take us through, from the French and Russian sides, Napoleon's magnificently flawed 1812 campaign, when his invincibility unravelled and his decline began. Zamoyski's work excels in quoting a huge array of primary sources, in his clear-sighted analysis of the bigger picture, his humanisation of the protagonists, and his lucid prose, which occasionally gives us a hint of Gibbon. Of Count Rostopchin, he observes: "In his privy he had installed a fine bronze bust of Napoleon, suitably adapted to serve the lowest function." Napoleon's army falls back on Smolensk, where there is little food to be had, and Zamoyski tells us: "When [the civilians] ran out of money or things to sell they were reduced to begging. In this, the women had an unenviable advantage". I admit to being fussy: I want my historians to understand history, but to command my attention I also demand that they can write.

Zamoyski adds enough new information and interpretation to the well-known story that it will repay the attention of scholar and novice alike, and never loses sight of the fact that he must tell us a story as well as impressing fellow historians. The Napoleon we see here, at the point of being humbled by his hubris, is compellingly different to the conqueror of Austerlitz or even the doomed bravo of Waterloo; and the bickering Russian commanders, invariably francophile in sympathy, are wonderfully differentiated.

This is a treat: just about the perfect history book.

How has it influenced me?

A book which I have yet to finish inevitably has to wait to exercise its influence. But I have long been aware of a novel I have yet to write in my Mondia cycle (The Last Free City already strongly hints at it) which has many similarities to Napoleon's Moscow campaign. Zamoyski gives us a brilliant commander whose faith in his own invincibility brings about his downfall; a long campaign in enemy territory; a disorganised opposition which triumphs despite its own internal divisions. All of these things were already envisaged for The City of Green Glass (working title), but 1812 has given me plenty of new ideas and refinements. My inspirations for Mondia are primarily medieval, but there is a timelessness about the Greek tragedy of this campaign which it's hard to ignore. (As an aside, I wonder whether Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy has a similar influence--Napoleon's retreat in appalling conditions, and the endless machinations of the Russian staff officers both seem strongly reflected).

Even the names are perfect: the Russians Barclay de Tolly, Bagration, Baggovut, Wittgenstein, Wintzingerode, Radozhitsky; the Frenchmen St Cyr, Sanguszko, Rapp. 1812 is a book which should fire the imagination of all writers of fantasy and historical fiction

Lessons for the aspiring writer

  • Truth may indeed by stranger than fiction, and it can also be as dramatic
  • The desire to create a shaped and satisfying narrative is as important in history as in fiction
  • Writers can--and perhaps should--be influenced by history at least as much as by other novelists
  • There is something irresistible about a great man brought low by strengths which contain the seeds of his destruction
  • If you are writing about military campaigns (and indeed if you are planning them yourself) don't ignore supply lines and logistics...

Monday, December 01, 2008

Paperback Writer

One of the many pleasures of the MNW soiree at Len Tyler's on Friday was the chance to catch up with my editor Will. As well as articulating--perhaps for the first time--what The Last Free City is 'about', I also got Will's permission to put the proof of The Dog of the North's paperback cover on the blog. I thought the hardback was great, but this is even better.

This is a proof, so for those of you with excessive attention to detail, it will be published by Tor, not Pan, and--this may come as a shock--The Dog of the North is not non-fiction.

With its brooding restraint, I think this is a glorious cover. 'Never judge a book by its cover', while undoubtedly sage advice, takes no account of how people behave in practice, so I'm indebted to Macmillan's graphic department for a cover so in keeping with the book.

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?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Farewell, celebrity!

Last night I met an intelligent and inquisitive group at Chichester Library who had gathered to hear my observations on 'The Road to Publication'. Some of them were kind enough to buy the book or indicate that they had already read it (so particular thanks to Helen, Elisabeth and Phil). I enjoyed the evening and I hope the audience of twenty or so did too.

The evening did, however, mark the end of my brief period of celebrity. Having taken part in half a dozen or so events to promote The Dog of the North, the diary is now empty. With an Amazon sales ranking of 350,000, the book is slowly slipping from the very limited prominence it once enjoyed. (At least until the paperback launch next year...).

There is an expectation in today's publishing industry that the writer will be prepared to do the legwork of publicising the book, giving talks, sitting on panels, holding signings etc. This is perfectly reasonable--after all, I want people to buy and read the book, and putting myself out there in person is a good way of doing it. It was something I regarded as a necessary evil, but having been through the process, to my surprise I find it was fun.

Now, of course, I need to concentrate on what put me there in the first place: writing commercial fiction. The Last Free City is moving along, if at no great pace. It is not out of the question that we will see a first draft by Christmas.

For today, though, we wave a cheerful adieu to our period in the admittedly low-wattage literary spotlight. To all of you who came along to the events, thanks for your support. I hope to see some of you again in the future!

::Acqured Taste will continue unabated with progress updates, reviews, recommendations and the occasional item to defy categorisation...

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Winning Formula

Over on Alis Hawkins' blog the question cropped up, almost as an aside, about the validity of criticising novels as "formulaic". The consensus among the writers who hang out there was that writing "formula fiction" is more difficult than it looks, and that good formula fiction is good fiction, full stop.

I've long been an exponent of the idea that there is very little new under the sun. Shakespeare reinterpreted existing stories, and wrote his five-act comedies, histories and tragedies to a pattern with which his audience would be familiar.

Formula applies to drama at least as much as to prose. In our house we're fans of various American crime series, almost all of which could be described as formulaic. The only one we religiously watch, and set Sky+ to avoid missing, is Bones. And yet Bones is utterly, completely a formula show. If you were designing an archetypal police procedural, you'd come up with something like this: an FBI forensic lab peopled with impossibly intelligent and good-looking--yet variously troubled--characters of both sexes. You'd certainly have a male and a female lead who have a mutual but never quite disclosed attraction, and of course their personalities, as well as being borderline dysfunctional, would also be completely contrasting. That is Bones in a nutshell; but it's also, to name a couple of others, also Law and Order: Criminal Intent (which we also watch) and the various incarnations of CSI (which we don't). It's not a million miles from the show which, at its peak, was the greatest of all US dramas, NYPD Blue.

Suits and Shades: the makers of Bones understand
how to make a cop show look cool

What makes Bones a must-watch show in Bosham is not the formula, then. It's the fact that the show's writers understand the formula and--here's the difficult bit--they do it bloody well. If it's different from Criminal Intent, it's because it's actually not very interested in the crimes. Yes, the play about with entomology and blood spatters; the characters can call up the most recondite knowledge at the drop of the hat. If it were aiming for realism, it would be implausible--but the real effect is to satirise the form. The writers of Bones understand the tradition they're working in but, like Len Tyler with The Herring Seller's Apprentice, they're quite happy to subvert it.

Two factors distinguish Bones. The characterisation is consistently excellent. By paying only the most perfunctory attention to plot, there is room in each 43-minute episode to explore the characters. Emily Deschanel, as the brilliant but blinkered Dr Brennan, and David Boreanaz as the strong but sensitive Agent Booth, create a relationship at once funny, tender and believable. And as my adjectives suggest, they're working with what could easily become stereotypes. The second great feature of the show is the dark comedy which underpins it. This is a show ostensibly about violent death, but it's one you can only really understand once you've recognised that it's a comedy. And it's much funnier than most productions which set out to be overtly amusing (let's take, as an example, the execrable There's Something About Mary [1998], one of the most witless productions of the human mind).

Creating to a formula--a less prejudicial term might be "working within a tradition"--is more difficult than it looks. If you're reading a book or watching a film that you don't like because it's formulaic, the chances are it's because the formula is badly executed, not because the formula doesn't work.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Taking Stock

Over the past few days I have been taking stock of progress on The Last Free City. Yes, "taking stock" is another one of those euphemisms for not doing very much... Things have been rather busy at work: while we're not yet in David Isaak territory, the collapse of the Icelandic banking system has had a knock-on effect for my own employers.

What I have been doing is creating a "master file" of the work I've done to date. This doesn't require quite the same emotional expenditure as actual writing (the task which must be displaced and avoided at all costs). I've taken the main narrative and stitched in the secondary one, and then insinuated the embryonic third storyline. Not everything is in quite the right place, but I have 120,000 words of first draft, of which maybe 100,000 is good enough to survive.

One thing which is apparent, though, is that my much-loved opening scene will have to go. It's a duel (you don't say...) which tells us in stark detail about the villain's character. You know from the outset that this is a cruel, violent man that you don't want to get on the wrong side of. And that's the problem. The second narrative strand of the book takes him from adolescence to the dawn of his warped career as arriviste and murderer (and in the value system of the book, being an arriviste is considerably the greater sin). For that strand to work, I can't afford the reader to see on page one that there is no hope for him. I need the reader to hope against hope that his good points will be enough to see him redeemed from his ruthlessness and ambition. And the only way that can work is to sacrifice my marvellous set-piece opening: so it goes.

How does the overall narrative hang together at the moment, then?

Strand 1 (the "main story") - 75,000 words.
The extended denouement is still to come

Strand 2 (the villain's backstory) - 40,000 words.
Essentially complete. Covers five years a generation before Strands 1 and 3.

Strand 3 (the outsider ) - 5,000 words.
Needs to be extended and integrated with Strand 1. This is the main piece of work still do. Until it's finished I can't move on and complete Strand 1.

the first draft therefore only has two major tasks outstanding: working up Strand 3 to become a story in its own right; and then letting Strand 1 run to its conclusion. The two together could add another 50-60,000 words so, ironically given my concerns that the book isn't big enough, I could have a first draft over 150,000 words. And my second drafts are usually longer.

Good job fantasy readers expect a long book...

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

::Acquired Taste has had a makeover

...you don't say.

My old template had a lot of bugs which I've finally lost patience with. With my tail between my legs, I return to the dreary conformity of a Blogger standard template...

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Why Does Everyone Hate J.K. Rowling?

There was much adverse comment last week at the news that J.K. Rowling is the world's highest earning writer, generating $300m last year: to quote The Guardian, by no means alone, "sickening reading for the majority of authors who are struggling to earn a living".

Rowling's crimes are various: she is rich; she writes derivative books with no literary merit; she gives money to the Labour Party; she sued a hapless and penniless fan who sought to publish a Hogwarts Encyclopaedia. Let's look at all this a little closer.

Rowling is undoubtedly rich. That money has arisen almost entirely from the Harry Potter books. The long and short of it is that those books have sold a hell of a lot of copies, and been made into films. Yes, they have been hyped by a publishing industry keen to profit from the books' popularity--but the sustained success of a seven-book series suggests that she has touched a lot of lives with her work. I've read all the books, seen all the films, so she's probably made about thirty quid out of me. Is that really so excessive?

Literary merit is harder to measure. Many of her detractors seem to me not to have read the books, or to given up after the first three; the later books in the series have an ambition and unflinching quality which to my mind makes them likely to endure well beyond the negative opinions of her opponents. And derivative? Well, Rowling is working in a particular tradition - but none of us works in isolation. I hope I don't disillusion anyone by observing that the plots of Hamlet and Othello are not entirely Shakespeare's own work...

Recently Rowling made a donation of £1m to the Labour Party, a measure of support for a beleaguered Government which should be respected even by those who don't vote the same way. Rowling has consistently championed social causes and supported this with significant amounts of money. That she can afford to misses the point: having money doesn't in general make us any keener to part with it.

Then there is the case of Steven Van Der Ark, who sought only to make an honest buck by producing a faithful Harry Potter encyclopaedia. So faithful, in fact, that it used almost exclusively Rowling's own words. There is a widespread view that a writer as wealthy as Rowling could have turned a blind eye to this minor piece of copyright infringement. I wonder whether those who have denounced Rowling's rapacity would be quite so blase if it was their own work that was being plagiarised in that way.

So why does everyone seem to have turned on one of our best-selling writers? Sadly it seems to come down to envy. Rowling's books are good, but they aren't so good that the revenues should dwarf what other writers are making: she had the fortune to be in the right place at the right time. I am sure that she would acknowledge as much. But wouldn't be a more charitable perspective to congratulate her on her success, and acknowledge that a writer who has hooked so many children on reading deserves all the rewards she gets?

So, with all due respect to those at The Guardian, despite the £27 royalties I have banked to date from The Dog of the North, I am not "sickened" by Rowling's success: I am heartened by it. And so should everyone who thinks that books are important.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Question of Perspective

Readers may by now be weary of further analysis of the composition process of The Last Free City. Hint to these readers: you're probably visiting the wrong blog. Yesterday I had an experience so unexpected, and so instructive, that it might be of interest to other writers.

The story so far:
The Last Free City was designed as the story of Todarko, a selfish youth, set against a background of political intrigue in a proud but corrupt city. Sixty thousand words in, I came to the conclusion that the protagonist's story wasn't strong enough to carry a whole novel, and I cast about for more narrative strands to support it.

Two possibilities presented themselves to me: a story set twenty years before, showing the formative years of Dravadan, the antagonist in Todarko's story; and a narrative from the viewpoint of Oricien, a survivor from
The Dog of the North. For a number of reasons, Oricien's story seemed the more promising and I set to work on it. Some 5,000 words later I put aside both optimism and the narrative: Oricien's story did not work. Instead I moved on to telling Dravadan's story--which has now reached about 30,000 words. It is not brillliant, but it is probably salvageable.

Last night I was pruning some back-ups from a little-used computer, and I came across the three episodes which made up the Oricien part of the story. Idly I re-read them. To my astonishment, they were the start of the greatest prose narrative ever written in English! Such euphoria rapidly abated, but even a sober second reading supported the conclusion that it was much better than I remembered: two nicely delineated characters, crisp conflict, some touches of humour. All in all, it's much better than most of the material which has survived.

What are the lessons of this homily? First, don't throw anything away; second, and more important--it's very hard to evaluate work while you're in the middle of writing. Put it away for a couple of months, come back to it, and it may have hidden virtues.

I will be picking up this third strand again once I have finished Dravadan's story...

Monday, September 29, 2008

Exclusive! From The Last Free City

Writers as a breed have a superstitious aversion to showing their work in progress to the wider world. I share this disquiet only to a certain extent. Our readers are interested in what we are up to, and from time to time there is little harm in gratifying their curiosity. With that in mind, today I am posting a short excerpt from The Last Free City. It is suitable for such violence in several respects: it is from a high authorial point of view; it gives away nothing of plot; it introduces no significant characters; it is largely standalone; and there is a high probability that it will not survive into the final draft. It is as it is, and comes with no warranty from the author...

The wealth of Taratanallos—and hence the basis for the lives of measured protocol and carefully graduated luxury of the Specchio—was born out of trade. The twenty-four houses jealously guarded monopolies of tariffed goods among themselves, enriching themselves from customs duties as well as forays into entrepreneurship.

The city’s status as the trading centre of the world might be thought to lend the city cosmopolitan air, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Those residents of the city who were not Tarat citizens—traders from other cities; diplomats; artists, actors and other disreputables—lived in a demarcated area of the city known as ‘the Wrill’. While not barred from the Argentium or the Prieko, their presence was not encouraged, and residents of the Wrill took no part in the cultural life of the city.

Outsiders sometimes took this as proof of the intolerable pride of the Specchio, that they should refuse to mingle with those who contributed so much to their coffers. Such a view, playing as it did on the popular perception of the Specchio as effete lordlings, concerned only with their fetes, their duels and their striving for notional advantage over their rivals, naturally gained a widespread currency.

Nonetheless this view was wholly false. While the Specchio occupied themselves in their introspective pastimes, there was a grimly practical reason for the existence of the Wrill: plague. More than any city in Mondia, Taratanallos was a nexus, a meeting point for traders from every city and culture. A disease brought in on a ship from Paladria, say, could run through the population in a month, and once established amongst those with no acquired immunity, would prove almost impossible to eradicate. The Wrill, therefore, served at once as a sink-hole and a quarantine, albeit a liberal one. On those occasions when plague broke loose—fortunately rare—the Consiglio enforced harsh movement restrictions, and those living in the Wrill perforce must wait out the contagion, or leave the city on ships provided for the purpose.

The arrangements were some way short of foolproof. Outbreaks of disease were years, sometimes decades, apart, and the smooth commercial functioning of the city would be impaired if those living within the Wrill were unable to travel. Hence the so-called “soft quarantine” which discouraged foreigners from mingling with the city folk, but did not forbid it.

That winter, at a time when plague had not been seen in the city for half a generation, an outbreak of disease took hold in the Wrill, and through deficient vigilance on the part of the Consiglio, made an incursion not only into the Prieko but also the Argentium. The countermeasures of quarantine were all the more rigorous for having been neglected in the first place, but by the time the Masavory were able to ring the great bell marking the all-clear, twenty-seven members of the Specchio were dead, including Thrinko, head of House Zamilio and father of Sanoutë, and Lustenaijo, who had once been President of the Masavory.

Those who remained were prompted, according to their temperaments, to reflect on the fleeting precariousness of mortality, or to throw themselves into their revels with redoubled seriousness. There is no disaster so severe that it has no beneficiaries, however. The fourteen year-old Lupus, the son of Thrinko, could now style himself ‘the Dignified Lupus’ and sit on the Masavory as the head of his house; and while his elevation was presumably purchased with some grief, the Viators—who saw attendances rise with a consequent increase in alms—enjoyed the chink of silver while incurring no compensating disadvantages.

Friday, September 26, 2008

On Reading and Re-Reading

One of themes of this blog is that one of the most important things a writer can do is read. It's an activity which is valuable in so many different ways: exposure to different styles, attitudes, approaches; a break from the grind of composition; and sheer enjoyment. The Why Should I Read...? links on the left set out some of my favourites.

There is a balance between seeking out new material and re-reading. The writer who only reads their books once never sucks all the marrow from the bone; while the writer who only reads tried and trusted favourites does not expand their range. So most of us, I suspect, mingle new material with the occasional return to certain titles. My most common re-reads are Jack Vance, of course, but also Austen and, strangely, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro.

What is it that makes a book re-readable. Humans are creatures of story: what will happen next? Will Odysseus make it home? We've known the answer to that for over two thousand years, but still we read Homer. Will Miss Bennet marry Mr Darcy? We can probably guess the answer before the end of the first reading--but Pride and Prejudice remains perhaps the most-loved novel in English. The books we want to re-read take the writer's greatest advantage--that they can keep us guessing--and cast it away. We've read the book once: we've learned that Anna Karenina puts her head on the railway track, but still we come back. And it's for something other than plot.

A re-readable book must keep back something on the first reading. It must yield a fresh delight once we are unyoked from needing to know what happens next. For some books, like The Quincunx, multiple readings are necessary simply to understand the plot (still not sure I do after three goes...); sometimes a second reading illustrates the neatness with which the plot is contrived (why else would you re-read Agatha Christie?); sometimes the beauty of the prose, like a flower, never cloys. Other writers can unite character with elegance of expression in a way which satisfies whichever mood you are in.

David Isaak quoted in his blog a while ago Raymond Obstfeld's dictum that the writer should aim to put a gem on every page. It's the best one-line writing mantra I've heard. Are the books we re-read the ones which pull it off?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dragonchaser: now to become a collector's edition!

Regular readers will know that I have been working on The Last Free City since April, and progress, although jerky, is definite.

In the interim I had submitted Dragonchaser to Macmillan as a potential follow-up to The Dog of the North. Yesterday I learned from my editor Will that Macmillan have decided not to publish it. Will had many good things to say about the book (all of which I agreed with) but his bottom line was that it is not as good as The Dog of the North (which I also agree with). My hopes for Macmillan now rest on the reception to The Last Free City, a novel much closer in tone and sensibility to The Dog of the North than Dragonchaser. So no need to give up hope just yet...

Writers almost by definition must possess a thick skin. While I am disappointed that Dragonchaser won't benefit from linking up with Macmillan, I'm not devastated. The book was written too long ago for the blow to feel too personal, and my emotional energies are now invested in The Last Free City.

is neither a better nor a worse book for having been rejected by Macmillan: it is what it is. It's still a book I believe in, and one I think had some commercial potential. Luckily--for those of you who like to check things out for yourself--it's still available as a self-published title with Lulu.com. Check it out here, where you can also buy it in an omnibus edition with my first novel The Zael Inheritance.

It's almost a cliche that the best remedy for a writer who has received a rejection is immediately to plunge into more writing. And since I have a betrothal feast nagging to be written up (hint: it's not going to be all love and kisses...) that is exactly what I shall do!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Also Writes Novels...

Visitors to ::Acquired Taste could be forgiven for thinking that very little fiction writing ever takes place here. With
The Dog of the North now making its own way in the world, I should be a hive of industry ("hive" in the busy bee sense, rather than the skin complaint, we hope) on its successor.

That successor,
The Last Free City has had rather a chequered history, never evolving with fluency of its predecessors. The main story, that of Todarko, poet, womaniser and dilettante, is peopled with strong characters and a dramatic situation, albeit one that's not protracted enough to make an entire novel. His incomplete story stands at around 65,000 words, after taking out an abortive plot loop (some of which may be recyclable). I had also experimented with a viewpoint story from one of the survivors of The Dog of the North. This trial was not successful, and remains in abeyance. I may yet resurrect it, depending on how my third viewpoint unfolds. This ithird strand s the tale of the early years of Dravadan, the villain of Todarko's story.

We all enjoy explorations of villainy, more particularly in fiction than through personal experience. Recounting the formative years of a dark character is potentially an engaging device, although it runs the risk of producing a Rubber Ducky (thanks to David Isaak for introducing me to this term): that explaining too much about the villain's childhood oversimplifies the character and drains the situation of all interest. Hannibal Lecter is the obvious example, but Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars series is perhaps the apotheosis: three films (and not very good ones) to explain why Darth Vader can't breathe without sounding like he's in an advert for Snorex.

There is another, more serious problem with Anakin Skywalker: not only is he given a pretty crude Rubber Ducky, he's also A Good Guy Really. This is the worst character arc of the lot: Angelic Kid suffers a Moment of Trauma after which he becomes The Embodiment of Evil before turning things around with a Redemptive Death. Does this sound remotely plausible to you? Me neither. (Readers of The Dog of the North may think that I skirt dangerously close to this with Beauceron's character. My defence would involve spoilers, so I must be acquitted on a technicality).

To write a convincing "villain's childhood", it seems to me essential that the seeds of the warped adult are already there: they should not be implanted by an external event--although such an event may trigger the manifestation of this aspect of their character. In that sense the writer should not explain the character, merely document it.

In writing Dravadan, therefore, a character the reader can only view with disgust and--I hope--fear in Todarko's story, I have been careful to avoid either explaining his pathology, or to give him generous motivations perverted by the cruelty of the world. Instead, he's a sod from the outset. This approach, too, has its risks: principally, the difficulty of engaging the reader's sympathy. I have to hope that creating a dynamic character who displays ambition and initiative will retain the reader's interest even when his actions are reprehensible. In a technical sense there are strong similarities with Beauceron, although with Dravadan I have not smoothed off the rough edges. I calculate, as well, that I can get away with one unsympathetic viewpoint when there is at least one other viewpoint in the book. The only judge, of course, will be the reader.

Dravadan's narrative now stands at 15,000 words. There are still several major episodes of his early life to detail, so while his story will not exceed Todarko's (and nor should it), there will be enough to allow the character some depth. For now, we have forward motion, so I will allow Dravadan his head a while longer.

* * *
My re-reading of Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy continues, and I am now on the final volume, Madouc. Regular visitors will surely allow me the indulgence of another quotation, so beautifully does it encapsulate one aspect of Vance's art. Madouc, the princess who is really a fairy changeling, is taunted by her companions for her lack of pedigree:

Madouc had no sure understanding as to what might be a ‘pedigree’. She had heard the word used once or twice before, but its exact significance had never been made clear. A few days past she had gone to the stables to groom her pony Tyfer; nearby a pair of gentleman were discussing a horse and its ‘fine pedigree’. The horse, a black stallion, had been notably well-hung; but this would not seem to be the determining factor, and certainly not so far as Madouc was concerned. Devonet and the other maidens could not reasonably expect her to flaunt an article of this sort.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Re-reading old favourites

My holiday in Turkey was enjoyable in almost every way. One small flaw, however, was that none of the books I took with me as holiday reading fully satisfied. When I came back, then, I was desperate to read a book I knew I was going to love, and this took me to the realm of re-reading. Even this approach isn't foolproof. My latest reading of The Lord of the Rings may very well be the last, so much has the book changed. But of the course, the book is the same as ever, so what's changed is me.

Nonetheless I felt I was on a pretty safe bet when I picked up Jack Vance's Suldrun's Garden, the first in his Lyonesse fantasy trilogy. This is a book I have read and loved for over twenty years, and from the first paragraph the rhythm of Vance's prose sucked me in again.

On a dreary winter’s day, with rain sweeping across Lyonesse Town, Queen Sollace went into labor. She was taken to the lying-in room and attended by two midwives, four maids, Balhamel the physician and the crone named Dyldra, who was profound in the lore of herbs, and by some considered a witch. Dyldra was present by the wish of Queen Sollace, who found more comfort in faith than logic.

King Casmir made an appearance. Sollace’s whimpers became moans and she clawed at her thick blonde hair with clenched fingers. Casmir watched from across the room. He wore a simple scarlet robe with a purple sash; a gold coronet confined his ruddy blond hair. He spoke to Balhamel. “What are the signs?”

“Sire, there are none as yet.”

“There is no way to divine the sex?”

“To my knowledge, none.”

Standing in the doorway, legs somewhat apart, hands behind his back, Casmir seemed the very embodiment of stern and kingly majesty, and indeed, this was an attitude which accompanied him everywhere, so that kitchen-maids, tittering and giggling, often wondered if Casmir wore his crown to the nuptial bed. He inspected Sollace from under frowning eyebrows. “It would seem that she feels pain.”

If I had to pick a single favourite book, this would be it: a compelling multi-layered narrative which comprehends both mediaeval-style realpolitik and whimsical fairy-tale, all retailed behind the straightest of faces. He even manages to slip in a retelling of Hansel and Gretel. The emotional range Vance displays in this series makes the work all but inexhaustible. Every time I read the book I discover fresh delights. This exchange between Aillas, the nominal protagonist, and Persilian, the magic mirror who must answer three questions, and fourth earn his freedom, is a tiny slice of perfection:

On the way back to the village Glymwode he turned aside and approached a half-decayed stump. From the wrapping he took Persilian and propped it upright on the stump. For an instant he saw himself in the glass, comely despite the harsh structure of jaw, chin and cheekbone, with eyes bright as blue lights. Then Persilian, from perversity, altered the image, and Aillas found himself looking into the face of a hedgehog.

Aillas spoke: “Persilian, I need your help.”

“Do you wish to put a question?”


“It will be your third.”

“I know. Therefore, I want to describe the sense of my question, so that you will not return a glib evasion. I am seeking my son Dhrun, who was taken by the fairies of Thripsey Shee. I will ask you: ‘How may I bring my son alive and well into my own custody?’ I want to know exactly how to locate my son, release him from Thripsey Shee in possession of his health, youth and mental faculties, without incurring penalty. I want to locate and free my son now and not in a program involving weeks, months or years, nor do I want to be fooled or frustrated in some way I haven’t considered. Therefore, Persilian—”

“Has it occurred to you,” asked Persilian, “that your manner is most arrogant? That you demand my help as if it were a duty I owed you, and you, like all the others, jealously refuse to free me by asking a fourth question? Do you wonder that I regard your problems with detachment? Have you reflected an instant upon my yearnings? No, you exploit me and my power as you might use a horse to draw a load; you chide and domineer as if by some heroic deed you had earned the right to command me, when in fact, you stole me in the most furtive manner from King Casmir; do you still choose to hector me?”

After a confused moment Aillas spoke in a subdued voice: “Your complaints for the most part are fair. Still, at this moment, I am driven to find my son to the exclusion of all else.

“Therefore, Persilian, I must repeat my charge: give me in full detail a response to this question: ‘How may I bring my son into my care and custody?’”

Persilian spoke in a heavy voice: “Ask Murgen.”

Aillas jumped back from the stump in a fury. With great effort he kept his voice even: “That is not a proper response.”

“It is good enough,” said Persilian airily. “Our urgencies drive us in different directions. Should you choose to ask another question, by all means, do so.”

Whenever I need cheering up--or, more exactly, when I need mental refreshment of a particular kind--I reach Suldrun's Garden down from the shelf. Does anyone else have a "tonic book" like this?