Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Book Launch News!

I'm delighted to announce that, largely thanks to the efforts of my indefatigable publicist Sophie, the date for my book launch has been finalised.

Waterstones Chichester presents

An Interview with Tim Stretton by Greg Mosse

to mark the launch of The Dog of the North

To be followed by a reading and book-signing

Date: 15 July 2008, 7-30pm
Tickets: £3, redeemable against the price of the book

Now, of course, I am starting to worry whether people will pay £3 to come and hear me witter. Luckily Greg is an excellent interviewer and between us we may pull off a creditable showing. I'm now preparing myself for the strange experience of walking past Waterstones, which I do every day, and seeing my name in the window...

* * *
I am, of course, focusing my attention on The Last Free City to the exlcusion of everything else at the moment, so it seems odd to be drawn back into The Dog of the North. It's also unsettling: The Dog of the North is a polished and finished piece of fiction, while TLFC is 65,000 words of a ratty first draft: the gulf in quality at this stage is alarming. I tell myself--every day, in fact--that I'm still "finding the story", but it's still an unnerving experience to look back at a complete piece of work that I'm very pleased with (having forgotten all the little errors which are still there) and compare it to what I'm writing now.

The Last Free City will be taking a break for a week or so. I hate stopping in mid-draft, but I am away on holiday for a week, in what will be a strictly no-writing environment. I've reached a good break-point: a second climax, which finds the protagonist in dire straits. He has his life, and not much else. How can he recover? (Err...I'll come back to you on that one...).

The next section of the novel will have a different location, so I can spend the next week mulling that over. I also have a wider narrative question to address. The story is told exclusively through one character's perceptions, and I will need at some point to decide whether to add a second voice, both to relieve any monotony, and to convey information that the protagonist does not have. I have two potential secondary viewpoint characters, and once I've finished the main story I'll decide whether it's worth interleaving their perspectives on the action.

* * *
Last week I touched on the highly-regarded British fantasist Joe Abercrombie, who on paper looked to be the kind of writer I would enjoy. I picked up his first novel The Blade Itself on Sunday (like I don't have enough to read...), even paying full price in Waterstones for the book. (And I never pay full price, except for MNW books).

The stage is set for crushing anti-climax. A hyped new writer, who ticks all the right boxes, has all the right influences, and the right attitude to epic fantasy. Everyone here understands narrative structures - the only one that fits here is that the book will stink, probably so badly that Environmental Health will be called and my house fumigated.

But no! I've read seventy pages, and it's absolutely brilliant... fresh, vigorous characterisation and a cruel black humour. This is going to be great. Abercrombie has the grimness of GRR Martin with a touch of the mordant Vance wit. His viewpoint characters are so clearly realised that it makes me want to burn The Last Free City, until I remember that it's backed up in a million places and can't be destroyed...

Abercrombie is a real talent. I can't remember enjoying a debut novel so much for years. He understands the tropes of the fantasy genre and is able to subvert them in a way which is both invigorating and respectful of the genre. There isn't--yet--a great deal of plot, but the characters are so compelling that it doesn't matter.

He also has a highly entertaining blog which mixes pleasingly ironic self-aggrandisement (at least I assume it's ironic...) with some perceptive observations on writing in the fantasy genre. Joe, if you're reading this: 4.995 stars for The Blade Itself so far...

* * *
::Acquired Taste will return in a week or so.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Mystery man: Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie (to answer the rhetorical question of the title) is a highly-regarded British fantasy writer. I've never read any of his work, although his "First Law" series has been on my "must get round to" list for a while. A couple of coincidences over the past day have made me push Abercrombie much higher up the list.

A few days ago I came up with an idea for a scene which indulged my love of borrowing/homage, call it what you will. I had Todarko, the protagonist of The Last Free City, encounter a troupe of itinerant actors. I had thought of them originally as little more than placeholders, but--and I'm sure I'm not the only one to whom this happens--I contrived a way to make a more integrated use of them. Why not have them put on a play? Why not make it a play within a play, like we see in Hamlet (The Last Free City already has one cheeky Shakespeare riff; no harm in treating ourselves to another)? So yesterday I cracked on and wrote the scene, where the mummers convey information which they cannot deliver directly through an interpolated scene instead.

I don't know whether this is self-indulgent, a bit of fun or a piece of post-modernist intertextuality. (I hope to God not the last...). Yesterday evening I was reading an interview with Joe Abercrombie (you knew we'd get back to him in the end) and found, to my amazement, the following:

Q: I couldn’t help but notice they way in which the Arch Lector chose to “out” Bayaz during Luthar’s celebration dinner, was a play. And even the last words “Our humble purpose was not to offend.” Were the allusions to Hamlet (”The play ’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (”If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended” intentional?”

A: Yeah, certainly they were intentional. The little play within a play was supposed to be reminiscent of Hamlet, and is written in my version of cod-Shakespearian blank verse (rhyming couplets with a little drop line, but whatever, close enough for most).

It's not so surprising for two writers to have the same idea (after all, there aren't that many to go around), but it was odd to find this on the very day I'd written my own Hamlet riff. It doesn't prompt me to take it out; I'm as entitled as Abercrombie to use the device--but it does make me keener to read his work.

I also buried a multi-level Jack Vance homage in the play scene. Vance himself, in Showboat World, has his actors discover--and stage, after a fashion--Macbeth. (This is one of Vance's funniest books, by the way. I recommend it to anyone). The actors in Showboat World also perform a play of Vance's devising, Evulsifer. I thought it would be fun to continue the game in The Last Free City and have my actors perform, as their play within the play...Evulsifer. I don't know whether anyone but me is entertained by such games. My responsibility to the reader is simply to ensure that the scene works on its own merits, regardless of whether that reader has read Hamlet or Showboat World. I've had fun doing it, tipped my hat to two writers I greatly admire, and if anyone else shares my sense of neatness they may appreciate it too.

In the same interview Abercrombie mentions his three favourite fantasy authors: Ursula Le Guin, G.R.R. Martin, and Vance. These are the three I'd pick, so to some extent our minds seem to work in a similar way (how horrifying if, when I get there, I find I don't care for Abercrombie's fiction). He also name-checks Dickens, Charles Palliser and James Ellroy. We clearly have a lot of the same inputs, so I'll be very interested to look at the outputs.

If only I hadn't had a spending spree this week and bought:
The Sleepwalker's Introduction to Flight, Sion Scott-Wilson (an MNW offering)
Resistance, Owen Sheers (as recommended by fellow MNW-er Alis Hawkins)
Scar Night, Alan Campbell (intriguing urban fantasy- debut novel)
The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch (word of mouth fantasy bestseller, set in a reimagined Venice)
The Terror, Dan Simmons (horror reinterpretation of Franklin's final Arctic expedition)
Cop Hater, Ed McBain (the grandfather of police procedurals)

despite already having more to read than I can reasonably expect to get through this side of Christmas.

But there'll be no more reading today until I get another thousand words or so of The Last Free City ::Acquired Taste will take a break for a little while.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Weekly Progress

Things have been quiet on ::Acquired Taste this past fortnight. In part this is because I had a couple of days illness last week--which meant missing two days' writing at a time when I was completely into the story; but mainly it's because the first draft of The Last Free City is going so quickly. I say "quickly" rather than "well", since I make no judgement as to quality at this stage. Most of it feels more perfunctory and disjointed than is normally the case for my first drafts (for I am at the "right first time" end of the spectrum in general).

This morning, though, I am at home awaiting a delivery, so I've had a good couple of hours this morning. I've written an 1,800-word scene and I'm very pleased with it. It's surely the best of the book so far: dramatic, consistent with character as already established, and with a pleasingly bathetic conclusion.

Word count now stands at 58,000. Two weeks ago I was at 34,000, so the wheels are turning, even if the car isn't necessarily going in the right direction. I've largely resisted re-reading what I've written so far, other than to check facts; if I don't re-read it, I can't be tempted to rewrite it...There will be all too much opportunity to do that later.

I now also have two potential endings in mind. This doesn't worry me--by the time I get there, one will be"righter" than the other. Maybe a third will be better still.

In the very unlikely event that anyone is interested in the "Action Stats", the proportions of the story are now:

The Last Free City
Action/Drama: 30% Intrigue: 28% Reflection: 19% Romance: 23%

Compared with the position a fortnight ago:

The Last Free City
Action/Drama: 25% Intrigue: 31% Reflection: 22% Romance: 22%

The story is clearly picking up the pace now. This could mean either:
  • as the protagonist's situation starts to unravel, more and more dramatic situations arise.
  • there is excess padding at the beginning while I establish in my own mind the story and its setting

Until I go back and read the whole thing, I can't tell. And at this stage, it doesn't really matter. In first draft, I think, you have to trust the process, and trust the story to hatch at the end of it all.

I am so engrossed in the story that almost forgotten that publication of The Dog of the North is only six weeks away!

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Cost of Letters

Matt Curran has bowled us all a typically challenging googly over at the Macmillan New Writers' blog:

This year sees the 10th anniversary of a “lost” book that caused a small stir on its publication. The Cost of Letters – a Waterstone’s publication, and their most important publication for some years – was about setting the record straight both for consumer and potential writer, around the finances of writing. For this they plundered the opinions of writers such as Will Self, Sebastian Faulks, Jane Rogers, Fay Weldon and Melvyn Bragg, and compared them to 1948 authors such as George Orwell, Dylan Thomas and Cyril Connolly – authors that were approached in 1946 to answer a post-war questionnaire on the big issue: “How much do you think a writer needs to live on?”
Matt invited the MNW gang to answer the questions themselves and, always eager for a new blog topic, I'm happy to oblige:

How much do you think a writer needs to live on?
This depends entirely on individual circumstances: the answer essentially is "the same as any other profession". I live in south-east England, with a hefty mortgage and a daughter to put through university. If I was fresh out of university myself, single, and willing to live in the arse-end of nowhere, I could get by on rather less... On the whole I'm happy not be in the latter position, and embrace my financial commitments freely.

Do you think a serious writer can earn this sum by his writing and if so, how?
God knows... In most cases, almost certainly not. But the important question is less about the amount than the predictability. I can conceive--just--of writing a book successful enough that with a year's royalities, subsidiary rights, and an advance on the next book, I could make as much money in a year as I do in my profession (already this is a stretch...). But what I can't imagine is doing it every year. Although the British public sector is certainly not a job for life (my own organasation now goes through an annual spasm of redundancies as a matter of course), as long as I stay in the job, I know roughly what my income is for the next year. For a full-time writer, barring the freak of a book so successful it sets the author up for life, solvency will always be uncertain.

If not, what do you think is a suitable second occupation for him*?


My own occupation--public sector accountant--is not too bad for a writer. It pays well enough that I can treat the writing as hobby without (most of the time) the job destroying my ability to do something else in the evening. (On the other hand, I am outraged at the thought that because the job makes me a higher rate taxpayer, 40% of any income I make goes straight to the taxman, unless I take elaborate steps to minimise it).

Other professional options: Higher/Further education lecturer (not school teacher), particularly creative writing; freelance anything. Both options allow sufficient periods away from work to devote to writing.

Do you think literature suffers from the diversion of a writer’s energy into other employments or is enriched by it?
Depends entirely on the job. A writer who writes about "real life" benefits from living it. A fantasist, who arguably has less point of contact with the real world, has less need of that kind of interaction. But I can't imagine any of us envisage writing seven hours a day, 48 weeks a year.

Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for writers?
The economics of this proposition are barmy. There are already too many writers--there's no incentive for the state to create more of them. The people who really want to write, will. Writers need to be pretty independent-minded people; they're also generally a supportive bunch. We can look after ourselves. Other than addressing my grievance of tax on second incomes--which will never happen--the state has role to play here. (This question really does reek of 1946!)

Are you satisfied with your own solution of the problem and have you any specific advice to give young people who wish to earn their living by writing?
I am making a decent living and I also have time to write (although I'd like more). "Satisfied" in the sense of "barely adequate" is just about right, I think.

As to advice to others, if you're expecting to make a living from writing, forget it. Plough your energies instead into doing the best work you can, and having the most fun with it. If you're in this for the money, someone has sold you some ultra-dud information. And if any of you would like to buy London Bridge, get in touch and we'll work something out.

*err...not my word. I understand that female literacy is increasingly widespread, and that some women have occupations too...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Getting Ahead of Myself?

Here's a question for the other writers who frequent ::Acquired Taste - how far ahead are you thinking when you're writing? Are you a chess player, computing every permutation for an endgame thirty moves hence? Or do you fly by the seat of your pants, a spendthrift who has no idea where tomorrow's prose is coming from?

The question occurs to me as I reflect on my own writing processes - something I do rather more since I've started this blog. I'm only about a day ahead of myself at the moment - so when I went to bed last night, I knew what today's scene would look like, but not tomorrow's. I know plenty of scenes further down the road, but that's no help if I can't fill in the intermediate scenes to get there.

Ideally I'd like to be about a week ahead. As things stand, I'm only one day from running out of material (which came perilously close to happening last week). Like Scheherezade, I'm having to come up with a new story every day. I know that tomorrow I need a filler scene, because I've planted a plot loop which will take a couple of days (in the story) to ripen. So I must fill the protagonist's time for those two days. I've done it by arranging for the protagonist to visit his grandmother. That's fine - I already see the cantankerous old bat in my head; but on redrafting I'll need to retro-insert her earlier in the story, so that the reader's first inkling that this spiteful old matriarch exists isn't after 40,000 words.

What about the rest of you? Do you find yourselves improvising your way out of holes? Or do you all plan better than me?

Friday, May 09, 2008

Weekly Report

I have been making good if not spectacular progress over the past week. Word count on the first draft is now 34,000 and, given my unease about the lack of action last week, there have been some dramatic scenes.

Last week the proportions stood at:

The Last Free City
Action/Drama: 17% Intrigue: 35% Reflection: 26% Romance: 22%

This week the balance of the story is:

The Last Free City
Action/Drama: 25% Intrigue: 31% Reflection: 22% Romance: 22%

Scenes drafted this week have included a brawl, a rampaging bindlespith (what's a bindlespith? You'll probably have to wait a couple of years to find out...), a tearful renunciation, another brawl, a visit to the Ostentatory (a kind of showroom for slaves). Plenty of incident this week, then: with 30,000 words gone, it's time to pick up towards the first climax, the point at which the protagonist's precarious grasp on events slips.

The story is still going broadly where I imagined it, although two of main characters have had little to do so far. One, whose motivations are key to the first climax, has been on stage very little. This always happens in my first drafts - characters I'd expected to be at the heart of events are becalmed, and others, conceived as placeholders, take on a life of their own. That's part of the fun of writing the story.

So far, so good.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Humming Along...News for the Week

I've had quite a productive week. My writing life has always been a mixture of almost complete indolence (occasionally known as "research") and crackling spells of productivity. I can't write a first draft in dribs and drabs--I can only get the job done with adrenalin and momentum.

The first draft of The Last Free City is coming along apace. Word count is just over 25,000 with a lowest daily output of 1,100. This is a horribly reductive way of looking at writing, but as a motivational tool it's highly effective for me. Once I hit 1,000 for the day, I'm in credit, and I can stop when I like. (I draw the line at keeping daily records: I just know that if I knock out 1,000 words a day I'll have a first draft to a timescale that allows me to remember the beginning when I'm writing the end).

That said, I do have quality issues with TLFC. I like numbers and formulae (goes with the day job) and I had a sense that something was out of balance with the first draft. Going back to The Dog of the North and Dragonchaser, the only similar things I've written, reinforced that view. For each book, I categorised every scene into Action/Drama, Political Intrigue, Reflection and Romance, these being the major components of each book. (You can already see how fundamentally stupid this idea is, but bear with me). The results were:

Action/Drama: 48% Intrigue: 18% Reflection: 15% Romance: 19%

The Dog of the North
Action/Drama: 48% Intrigue: 21% Reflection: 12% Romance: 19%

The proportions of scenes in each category is almost eerily similar. It takes no account of the length of scene, is highly subjective in its categorisations, and takes a broad view of what constitutes "action". But I have a sense that both of those books are well-balanced in terms of structure, so maybe it's telling me something. (If this means I'm writing to a formula, it's unconscious: as a writer I have a sense of whether things 'feel' right, which includes questions of balance like this).

The proportions are rather different for TLFC.
The Last Free City
Action/Drama: 17% Intrigue: 35% Reflection: 26% Romance: 22%

This supports my feeling that, a this stage, not enough is going on. The narrative is too light on action. Since the boundary between action and intrigue is a permeable one in my fiction, this need not be disastrous. And the way the novel is paced, the action will become more intensive as the story goes on. None of this is telling me to scrap the project - but it's a helpful reminder that the kind of fiction I write needs plenty of incident. It's no coincidence that the two scenes I'm working on at the moment are set-piece conflict and action scenes - because I know the story needs it at this stage.

Those concerns aside, there's much to be pleased with to date. The protagonist has a nice crop of flaws: he's indolent and caddish, redeemed by the occasional inexplicable flash of gallantry. For now, that's where I want him to be. The lead female character is suitably mercurial; I don't know what she's going to do next, so no-one else does. Best of all, the society of Taratanallos, the 'last free city' is ripening in a satisfying if somewhat unexpected way. It hadn't occurred to me, until I started writing, that this is not a place you would want to live. And the 'free' of the title is taking on a pleasingly ironic flavour...

* * *

After some consideration I have decided to submit Dragonchaser to Macmillan as my second novel. Looking over it at the weekend, I was surprised with how well it held up. It's still a story I believe in, and one that I think readers of The Dog of the North will enjoy. So now it's time to see if Macmillan agree with me! More on this later, of course.