Thursday, June 26, 2008


Tags are marvellous for bloggers who can't think what to write today other than posting pictures of their own publicity materials... I'm grateful, therefore, to Alis Hawkins for putting up the following open-invitation tag on her own blog. Without further ado, here goes:

What was I doing ten years ago

Finishing my first novel, The Zael Inheritance. For all its flaws, I still have some affection for it, and its anti-heroine remains in my eyes the best character I've ever written. I was also a month into speed-dating one of my work colleagues--ten years later we are still speed-dating...

Professionally I was doing much the same things with spreadsheets as I do today.

The Vance Integral Edition, a hobby which was to fill much of the intervening period, was still a year away.

Five things on my to-do list for today
  1. Go running at lunchtime
  2. Find a minimally unflattering hi-res photograph, preferably of myself, to send to the Portsmouth Evening News for a story they are running on The Dog of the North
  3. Compere this morning's 'Finance Briefing' at work
  4. Continue re-reading the first draft of The Last Free City, despite my resolution not to...
  5. Watch Russia vs Spain in the Euro2008 semi-final
What would I do if I were a billionaire

Buy an island, pay people of five feet two and under to live there, and stride through the streets I had constructed, head and shoulders above everyone else. With money left over I would invest in telecommunication jamming equipment and turn it on at 7:30 when the BBC transmits its dismal 'drama' of grunting half-human beasts, EastEnders.

Oh, and end world poverty.

Three bad habits I've got

Only three?
  1. Untidiness
  2. Laziness
  3. Coveting my neighbour's ass (not as kinky in the UK as the US, but clearly not a good habit))
Snacks I enjoy

Muesli. Chocolate. Yoghurt-coated raisins. Curious crisps/chips from America shaped like UFOs.

The last five books I've read

How NOT to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman.
As recommended by David Isaak. Can be read just for laughs, but if you don't recognise a liberal sprinkling of your own faults here, you're in denial.

Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell
Sorry, Bernard, I like your books normally but this was grim. A largely unsympathetic hero gets himself into various spots of bother, all of which he gets out of by virtue of being an invincible warrior. I gave up halfway through, almost unheard of for me. If you're going to write a book with only one real character, he needs to be a bit more nuanced than this. Like Michael Moorcock's Elric novels but without the irony.

Dirty Money by Richard Stark
The latest Parker novel. Not his best, by any means, but Stark operating at 80% is still pretty damn impressive. The books have been getting longer which dilutes their sinewy power, but Stark remains one of the greats

The Sleepwalker's Introduction to Flight by Sion Scott-Wilson
At once funny, touching and anarchic, this is a "typical" Macmillan New Writing effort--defying ready classification but beautifully written and highly intelligent. The closest match I can think of is Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

It terrifies me when MNW publish stuff this good... it raises expectations of my own work which may not be satisified!

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
As previously blogged. Brilliant character-driven fantasy, subversive and hard-edged.

Cop-Hater by Ed McBain
The first of McBain's 87th Precinct novels, this was credited as launching the police-procedural sub-genre. Others have subsequently done this much better, and I wasn't gripped enough to expect to read more of these any time soon.

Five jobs I've had

Deckchair attendant (best job ever...)
Identity parade stooge

Five places I've lived

Willard Price's Adventure series
Jack Vance's Gaean Reach
E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman universe
Mondia, the setting for Dragonchaser and The Dog of the North

Oh, real places...

Sandown, Isle of Wight
Grim seaside resort

Shanklin, Isle of Wight
Less grim seaside resort

Hey, this one we like!

Herne Bay
Grim seaside resort. The arsehole of the universe.

But--for those who know Bosham--not the posh bit.

If anyone else would like to be tagged, please treat this as your invitation.

It is a strange feeling--to say the least--to walk past my local bookshop at lunchtime and see this...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Rendering Unto Caesar

The life of the writer is unceasingly glamorous: preparing for launch events and other personal appearances, when not wrestling with knotty problems of narrative strategy before honing exquisitely crafted prose to a sheen which dazzles peers and awes readers.

Since most of my regular visitors to :: Acquired Taste are writers themselves, I'm hard put to get away with this one. Writing involves, even at the best of times, a great deal of drudgery and frustration and this weekend I added a new string to this particular bow: tax returns. I know, I know, you don't come here to read about tax, but trust me, this is important (and, if you have a certain cast of mind, even interesting).

Most writers have a day job, on which they pay tax. In the UK, they don't have to be particularly well-remunerated to pay tax at the higher rate of 40%. This means that of any income you get from writing, 40% has to be paid over to the taxman (the alternative strategy of not declaring it has the disadvantage of being illegal). If, as a writer, you haven't taken steps to deal with your tax liability, you're probably paying more tax than you need to.

If you are pursuing writing as a profession, you are entitled to offset certain expenses incurred in the course of that profession against any income you make. Do you have a home office? If so, a proportion of your energy costs, council tax and mortgage interest may be tax deductible. Do you buy books? They can be tax deductible too. Is your writing income 'lumpy' from year to year? There are ways of averaging it out to make your tax liability stable across years too. If you can wangle it so that your writing expenses exceed your income, you may even get a tax rebate.

I must stress that this is not formal "financial advice". But if you are a writer with any sort of income from the hobby, it's in your interest to secure some professional advice on the subject. The Society of Authors can recommend a number of accountants who specialise in writers' tax affairs if you are a member.

Being serious about writing does not just involve diligence about your craft: it also means being serious about administrative matters which are more easily ignored. Paying attention to tax isn't glamorous and for most of us it's not fun either. But get it right and you might find your royalties stretch further than you imagined.

Normal service will be resumed in future posts...

Friday, June 20, 2008

I Have Seen the Future...

...or more accurately, the present: today Will handed over the first copy of
The Dog of the North. In this case pictures are more eloquent than words:

Woo hoo!

Thursday, June 19, 2008


A writer gets to a stage--relatively early, in most cases--of being able to set down intelligible prose. They may have the odd weakness in dialogue, say, but the ability to create a narrative which moves from one point to another can be acquired by little more than diligence.

One aspect of writing which is hard to teach, perhaps because it's hard to see, is the question of choices. Every 'story' can be told in an infinity of ways. How different would The Great Gatsby be if it were narrated by Gatsby himself and not Carraway? What about Bleak House, if it were just the story of Esther Summerson? The most important choice that a writer has to make is not "what story shall I tell?" but "whose story is it and how shall I tell it?"

The simplest of all narrative strategies is the single first-person narrative: one person's story, told as if by that person. It can be highly effective although there are limitations: particularly that the reader can only know what the protagonist knows. Third-person narratives allow more flexibility, since the writer can vary point of view, throw in long shots and provide as much as exposition as seems appropriate.

I have a major choice of this sort to make for The Last Free City. I've never consciously made a decision about viewpoint characters in anything I've written so far. The Zael Inheritance, Dragonchaser and The Dog of the North have all grown out of a particular character I wanted to explore. The Last Free City started the same way, but now that I'm getting close to the end of his story I am not sure it's big enough to carry the novel.

I'm considering two solutions to the problem. The first is to rework the story to give the protagonist a richer experience. This would involve heightening some aspects of the story, and maybe bringing in some new ones.

The other solution, as readers of the blog will know, is to bring in another viewpoint character. This isn't unheard of for me (The Dog of the North has two points of view) but it does change the tone of the story somewhat. I know who I would use as the secondary viewpoint--the character who links The Last Free City with The Dog of the North. Initially this character had only a few appearances (although he's important to the plot). If I make him a viewpoint character, by definition he becomes more central to the novel. The link between the two stories becomes much more explicit--which is not something I was aiming for. It will still not be a sequel, but it does make the bigger story which sits behind both books (and at least one other I have in mind) much closer to the foreground.

It would change The Last Free City from the story of an idle selfish womaniser who learns better (a story which just happens to be set in the same world as The Dog of the North), to a piece in a political jigsaw which will not be complete for at least one more novel. I would, almost by default, be writing a series--something I've had no particular desire to do.

The short-term solution is relatively simple, I think. I'm finding this secondary narrative interesting to think through, and I commit myself to nothing beyond time if I start to write it. So my inclination is to follow it where it leads, and then judge whether it strengthens the book.

Choices of this sort are the most significant a writer has to make. They are different in kind--and difficulty--to choosing whether to excise a scene or tighten dialogue. They are also the choices which define the writer--so a few more days' reflection won't do any harm.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Ventriloquists and Exhibitionists

More years ago than I care to remember, I made the grand generalisation in an A-level economics essay: "Economies of scale come in three kinds". The essay was returned with the wry aside: "like shirts?", and ever since I have been wary of generalisations, and particularly of that airy way of expressing them. (And, twenty years later, I've no idea what kinds of economy of scale there are, or whether there are three kinds).

Nonetheless, today I am going to inflict another on the unsuspecting world another such observation: writers come in two kinds. (No, not "poor" and "destitute"). I'm thinking today about writers' voices and, as the title of the post suggests, I've characterised them as "ventriloquists" and "exhibitionists". The ventriloquist occupies the characters so completely that the voice on the page is that of the viewpoint character, even in a third-person narrative: the writer is obscured behind the characters. On the other hand, we have the exhibitionist. However vigorous the characterisation, it is subordinate to the authorial voice. In practice, this is a continuum rather than two polar opposites: most writers will fall somewhere in the middle rather than at either extreme.

Conventional creative writing teaching would have us believe that the ventriloquist is a more fully evolved lifeform than the exhibitionist. The former creates a fully immersive fictional world, while the latter fails to subdue their ego, and creates a less varied experience for the reader. Like a salad smothered with too much vinaigrette, the taste and texture of the individual ingredients is overpowered by what lies on top of it.

I don't hold to this view at all. There are some writers of whom, presented with a single page of their prose, the reader must think "no-one else could have written this". Such a writer is likely to be an exhibitionist. This sort of writing need not be exuberant or extravagant (indeed, if their voice is so dominant, their writing probably won't be overstated, for the danger here is that they cloy the reader's palate). Many exhibitionist writers--who are often lauded as stylists--write spare, understated prose. Writers we have discussed on ::Acquired Taste who fit into the exhibitionist category must include Jack Vance (the apotheosis of the exhibitionist writer), Dickens (whose varied characterisation is always subordinate to the authorial voice), Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Muriel Spark and Cordwainer Smith. A case could also be made for Patrick O'Brian and Jane Austen, whose rich characterisation in both cases is held together by prose of a lucid and distinctive intelligence. Lest I be accused of failing to declare an interest, I'd put my own writing strongly at the exhibitionist end of the spectrum (the distinction between exhibitionist and ventriloquist does not make a judgement about the quality of the work, simply the method which is employed).

None of the above should be taken as a denigration of the ventriloquist's approach. Indeed, fellow writers are most likely to admire this kind of approach when it's well executed. The ventriloquist may use several different voices within a book to differentiate viewpoint characters (Joe Abercrombie and Kate Mosse are good examples); or they may write each book with voices which are consistent within the story but contrasting from novel to novel (Jim Crace and Mark Haddon spring to mind (this approach is often but not always associated with first person narratives). The best recent example of a voice tailored specifically to the story I can think of is Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders: it's an approach which is well-suited to historical fiction.

I don't think that either approach is necessarily 'better'. Each writer will have different aims and aptitudes, and these will determine their position on the spectrum. Reading a ventriloquist creates a more complete immersion, because there is no sense of mediation between author and audience: the reader is 'in the story'. The exhibitionist, by contrast, sits between the reader and the story, and this has all the advantages and disadvantages of company in general. A garrulous or banal mediator will swiftly bore or irritate the reader, but a distinctive and engaging voice will add an extra dimension to the reader's journey.

Many of my visitors at ::Acquired Taste are writers themselves. Are you ventriloquists? Or exhibitionists? How many kinds of economy of scale do you think there are?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Reining Back - The Last Free City

Word-count on The Last Free City stands at 73,000 words. In structural terms, I reckon I'm probably at the end of the fourth act: the scene is set for the climactic convulsions to come. Some of the characters we've come so far with will be dead at the end of the fifth act (even if I'm not sure which, in every case); for the ones who survive, life will never be the same again.

What is down on the page is not bad by first draft standards. There are some good scenes and I'm pleased with the development of the protagonist's character. The "Action Stats" are picking up too:

The Last Free City
Action/Drama: 40% Intrigue: 17% Reflection: 19% Romance: 20%

compared with the last stocktake:

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

Nonetheless, it's time to take a step back. I've produced 73,000 words in 52 days (and that includes a week's holiday). At the start of the fifth act, though, I need to spend some time working out exactly how things are going to end up. Final set-pieces are about plot more than character (with character already established, it's now about letting them play out): they need a clockwork mechanism if they are to work satisfactorily. Blundering through the first 80% of the novel, finding the story as I go, has been quite effective, but it won't work for the final act. Now I need to plan what happens, and how it happens, before I set to work writing it.

This approach has several benefits: I stop beating myself up about the jerky nature of my progress; I get to watch the rest of Euro 2008 with a clear conscience; and—most importantly—the draft will be better as a result.

So, how do things stand at the moment? I can already see things which need to be fixed in revision. There is too much dialogue, which is fun, but narratively it’s junk-food. The second draft will need more roughage, more of the descriptive prose holding everything together.

I also need another viewpoint character. The story of Todarko, our shallow, self-obsessed protagonist who just happens to have an unusual facility with words (before you ask, this isn’t autobiographical… he’s a wow with the chicks too, at which point all comparisons with the author must cease) can’t quite carry the whole narrative. He’s too unsympathetic at the start—and I need him to be that way—and there are points in the story where not enough happens to him. By giving a larger role, and occasional viewpoints, to the one character carried over from The Dog of the North, I freshen the reader’s experience, create a continuity between the novels, and convey information in a less obtrusive way. This second narrative will not be a huge proportion of the novel—maybe 20%—but it’s a much better way in to the political intrigue which underpins the story’s structure.

There are many other smaller areas which need attention. Too many of the minor characters are just ciphers at the moment; one of the major ones scarcely appears at all, and the local colour is somewhat muted. Most importantly, the main female character is too passive: I haven’t given her enough to do.

None of this is any way disheartening. I have 73,000 words of coherent story backed up in a million places; I can see what’s wrong with it; and I know, in most cases, how to fix it. Sometimes it’s important to know when to stop, and a few days mulling over how to get to the end is just what’s needed at the moment.

* * *

My periodic Google searches on The Dog of the North led me to discover this interesting site, Rising Shadow, which lists all forthcoming publications in the field of sf/f. It seems admirably comprehensive, and an excerpt from July’s list gives us:

Imagine the excitement of jostling so close to the master, Jack Vance! I don’t know who Elizabeth Haydon is, but it’s probably as well that she’s there to stop me invading Vance’s space. (Incidentally, The Vance Reader contains Emphyrio, one of Vance’s best novels – this is a recommended purchase!)

Rising Shadow also lists publications further ahead including—bizarrely—The Last Free City for 2009. Somebody obviously scrutinises the internet very closely… Even setting aside the trivial considerations of finishing the book and having it accepted for publication, I don’t think we’ll be seeing it on the shelves in 2009, but I appreciate the sentiment…

* * *

And just in case anyone’s forgotten: The Dog of the North is published three weeks tomorrow. Gulp!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"Why Should I Read...?"

The Blade Itself
Joe Abercrombie, 2006

Regular visitors to ::Acquired Taste will have noticed frequent references to Joe Abercrombie in the past few weeks. One of the themes of this blog is that writers are readers too; and sometimes we come across stuff we love, just like anyone else. The reader in me has been thrilled and delighted by Abercrombie's First Law trilogy; the writer in me, howling with envy, wants to gun him down in the street...

I'm forming my judgement on the trilogy based on the first two novels, The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged; like a drug trial hastily rolled out to the public before it's completed, some things are just too good to keep.

The trilogy broadly has three plot strands: the first is a subversive reinterpretation of the standard fantasy quest, an ill-assorted band of companions following a charismatic wizard literally to the ends of the earth to find a magical artefact. So far, so predictable. What makes it memorable is the way in which Abercrombie twists the stereotypes, and pushes "ill-assorted" to breaking point: this a group whose members mostly hate each other. The conclusion of the quest at the end of Before They Are Hanged is a masterpiece of using familiarity with the genre to create a wonderfully amusing anti-climax.

The second strand is a war between the 'Union', a decadent monarchy riven by political machinations (you can see why I like it) and the shadowy Gurkish. It's distinguished by its unflinching depiction of war. Abercrombie doesn't do heroic: his concept of war is shaped more by Iraq than medieval chivalry.

The final plot strand is the story of Glokta, a former war hero crippled and embittered after torture by his enemies. Glokta himself becomes a torturer, but never loses his humanity (although it's well buried at times). Abercrombie realises his character brilliantly: it is one of the great creations of all fantasy literature.

Abercrombie has two main strengths: the ability to paint original and rounded characters in a milieu awash with stereotypes; and a vivid visual imagination. He is adept at providing just enough detail for the reader to picture the varied locales. His control of voice is also exemplary: the narrative of 'Dogman', the northern bandit, could come from a different pen to Glokta. When we read Jack Vance, we always know we are reading Vance; Abercrombie is lost in his characters (both approaches, of course, are equally valid).

One critic described Abercrombie's work as "misogynistic". I don't think it's true--it's just that the few female characters are less accomplished than the male ones. One of the questing band, for instance, is Ferro, a warrior more kick-ass than any of the men: what I call the 'Xena Warrior Princess' stereotype. Abercrombie is good at overturning stereotypes, and he writes Ferro very well: but this is a stereotype which is simply irredeemable. In the first two books, he has four main female characters: three of them turn out to have been abused as explanations of their dysfunctional personalities (the fourth, almost certainly not coincidentally, was far and away the most successful for me).

This a minor flaw set against the achievement as a whole. Abercrombie has a dark vision, and he owes more to Martin than Tolkien. His voice has an unusually wide range, and the reader's immersion in his fictional world is complete. I am fascinated to see what he does next: for me, the best parts of the series are the ones which are not reinterpretations of existing tropes. Now he's got that out his system, I'm looking forward to seeing what else he can do. I don't think we'll be disappointed.

How has it influenced me?
Give me a chance! A month ago I'd never heard of him! Abercrombie and I come from the same place in fictional terms: an enjoyment of classic fantasy alongside a frustration with the derivativeness of much of the recent writing in the field. We have gone to very different places since, but I am sure that as I come to write future books, Abercrombie's example is one I will be drawing on.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
  • don't be afraid to steer away from conventional happy endings
  • you can sustain a vital and energetic novel without a conventionally sympathetic protagonist...
  • ... indeed the anti-hero can give you perspectives not available to the 'hero'
  • skilfull deployment of different narrative voices can deepen the immersion in your fictional world
  • humour and a dark story are not incompatible

Friday, June 06, 2008

Back from Holiday

::Acquired Taste has returned from a few days in New York. It says something about me that I flew halfway across the globe to one of the world's greatest cities--and what I liked best was a park. In fact, I enjoyed pretty much everything about New York, but there was nothing to match the marvel of Central Park, a vast wilderness carved out from among the skyscrapers.

The shops of New York largely passed me by: while the ladies had their shopping expedition, I holed up in Barnes and Noble's coffee shop and finished off The Blade Itself. All I bought on the trip was a couple of books I could have got in England: Richard Stark's Dirty Money (woo hoo! a new Richard Stark!) and the second book of Joe Abercrombie's First Law series, Before They Are Hanged. The latter is a trade paperback, normally a format I avoid. There is something about American trade paperbacks, though, which makes them much better to read: they tend to be bound more loosely, and you don't have to fight--or even break--the spine to keep the book open. Perhaps other transatlantic readers have noticed this feature?

On the subject of Joe Abercrombie: I have now finished the first two books. I will blog much more about Abercrombie later--he is a writer of unusual gifts, and for anyone who enjoys fantasy his books are a treat. Darkly humorous, dripping with rich characterisation and with great control of voice, Abercrombie is setting the standard for modern fantasy fiction.

I have not yet restarted The Last Free City: today is the first day I have felt close to alert since I returned. Reading the latest scene last night to refresh my memory was not a pleasant experience, and I am forced to fall back on my mantra "everything can be fixed in revision". At the weekend I will return to the first draft: at this stage, driving the story forward is more important than fixing the infelicities which I fear lurk on every page.