Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Little Visual Stimulation

There is no writing tool more valuable than imagination. The facility for crafting prose is a poor second, because if there is nothing in front of the inner eye, there is nothing for the prose to express.

I am sure all writers have different methods for strengthening and stimulating their imagination. I do not naturally think in visual terms, and in recent years I've found the internet very useful not only for training my visual faculty, but also for providing 'models' around which I can write. Both Dragonchaser and The Dog of the North drew both inspiration and topographical information from the wonderful antique maps of Braun and Hogenberg. The one shown below, of Loreto, has never featured in one of my stories, but I do own a 16th century original of this map.

For The Last Free City I have used maps of another mediaeval city. Because that city is relatively unchanged today, I've also harvested a collection of photographs from the web which I've put into a phyisical file. I can use this for inspiration and also for "blocking out" scenes. Here are a couple of my favourite images:

The Last Free City

This is my image of Taratanallos, the 'last free city'

The Road to Grandille

This image of the bridge leaving the city nicely captures both climate and arcitechture.

The Prieko

It's easy to imagine all kinds of dark deeds in these steep narrow treacherous streets...

Naturally these pictures are all of a 'real' place: my customary non-existent prize for anyone who can tell me where this is.

How do you go about visualising your locations?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Perils of Genrification

I am unashamedly a genre writer. The kind of book I write will always be sold and marketed as fantasy; as long as it is marketed, I've no reason to complain. My fantasy is all swords and very little sorcery, but I'm clearly part of a tradition that includes, for instance, Jack Vance's Lyonesse and Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint.

This preamble is brought on by a post over at Joe Abercrombie's blog which taps into a wider internet discussion about the extent to which fantasy writers should also be fantasy readers. There is a view, by no means universal, that those writers who don't read the stuff: 1. can't write decent fantasy; 2. disrespect readers by riding in and thinking they can do it better than 'fanboys'.

Neither point strikes me as particularly convincing: Abercrombie is one of many who disprove the first; and disrespect only occurs when the writer dismisses the entire field as crap without having read much of it.

As a writer I would not describe myself as steeped in fantasy. In fact, I'm more likely to dislike a fantasy novel than almost any other genre (in the past couple of weeks I've put down a couple which have done nothing for me). There are of course many fantasy writers I love: the ubiquitous Vance, Abercrombie, George RR Martin, Iain M. Banks (even if Inversions isn't technically fantasy), Le Guin, Tolkien (even if only for past associations).

The point that the debate largely misses is that it's fighting the wrong battle. To write good fantasy it probably isn't essential to read good fantasy: what is essential is that they read good writers, regardless of genre. Fantasy writers whose models are solely from within the genre are unlikely to write the kind of book which will make general readers overcome their prejudice against fantastic fiction. And while there may be those in the fantasy community who revel in their literary pariah status, I'm not one of them... one thing that fantasy readers and writers should agree on is that good fantasy writing is good writing, period.

As the "Why Should I Read...?" list on the left shows, as writers we are all the sum of our reading experiences. If that's the case, don't we have the responsibility to give ourselves the kind of literary diet which won't bring on scurvy?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pictures from the Book Launch

Images courtesy of Alex Sharkey

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

News from the Book Launch

Last night was the long-awaited event at Waterstones Chichester which finally unleashed The Dog of the North onto an unsuspecting public. The evening was a great success in commercial terms--over 30 attendees and a similar number of books sold. It was also great fun: Greg Mosse interviewed me for 45 minutes or so and we covered a lot of ground. We went from the first book I could remember reading (Five Little Kittens*) through the writer who in real life invented the process by which sugar sticks to doughnuts**, to Jack Vance, Jane Austen and Patrick O'Brian.

I rounded off by reading a couple of my favourite passages from the book before signing a gratifying number of copies. All in all, a wonderful evening which everyone seemed to come away from having enjoyed themselves. With any luck pictures will be along in a day or two.

On Friday it's off to Cambridge to sign stock at Heffers Bookshop.

~ ~ ~

At the weekend I also spent some time on The Last Free City, which now has a new and punchy opening scene. I said last night, only partly in jest, "when in doubt, throw in a swordfight", and that's what I did here. This is a bloody scene which gets a dangerous antagonist on the page from the start, and with any luck generates a narrative momentum to carry the reader into the rest of the story.

*Mrs Tibbetts, going shopping
Wasn't pleased enough to purr
"Kitties, please!" she said quite crossly,
"How can Mummy brush her fur?"

**A prize will be awarded to the reader who can identify this seminal figure in the history of both science-fiction and the obesity epidemic

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Experiment is the Mother of Invention

in·vent verb (used with object)

1. to originate or create as a product of one's own ingenuity, experimentation, or contrivance: to invent the telegraph.
2. to produce or create with the imagination: to invent a story.
3. to make up or fabricate (something fictitious or false): to invent excuses.
4. Archaic. to come upon; find.

dis·cov·er verb (used with object)

1. to see, get knowledge of, learn of, find, or find out; gain sight or knowledge of (something previously unseen or unknown): to discover America; to discover electricity.
2. to notice or realize: I discovered I didn't have my credit card with me when I went to pay my bill.
3. Archaic. to make known; reveal; disclose.

My last post drew some consistent responses from Alis Hawkins, David Isaak and Akasha Savage on how writers get characters down on the page. None of us, it seems, are into drawing up "character sketches" in advance of writing, although some us would work that way if we could.

What we all talk about instead, and we are hardly alone in this, is "discovering" characters. It's almost a shorthand for the way writers work. There's an unspoken that discovering characters is authentically artistic, a communion with the muse, whereas inventing them is chilly, academic and formulaic. In fact, one rarely comes across a writer who admits to inventing characters at all (they might, however, concede that they invent something vulgar, like a plot; the deity that is character is exempt from such sordid machination).

Let's look at the definitions at the head of the blog, though. I can discover America, or electricity (although as it happens others got there first in both cases); I can even discover Elizabeth Bennet. Jane Austen, on the other hand, did not discover Elizabeth Bennet--she invented her.

It's clear that when writers talk about discovering character, the discovery in question is metaphorical. We are inventing ("2. to produce or create with the imagination") our characters in the same way that we invent every other aspect of our fictional work.

So why is the metaphor so pervasive? Are writers slaves to cliche, too lazy to think of fresh modes of expression? (NB: rhetorical question, particularly if you think the answer is "yes"). "Discovery" in this sense emphasises the gradual and iterative nature of character creation. Those of us who recoil from the index-card approach (Linnalitha: 5' 6", blue eyes, red hair; mercurial, flirtatious, reflective. Likes nuts but not fish.) would argue that you can't design a credible fictional character in isolation, however comprehensive your thesaurus. What we do as writers is not so much discover as experiment: what happens if we write a scene with this character interacting with that one? The writer will have a subjective sense of whether it "works" or not; this will make their impression of the character that much more concrete, and so the next experiment can take place on a firmer footing. The whole of the first draft can be seen as a progressive series of experiments, with feedback between each phase; each character a hypothesis to be tested, either to destruction or refinement. Second and subsequent drafts then use the data gathered from the full series of experiments to return to the beginning and re-run the initial experiments.

In this metaphor, the entire novel is a hypothesis, not just the characters. The writer sets out with a supposition that a given idea, a given set of characters and milieu, forms a viable prose fiction--and then goes about proving that hypothesis true (in contrast with the true scientific method which sets out to prove a hypothesis false).

So next time a writer talks to you about the process of discovery, ask yourself if instead they aren't really talking about "experiment":

ex·per·i·ment noun

1. a test, trial, or tentative procedure; an act or operation for the purpose of discovering something unknown or of testing a principle, supposition, etc.: a chemical experiment; a teaching experiment; an experiment in living.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

How to Write a Novel in 12 Simple Steps

Writing a novel is a mechanical process that anyone can do. There are books--hundreds and hundreds of books--out there which tell you how to do it. Some of them even tell you how to write a best-selling novel in a month. What could be simpler? Er, what's that? They all say different things? But one of them must have the dope, right? If only we could identify which one, we'd be made...

Regular visitors to ::Acquired Taste will be well aware that, sadly, there is no One Best Way to write a novel. We all work in different ways: some of us are fast, some are slow; some redraft extensively, some (not many...) get it right first time; some of us plan in meticulous detail before starting, some fly--or crash--by the seat of their pants. Anybody who has given the methods of successful writers even the most cursory examination will have realised that everyone has to find their own method.

David Isaak and Alis Hawkins both have interesting posts on their blogs today touching on "writers' rules". David emphatically is not a rules man (although he gives a grudging acquiesence to "never start a sentence with a comma"). He convincingly rubbishes the rule of forcing "tension" on every page (although the dictum he quotes from Raymond Obstfeld of having "a gem on every page" makes sense if you can do it...). Alis talks about the received wisdom of writing the first draft in one go, and then fixing problems in rewrite. That approach, which I've also been adopting for The Last Free City, isn't working for her, and in truth it's not really working for me either. Alis' point is that if you're ploughing on with a character who doesn't "work", you're not telling a story with flaws that can be fixed later; rather, with every passing word you're moving further from the story you want to tell. That has some resonance for me (and my solution is to go back to the beginning and retrofit what's gone before in the light of how my thinking's developed since).

So what? I've tried a method which isn't working, so it's time to try something else. But there's another insight I can draw from this. As David, Alis, and all rational people have long realised, there's no One Best Way, no 28-day programme to write a bestseller. But could there perhaps be One Best Way for each author, a method that works unfailingly for David Isaak or Alis Hawkins? It's a belief I'd had without ever seriously challenging it. Some stories come more easily than others, but surely I apply a consistent approach to each? Well, it seems I don't. Some techniques work for me better than others (I'll never be a story-boarder), but I've come to realise that I reinvent my method each time I sit down to write a story. The techniques which carried me relatively easily through The Dog of the North are not working anything like as effectively this time. The Last Free City needs to be expanded and partly rewritten from the start before I go any further with the rest of the story. That's not because I've forgotten how to write fiction: it's the demands of the particular story I'm writing, at the particular time I'm writing it.

The only surprise to me is that this discovery is a surprise. My first self-published novel, The Zael Inheritance, was a very different writing experience to its successor Dragonchaser. But when you've got to the end of the process, and have a novel that you regard as finished (whatever finished means), what you notice is the similarity, not the difference: I wrote a first draft, I polished it, I polished it some more. The mind airbrushes out the fact that in one first draft the protagonist lacked credible motivation, in another the plot did not hold together.

The moral of all this? Well, don't expect a novelist to tell you in unambiguous language what something means--that's why we write novels. But if I can draw any articulatable conclusion, it's this: a novel is a complex, multi-faceted undertaking that works in ways that cannot all be held in the conscious mind simultaneously. No two novels are alike: to write more than one successfully requires a flexibility of approach--so don't resist the flexibility, embrace it.

, Oh yeah--and never start a sentence with a comma...

Monday, July 07, 2008

Prologues and Openings

The life of the writer is not just champagne, launch parties and celebrity appearances. (My score in these three areas to date is zero, zero and one). It also involves peripheral activities like, er, writing...

For reasons which I hope are understandable, The Last Free City has taken a back seat in recent weeks. The Dog of the North has been a jealous master and, given how long it has spent in obscurity, who would deny it some time off the leash?

The break has, in any event, allowed me a useful opportunity to take stock of TLFC. I have recounted at length in previous posts the halting progress of the plot, and while these questions are not all resolved, enough of them are to make the story seem workable. A new introductory scene has been percolating for a couple of weeks, and soon I will have to mar its inchoate perfection by writing it down.

First scenes carry a particular weight. They require the balancing of more elements than any other (even including the ending, I think). The introductory scene needs not only to grab the attention, but also to introduce one or more characters and the milieu we will be inhabiting. There's a temptation to try to make opening scenes do too much. If you think your first scene can be at once page-rippingly dramatic, paint a detailed picture of your imaginary world and introduce a cast of thousands, you're probably trying to do too much. You're probably better off emphasising one aspect and hinting at others. In particular, I'd advise against trying to cram in too many key characters. If your antagonist is compelling enough, he can wait a while before we see him--indeed, the suspense of waiting for him may do part of your job for you.

Perversely, it's difficult to write the first scene first, because you're unlikely to know the characters well enough at that stage. This is the fourth novel I've embarked on, and the third to need a new opening scene (The Dog of the North is the exception--perhaps because the viewpoint character was not central to the story, it did not require reinterpretation).

Another thing about first scenes--they don't always come at the beginning. (Give 'em a paradox--it keeps 'em reading...). It's possible to write a prologue which is not in any meaningful sense an opening scene: it may very well be set in a different place, at a different time, focusing on minor characters or even ones who never reappear. A prologue is a commentary on the action to follow, not a part of it. TLFC will probably have one of these too, a scene which provides a link to The Dog of the North and a frame of reference for the story to follow. If you provide such a prologue, the scene which follows it--the first of "the real story"--is the opening scene, the one in which you have to hook the reader with what's going to happen next.

Opening scenes can be challenging: but get yours right and it's the reader's passport to the rest of the book.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Publication Day - Part II

Having now skipped out to Waterstones I can report on a hugely impressive display including a picture of the author which will be familiar to readers of this blog. Photographic evidence will follow in due course.

In another noteworthy event, the July edition of DeathRay magazine includes a short article by yours truly on subject always close to my heart, the enduring excellence of Jack Vance.

The recent death of Arthur C. Clarke leaves Jack Vance as one of the last survivors of the Golden Age of science fiction. Active since the late 1940s, Vance has won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards (including a Grand Master Award in 1996) as well as the World Fantasy Award.

But a list of awards understates Vance's influence: cited by writers as diverse as Gene Wolfe, Dan Simmons and George R.R. Martin as an inspiration, Vance has also attracted a hard-core of devoted fans across the years. In 1999, a group of those devotees set out on an extraordinary voyage: the Vance Integral Edition (VIE). As a writer who had been captivated by Vance’s work for over twenty years, I was delighted to be part of the project—even if I didn’t realise then that we wouldn’t finish until 2006!

I'm afraid you'll have to buy the magazine to read the rest...

Publication Day!

Well, the Big Day is here. I Am Writer.

I shall be popping into Waterstones after work to see the copies, and I may take a couple of snaps for the blog.

The literary life began last night, though, when I took up the kind invitation of Pallant House Art Book Club to appear as a visiting author. Thanks to everyone there for making me feel welcome. The featured book was Hari Kunzru's My Revolutions, a story about 1960s and 70s urban revolutionaries--a trip down memory lane to the bombing of the Post Office Tower and similar events. The group, on the whole, didn't much like the book, finding the protagonist too unsympathetic and the narrative structure confusing. I was worried what might happen when such a challenging body was let loose on me, but they were kindness itself, with all kinds of interesting questions. The group was not composed of natural fantasy readers, and their palpable relief when hearing there were no orcs or elves might even translate into some sales!

Despite now being A Writer, and thereby expected to have some facility with words, the feeling of waking up this morning as a published author defies ready description. Many of you have been here already, and know what I mean.

The next event is the formal book launch at Waterstones on the 15th, where I will have to sing rather longer for my supper. After being interviewed for 40 minutes, I will give a couple of readings and then, of course, sign books through the night until the teeming multitudes are satisfied. My last job interview didn't run for 40 minutes! Now I need to decide which passages I'm going to read--a tricky one, this: obviously I don't want to give too much away, but I also want to grab the attention. I'm really pleased with the ending, but it's perhaps not a good choice for an introductory reading... At the moment I'm thinking of a humorous episode from one of the plot strands (although this requires me to read out the words "pah!" and "uuurgh!" which may require more sangfroid than I possess) and a nice little self-contained duel from the other. I may need to have a practice read at the weekend...

But for now, in between the need to attend to the seminar on "Debt Recovery for Residential Care" I am co-presenting today, I am going to bask in the fulfilment of the ambition I've held for thirty years...

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Publication Week!

For anyone who hasn't noticed (i.e. most of the world's 6.5 billion population), Friday sees the long-awaited--by me, at least--of
The Dog of the North. I have my signing paws on, decided which line I'm going to use for 'signing and lining', and allowed myself not to worry about the current work in progress for a few days. On Thursday I'll be making my first public appearance, at the Pallant House Art Book Club in Chichester. Waterstones now has a picture of me in the window and somehow has sold two copies of the book even though it isn't out yet (ask if they have some "behind the counter", apparently, and rootling in the stockroom will see copies ferreted out).

There are plenty of strange and exciting things about the imminent publication. One of the oddest is working on another book at the same time: at the moment I'm answering lots of questions about
The Dog of the North while simultaneously trying to smooth the development of The Last Free City (for which I've now devised but not yet written a new opening scene, making the antagonist a much more dangerous and darkly attractive character). The complexity is magnified by bringing forward one of the characters from The Dog of the North into the new work.

For those of you who enjoy closure and consistency--you're in the wrong place... Nonetheless, to tie up a couple of loose ends from previous blogs:

I've finished my re-read of
The Last Free City first draft. Some bits need expanding, some scenes duplicate each other; some are underwritten and others, clearly necessary, are missing altogether. The last 15,000 words are probably beyond salvage, and one of my Shakespeare homages (a cross-dressing scene) makes me tremble at my own ineptitude. So far, so discouraging. To compensate, a couple of the scenes seem to me to work extremely well, the relationship between 'hero' and 'heroine' (neither term is strictly appropriate) has a nice dynamic after a hamfisted start, and the subplots fit together neatly enough. Taken in the round, there's something to work with here, although the second draft will need more extensive revisions than usual (and I may make some of the structural changes before I write the last section).

Recent blogs have also featured Joe Abercrombie's "First Law" trilogy, the last instalment of which I have now read. Without giving too much away, the darkness of Abercrombie's vision remains unilluminated to the end, and the conclusion is neither happy nor unhappy, but highly appropriate. In enduring books, characters are often remembered more vividly than plots, and Abercrombie has characters in spades. The torturer Glokta remains my favourite, with echoes of Gene Wolfe's Severian and GRR Martin's Tyrion Lannister (although beholden to neither). Logen Ninefingers, the barbarian berserker, achieves a melancholy ripening across the series, as well as a neatly judged epilogue. These are wonderful books for those who enjoy fantasy in flavours other than vanilla: if your tastes run in this direction you will not be disappointed.

Nonetheless, Mr Abercrombie has his own blog for the promotion of his work, so we will say no more of him here today. The book you should all be buying this week is "
a spellbinding tale of loyalty and betrayal, homeland and exile, set in a brilliantly imagined world of political intrigue, sorcery, and warfare on an epic scale". And that' the objective opinion of my publisher, so who can argue?