Thursday, August 14, 2008

Summer hols...

Readers of ::Acquired Taste will readily come to the conclusion that the writer's life comprises periods of indolent dilettantism interspersed with holidays. The news that tomorrow I am off to Turkey for a fortnight, having achieved nothing meaningful on The Last Free City since May, is unlikely to overset that opinion.

Holidays are in fact an important time for writers, particularly when they aren't sightseeing-type ones. It's rare to get a couple of weeks when neither work nor the everyday business of running a home intrude--much very important thinking on The Dog of the North was done lying by a Spanish poolside three years ago. So it's not a holiday, it's work by another name. (Do you believe that? Didn't think so...)

For those of you maladjusted enough to find a fortnight without my observations disturbing, this month's Sci-Fi Now magazine has a short interview with me in which I outline some thoughts on The Dog of the North and the writing process.

::Acquired Taste will return in early September.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

If in doubt...make a list
I have various strategies for kick-starting a story when my imagination is flagging. Putting in a swordfight is one of my favourites, and almost a cliche, but having done this once in The Last Free City I'm reluctant to do so again. The swordfight in question is, for now at least, my opening scene and gets what was already quite a dark book off to a bloody start. There needs to be another one at the end, and my secondary plot has quite a martial theme, so for now we have enough swordplay.

In a previous post I mentioned the role of photos and maps as stimulation too. I have another kick-start strategy which I probably use more frequently than either maps or swordfights, and that's lists. These lists will usually only ever be background to the story, but they provide a framework on which to build the softer art of characterisation.

On Tuesday, then, I spent some time writing lists. Normally 70,000-odd words into a draft is a bit late to do that, but now that I am working on a second narrative strand, I need to deepen and enrich some of the background. In my conception of Taratanallos, the city is ruled by an oligarchy drawn from a group of noble families, and I had already created the ones I was intending to focus on, without detailing all the others; but now I am telling a second story from 25 years earlier, I need to make that structure more robust. So I made a list of all the twenty-four 'Houses of the Specchio', and made sure I wrote down which characters were in which house before I forgot.

What is the point of doing all this? Nowhere in the novel will I list out all of the Houses and, unlike some fantasy writers, I see little point in documenting everything meticulously for its own sake. I've got two real reasons. The first is entirely logistical. Having two time-separated narratives, with some characters appearing in both, makes the sheer management of the information more complicated. (How old is Dravadan in the first section? Which House was Sulinka in before she married Jarodin?). In my original story, where all the action takes place over a few weeks, this kind of "longitudinal dimension" is far less important: Dravadan is the same age all the way through, and Sulinka's past is a thing of hints and allusions. Once a story takes on temporal drift, the management of information becomes much more significant.

While this is true enough, it's essentially book-keeping. It's necessary, fairly enjoyable, but mechanical. The second reason for generating lists is that they create possibilities. Words have a shape, a sound, a texture. When they are proper nouns that you have just minted, those possibilities are fresh and unique. How can a House called Tantestro be anything other than haughty, proud of its lineage, evoking the jealousy of a score of rivals? House Zano, on the other hand, will wear its distinction with restraint, but react furiously if crossed. The point here is not that these words should evoke the same responses in you, but that they take on specificity for me. Once a person or an institution has a name, that name starts to create resonances in my mind, and then I can write about it. House Zano may barely feature in the novel, but I have sense of what it means, and hence how the characters in the novel will react to it. I know how the heiress of that House will carry herself, and why the dreamy young man from tatty old House Carmaggio is deluding himself if he believes he has the faintest chance of marrying her.

And that is why I write lists. Every item on the list is a tiny piece of grit; some will remain dirt forever, but others will slowly accrete imaginative deposits until one day, if I am lucky, they become pearls.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Whose Story Are You Telling?

It's no secret that progress on The Last Free City has been fitful in recent weeks. After the intricate narrative structure of The Dog of the North, the simple story of the callow and selfish Todarko has seemed progressively more unsatisfying the further it has progressed. It's been hard to put my finger on what's not working: the hero is a mixture of flaws and considerable virtues, even if the latter are heavily occluded; the milieu in which he exists also seems full and absorbing.

I came to the conclusion a few weeks ago that a second viewpoint character was what was needed, and set about writing some scenes from the new character's perspective. These scenes were not in themselves unsuccessful, but at the weekend I realised that rather than reinforcing the main narrative, they were diluting it. The plot was already shaped around Todarko's story, and the new viewpoint scenes I was writing were either redundant or irrelevant. So, on Saturday, out they went; only 8,000 words lost, a small price to pay for realising early on that this approach wasn't going to work.

Instead I set myself to polishing the original Todarko narrative. This included fleshing out his relationship with his fencing-master Rodizel (David, don't tell me you'd write fencingmaster...). I always knew that Rodizel had a potentially interesting backstory which also illuminated the motivations of the story's villain, Dravadan. I wrote the start of a scene in which Rodizel's reminiscences to Todarko turn into a full-blown flashback scene (something I normally avoid). The flashback seemed to me so interesting that I am now considering having an entire narrative strand set in this earlier period (an aspect of The Dog of the North I enjoyed writing was the twin timeline). A narrative strand which shows how the villain became a villain in the first place has to be worth exploring.

The book is now at the stage where I have a good sense of all the main characters. Seeing how the older ones were different--but with the potential to develop--a quarter of a century earlier should allow the two narratives to reinforce each other.

I'll spend some time over the next few weeks thinking this strand through. If it works, I can start writing it up when I come back from holiday at the beginning of September; if it doesn't, I've at least deepened my understanding of several of the major characters.

The point of this blog is only partly to whinge about how difficult the writer's life is (you can take this as read). There's also an unwritten contract that I'll share such insights as I can uncover:
  • writing novels is hard (OK, you noticed I slipped that one in...)
  • first drafts are the time to experiment
  • you need to know whose story you're telling...
  • ...which need not be the same person as the main viewpoint character
  • ...if indeed you have a single main viewpoint character
  • if what you're trying doesn't work, try something else: there's no 'right' way to do it
  • writing novels is hard (indulge me here...)