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?

Monday, September 08, 2008

:: Acquired Taste returns

After a pleasant and relaxing holiday, normal service is resumed. Topics to be covered over the coming weeks include:

  • on receiving bad reviews (sadly based on experience)
  • progress on The Last Free City
  • my favourite book (just don't expect any surprises...)