Thursday, June 25, 2009

On Series and Character Development

Let's assume that publishers exist to give readers what they want*. When a publisher decides to bring out a book, it's on the basis that it's meeting reader desires and thus will sell in sufficient quantity to turn a profit.

Sometimes, though, readers' wants can be contradictory. Critics as far back as Aristotle have justly pointed out that conflict and character growth are essential for a compelling story. Think of Hamlet, for example, or the Ancient Mariner becoming "a sadder and a wiser man". But readers also like series: characters that they know and identify with, and whose company they want to enjoy repeatedly.

There is a tension for a writer who wants to satisfy both of these desires. Most books give us an arc of the protagonist's development, ending in death, achievement of a goal or perhaps a moment of realisation. That character's story is then essentially complete. To then bring them back for a sequel(s) can be hard to reconcile with a story arc which already complete.

Detective novels often get round this by minimising the character development angle. So Poirot comes back, time after time, to solve a different crossword puzzle. Writers like Ian Rankin or Brian MacGilloway, on the other hand, will have their detective evolving in real time, a more challenging approach. It works because there's always the crime, the bedrock of the plot, to come back to.

In fantasy, series are more difficult. What we think of as trilogies are invariably only one long story, chopped up into digestible portions. The protagonist will have the same story arc as if it were contained in a single novel. But genuine series are more difficult for the fantasy writer: Michael Moorcock's Elric novels essentially retread the same ground, to ever-diminshing effect, while his standalones (The War Hound and the World's Pain, or Gloriana) have much more vitality.

George R.R. Martin adopts the approach of telling one very long story in his Song of Ice and Fire but he also varies his viewpoint characters, to sometimes dizzying effect. To make a genuinely interesting series of books, this approach of changing the viewpoint character is highly effective. Not only can you surprise the reader by killing a few off, you avoid any one character becoming stale. Tyrion Lannister is by far my favourite character in the series, but I wouldn't want seven volumes of him.

Whatever genre a writer chooses, there is a trade-off between the extended series and character development. Failing to acknowlede this leads to "soap opera syndrome", where one character goes through trauma after trauma simply because they must have "storylines" to give them something to do--inavariably with little long-term consistency.

Given the entirely understandable desire of publishers to create a "brand" of their authors, each writer needs to decide of what that brand will consist. And if that brand is a series, how do you then avoid it becoming stale?

I am trying, in my Mondia novels, to create a brand in which the location is the common thread, not the characters. In The Dog of the North, Beauceron's story is complete at the end of the book. I may bring him back as a peripheral character in future books, but none of them will be "his" story. In trying to create something structurally like Shakespeare's history plays, I avoid becoming dependent on a single character, while giving the reader some familiar points of reference. That way I know that when, however many books down the line, Lady Cosetta reappears, some readers at least will give a little nod of recognition.

*Alternative hypotheses are that publishers manipulate what readers want, or that they provide what they themselves want. We won't examine these theories here.
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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bite-Sized Reviews

I've got through a decent crop of books over the past week, so before the moment passes here are my thoughts on them.

First up was Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns. Hosseini is an accomplished story-teller. More than one reviewer makes the comparison with Dickens, and the similarity is evident in the bold strokes with which the characters drawn and the high degree of social engagement. It's a good read, but the characterisation feels perfunctory at times. It's not as well-structured or engaging as The Kite-Runner but the quality of the prose, the sense of place and the narrative drive make it a recommended read.

Even better was Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, a true-life account of a hideous crime from the nineteenth century. Summerscale is excellent at drawing out the social context of the case, its impact on the "sensation" fiction of writers like Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and the way in which the class distinctions of the time prevented the crime's early resolution. It's likely to appeal to anyone with an interest in the nineteenth century, crime or indeed crime fiction.

Next I've picked up Ken Follett's World Without End. At over 1,200 pages (I'm on about page 60), "novel without end" might be more appropriate. Follett engages and infuriates in equal measure. He's a contemporary thriller-writer turned historical novelist, and while his enthusiasm for the Middle Ages and the extensiveness of his research shine through, I'm not sure the move is wholly successful. His control of plotting and pacing, as demonstrated in the earlier volume Pillars of the Earth, is exemplary, but his grinding infodumps lack finesse and the dialogue can grate. If you like stories set in this period there are better ones out there.

Finally, there's Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold. Abercrombie is in many ways a writer after my own heart, whose fantasy is clearly rooted in a wide reading of history. I've posted a much fuller review over at Science Fiction and Fantasy Enthusiasts: suffice it to say here that this is a book lovers of fantasy should read.

* * *

I can't end without noting that Alastair Reynolds, a fine science-fiction writer, has signed "£1m book deal" with Gollancz. The deal is for 10 books, and the amounts quoted in the press are invariably exaggerated, so this is hardly money for old rope; and it will be a long time before he sees all the money--if ever. I haven't read a lot of Reynolds' work, but I've enjoyed what I have read. Century Rain is a clever engaging futuristic noir novel, while "A Spy in Europa" is a highly accomplished short story.

It's good to see a major imprint investing in a science-fiction writer in this way. I hope the deal works out for everyone.
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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Tyranny of Plot: Reflections on Agatha Christie

Orson Scott Card has an interesting way of analysing stories. He talks about the "MICE Quotient":

  • Milieu
  • Idea
  • Character
  • Event
Card is clear that there isn't a magic formula here: every story will mix the ingredients in different forms. We might expect fantasy, where worldbuilding is significant, to be strong on milieu; science-fiction to excel in ideas; literary fiction to emphasise character,;and the detective story to be event-heavy. Satisfying fiction, of whatever genre, is likely to be at least competent in all departments if we are to re-read it, though. Or is it?

This came into my mind when re-reading, for the first time in many years, Agatha Christie: specifically Curtain - Poirot's Last Case. If the MICE quotient is imagined as a table, Christie's would be very lopsided: only three legs to start with (Idea being almost entirely absent), and one of those--Event--much longer than the others. I wouldn't want to eat my bowl of soup off that table.

More than just about any novelist I've read, Christie is a writer of event: plot is king, to the exclusion of almost all else. Her work has dated in such a way that milieu is probably more noticeable than it was at the time: her classic "country house" mystery has a stronger sense of place now that country houses are no longer part of our cultural furniture.. A character commits suicide and Poirot says this is only to be expected because she comes of "poor stock". Captain Hastings is worried that his daughter has fallen for a bounder. Christie now, in a way she never intended, has delineated a world which no longer (and perhaps never did) exists.

At her best, Christie is masterful at plot. At least three of the Poirot stories, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express and Curtain are brilliantly constructed. (Curtain is also utterly ludicrous, but this doesn't vitiate the cleverness of the concept).

The question that Christie raises is: can man live by plot alone? Her stories give us virtually nothing but plot. Even her best-loved characters are not really characters at all: Miss Marple is a nosy old bat; Poirot, a moustache, a smattering of French words and cod-continental syntax, leavened with hypochondria and "the little grey cells". These are not characters, they're chess-pieces: at the start of every game, you know their permitted moves, and they run through them until the endgame.

And yet people still read Agatha Christie, long after more accomplished writers are forgotten. The predictability of a Poirot novel is, oddly, part of its appeal. You might or might not solve the crime yourself, but you know the wily Belgian will. And even if you aren't as bright as Poirot, you're surely one step ahead of Hastings or Inspector Japp.

You probably couldn't get away with writing this stuff today: the best modern crime writers, like Ian Rankin or Brian McGilloway, give us appreciable character development over time. You have to read the Rebus or Devlin novels in order, because the protagonist becomes a very different man as he matures. Indeed, the best of today's crime fiction is so subtly nuanced as to bear favourable comparison with more overtly "literary" work.

But in the end I can't help admiring Agatha Christie's work. She knows exactly what she's doing, and sticks to it. If publishing today is all about brand, then Christie's 80 novels are a big step on the road to how we got here. Her influence shows no sign of diminishing. Eh bien.
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Monday, June 15, 2009

What Happened Next?

British viewers will probably be familiar with A Question of Sport, in which sportsmen and women submit themselves to thirty minutes of largely undemanding questions guessed it, sport. One of the most entertaining rounds is "what happened next?", in which a clip of sporting action is stopped just short of the generally unpredictable denouement (for instance, a seagull descends and abstracts the ball just as the golfer is about to take his putt).

"What happens next?" is the question which the writer has to address every day. Not "what is the thematic significance of my work?" (this question is valueless, or even meaningless, to the writer) or "how soon can I stop?" ("not yet" is usually the answer...). Writing fiction is the business of arranging one event after another in plausible sequence, which need not necessarily be chronological.

I may be leaking a writers' trade secret if I say that this is not always the most difficult part of writing. Some aspects of evolving the story may be sticky, but generally one piece of the story evolves into the next without too much coaxing. An exception to this area, for me at least, is battle scenes. These have to be as tightly choreographed as a ballet if they are to convince and to be comprehensible, and in The Dog of the North, the battle of Jehan's Steppe and the siege of Croad were the two "what happened next" segments which I found the most difficult to write.

I was delighted on my recent trip to America to discover, for only $15, a handsome hardback entitled Battles of the Medieval World 1000-1500: From Hastings to Constantinople. This unpretentious book takes twenty major battles of the period, briefly outlines the historical context before giving us a detailed account of the dispositions of the troops and the course of the battle. As a bonus, there are clear illustrations of the arms and equipment of the troops involved. For a writer like me, who needs to put the occasional battle on the page, this book is a godsend. I am completely shameless about recycling from historical sources in my fiction (much better writers have done it).

Battles of the Medieval World is a splendid demonstration of "what happened next" on the battlefield. It is likely to be a book with a limited audience--hence its place in Barnes and Noble's bargain bucket--but of its kind it's perfect.

Next time you come across a set-piece battle scene in one of my books, odds are Battles of the Medieval World will have been consulted intensively...
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Monday, June 08, 2009

Epiphanies of New York

2: Ellis Island Museum

New York is packed with museums and galleries but none that I've visited has anything like the resonance of the Ellis Island Museum, a place that opens a window into the soul of America.

Ellis Island, hard by the Statue of Liberty, was the processing centre for US immigrants between 1892 and 1954, and has been restored to something like it would have been during its turn of the century heyday. The visitor gets something of the sense of what it must have been like for the millions of immigrants as they got off the boat and went through the battery of tests to determine whether they would be allowed to stay in the US.

The museum is intelligently and imaginatively structured; it works on several different levels. The visceral feel of standing in the very halls where immigrants queued is supplmented by a more cerebral series of statistical displays about the history of US immigration (much more interesting than it sounds). There were also the personal effects of many of the immigrants and all kinds of marginalia from history, like the passenger manifests from some of the ships. The displays were informatively signposted but the artifacts themselves were sometimes more eloquent. There was a passenger manifest from 1892, full of Irish passengers. On adjacent lines were Rose Lenihan, 20, servant, and Kate Lenihan, 18, servant. There were no other Lenihans, so no doubt they were sisters, travelling together to America to make a new life. But Kate died on the voyage. What must it have been like for Rose, just out of her teens, alone in a new country and mourning her sister? Millions of such stories created America.

The thing that really strikes the visitor--the European one, at any rate--is just how young "America" is. (That is not to ignore the people who lived there before the era of mass immigration). All countries have their creation myths, but "Britain", as we understand it today, was arguably born in 1066. In America, that creation myth is only just beyond living memory, and perhaps most Americans will remember talking to an elderly relative who was born overseas, and remembers growing up in Lithuania or Poland, Jamaica or Croatia.

For anyone who has an interest in the past--or indeed in understanding the present--few experiences will be more absorbing and enlightening than the Ellis Island museum.
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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Epiphanies of New York

1: Running in Central Park

At school I was averse to any form of exercise, and it was not until my early thirties that a friend asked me to do a "fun run" and I realised that actually I liked running. Ever since, I've run two or three times a week, injuries aside.

Last year when we went to New York I regretted not taking my running shoes when I saw all the runners gambolling in Central Park. This year I didn't make the same mistake. In my week there I managed to squeeze in three five-mile runs - quite a hefty mileage for me.

The first run in the Park was an astounding experience. At 7am the roads were thronged with runners--as many as if there was an organised event taking place. Running is essentially a solitary activity (the Zen aspect of it is part of the appeal) but it takes on an added dimension when there are others around. For someone who loves running, a sunny morning surrounded by trees and grass, with scores of other runners alongside you, is just about as good as it gets. And, like all days when running is perfect, you even forget that you're tired.

To have such a serene, almost transcendental, experience in the middle of one of the world's busiest cities is something I never expected. The view from the central running track itself, ringed by trees with skyscrapers behind them reaching up into the early-morning mist, is one I'll never forget.
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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Firing on Some Cylinders

::Acquired Taste is back after a week in New York. I'm still groggy with jetlag (I don't deal well with anything which mucks up my sleeping patterns) but I'm here just in time for the paperback launch of The Dog of the North, which is released on Friday. My author copies have arrived and they look marvellous: so good, in fact, that you'll want to buy another copy even if you already have the hardback. Even if you hated it... The future of The Last Free City may well hinge on The Dog of the North's sales performance, so let's all buy a couple of dozen copies.

In general I'm not a city person. The only two cities I actively enjoy spending time in are Paris and New York: if Betjamen's friendly bombs are to fall on Slough, they might as well go the extra few miles and take out London while they're at it. My week in New York was hugely enjoyable, if tiring, and two of my experiences were so stimulating that they'll rate their own blog entries once my brain has returned to what passes for normal functioning.

In my absence, a tremendous new blog in the speculative fiction world has launched: SFFE, or Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics. In genre which suffers more than its fair share of negative criticism--internally as well as externally--SFFE is set up explicitly to celebrate the positive side of science fiction and fantasy. A lot of top authors in the field have signed up to the manifesto--and yours truly--so why not check it out. There's already some great content over there.

Talking of great content, I've ordered today Joe Abercrombie's latest, Best Served Cold. Abercrombie is one of the best writers working in fantasy today so I'm looking forward to this one immensely.

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