Thursday, July 30, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part I

I have been using the time since Macmillan declined The Last Free City considering where the muse is going to take me next, given that my Mondia series of novels is now on indefinite hold. Will, my editor at Macmillan, remains keen to see what I might do next, and expressed particular interest in writing some historical fiction.

I've decided, therefore, to work up an outline for a historical piece, a first for me in two ways: I've never worked to an outline before, and I've never tried anything historical. An outline doesn't commit me to anything, of course, but it's a chance for me to see if I can put together a story that excites me away from my normal fantasy milieu. (In the meantime, I am making efforts to place The Last Free City, which might change my emphasis once again).

Before I commit anything to paper, I have choices to make. This series of blog posts will examine those choices as I go through the process, to the point where--if all goes well--I have an outline.

The first choice to make is "when?". Which historical period do I know enough about to feel confident to inhabit for up to two years, and which will sustain my interest for that long? Readers of ::Acquired Taste will know that I've been absorbed by various different periods and locales, so let's consider some of the options.

Imperial Rome
Advantages: hugely dramatic environment, with lots of the political intrigue and violence I enjoy writing about
Disadvantages: the shadow of I, Claudius. The period is pretty much done to death and would need a new angle.

Byzantium, 800-1453
Advantages: see Imperial Rome, with the addition of a milieu less likely to be familiar to the reader
Disadvantages: my knowledge is too sketchy for me to feel confident even to produce an outline without extensive research.

14th Century England
Advantages: dramatic backdrop (desposition of Edward II, Hundred Years War, Black Death, Peasants' Revolt, deposition of Richard II). Plenty of available research material.
Disadvantages: none

15th century Dubrovnik
Advantages: extensively, if covertly, explored in The Last Free City
Disadvantages: extensively, if covertly, explored in The Last Free City

The Wars of the Roses
Advantages: epic scope, treachery, mingling of personal and political dramas
Disadvantages: none

Tudor England
Advantages: extensive familiarity with turbulent period
Disadvantages: popularity of the period in fiction means an original angle would be essential

'The Affair of the Poisons', Court of Louis XIV
Advantages: ready-made story which maps many of my fictional preoccupations. Almost untreated in English-language fiction
Disadvantages: my knowledge of the period is cursory at best

19th Century England
Advantages: extensive knowledge of the period through both history and fiction
Disadvantages: none

My outline will almost certainly come from one of these areas. Note that I have not yet given any thought to a story (with the partial exception of 'The Affair of the Poisons'). What I am looking to do at this stage is to find a fictional home, an environment where I will back myself to convince the reader and be confident that I can set a compelling story.

The next stage will be to choose which period to investigate further. Then it's a question of selecting a "situation" (i.e. the broad storyline, without necessarily identifying characters at this stage). Only at that stage will I start to work out who my characters are, and the viewpoint choices which will make this work best.

Watch this space to see the outline develop!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Back to the drawing board

Pop over to the Macmillan New Writers' blog here for a more detailed examination of the disappointing but hardly unexpected news that Macmillan have turned down The Last Free City.

My attention now turns immediately to other means I might use to get the book into print, and what project to begin next. Self-pity is an unattractive characteristic and rarely leads to constructive outcomes. The only way to deal with rejection--it is impossible to function as a writer without this attitude--is to extract as many lessons as possible from the episode and then start writing something else.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Genre Corner

Yesterday's New York Times contains a lengthy and well-informed appreciation of Jack Vance (click here). If your time for net-surfing is limited, hop over there and read the piece, a far better use of your time than hanging out at ::Acquired Taste. I've long argued that Vance is one of the great 20th century writers, ignored by the critical establishment for having the temerity to write science fiction (you can get away with writing crime and still be appreciated, but sf is the last bastion of the nerd...). It's refreshing to see Vance treated to a serious piece in a respected publication.

Over the past week I've been reading another writer from the genre ghetto, Patrick Rothfuss. His debut fantasy, The Name of the Wind, came out a couple of years ago. It's earned a lot of favourable attention, and I can see why. It's a very traditional fantasy (he's trying neither to reinvent nor subvert the genre) of a young man, Kvothe, a precocious magician and musician. The novel follows his admittance to a wizard-school which owes more to Earthsea than Hogwarts, surrounded by a framing story which at once undercuts and intensifies the central narrative. The book isn't really finished: it's one of those trilogies where the individual volumes don't stand alone - never something that worries me as a reader. If a story takes 600,000 words to tell, then it takes 600,000 words to tell.

If you're going to tell a very traditional fantasy story, there are particular challenges, because it's all been done before: you have to do it better. Rothfuss is a gifted writer: his prose is at once concrete and allusive, he has considerable emotional range and the underrated knack of integrating the comic and the tragic. The way in which the framing story and the back story dovetail is highly accomplished, and makes the book significantly more interesting than if the story were retailed chronologically.

For me the book has only two weaknesses: Kvothe is just too implausibly talented (child prodigies are very hard to bring off and I'm not convinced Rothfuss quite manages it), and the storyline is studded with foreshadowing which ultimately becomes distracting. Foreshadowing is a wonderful literary device, but it's easy to overdo.

Nonetheless The Name of the Wind is a highly accomplished novel from a talented writer. I'm looking forward to future instalments.
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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Lair

In the very unlikely event that you wanted to know what my writing space looks like, which books I have on the shelves, and what I think about them -- or indeed, if you have an interest in really poor digital photographs -- SciFi Now is here to help you.

This week they are running a "writer's room" piece on my garage (click here). It's a testament to my splendid publicist Sophie Portas that the editorial team at SciFi Now have been persuaded that there's a widespread interest in this topic.

* * *

Coming up - my trip to Brugge and some reflections on Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Voices from the House of Tin
A Turd on Every Page: some thoughts on the fiction of Ken Follett

Pity me, gentle reader. Although I have read some excellent books lately, with others jostling for attention on my shelves, I have spent the past week flogging through Ken Follett's World Without End, his tale of Black Death, medieval architecture and humdrum sex. Follett sells a lot of books, so he can live quite happily without my approval, and he's obviously digested the "conflict on every page" mantra*. Incident piles on incident, improbability on improbability, although after a while even this surfeit of action becomes wearisome. Once every couple of pages, breast-fondling occurs: this is the Middle Ages, and men of a certain stamp can't see a woman without lurching into grope mode. Readers will be reassured to learn that breasts in the period ranged from the fried egg profile to ample rotundity.

Perhaps the most ludicrous such moment comes on page 1078 (I really did get that far) in a dialogue of self-parodical risibility:

"I've never been good at breaking news gently," she said. "I'm pregnant."
"Good God!" He was too shocked to hold back his reaction. "I'm surprised because you told me..."
"I know. I was sure I was too old. For a couple of years my monthly cycle was irregular, and then it stopped altogether -- I thought. But I've been vomiting in the morning, and my nipples hurt."
"I noticed your breasts as you came into the garden. But can you be sure?"
"I've been pregnant six times already -- three children and three miscarriages -- and I know the feeling. There's really no doubt."
"Well, we're going to have a child."
You have to read this several times to savour the full crassness of the passage. "Good God!" He was too shocked to hold back his reaction irks with its redundant commentary; had it been necessary at all, it should have been before the exclamation. My monthly cycle has been irregular ... Good God! I am too shocked at the tinniness of this to hold back my reaction. I noticed your breasts as you came into the garden. This spectacular non sequitur defies any kind of logic: are painful nipples really so obvious, even in Follett's mammocentric fictional world?

Writing of this standard annoyed me particularly in the context of the book I am currently reading, Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind. This is a fantasy with prose of relaxed elegance, a pleasantly judged humour and an engaging authorial voice. Yet Rothfuss, a purveyor of mere fantasy, the preserve of maladjusted adolescents, sits on the bottom table in the Grand Hall of Literature, while Follett, though never likely to win the Booker Prize, basks in vast sales and a degree of critical success. Ladies and gentlemen, there ain't no justice.
* the rather more challenging maxim introduced to me by David Isaak, "a gem on every page", has not been fully implemented. Is there a school of creative writing which demands "a turd on every page"? Or indeed "a tit on every page"...

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