Thursday, February 25, 2010

My favourite writer I never read; and finding my Little Story

Do you find in your reading that enjoyable and not-so-enjoyable books tend to come in runs? That you'll start three or four books in a row that don't work for you, but then stumble on half-a-dozen that you can't put down?

Since Christmas I've read a series of less than stunning books, but I'm hopeful the tide has turned. At the weekend I finished Marc Morris' absorbing biography of Edward I (Alis, how are you getting on with it?). And now I'm halfway through Alastair Reynolds' Chasm City, and this too is a marvellous read.

I've been reading Reynolds' stuff for maybe ten years. This will be the third of his novels I've read in addition to his iconic short story A Spy in Europa. He writes classy amalgams of space opera and film noir. Not unlike Iain M. Banks, but without the showiness that sometimes mars Banks' fiction for me. What puzzles me is why I haven't read more of Reynolds' work, since everything I've come across I've loved. Maybe we all have writers like that: there's always so much out there to read that even good stuff can fall off the radar. I will definitely make an effort to track down the rest of his novels. (Incidentally, Reynolds signed a £1 million, 10-book deal with Gollancz last year, so there should be enough to keep us all going for a while).

* * *

Last week I set out my notion of Big Story and Little Story, and trumpeted that I had nailed the Big Story for my latest idea. The Little Story has been more refractory but, on my morning walk today, the key to the set-up jumped into my mind. This revolves around how to get the hero and the heroine in the same place for a lengthy period when their families are enemies (don't tell me Shakespeare's already done this one - stick with it for now). There are a hundred possible solutions but I wanted to have something that was plausible in the context of the faux-medieval environment in which I operate. Put like this, there's an obvious and neat solution: hero can be a hostage for his father's good behaviour in an enemy court. This is just the trick, for any number of reasons: it makes the hero an outsider, which is great for conveying information unobtrusively and for creating dramatic tension. It also intersects fruitfully with the Big Story; for the enemy is none other than Duke Varrel of the Five Cantrefs (see previous post).

This set-up also gives me my opening scene, which puts all the main characters on the same page, and dramatises Duke Varrel's grievances with King Alazian in a rather more economical way than I had originally intended.

Next time: how do you decide if your idea is worth committing to; and how close is the one I'm currently working on?
Enhanced by Zemanta

Friday, February 19, 2010

Big Story and Little Story

I don't know whether anyone else works like this. When I'm conceiving a novel there are two entirely separate components (although they should be seamless in the final version). I call these the Big Story and the Little Story.

The Big Story is the background, the epic sweep of events that affects the world for everyone. If you're writing a story set in a present day familiar to you and your readers, the Big Story is implicit: who is the Prime Minister? who are we at war with? which soap operas are people watching? In fantasy or historical fiction, the Big Story has to be teased out, both for the reader and the writer. It includes, but is not limited to, research. Tell the story of World War I in a thousand words; that's Big Story.

The Little Story will be complementary to this. It tells the story of individuals within the Big Story; it's likely to be more intimate in scope and is almost certainly where you'll find the protagonist. When I'm writing a novel I can't engage with the Little Story until the Big Story is clear in my head, but once I start to write it's the Little Story which drives the plot. If the First World War is the Big Story, then the experiences of the 16-year old who lied about his age to have a crack at the Bosch is the Little Story.

This is relevant at the moment because yesterday I cracked open a fresh Word file and wrote, in a single sitting, the Big Story for a possible new Mondia novel. It's the story of King Alazian and his struggle to subdue an overmighty vassal, Duke Varrel of the Five Cantrefs. In 1,200 words, I've set down the broad sweep of what happens to Alazian, Varrel and half a dozen other characters (one of whom will be familar to readers of The Dog of the North). This doesn't give us a novel, or even an outline. Alazian and Varrel will be characters in the novel but neither is a viewpoint character.

I have a sense of what the Little Story to complement this looks like, including the protagonist. I don't have in any meaningful sense a plot, but the Big Story gives me some parameters to work within.

I'd be interested to know if other writers--particularly fantasists or hist-ficcers--adopt a similar approach.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Recursions: Journeys into Mondia

Macmillan's decision last year to pass on their option to publish The Last Free City seemed to spell the end of any further novels about Mondia. In their place sprang The Inheritance Powders, a historical novel set in the court of Louis XIV, or a brand-new fantasy series. I worked up both of these projects in moderate detail but, for various reasons, neither has quite taken off.

My imagination remains, from whatever quirk or perversity, in the commercial graveyard known as Mondia. (I'm not quite convinced that it is commercially doomed: my Mondia stories stand alone, and each one can set out blithely on its way unencumbered by continuity with a predecessor. Nonetheless, more Mondia is not the career-pragmatic route).

Each time I think about a Mondia story, I go further back in time. I wondered how some of the characters in The Dog of the North became the way they were, and this requires delving ever further back into my imaginary world. To give just one example: in the later strand of The Dog of the North, Enguerran is King of the Emmenrule. The reader never finds out very much about him (although he has a walk-on part in The Last Free City). I know far more about his character than I ever share with the reader. I also have loosely plotted a story in which he is an infant (his grandfather King Arren being the central figure), and considered making a novel of that. But then I became interested in King Arren's past, and so plotted another story in which he is a youth, and his father King Alazian sits on the throne.

This sort of recursiveness can go on forever, of course. I have to stop somewhere, but at least I have a depth of field so that anything I write covering four generations of kings has some hinterland. As it is, the story of King Alazian and his rebellious barons, has more than enough to keep me occupied.

For a while at least, then, my focus is once again on Mondia.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Kindle is Coming

Yesterday the extended Macmillan New Writing family got together for lunch and a natter in London (more about this on the MNW blog, no doubt). It was also my first opportunity to see the Amazon Kindle e-reader, about which Neil had blogged enthusiastically over on Veggiebox.

I've always been in the sceptics' camp on e-readers; I like to have a book to read. Nonetheless, I was impressed both by the aesthetics of the Kindle and its functional qualities. The screen quality is exceptional, and I could well imagine reading an entire book on it. The device itself is very thin and all but weightless. For commuting, or going on holiday, the ability to load it up with books would be very convenient.

The only remaining issue I have is with the price--both of the Kindle itself, and the books to go on it. Why would I pay the best part of two hundred quid for an e-reader when the books are little, if any, cheaper than a phyisical copy? If a Kindle was a quarter of the price (and soon, no doubt, it will be), and the books two or three pounds each, the proposition would be much more attractive.

For that to happen, publishers will need to rethink their pricing models. But without it, I think the e-book revolution is on hold.

Monday, February 08, 2010

You Know You're a Writer When... go out to buy a Valentine's card and come back with two paperbacks instead.