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?
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David Isaak said...

"The perceptive reader will notice that there's nothing about commercial prospects in here. This may betray an amateurish attitude, but it simply isn't a decision factor for me in deciding whether an idea's worth committing to. "

Commerciality isn't really apparent anyhow. I mean, who would have thought a series of lengthy books about a kid going to Wizard School would rack up any sales at all.

So you're spot on--if it doesn't excite you, then it isn;t worth writing.

Alis said...

I think point 3 is something a lot of beginning writers could pay attention to, especially if they've been reading the kind of 'how to' books that recommend writing detailed biographies of your characters before you start. What a waste of time if it turns out they shouldn't be in your book at all. And i agree with you about important characters just turning up. I didn't think it was going to happen in the current book but it has, and the fallout from his appearance is turning out to be a pivotal moment in the book!

Tim Stretton said...

David - I'm increasingly coming to the view that you don't choose your stories: they choose you.

Alis, for me part of the fun of writing the novel is to discover the characters. How tedious to have documented their height and eye-colour before you begin. If I need to know the colour of Duke Varrel's eyes, I'll decide it at that point. And the happenstance character that you've described is one of the joys of writing fiction!