Category Archive for ‘advice’

Why the Third Person?

Posted on April 29th, 2013 in advice, process, The Inquisition

Inquisitor Joseph asks, presumably while fingering his glittering instruments in as menacing a manner as possible:

When writing, what made you decide to use third person? Because its easier? Would you recommend writing in third person, or do you think it’s more of a personalised choice? Also, when describing things, do you think it is better to write to much or too little?

An interesting set of nested questions indeed.  The method I tend to use is what’s sometimes called the Third Person Limited, or tight point of view, so it’s third person ‘he said, she said,’ rather than the first person, ‘I said’, but everything is told from the point of view of a single character – relating their thoughts and experiences, trying to give a vivid sense of what it’s like to be that person – although you might move between several different point of view characters at different times.  This is very different from Third Person Omniscient, in which the authorial voice is much more general, describing the action as a whole, relating the thoughts and opinions of different characters as it suits.  You might say in third person omniscient the author tells the story, in first person the character tells the story, while third person limited is somewhere between the two.

So George RR Martin very successfully uses third person limited in Song of Ice and Fire, titling each chapter with the character whose point of view it’s written from.  James Ellroy is another writer whose use of that approach was very influential on me.  Third person limited doesn’t have quite the level of intimacy first person can provide, but it can still be very visceral and involving, while giving you much more flexibility to shift between characters, and perhaps to vary the degree of focus on the point of view character if you want – you can stick very close to their own thought process and experience or take up a slightly more detached position should you so desire.  Being able to shift between characters also allows you to clue the reader into things the individuals might not independently know, or to contrast the way characters see themselves with how others see them to great effect.  I also try and vary my style as widely as possible depending on the point of view – so a Logen chapter instantly has a different voice, a different vocabulary, a different rhythm and feel from a Glokta one, and the style hopefully communicates something about the nature of that character right away.

As far as recommending a certain approach, well, my advice, such as it is, would be to read widely and get a sense of what you like, then experiment a lot and get a sense of what works for you and the story you’re telling, so you can develop your own style.  I don’t know that it’s easier than any other approach, exactly, but I find third person limited to be highly flexible.  Third person omniscient allows you a very free hand but it can be a little uninvolving, perhaps seeming somewhat archaic to the modern reader.  First person can be very powerful but needs to be used with care.  Funnily enough, when I first wrote the First Law the Dogman’s chapters were written in the first person.  And they were great (or I thought they were, at least).  But my editors felt that they unbalanced everything else, giving a sense that this character was somehow THE central one of the series.  In moving to third person limited those chapters lost perhaps a little immediacy, but they sat much more harmoniously with everything else.

On description, everyone’s going to have a different take on what is too much or too little, and it all depends on the style and atmosphere you’re going for, not to mention the particular circumstances.  If you’re writing in third person limited, the description needs to be rooted in the experience of the point of view character.  So in a combat scene you wouldn’t necessarily pause to talk about costume but details and thought about the weapons might be a pressing concern for the people involved.  You probably wouldn’t want to interrupt an impassioned conversation to blather on about the furniture and what it said about its owners, but a scene in which an investigator looks at a crime site could reasonably involve a lot of considered forensic detail.  My own taste is for a relatively light hand on description, especially when a character is in familiar surroundings.  Exhaustive description of the bedroom a character sleeps in every night does not get across the experience of routinely waking up in it.  Perhaps when a point of view character encounters a person or place that’s new and particularly exceptional to them is the time to do some more in-depth description.  Personally I find description one of the least important elements – usually the thing I do last once the dialogue and action is in place.  But where possible I try to bear in mind a character’s emotional reaction, rather than just to literally describe – so that even description becomes about character to some extent.  Better to communicate a few telling details than to bury the reader under unnecessary blandness they can easily supply themselves.  Is hair and eye-colour important, or is it better to use that space to get across something unique about a person that will really stick in the reader’s head and truly says something about their personality?  Also description doesn’t have to be three stodgy paragraphs about a room before breaking into dialogue, there are ways to much more artfully drip things through as they become appropriate.  Better to involve the reader then allow them to update their impressions with new details.  So rather than lovingly describe a bottle along with a room at the start of a scene, describe the room briefly, then have a character interact with that bottle in a way that maybe advances our understanding of that character, their relationship with another, and so on, hence killing two birds with one stone and preventing the description seeming info-dumpy.  Dialogue can be a superb way to get across the nature of a character while still moving other things forward, and in general the more work you can do with dialogue the better.  Elmore Leonard is a master at this – he can set up a compelling character with an off-hand line and a sentence of description.  One good exercise is always to ask yourself with every sentence – is this really needed?  If not, cut, and see how things feel.  Often a stripped down scene which asks the reader to fill in the detail is much more compelling and involving than a hugely detailed one that does all the work.

When is it Good Enough?

Posted on March 15th, 2013 in advice, process, The Inquisition

Judging from the response to the job advertisement for his Majesty’s Inquisition, there is some interest in putting me to the question, and I see several inquiries that already have my brain a-stewing.  Probably it’ll take me some time to get to them, but before I do, let us begin this interrogation with the question that started it…

Laura asks:

When did you know an idea was good enough to pursue and when you started writing, at what point did you realize your novel was good enough to go public?

Good enough, good enough, when is it good enough?  I think the quick answer to this is that every writer worth their salt always thinks their writing is the best thing evah.  And that every writer worth their salt always thinks their writing is worthless shit.

The task of writing a novel is huge, complex and challenging far beyond any writing that most people will ever take on.  When I sat down to write The First Law the longest thing I’d written before was my undergraduate dissertation.  The First Law is some 50 times longer.  There’s a certain arrogance required to think, ‘yeah, I’m going to have a go at that.’  There’s also a certain arrogance required to expect you can grip the attention of a fickle reader through the awesome power of you words alone, and to keep them entertained for hours, days, weeks at a stretch, to make them want to expend their valuable free time listening to you rather than watching X-Factor, or playing with their kids or, I don’t know, moaning about the ending of Mass Effect on the internet.  You’ve got to think you’re one pretty goddamn entertaining motherfucker to pull that off, right?  If you didn’t feel pretty damn clever about what you were doing you’d never get past page 1.  You’d never deserve to get past page 1.  If you don’t love your work, how can you expect anyone else to be even mildly entertained by it?

A writer has to have confidence.  So that when someone says, ‘I didn’t like this book much,’ you can push past the agonising pain in your heart that you think will make you die and say, ‘I don’t care.  Other people will love it.  And they’ll love my next thing even more.  Because I’m great.’  Confidence gives you the drive to continue, throw time and energy down a well, even though the task is huge and the odds of any level of success rather tiny.

But confidence alone is not enough.  Indeed confidence alone is fatal.  You have to have doubt as well.  You need a little voice inside your head always asking, is it possible that this incredibly elaborate, pompous and overblown scene you just wrote is not actually the best scene evah written by humanity, but could it, in fact, actually be quite bad?

You need doubt so that when someone says, ‘I didn’t like this book much,’ you can push past the agonising pain in your heart that you think will make you die and ask yourself, ‘have they got a point?  what can I learn from this?’  Because doubts lead to questions, and self-analysis, and fine-tuning, and it is the long pressure of refinement and reviewing and consideration and re-writing that crushes the crap down into diamonds.  Even the most apparently fluid and effortless writers achieve that sense of effortlessness through a vast amount of effort.  A lot of time and energy spent honing the craft in general, a lot of time and energy spent reviewing individual pieces of writing.

Confidence and doubt, therefore, are the bipolar yin and yang of the writerly life.  The simultaneous presence of these two powerful forces in great abundance may be what makes some writers, AHEM, kind of difficult to be around on occasion.  And an imbalance in the force?  BIG problem.  Too much confidence?  Self-important dreck.  Too much doubt?  Zero progress.

Vital in keeping these twin extremes of towering self-confidence and cringing self-hatred in some kind of productive balance, therefore, are the opinions of people outside your own head.  Yes, they do exist, and time spent in their company is a positive thing for a writer.  Do you have people you can trust?  And I don’t mean trust to hug you and tell you how great you are and plump up another cushion, though that’s all well and good in its place.  I mean someone you can trust to kick you in the face when you need it.  Right in the face.  However clever you are, you won’t have thought of everything.  You won’t believe the things you haven’t thought of until they’re pointed out to you.  Struggling with the details, it’s easy to get way too close to what you’re doing, and miss the forest for the trees.  Taking on someone else’s viewpoint only broadens your own.  The opinions of trusted readers, or indeed a professional editor, are worth their weight in gold to a writer.  Although opinions don’t weigh anything.  Exactly the sort of sloppy metaphor a good reader would kick you in the face for using.

To haul the runaway train of my pontificating back to the question – I’m not a huge believer in ideas alone.  Ideas are like assholes, everyone’s got at least one, and I personally like well-used, tried and tested second-hand ideas with a nice patina of age and love.  It’s the execution that makes a great book, the insanely complex interaction of voice, style, plot, pacing, characters, dialogue, and everything else.  So I don’t know that an idea alone is ever worth pursuing.  When did I feel writing in a more general sense was worth pursuing, then?  Pretty much from the first few paragraphs I wrote, the second time I tried in my mid-twenties (I’d tried just after leaving university and it hadn’t really come to much).  Logen’s personality and manner of expression, his world-weary catchphrases, the nature of Glokta’s internal monologue, appeared straight away.  There was just something about the voices that emerged.  I started to become fascinated by how I could structure and pace a scene or a paragraph, exploring my own instincts for what worked and what didn’t.  I just enjoyed writing  and going over, editing, fine-tuning the writing right from the start.

But writing something you like and believing anyone else will like it are two very different things.  So when I had maybe 30,000 words I finally plucked up the nerve to show it to my family.  They are people to plump a cushion when it’s needed, for sure, but they can also swing a boot when it’s required, and between them they know a lot about writing in one way or another.  I was literally crapping my pants while they read it.  But when my mother turned to me and said, ‘you know, this isn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting,’ I knew I was onto something, and I started to get more methodical and planned the entire series out much more seriously.

When did I know it was good enough to go public?  I think right from around this time I knew writing was something I was going to continue to do as a serious hobby, if you like, hoping to perhaps get published at some point.  I had dreams of international mega-stardom, of course, but trying to be realistic (heh) I was really hoping just for enough supplementary income to make it worthwhile.  I certainly thought I was going to finish the first book and make some effort to get it published, see what happened.  So after two or three years of part-time work I finished the first book, took on a lot of comments and criticism from my family, made a lot of changes, and reached a point where I didn’t see immediate ways to improve it.

I don’t know that I necessarily felt it was ready, no book is ever perfect, or anywhere near, but I made a decision that it was about as good as I was going to make it at that point, further reviews were yielding rapidly diminishing returns, and it was time to see whether I could get any interest from a publisher before committing another three or four years of my life to this particular project at this particular time.  So I prepared an approach and started trying to find an agent, and picked up maybe half a dozen rejections over six months.  Which are crushing, of course, especially since you don’t necessarily get any feedback, just an anonymous no.  So immediately you begin to doubt.  Is it extremely uncommercial?  Is it too violent?  Too profane?  Too ambitious?  Too weird?  Does it start too slow?  Too fast?  Is there an uncertain tone teetering between humour and cynicism?  Is it just, not very good?  I think I’d maybe got a third of the way through a draft of Before They are Hanged and decided to try something simpler and tighter, wrote the first few chapters of something else, some of the ideas for which would later be absorbed into Best Served Cold.  Then I got the offer from Gollancz, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Well, actually, the rest was a year and a half of hard work on the manuscript before the book was even published, taking it apart and putting it back together with a new start in reaction to comments from my editor and others, but that’s another story…

Taking the question from the point of view of where I am now, a seasoned and consummate professional (ha) – how do you know a book’s finished, as it were?  Again, no book is ever the best it can be.  There are always big and small improvements that can be made, opinions that can be listened to and acted on, tinkerings, cuts and fine-tunings.  Clearly I’m a lot more experienced than I was (no, really) and I achieve a better result much more quickly (no, really), am much more economical and structured with my revision.  So when I finish a first draft there’s usually a lot of work to do to the start of the book, much less to the end, and I go through making the larger changes, re-writes, additions, and end up with a second draft that is pretty much complete and consistent.  Then there are a few rounds of revision focusing on different areas – characters, setting, voice, detail of language, and so on (click on the process tab in the categories bar and you’ll find a lot more discussion of exactly how I go about some of this stuff).  Revising a book is a bit like pouring cement.  When you first do it it’s all runny and you can mash it about with ease into new shapes.  Introduce a race of brain-eating aliens?  Bah, why not?  But with each round of review it stiffens and hardens a little bit more and becomes tougher to alter, until you need a rock drill to change one ‘this’ to a ‘that’.  In a sense the book is ready when I reach a point of bafflement and exhaustion with it, making the smallest changes seems like a vast and frightening effort, and I can no longer really tell whether I’m improving it or not.  I hate it – it’s ready!  Of course by then you’ve hopefully made massive strides since the first draft and, in any case, if you’ve timed it right production are kicking your door down for a manuscript, so however good it is is going to have to be good enough.

So, in summary – when is it good enough?  It’s always been the best there is.  And it’s never good enough…

Incidentally, let’s try and keep the comments here to the topic here.  Questions that arise from this directly, go ahead.  Any further general inquiries, report to the House of Questions…

Advice for Budding Fantasists

Posted on July 14th, 2008 in advice

Some among you may find this hard to believe, but I do on occasion get emails from folks either wanting to have a stab at writing some fantasy of their own, or who’ve written some and want some advice on how to go about getting it published. So I thought I’d collect some thoughts together here so I can refer folks to them if required…

I regret that I won’t read stuff myself – I honestly don’t have the time. If I found something I liked there’s nothing I could do with it besides pass it on to my editor or agent for them to make their own decision. Far more likely I wouldn’t like it, and I’d then spend hours trying to think of the best way to express myself in an email. Sorry to say I just can’t get into it.

I’d offer two pieces of general advice, though, for anyone who is interested, one for the writing and one for the selling.

The best piece of advice I had as far as writing goes came (like all the best advice) from my Mum. She has (and my father and my brother have) always read my stuff pretty much as I’ve completed a batch of chapters and given her honest and extremely well-read opinion. Invaluable criticism. On one occasion, early on, she read a chapter of mine in which I’d used some particularly trite expression (I forget what, now, there are plenty of contenders), and she drew my attention to it and said, you have to try to be honest. In every area of your writing. When you use a metaphor to describe something, you have to ask the question, ‘does that thing really look the way you’re describing it?’ or are you reaching for an easy cliche, for any old words to fill the space? When you write dialogue, you have to ask the question, ‘would this character really say these words in this situation?’ Everything that seems dishonest, that seems unconvincing, that seems untrue, weakens the effect. If you keep honest, you can’t go too far wrong.

As far as selling goes, there are some simple steps to follow that will give you the best chance (though your chances are always small with any individual submission, so prepare for rejections, possibly a lot of them). Finish a book, first of all, because no one’s going to buy anything without reading the whole thing. Find out who you’re sending material to, and ensure it’s a suitable book for them, then send them exactly what they ask for, in the format they ask for. Usually this will mean the first couple of chapters, or fifty pages of material. Err on the side of less, because they’ll probably know within a paragraph whether they are interested or not, and they’ll surely ask for more if they want to see more. Put a covering letter with your work that explains what is so special about it, why it’s something they need to have, and can sell. Spend plenty of time making sure the letter is good, because it may well be more important than the extract – if your letter is rubbish they might get no further. Remember that, even if to you this is your wonderful baby, to them it will always be, to some degree, a product. They may fall in love with it, but they still need to sell it.

But hell, I’m no expert. Why listen to me when you can listen to professionals? Lately the awesomely talented folks at my own publisher Gollancz have been talking to SFX about the business of writing in the genre, both creatively and commercially. Firstly a Q&A; with evil arch hype-sorceror Simon of Spanton and my own editor Gillian Redfearn (she found me, she’s got to know what she’s talking about, right?) and secondly with their esteemed colleague Jo Fletcher. Still have questions? You could check out the advice of genre doyen John Jarrold, long-time editor and now successful agent, who runs a message board over at the Chronicles Network. You could even sign up there and ask him a question or two. There’s nothing about selling fantasy books that man don’t know.

You could also nip over to the Geek Syndicate, where they have a set of audio interviews with me and six other genre authors, talking about our experiences getting into the business.  Who knows, you may find something useful there…

Lastly, if anyone thinks they have some wonderful advice, or is in need of some particular answer I might conceivably be able to help with, by all means comment below…