Category Archive for ‘process’

Third Draft

Posted on March 14th, 2014 in process

I’ve had a few minor bits and pieces to deal with the last couple of weeks including a short story now squared away, which leaves me with no alternative but to tackle a third draft of Half the World, curse it.  Few weeks ago I was talking about work on the second draft, which focused on getting the arcs of the two central characters right, adding a couple of key scenes and setting a few things up better, and doing a lot of general cutting.  That’s now been done, read by my first readers (mum and dad, bless ‘em), and reacted to.

Reader reaction is always an interesting, even a slightly challenging thing to take on.  Your gut reaction to the first mild critique usually varies somewhere between you’re wrong and fuck you.  Working as a TV editor – where you often have to accept changes from others and use them as a jumping off point to making things better from your point of view as well as theirs – helped me overcome some of this instinctive reluctance to change things, shall we call it, and experience over the past six books has helped me overcome a lot of the rest.  These days I ignore my initial reaction and try to listen, absorb, and mull over.  Things that one reader says but the other doesn’t necessarily, I many act on if I see a sensible way, but may ignore.  Things that both agree on, I’m likely to act on at least to some degree.  Things that cause the strongest resistance on my part are often the ones that I later find myself agreeing with most, and if we’re all agreed, I better attend to it.  Once you start considering and acting on comments you often find that a few quite minor changes or additions can shift emphasis  or clarify or flesh out in a way that subtly answers a point that might have seemed like it would need major work.

In the case of this book there’s really one serious issue throughout – my laser-like focus on getting the two central characters and the relationship between them right has led to a bit of a spotlight effect in which a lot of the secondary cast are lost in the shadows and not really coming through very strongly.  Not enough screen time, and what time they have isn’t making an impact.  At the same time I’m labouring the point a bit with some of the development of the central two.  In particular one is training to fight, and there are too many scenes of training which are a little repetitive and also maybe detract from the impact of actual violence when it occurs.  So, cutting of some training, cutting of some repetition, to leave room for some development of some of the secondary characters, including a bit of backstory, a few recurrent concerns and personality features, some more arresting and distinctive mannerisms, some work on their looks.  Once you get stuck into this kind of thing you often find they strike interesting sparks from each other and from the central characters too, making the whole interplay of the group more arresting.

A second issue is a bit of a lack of clarity in the politics, the background issues, the importance of what the characters are doing, the stakes if they succeed or fail, with a consequent loss of tension.  So some more spelling out of those things, preferably done in such a way that it fulfils some of the previous aim of fleshing out some of the secondary characters while I’m at it.  Two birds, one stone.  The end is also slightly weak right now and maybe needs some attention to give it a bit more punch.

Aside from those there’s a lengthy checklist of specifics to tweak and details to introduce.  Some of this is setting-related, and may get rolled up into a separate pass where I’m stuck into the setting specifically, both the world building aspects (creating an interesting, vivid, coherent backdrop for the action that ideally impacts on the way the characters think and behave) and the smaller scale issues of bringing in vibrant detail that makes the locations feel real, even if only in passing, thinking about lighting, giving scenes some weather or landscape that enhances the action, this type of stuff.

When all that’s done we’ll have a third draft which is getting reasonably close to as good as I can make it without further outside input (though the details of the language will still need a fair bit of work towards the end), and it’s time for it to go off to the editors.  Four of em, all told, in this case…

He Killed the Younglings!

Posted on March 10th, 2014 in opinion, process

People keep asking me whether Half a King is a Young Adult book.  Well, yes it is.  Kind of.  But also an adult fantasy.  Kind of.  Crossover, you know.  Depends a little on who you ask…

Categorisation is always a bit of a strange business.  Books are often put into a certain genre, or shelved in a certain part of a bookstore, because of things that are nothing to do with the content of the book – the history of the author, the nature of the publisher, the whim of a bookseller, the font on the spine.  Young Adult is a particularly tough category to define as it straddles all kinds of different styles – fantasy, historical, thrillers, romance, tough real world stories.  The one thing a young adult book must have is a young adult protagonist, but outside of that, there are no hard rules.  They’re often shorter and more focused than adult books, but not always.  They’re often less explicit in the areas of sex and violence, but not always.  They’re often softer on the swearing, except when they’re not.

And of course all these categories are constantly in flux.  The boundaries of what’s permissible in a young adult book are constantly expanding, and books that might once have been considered firmly in the camp of adult fantasy (like Eddings’ Belgariad, for example), are sometimes rebranded YA as the years roll on.

A little background as to how I came to write Half a King.  I had a meeting with Nick Lake, young adult publisher at Harper Collins, what feels like a hundred years ago but was maybe four.  He liked my adult fantasy and thought I might have a good young adult book in me.  At the time I was finishing up the Heroes, I think, and the idea sat with me, in a vague sort of way, for some time until, by chance, as these things do, the seed of the idea for Half a King took root in my brain loam.  Having written six big, chunky, complicated, relatively similar, unapologetically adult books I felt the need for something of a change.  So I started writing.

Now, I will admit to being no kind of expert on young adult literature.  Some people might think it’s rather presumptuous of me to try writing it.  Maybe it is.  Sorry bout that.  But then I have a far from encyclopaedic knowledge of adult fantasy either.  I’ve always felt strongly that you don’t write something good by trying to slavishly assess what’s working in the marketplace, still less by trying to read everything in a category so that you somehow eliminate everything done before and leave yourself only with the fresh and original.  I think you write something good by drawing on all kinds of diverse influences from fiction, from non-fiction, from film and tv and games and life and combining them in a way that only you can to write the kind of book that you would like to read.  Or, perhaps, the kind of book you wanted to read at 14.

My main touchstones in the young adult arena were things I read and loved when I was younger – notably Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical books (Blood Feud especially) and John Cristopher’s post-apocalyptic Sword of the Spirits.  These were books full of authenticity, honesty, moral ambiguity, shocks and tough choices.  These were not books that ever simplified, preached, or talked down to their audience.  But I also had in mind the powerful voices of some adult viking fiction, like Frans Bengtsson’s classic The Long Ships, Robert Low’s The Whale Road and sequels, Bernard Cornwell’s Anglo Saxon Chronicles and others.

I started from the standpoint that young adults are, above all, adults.  Just young ones.  Many of them are extremely sophisticated in their reading.  What they want to read isn’t radically different from what old adults (like me) want to read.  I get emails, after all, from 11 year olds who read my adult work.  When I was 14 I was reading Dragonlance and David Eddings.  I was also reading Dickens and Dostoevsky (I may have been enjoying them less than Dragonlance, but you take my point).  People in that 12-18 age range are dealing with serious issues of sex, money, identity, responsibility.  The last thing they want to read is simplified, childish, toothless pap.  The last thing they want to be is talked down to.  Talked to as if they’re children.  What adult does?

So my aim was not to soften, or bowdlerise, or pull the teeth of my existing style, but to modify it for a new audience, a younger adult audience, but also a wider adult audience who might have found themselves turned off by the big size of some of the fantasy out there.  My aim was to write something shorter, tighter, more focused, perhaps a smidge less cynical and pessimistic.  I spent some time with horror writer Adam Neville not long ago, and he explained to me his philosophy of life and death on every page.  I modified that just a little to a slap in the face on every page.  No wasted space.  A driving single thread which is all killer, no filler.  My aim was to write something tighter and simpler in its narrative, perhaps, but certainly not simpler in the way it was written or in the themes that it tackles.  Something a little less explicit in the sex, violence and swearing departments but absolutely with the edges left on, with the same shades of grey, the same moral complexity, the same shocks and challenges, the same visceral action, the same rich vein of dark humour  that I fondly imagine my other books have offered.  Whatever I came up with, I wanted it to retain the strength of my other work, to bring new readers to that work, and absolutely to appeal to the readers I already had.

There’s a degree to which, once it’s finished and released into the wild, it’s not necessarily up to me to say whether Half a King is Young Adult or not.  Publishers, booksellers and, of course, readers, will make their own determinations.  The fact that I’m already known for adult fantasy certainly plays a role.  In the UK there were 6 publishers interested – 1 children’s, 2 general fiction, 2 adult fantasy and a collaboration between an adult fantasy and a young adult list, all of them with slightly different ideas and emphases on how they’d package and market it.  There was much talk of Crossover – that sweet spot between children’s and adult fiction where many of our most beloved fantasies sit, but is always difficult to aim at.  It was the collaboration that won through in the end, between Harper Voyager (adult fantasy) and Harper Collins’ YA list with what you might call a comprehensive approach aiming at both markets.  In the US, where categories are less flexible, Del Rey will be selling the book primarily in fantasy sections, but with wide-ranging attempts to bring in a young adult readership too.  There are already ten or so translation deals done and the various international publishers – some of whom already publish the First Law books and some of whom are new to me – will all have slightly differing approaches depending on their own strengths and their own market.

The term YA is sometimes used disparagingly (probably by folks who’ve never really read any) to mean something superficial, fluffy, disposable, lacking in depth and edge.  That is not what I had it in mind to write.  That is not what I believe I’ve produced.  That is not what I think any serious writer of YA fiction produces.  From a recent review by the redoubtable Adam Whitehead, at the Wertzone:

“This is still very much a Joe Abercrombie novel, meaning there’s an air of both cynicism and humour to proceedings and there’s a fair amount of violence. There isn’t much swearing and no sex at all, but beyond that the only way you’d know this was a YA novel is because the author said so on his website.”

I would argue there’s a degree to which – other than by the way it’s talked about, marketed, packaged, and sold – I’m not sure you should be able to tell a good young adult novel from a good adult novel.  For me they’ll both be tough, honest, truthful.  They’ll both have wit, excitement, strong dialogue and vivid characters.  They’ll both leave you desperate to turn the next page, and when you’ve turned the last page, they’ll both leave you with something to think about.

I read a chapter from Half a King at the World Fantasy Convention last year, and at the end, as you do, I asked for questions.  Someone called out, ‘is that meant to be toned down?’  That got a laugh from the room, and from me as much as anyone.

Because no, it isn’t meant to be toned down.

Why would it be?

Second Draft

Posted on February 3rd, 2014 in process

In many ways, at least for me, it’s when I’ve got a complete first draft of a book that the most important work begins.

I start with a reasonable idea of who my central characters are and what the plot’s going to be, but both the plot and the personalities inevitably flex and shift as you start to write, as the characters and their relationships develop, as new ideas come to you.  You find the people need to be a certain way to make events believably and meaningfully unfold how you want them to, or you realise the people need to be slightly different to begin with so they can change into something else, or they just are a certain, somewhat unexpected way when you write them and you need to tweak the plot to fit.  Inevitably, by the time you end a book, you have a much better idea what you’re doing with it than you did at the start (at least you bloody hope you do).

When I first started writing The First Law I was working with characters that had been steadily developing in my head for years, and I would revise every sentence after writing it, every paragraph after completing it, every chapter several times once I had it finished, every chapter from each point of view character together, then every part once it was complete, usually responding to the comments of readers on each chunk of four or five chapters as I finished it.  An awful lot of revising as I went, in other words, which was time consuming but meant that chapters were generally pretty polished, or at least well considered, by the time I finished them.  These days I tend to plunge forward with a much rougher first draft, which takes a bit more faith and confidence, I think – knowing you’re leaving some problems in your wake but not necessarily concerning yourself too much with the solutions – but is much more efficient.  As you get towards the end of the book, your conception of the central point of view characters, of the arc they each need to follow, and therefore of the type of person they need to be to believably follow that arc, refines and comes to a point.  Certain things grow in importance, others shrivel, perhaps are no longer needed at all.  Inevitably, therefore, when you finish your first draft your last part is pretty tight, but your first, which was probably drafted months before, is a bit of a mess.

The first chunk of serious revision, going from a first draft to a second, has really become the key phase in the way I’m working these days.  The first draft will probably have some dead ends, some wasted time, some plot holes, some blurry, indistinct characterisation, especially at the start.  The second draft may still be a little bland (further phases of revision will work on the detail of the primary and secondary characters, the backdrop and the language) but it should be coherent and consistent, with meaningful arcs and believable characters, with plotting that makes sense and is properly developed from start to finish, with no significant dead weight.  That’s the hope.  There may be some significant scenes to add, some others to take away (though it’s pretty rare for me to cut whole scenes).  There’ll generally be an emphasis on cutting – it’s amazing the improvement just cutting out sentences and paragraphs that no longer seem to help can make.  There’ll also be some general rewriting and sharpening of language wherever something seems particularly ropey or better ideas occur.

In the case of Half the World, there are two point of view characters.  One’s basic plot, personality, and development I’ve had a good grip on since the start, and has worked pretty well as it is.  She needs some better set up of her background early on, though, to give later developments much more bite.  The other character is the reverse – his background works fine, indeed it’s helpful that it’s not too much fleshed out early on so it can be revealed later, but his destination has changed somewhat, which means that where he starts has to change, and his personality needs to be a good deal more complex.  He’s a bit nondescript initially in this first draft, and needs to be cleverer, quieter, and be hiding something of a temper.  He’s also developed some patterns of speech over time that need to be present throughout.  Partly this is about differentiating the two voices: she I want to read as slightly obsessive, slightly over-thinking, quite withering about herself and others, he I want to read as less intrusive in the thought process, expressing himself more through speech and deed.  Outside of making these two central characters work smoothly, there are a few more general plot points that need trailing earlier on.   There are a couple of secondary characters that need to be more significant in the first three parts, which I’m going to achieve partly by cutting a third character altogether and splitting his dialogue and contributions between the other two where they’re worth keeping.  There’s also a character who becomes very important later who I toyed with introducing early on, decided not to, and now realise I have to after all.  Might have to experiment with the names of a couple of characters as well.  A simple name change can often reap surprising benefits…

So February’s an important month for Half the World.  Hopefully, by the end of it, I’ll have a leaner, tighter, much more coherent book with an effective pair of central characters and a consistent supporting cast, ready to be looked at by some readers for the first time.  Then we’ll have to go from second to third draft, of course, which is where I try to work on the characters, dialogue and setting and make them as vivid and arresting as possible.  After that it’ll be ready to be edited.  Excuse me, but I’ve got rather a lot of work to do…

ARCs

Posted on January 31st, 2014 in process, Uncategorized

Call them what you like: Bound Proofs, Galleys, Advance Reader Copies (ARCs), Advance Reader Editions (AREs), Advance Reader Special Editions (ARSEs), they are a staple of the publishing world.  Essentially these are not-quite-final versions of the book sent out well before publication, to reviewers that they may have time to review, to other authors that they may have time to endorse, to reps and booksellers that they may become enthused about the project in time for release, and occasionally to lucky members of the public that give the author thousands of pounds. Ha ha, that last one’s a joke. Maybe.

Sometimes ARCs are unedited typescript bound in brown paper.  Sometimes they’re almost indistinguishable from the finished product.  These days, with short run printing getting ever more accessible, you sometimes get ARCs that are more lavish and lovely than the finished product.  Certainly they’re a key marketing tool in building awareness and buzz around a book, and here are the two ARCs for Half a King, US (left) and UK (right):

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MMMMM. Interestingly different approaches.  Del Rey’s US Arc looks very much like the finished book might, without the effects on the cover.  For the UK one HarperCollins have gone for something that will look nothing like the finished book, just aims to get a simple punchy message across to the trade, and perhaps particularly to booksellers and others who might not normally pick up a fantasy book.  Nice foil, as well.  The UK one’s also a slightly unusual size – same width as a standard trade paperback but a little shorter, a little squarer – which apparently they’re going to follow through with on the actual hardcover.  The UK proof – partly through setting, partly through paper stock – is nearly twice as thick as the US one.  The final UK hardcover won’t look anything like either of these, incidentally.  Back cover…

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US gets copy and some info about the release for the trade, UK has kept things sparer by printing a lot of the other stuff on the inside cover.  These are in the hands of readers EVEN NOW, so I being to get nervous in anticipation of reactions.  We shall see…

The actual book, in case you didn’t know, is coming out in July.

Half the World, Finished! Not.

Posted on January 25th, 2014 in process, progress

Well, kind of. I’ve spoken before of how you (or at least I) never really get that moment of glorious satisfaction when you clack out the words THE END on your typewriter, whizz the final sheet from the drum, plonk it on top of the crisp heap of typescript and allow yourself that one cigarette a year.

For one thing, I rarely write stuff properly in sequence.  For another, finishing a draft is where some of the most important work begins – the revision.  In the case of Half the World I limped over the finish line late last night when I suddenly realised I’d closed up the last gap in the second-to-last chapter, the last one having been written a couple of days before.

I still need to do the most basic revision on the last of four parts, which is where I read each chapter, often for the first time, chop stuff around, cut stuff out, fix basic errors, and generally smooth it all off to the point that it’s at least readable, if not necessarily good.  That’ll probably take me most of next week, then the task of really going through and making the whole thing into a coherent, consistent book will happen in February and March.

So there’s a long way to go, a lot of things to add, a lot of things to cut, a lot of laborious filing and polishing and shaping, but it cannot be denied that I now have a complete draft of Half the World.  And, what’s more, it’s not even my next book.  Half a King is due out in July this year, and is completely finished, Advance Reader Copies going out to writers and reviewers even as we speak.  Half the World is due in February 2015.  Been a long, long time since I was a book ahead like this.  Still, the last book in this trilogy, Half a War, is currently loosely slated for July 2015, which means getting that finished by the end of this year.  No rest for the grimdark…

The Authority of Print

Posted on January 16th, 2014 in process

So, this past couple of weeks I’ve been going through two sets of Page Proofs for Half a King, one for Del Rey’s US edition, one for HarperCollins’ UK edition.  This is when the book, in its (almost) final typeset form, is sent to you for final approval on loose leaves of A4, and you hunt through for errors, typos, details you suddenly realise are rubbish (amazing how, during a dozen other read-throughs, you can sometimes miss the same word used twice in consecutive sentences, or even the same sentence) and issues of formatting.  This, is, of course, a time-honoured phase of the process and, indeed, I’ve discussed it before at some length in – wait for it – 2007.

The interesting thing with this particular set is the somewhat different approaches the US and UK publishers have taken:

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The UK (left) have gone for a bigger point size and narrower setting, which has produced a much bigger page count (370ish).  The US (right) have gone for smaller type, turning the book in a full 100 pages shorter.  The UK have also gone for a much simpler, more classic layout, while the US have done some quite interesting stuff with grey scales and arrangement, especially on the part title pages:

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Which you prefer is going to be very much a matter of taste, of course.  Be interesting to see how they look when the books are printed and bound.  Why the difference, some will ask?  Really just a matter of house style and a judgement by the designer on a look that suits the book and the intended audience.

It’s been really interesting reading the book over again, actually (twice).  There’s quite a profound difference between reading a roughly formatted typescript and the properly typeset pages.  A gain in authority, you might say.  A sense that, bloody hell, I actually wrote a proper, honest-to-goodness book here.  Not that I’m by any means a champion of paper over screen but that’s perhaps something that’s slightly lost with an e-book, where text has to wrap to new screens and point-sizes.  When I read off a screen I tend to get a faint sense of work-in-progress.  Properly set paper has that unarguable finality about it…

 

2013 in Review

Posted on December 31st, 2013 in film and tv, games, opinion, process, progress, reading, reviews

Happy Birthday to Me. Happy Birthday to Me. Happy Birthday dear MEEEE-EEEEE.  Three cheers, anyone?

Yes, indeed, another year has flowed beneath the bridge at ever-increasing speed and I am 39 today.  It’s round about 12 years since I started writing The Blade Itself back in 2001.  Some 9 years since I signed my first book deal, and 7 and a half years since The Blade Itself was published in 2006, would you believe.  Got a feeling it’s hard to argue that I’m new on the scene any longer…  An interesting year this has been.  Didn’t publish any new novels, but I made some big deals for three and wrote most of two of those.

Let’s break it down a little, shall we…?

A YEAR IN BOOKSELLING – In spite of all my complaints, I really can’t complain.  No new novels published, though I did have short stories in a couple of anthologies: Legends and Dangerous Women.  The Blade Itself continues to come out in languages and territories that have yet to be exposed to the sunny radiance of my literary presence – I think we’re up to nearly 30 translation deals now.  Partly due to the huge success of GRRM’s Game of Thrones, I’m sure, The First Law books, especially the trilogy, would seem to be selling better and wider than ever.  Which is nice.  I’m told all six books, in all languages and formats, have sold somewhere around 3 million copies now, which really does beggar belief for stuff I dreamed up in the middle of the night for my own amusement. Less travelling this year, but a much enjoyed second visit to my pals at Celsius in Spain, and my first trip to Russia saw 250 people in a bookstore in St. Petersburg and a sleeper train back to Moscow with a very nice man who works in oil and gas called Mikhail.  I spent most of June locked in negotiations for the publishing of my new YA (ish) trilogy which will be starting in July in the UK and US with Half a King, more detail on all of that over here.  It looks as if 2014 might be a very big year for me…

A YEAR IN BOOK WRITING – A strong year, especially at the start and end.  Quite possibly my most productive ever, certainly since 2007ish when I was finishing the First Law, long before I was a full-time writer and there were so many child-based and administrative demands on my time.  I wrote the second half of Half a King, revised and edited it, planned Half the World and drafted three quarters of it, and wrote three short stories.  Overall the move to a (slightly) different style of writing does feel like it’s done something to refresh my interest and recharge the batteries though, you know, it’s amazing how fast work becomes work again…

BOOKS – A level of reading that makes last year’s pitiful level look amazing, and most of what I did read was non-fiction about vikings. One thing that I did very much enjoy was Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles starting with The Last Kingdom.  Strongly written adventure stuff with some great battle scenes and a feeling of authenticity.  I burned through four of them while in Russia, then got stalled on the fifth.  Perhaps a slight sense of diminishing returns when read back to back.  Otherwise, my tottering to read pile just gets ever higher.  Don’t think that bad boy’s going to get any smaller, now…

TV and FILM – Boy it’s been slim pickens film-wise, I have to say, adding considerably to my ongoing conviction that the interesting stuff mostly happens on the small screen these days.  Can’t think of anything that really did much for me at the cinema since I squeezed into the most packed viewing ever to see Les Mis back in January.  Those big scifi and superhero blockbusters I saw didn’t do masses for me.  I liked Star Trek Into Darkness a hell of a lot more than its predecessor, but that isn’t saying all that much.  Kick-Ass 2 was entertaining but not exactly deep.  Pacific Rim I thought was mostly nonsense and, no, geekdom, not in a good way.  Man of Steel I didn’t even enjoy thinking about watching.  The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug was a good deal better than the first instalment but a long way short of the Lord of the Rings, with the story bloated up like a steroid-popping body builder losing all charm and personality in favour of ACTION and SPECTACLE.  Ah, well.  TV was a great deal more promising.  Breaking Bad got better and better (or possibly worse and worse) though I haven’t yet seen the final episodes so SHUT UP SHUT UP.  Game of Thrones Season 2 was good, sometimes very good, after a slightly wobbly oversexed start.  Hannibal was largely riveting stuff with some awesome design and some great performances, Vikings was an interestingly off-beat and authentic-feeling effort that I look forward to the continuation of, Hell on Wheels 1 and 2 were also promising.  Justified Season 3 continued to improve on the sparky character-led police hijinks of the previous two series.  Spartacus Vengeance was more of the same brilliant/awful lurid schlock.  The Danes offered us a great final season of Borgen, and a not-so-great final season of the Killing.  The French offered us the initially gripping and ultimately baffling The Returned.  Sons of Anarchy I find watchable enough in the main but I wouldn’t be that bothered if I saw no more.  Dexter still offers a few things to like but is really dribbling away by Season 6.  I enjoyed Season 2 of the Walking Dead in spite of many issues, however they’ve sorted out most of those by a storming Season 3, the end of which I haven’t quite got to.  Probably the most pleasure I got out of TV was soaking through my t-shirts with tears watching the full five season run of Friday Night Lights.  You wouldn’t think a show about a Texas High School football team would be my cup of tea at all but, heavens, the acting, the scripting, the storytelling, the commentary on american life, the raw emotions.  Brilliant Stuff.  I’m tearing up again!  Help me, coach, teach me how to be a man!  Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose…

GAMES – After a slightly disappointing 2012, 2013 will be remembered as an absolutely vintage year.  Good stuff often happens at the end of a hardware generation and some of this year’s releases were particularly noticeable not only for their technical strengths but for their strengths in character and narrative.  The White-Knuckle Tomb Raider Reboot then the Mind-Bending Bioshock: Infinite both delivered powerful central story lines.  For me, in spite of a far smaller budget, Telltale’s harrowing Walking Dead video game got closer to the holy grail of interactive drama than the fascinating yet flawed Beyond: Two Souls.  Grand Theft Auto 5 was pretty triumphant however you look at it.  The one player campaign may not quite have had the depth and thematic cohesion some of the previous outings offered, but for sheer quantity of content and realisation of a living, breathing, beautifully detailed free-roaming game world it is untouchable, and its multiplayer incarnation was rich and varied enough to get me finally playing something online for a significant chunk of time.  In spite of the fierce, fierce competition, though, my game of the year has to be the magnificently stark and uncompromising The Last of Us, which for boldness, characterisation, detail of setting, richness of experience, seamless fusion of action and story and sheer narrative drive from first frame to last set new standards for scripted games.

BEST REVIEWS – No new books means no significant splurge of reviews, and I must confess that I’m finding reviews as a whole just a lot less fascinating than I used to.  Partly it’s that you see the same points and arguments repeated over and over, partly it’s that I’m just not as fresh and interesting and review worthy as I once was, partly it’s that when you put together a hundred reviews of a book you tend to see pretty much every viewpoint expressed somewhere, and partly it’s that there seems to be less and less connection between the critical and commercial spheres and, I dunno, the commercial sphere just interests me a lot more.  It seems more honest in the main.  I get bored by the contempt for success and the celebration of obscurity you seem to get from a lot of ‘serious’ critics.  Still, no doubt when people start to react to Half a King I’ll be glued to the interwebs for every grain of opinion once again…

CONTROVERSIES – Ongoing criticism of cynicism and darkness in fantasy, not to use that elusive term ‘grimdark’, caused me to write a post on The Value of Grit early in the year, which prompted a fair bit of response, but in a way it’s a reheating and re-examination of a familiar circular argument.  There’s a degree to which, once you’ve spent a fair bit of time about the internet genre scene, you start to see the same comments and controversies coming up over and over in one guise or another and you’re forced to wonder whether you have any further substantial contribution, or even frothy outrage, to offer.  That, and the fact I’ve talked about pretty much every aspect of the publishing scene at one time or another has caused me to cut back on the blogging slightly this year.  I’m still going to be talking about TV, games, whisky, publishing, my forthcoming work, and all the other stuff I’ve always talked about when there are substantial posts to make, but I’m also reasonably active on Twitter these days (@LordGrimdark), and some of the smaller comments and announcements (not to mention arguments) are happening over there…

Happy new year, readers!

Everyone has a Plan until they’re Punched in the Face

Posted on December 26th, 2013 in process

The quote is from Mike Tyson, I believe, and somewhat appropriate, as I want to talk a little bit about planning.  I’m traditionally quite a careful planner, but over time I’ve developed a more organic approach.  I think it’s important not to get too bound up in the planning, but to get a feel for what the texture of the writing might be, how the characters might talk, think and behave, which naturally then affects the development of the plot.  When I wrote the First Law I had many long-matured ideas, and just sat down to experiment with the first few chapters more as individual scenes than with much thought for the greater whole.  Once I’d got six or seven chapters together though I pretty quickly saw the need for a more detailed plan, and spewed out all kinds of flow-charts, diagrams on squared paper, and elaborate hand-written notes.

With some of my later books I got into planning on computer, on the very sensible grounds that I can type far faster than I can write longhand, and that any chunks of dialogue that might suddenly come to me while planning (and they quite often do) can be got down faster and more easily pasted into a document.  But I’ve actually gone back to pad and fountain pen lately.  There’s just something about the act of writing longhand with a good pen on good paper that gets the mind working in a slightly different way to the computer.

These days I have a reasonably well refined process: I split a book into parts, have some idea what the basic events and settings will be in those parts and what our end-point might be, but I don’t plan each one in detail (breaking down the content of each chapter, that is) until I’ve finished a draft of the part before.  When I come to write that detailed plan for a part, the experience of writing the earlier parts of the book, the direction the characters and their relationships are taking, naturally informs where I go next.  Plot and character develop and intertwine, flex and shift within the broader framework.  Some characters work well and demand more presence, some atrophy away entirely.  Sometimes the framework itself has to shift a little.  In an ideal world there’s a natural flow to this process which means that new ideas for later appear as you’re writing and are effortlessly incorporated.  But sometimes you get to that planning stage, especially for a last part, and think – hmmm, this doesn’t quite work.  I’ll have some ideas in place.  Some plot lines properly tied off.  Perhaps some twists long anticipated.  Some scenes I might already have pictured in some detail and barely even need to plan they’re so concrete in my mind.  Other things are hazier, and require a bit of thought, perhaps a bit of re-imagining, before they’ll slot into place.  Sometimes the re-imagining of an ending gives you an insight into how whole plots and characters could be made more effective.  Sometimes a character and their place in the story emerges fully formed, sometimes it’s not until you finish that you really see what a character needs to be, and then it’s a question of going back through and bringing them more into the shape you now need.

Case in point, I’m nearing the end of my first draft of Half the World, the second book of my forthcoming YA(ish) trilogy.  I’ve drafted the third part of four and I’m revising it and at the same time putting together the detailed plan for the last part.  There are two Point of View characters, the relationship between them central to the book.  The final scenes for one of them I’d had in mind for some time, but for the other there was something of a blank.  In thinking about this, I realised that I didn’t know what to do with this second character because they didn’t really have a story, while the first character very definitely did.  I mean, stuff happens to that second character, and they do stuff, important stuff, but there’s not necessarily a meaningful progression from A to B.  And without a story there can’t really be a payoff.  This led me to the realisation that this character was fundamentally quite weak – the lack of an arc meant a lack of personality and purpose because there was no plot line for their personality to drive.  They were somewhat bland as a point of view because there isn’t necessarily an angle relevant to their central thread to be taken on the events that happen to them.  They were reactive, they were an observer.  They were clear glass, a window on the story for the reader but providing no filter of their own.  This will not do.  It’s a wasted opportunity.

Having identified this as a problem, and feeling that I needed a solution more fundamental than simply finding the right scene, or the right twist, or the right ending, I let it sit.  I’ve become quite a believer in not attacking problems of this kind directly, but just steeping myself in the book and the characters as much as I can, writing a lot of handwritten notes about nothing in particular, and giving the subconscious some time to stew.  Christmas evening, of all times, an idea came to me, which in a way was not particularly earth shaking, really just to pull out part of the resolution of the first character and give it to the second instead.  Suddenly, though, like dominoes falling, it sent off a ripple of other ideas.  If this was their resolution, they needed to have some different facets to their personality.  If this was their progression, they needed to start in a slightly different place, go through a certain process of change to get there.  If this was their end, a little codicil to their end suddenly appeared that played back into the broader themes of the book.  Suddenly they had an arc, a reason to be a certain way, and so I knew the way they needed to be.  Suddenly they became a far more concrete and complex character, I saw opportunities in their relationship with the other point of view, with other characters, I saw different emphases, new importance in their past.

I’ve never had so many things fall into place in one moment.  Sublime, it was.  Maybe this is what clever people feel like the whole time.  If so, I’m jealous.  Anyway, the bottom line when it comes to my conception of planning is that, for me, you have to have a plan, some kind of end point in mind in order to set off, but you need to have the confidence to allow some flexibility in the destination, enough fluidity in your process to accommodate new ideas as they appear.  A plan that’s too brittle or stiff to accommodate a good inspirational punch in the face is no use at all…

Editing, and More

Posted on August 20th, 2013 in process, progress

The dream with this new trilogy was to gloriously complete a draft of the second book and a detailed plan for the third by the end of the year, therefore 6 or 7 months before publication of the first book, leaving time enough to edit the first book in the light of all I had learned about the series.  I hadn’t thought through this very clearly, however (surprise, surprise).  Because this is a new style of work, with new publishers wanting the attention of a wider spread of critics, authors, booksellers, and other advance readers, some of whom won’t have heard of me before, they want to get Advance Reader Copies (Otherwise called ARCs, proofs, or galleys) out before the end of the year.  That means having a fully edited, finished, polished manuscript by end of September.  There’ll probably be the opportunity to make a couple of changes after that point, if the way the future books are developing necessitates a pointer or an addition, but the heavy lifting needs to be done over the next few weeks.

I have at least got a good 20,000 word draft of the first part of the second book, and a reasonable plan for the rest, and doing that much has given me some new characters and world details that need to be slipped into the first book, some concepts that maybe need a little development, and some different emphases on existing characters that will be important later.  I’ve taken that stuff, along with a few things that I’ve thought of myself, and collected it together with the opinions of five or six various readers and editors, and sorted it all into a list of changes in three categories.  First of all come significant specific changes – things like an additional exchange to deepen the relationship between two characters, or that a decision should be made by the central character rather than be a suggestion of a secondary one, or that the death of a certain character isn’t having the desired effect, and needs looking at again to see if it can impact more on the characters and therefore the reader.  These ones I’ll address first, hopefully this week.

Next come more general tweaks, still important, but not necessarily to be implemented in a certain place – so a greater sense of urgency about the development of a sub-plot, or a relationship that needs to be given a different emphasis or extra significance.  Finally there are minor points which might be addressed wherever appropriate, often details of worldbuilding or background which just need dropping in somewhere.  These two groups I’ll try and do in the next couple of weeks while reading through.

Making changes is always a bit tricky.  The text has a tendency to ‘set’ once you’ve read it a few times, it’s hard to bring yourself to break it all up again.  Although you made all this stuff up, and can make any change you like, I find I get into a mindset of, ‘I can’t change that, that’s what happened.’  But it’s generally wise to carefully weigh every comment and address them wherever you can.  Often you find your own way of addressing a comment which you’re much happier with than a suggestion.  You can often kill several birds with one well-judged change.  A few lines of careful dialogue can introduce backstory, add depth to secondary characters, deepen and complicate their relationships with the primary, change pace, add telling detail etc. etc.  The more the whole story and the various issues to address are present in your mind, the more you’re submerged in the book, the better your chances of editing effectively.

There’ll be a quick pass through to attend to my editor’s detailed mark-up, which often means taking out phrases hear or there to move things along, or adding some small point of clarification.  I personally hate tracking changes in Word, I find it really hard to properly read over and judge what things look like once the change is made, and the differences in font and format really freak me out, so I generally have two documents up together – one with the edits and one with my document as I’ve worked on it throughout.  Finally another go over, probably with the text made really big on the screen, just to smooth things out and improve the writing where anything occurs.  Big text, who can say, helps me to look at it differently sometimes, to consider the details.

It ain’t that long a book, so hopefully that’ll all be done over the next three weeks or so.

 

A Movement Within Fantasy?

Posted on July 4th, 2013 in process, The Inquisition

I’m not even a third of the way through the Inquisition’s gruelling range of questions, but I’m still doing my best to confess, preferably while implicating everyone I can think of, innocent or guilty.  Inquisitor Colm asks:

A pretty art-w*nk question here:

Do you consider yourself as part of a general movement within fantasy (Third Wave?) and do you find yourself consciously comparing your work to traditional fantasy, or even some other new strands of fantasy (e.g New Weird – Mieville springs to mind)? Or do you just write what you know and others have imposed these tags/descriptions on you?

I think these ideas of movements naturally appear some time after books are published, and therefore necessarily a long time after they were written.  It may be that some writers come to the job with an explicit mission statement, but my experience was that I started writing with only the vaguest ideas of a purpose beyond producing the sort of book I’d like to read.  With time you maybe see a lot of readers making similar statements about your intentions and goals and approach and start to think, ‘yeah, they’re right, that is what I was doing, I AM A HIGHLY POLITICAL GAME-CHANGING VISIONARY.’

The truth of the matter, as far as I can remember it, is much less impressive.  I played a lot of role-playing games and read a lot of epic fantasy as a kid, got a bit bored with the way it seemed to stick closely to a predictable formula, largely stopped reading it at the start of the 90s and read other things.  Then I read GRRM’s Game of Thrones and saw that it was possible to do something daring, unpredictable, gritty and character-centred while still writing in the commercial core of the genre – I saw a lot of what I felt had been missing very clearly expressed in that series.  Some time after that, in 2001, I think, and largely because I found myself with time on my hands as a freelance TV editor, I started trying to write, initially without the slightest expectation of being published.  My aim, insofar as I had one, was to produce my take on a classic epic fantasy trilogy, very much in the vein of Lord of the Rings, David Eddings or Dragonlance, but with a tight focus on vivid characters with setting very much a backdrop, a grittiness and hence a punch and drive to the action, a lot of twists in the plot (almost a mystery plot, in a way), a stripped-down modernity to the prose, and above all a sense of humour.

I wanted to write gritty, honest, truthful, funny, surprising, exciting, entertaining, thought-provoking epic fantasy.  Whether I have succeeded in any of those aims is, of course, for others to judge…

Other than Martin, I was pretty ignorant of what had been going on in the genre during the previous decade, let alone of what people were writing at that moment, but it does seem that there were quite a few people with similar experiences and approaches to me, because around the time I was published in 2006 a whole crop of other authors appeared who have gone on to be very successful by employing various twists on epic fantasy – many gritty, many witty, many surprising in all sorts of ways – and I’ve heard quite a few of them give very similar answers about their influences and intentions to the one I just gave above.

So I guess you could say I’m part of a movement to that degree – a loose group of authors who write similar kinds of work based on similar experiences and intentions.  Is that “third wave”?  No idea.  Certainly the First Law was very consciously a take on epic fantasy – an experiment with and a comment on the form, as well as hopefully an entertaining example of the form.  The three standalone books have been slightly different, tinkering with combining epic fantasy with other classic forms and structures.  New Weird I know much less about, and has always been hard to define, but I’m less interested myself in that which deliberately eschews familiar structures and aims at something almost disorientingly strange, surreal and fantastical, than I am in twists and reinterpretations of the well known and well understood.

Art-w*nk enough for ya?