New New Year’s Resolutions

Back in January, I laid out my New Year’s Resolutions for 2016. We’re now nearly half-way through the year, so I thought it was time to re-visit those resolutions and do a progress report.

My first resolution was to finally finish my novel The Silvergreen Sea. Status: Confident green tick. It’s all done and out on submission as I write these words.
Second resolution, to finish the rough draft of my new novel The Tide of Fire. Status: Slightly more wobbly tick, probably in blue ink. It’s done – albeit only to a given value of ‘done’. It’s still nowhere near ready to be sent out on submission and I’m putting it aside for now, to be re-visited later.
Third resolution, to read at least 50 books. Status: Firm tick. I have successfully consumed 50 books in various forms – 29 paperbacks, 11 audio books, 5 hardbacks, 4 electronic books, and a graphic novel.

All my resolutions are already done, and it’s not even the end of June. I’ve officially won at New Year’s Resolutions. So what comes next – shall I just put my feet up and watch Netflix for the next six months? It’s certainly tempting – the new season of Orange is the New Black has just come out, so that’ll keep me occupied for a few days at least.

Some of my reading material for the second half of the year

Some of my reading material for the second half of the year

But after that, perhaps it’s time for some New New Year’s Resolutions. 2016 Part Two, if you will. What’s up next? Well, I’ve started writing a new book, The Only Thing That Never Burns In Hell, so I want to finish that in rough draft. I also want to read 50 more books, to get me up to a nice round hundred for the year. And as part of that I’ve got a mini-resolution, to read all the books which have been nominated for the British Fantasy Society’s Best Fantasy Novel and Best Horror Novel Awards, before they’re given out in September at the convention in Scarborough. I’ve made a start on the winning novels from last year as well – Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge, and No One Gets Out Alive by Adam Nevill. The only problem is that they’re both kind of freaking me out. Oh well, New Year’s Resolutions can’t be too easy, can they?

The Wrong Words

Writing stuff is easy, except for one thing: choosing which words to use. And I think fantasy authors have it doubly difficult in this regard. We’re describing our own worlds, which are often completely unlike the real world: they’ve got different cultures, a different history, they’ve got magic and mythical beasts. But in order to describe these worlds, we’re restricted to Earth-languages (well, ok, you can always make up your own languages like Tolkien did, but then you’ve still got to translate back into English or else nobody will understand your books). And a problem many fantasy writers encounter is this one: all words, in any language, have a history behind them. There are the original word-roots, and then there are the extra layers of meaning and nuance they accumulate through repeated use in a specific cultural context. Uproot these words, put them in a different context, and they can end up sounding weird.

Here’s an example for you: while reading a scene of airships attacking a city in the Shadows of the Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky, I was struck by his use of the word ‘zeppelin’ to describe these machines. Now, to me, this word sticks out from a fantasy context in a way the more neutral ‘airship’ doesn’t. It’s too historically specific, too German, too World War I, too Stairway to Heaven. Using it in a world where neither Jimmy Page nor Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin ever lived just feels, well, wrong.

But it can be difficult to avoid such terms. In my first book, The Heartland of the Winter, I spent ages agonising over my use of the phrase ‘Adam’s Apple’ – since Adam and Eve were never a thing in my world, surely I should call it something else? But ‘laryngeal prominence’ would surely cause puzzlement, while any circumlocution along the lines of ‘male throat lump’ just sounds strange and calls more attention to itself. I considered cutting out the reference entirely, before eventually deciding to leave it in and hope nobody would mind. More recently, in The Silvergreen Sea, I struggled with ‘hell-bent’ when the culture doesn’t believe in ‘hell’ as such, and ‘stalemate’ when they don’t play chess.

What’s to be done? Well, generally in fantasy we assume there’s some kind of Translation Convention in place – the characters are talking their own language, and everything has been translated into idiomatic English for the reader’s convenience. This is all very well but can still sometimes be a bit jarring when you get people casually referring to things that don’t actually exist in their world.

One clever thing you can do is use things like idioms and swear words as part of your world-building: think of the way George RR Martin has his characters say things like ‘Seven Hells!’ and ‘The Others take it!’ Since many real-life curse words are religious in origin, this can be an excellent way to clue your reader in to how your fantasy religion works. You can also use language to hint at cultural taboos and/or preoccupations. In modern English we have a lot of terms with a nautical origin – ‘change tack’, ‘three sheets to the wind’, ‘loose cannon’ etc. In a fantasy society where they never had the Royal Navy but do have the Royal Dragon Corps you might find them using different terms – like ‘change wing stroke’, ‘three tails to the wind’, or ‘loose fire-breather’ for example.

Language can be barrier to successful world-building, and it can also be a tool. Either way, it’s something that fantasy authors have to think about in a way mundane-world writers don’t have to. As with so many things about writing fantasy, it adds to both the challenge, and the enjoyment.

Guess who’s back

Hello there my lovelies. After a three-month hiatus, I’m back in business!

So what’s new? Well, my original plan back in October was that I would get my head down and finish my novel The Silvergreen Sea before Christmas. That, um, didn’t happen as planned. Instead I did NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, this is national novel writing month, an annual thing where you attempt to write a novel in November. ‘A novel’ is deemed to be 50,000 words, which is a tough-but-achievable target, and without a day job, I had no excuse not to hit it.

The great thing about NaNo is that, because it’s a big event, you can go to meetings – or just hang out online – with lots of other people attempting the same thing and swap tips, make connections, and generally appreciate the fact that you’re not the only insane person out there. I’ve done it once before – back in 2011 – and decided it was time for another plunge. So I started a completely new book – working title The Tide of Fire – went to a bunch of meetings, and dutifully churned out my 50,000 words of magic, murder, and mayhem. It was good fun, and now I have the makings of another novel – about half a rough draft.

But what about my current novel, the one I was supposed to have finished by Christmas? Well, to be honest with you, I’d been working on it for so long I was thoroughly sick of the thing, and I desperately needed a break. NaNo provided that while keeping the creative juices flowing. Now, refreshed, I’ve picked up The Silvergreen Sea again and started on the final edit, aiming for completion by the middle of March.

All this brings me round to the two questions which must always be asked at this time of year: what’s my new year’s resolution? And did I achieve last year’s resolution?

Checking back, I see that my 2015 resolution was to finish The Silvergreen Sea. Oops. Guess I dropped the ball on that one. Oh well. So, my 2016 resolution is – guess what – to finish The Silvergreen Sea.

But – famous last words – that’s not going to take a whole year, and so I’m going to have a couple more resolutions. One is to finish The Tide of Fire in first draft. And another is to read at least 50 books. (Last year I watched an awful lot of television, so I’m thinking 2016 should be the Year of Reading). I’ve read three-and-a-half so far, so I’m off to a good start. Let’s see if I can keep up the momentum, and not leave my to-read shelf as neglected as those gym memberships.

Best of luck for all your endeavours in 2016. Unless your endeavours involve annihilating the human race.

Hiatus

Right folks, I have decided to put this blog on hiatus for three months. Why? No, I haven’t run out of ideas, and no I haven’t stopped enjoying writing it. But, after three years, I’m feeling like it’s taking up quite a lot of my time, and I really want to get my head down and finish my current novel before Christmas. I’m potentially at a crucial point in my writing career and I don’t want any distractions. And so, I shall wish you all a happy Autumn, and I’ll be back in the new year.

Dreams of Adaptation

After a few weeks off sick, I’m now getting stuck back in to writing my novel The Silvergreen Sea, trying to unpick a plot knot I’ve been tangled in for a while. It’s going… ok, I guess? Having lost all my previous momentum, it’s now taking a while for me to build up my steam again, and of course the downside of being self-employed is I have to provide all my own motivation.

A good source of motivation/pointless indulgence is always daydreams about eventual success: buying a brand new Alfa Romeo, reading letters from adoring fans, that kind of thing. One dream popular with many writers is of course the idea of your book being turned into a film or TV show. This particular fantasy, shiny with Hollywood glamour, is especially brilliant because it’s got so many different facets. You can imagine which actors you’d cast, how your favourite scenes will play out on the big screen, what outfit you’d wear to the Oscars.

What I’m going to say next definitely comes under the heading of problems-I-would-love-to-have, or even problems-I-daydream-about-having (a special kind of fantasy). The impression I get from reading about some writers’ experience of adaptation is that the book-into-movie dream might become an example of Be Careful What You Wish For. While a few hyper-successful writers are exceptions – witness EL James’ notorious meddling with the production of the Fifty Shades of Grey film – most writers have to accept that when they sell their soul – er sorry I meant film rights – they surrender creative control, and the resulting adaptation might end up more travesty than triumph.

A recent example of this would be World War Z. The original book by Max Brooks is part horror, part scabrous political satire, told as a series of loosely-connected short stories set in the aftermath of a worldwide zombie apocalypse. The unusual narrative structure meant it was always going to be difficult to turn into a movie, but at least the film-makers had plenty of juicy material to work with. I mean, the book has lots of different stories, any one of which, with a bit of fleshing out, would have made a pretty good film in its own right. But after years of wrangling with the script, what eventually arrived in the cinemas bore almost no resemblance to any part of Brooks’ book and was, let’s be honest, Not Very Good. I’d give it at best 7/10, and I love both zombie films and Brad Pitt’s pretty pretty face. For anyone less keen on the undead and/or the delectable Mr Pitt, it’s more of a 4/10 movie.
And that’s just the way it goes. For every hugely successful and widely praised TV adaptation like Game of Thrones, there’s at least one Dresden Files – a TV show which mucked around with Jim Butcher’s books, got cancelled after only one season, and sank without trace. Not to mention the countless adaptations which never even make it that far. As a writer, you’ve just got to take the money and run, and hope the film-makers’ decision to re-imagine your elderly, disease-ridden protagonist who lives on a council estate in Wolverhampton as a 19-year-old supermodel who lives in Malibu doesn’t turn out too disastrously.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep writing, and keep dreaming that one day I’ll get to complain at length to anyone who’ll listen about how that multi-million dollar movie series completely trashed the purity of my vision no matter how many Oscars it might win and yes that is a new Alfa Romeo on my driveway but anyway the point is they should never have cast Leonardo diCaprio…

Another Anniversary

Firstly, apologies for missing my usual blog update schedule – the reason why will shortly become apparent. Following the anniversary of my becoming a full-time writer at the end of July, today marks another anniversary for me: one year since I began writing my new novel, The Silvergreen Sea.
Taking a helicopter view, it’s been a productive year of writing: I have a 105,000 word manuscript, most of it in decent shape, and it should be fully finished this side of Christmas.
Taking a more in-the-weeds view, I’m a little disappointed that I haven’t managed to finish the book inside a year, and I’m more disappointed that my progress is currently stalled thanks to ill health.
Yep, I’m sick again. Not back pain this time (well, not more than usual) but a combination of viral infections, bouts of ME in between and, on top of all that, eye strain caused by too much staring at screens. Nothing too horrendous but it’s been persistent and has caused me to miss a number of engagements, including a 30th birthday party and a trip to Madrid to visit an old friend. And I’ve been unable to work on my novel, or this blog for that matter, which has caused a lot of frustration.
Oh well. Like anyone else, I can only play the cards I’ve been dealt. I’ve been trying to look after myself, listening to audiobooks to rest my eyes, and trusting to slow but sure recovery. It’s times like these that it’s important to remind myself of the good things about my situation. Like, I don’t have to call in sick to anyone, I can manage my own schedule of recovery, and I don’t have to juggle writing with other eye-straining commitments like a desk job. I’m very lucky, and while my current situation is frustrating, I need to remember it could be an awful lot worse.

One Year On

Today marks a significant anniversary for me. It’s exactly one year since I left the safe harbour of my nice, secure, well-paid but ultimately unfulfilling office job, and threw myself upon the tempestuous waters of full-time writing. In some ways the year seems to have gone by quickly, in other ways it feels like I’ve been doing this forever.

How’s it gone? Well, I’ve soon got used to the no-alarm-clock lifestyle, and I haven’t struggled with boredom or lack of motivation. I’m progressing well with my new book, The Silvergreen Sea. No publishing deal as yet but my synopsis and first three chapters are currently out on submission. And I’ve got an – albeit unpaid – tutoring gig at Swanwick writers’ summer school on 10th August http://www.swanwickwritersschool.org.uk/ So it’s not fireworks-and-champagne but all told, I’m satisfied. And have I ever regretted my decision to take the plunge? Not for one nanosecond.

Of course, not everything has gone smoothly. Getting a part-time job hasn’t really worked out – I’ve had to quit Clarks after three months because I found it impossible to juggle the unpredictable shifts with my writing, family, and social commitments. And my internet addiction is as bad as ever… my spell of cold turkey last summer completely failed to fix that problem. Oh well, it’s the malaise of modern life I suppose (she writes on the internet).

Occasionally I’ll catch myself moaning or stressing about something, and have to remind myself that I’m incredibly lucky to have this opportunity to devote myself fully to writing. Maybe I won’t ever catch my dreams, but at least I have the chance to chase them. When I quit my job last year, one of my colleagues said to me ‘You should do what you want to do. After all, you’re a long time staring at the wood.’ Last week, his words were very painfully brought home to me when I learned that another colleague – who this time last year seemed absolutely fine – has just died of lung cancer.

Nothing like the spectre of mortality to make you appreciate what you’ve got. So I will raise a glass to Steve – may he rest in peace – and feel grateful for a good year.

Hot Stuff

I’m currently revising the second draft of my novel, The Silvergreen Sea. One of the elements I’m trying to develop further is the romantic attraction between my heroine and her – let’s go with prospective boyfriend, needless to say the course of true love runs no smoother for them than for any other fictional couple.

In revising their scenes together, I’ve found it difficult to imply attraction without implying physical attractiveness. And this means I’ve run right up against an issue which has been bugging me in a low-key way for a while now. Namely, as an author, should you make your main characters hot? I couldn’t find any scholarly research on the topic, and I suspect it varies accordingly to the genre, but certainly in my personal experience there are many more books with good-looking protagonists than with plain ones. I find this kind of annoying, especially if not only the protagonist and the love interest(s) are hotties, but the supporting cast as well. The worst example in my own recollection is Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman: a book in which every single character is gorgeous, even the alcoholic who lives in a shack. But there are plenty of other instances – Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles spring to mind, or Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries (vampires are obviously particularly guilty of excessive beauty, although you’d have thought the whole mirror thing would cause issues for personal grooming).

What’s the problem with all this literary hotness? Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, not that many people in real life actually look like movie stars. That’s why the few who do get to be movie stars, and the rest of us get to be project managers or supermarket shelf-stackers or unemployed writers or something equally unglamorous. But books – even fantasy books set in medieval societies without cosmetic dentistry or hair salons – are overflowing with luscious auburn locks, sparkling green eyes and perfectly sculpted cheekbones. It can send my suspension of disbelief crashing to the floor. The only thing worse than making characters pretty is making them ‘not pretty’, as satirised mercilessly by Max Beerbohm back in 1911: ‘Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Her eyes were a trifle large, and their lashes longer than they need have been’.

Not only is it unrealistic to populate your book with babes, there’s also something rather problematic about the way so many authors focus in on the stories of the handsome, neglecting that ugly people have feelings too. I remember vividly a line from Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth: ‘She had sensibilities which, to Lily, would have seemed comic in a person with a freckled nose* and red eyelids … but poor Grace’s limitations gave them a more concentrated inner life’. And yet the book isn’t about Grace, but the lovely Lily. Is it more poignant to see the [spoilers] downfall and death of a young beauty than that of a young minger? Perhaps. We read, after all, to escape from reality, so if we’re going to imagine ourselves into the role of tragic heroine, we’d probably prefer it if she had perfect skin and sleek hair and thighs which never rub together.

The other side of this coin is that the reader generally wants to fancy the love interest, which is what I’m trying to (subtly) make happen at the moment. I’m also trying not to be too obvious, to maintain some uncertainty, not have the heroine go ‘phwoar’ early on and give the game away. Get her – and, by extension, the reader – to love him for his engaging personality and all that. But still imply that he’s kind of a dish. The book I’ve just finished, The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb, does a great job of establishing an attraction between two rather plain characters, although Hobb still describes at least half her male characters as ‘handsome’. And I have to confess I’ve called my heroine ‘pretty’ a couple of times, albeit in dialogue rather than narrative voice.

So I guess the conclusion I’ve come to is that, unrealistic, shallow and vaguely problematic or not, readers want hotties and that’s all there is to it. Even if you try to make characters plain, many readers will just imagine them as hot anyway – a phenomenon known by tvtropes.org as Draco in Leather Pants. So you may as well bow to the inevitable. And if the book is ever successful enough to be made into a film – well, then they’ll all end up looking like movie stars in any case.

*as someone with a freckled nose myself, I object to Ms Wharton’s implication here and will counter it with a link to a Buzzfeed article about hot guys with freckles http://www.buzzfeed.com/juliegerstein/freckle-face-yes-please#.vmd91x3Mz . You’re welcome.

Writers’ Tears

I recently finished the second draft of my novel, The Silvergreen Sea, a full six weeks ahead of schedule, just in time to go off on holiday to the South of France. Hooray! Celebration! Get out the champers!
Once the initial jubilation fades, it’s time to think about what happens next. And – oh dear – what happens next is the most terrifying part of the whole writing process. Giving the manuscript to another human being to read. Aargh! Can’t I just lock it away on my hard drive, never to be seen by another pair of eyes? Well, I suppose I could do that, although it seems a little self-defeating. After all, isn’t this what I want, isn’t this the whole point – not just to write, but to be read?
Well, yes. But. Handing over the book to someone else can be pretty nerve-wracking, even if it’s someone you trust. The essential problem for the amateur scribbler, of course, is that anyone you can cajole/bribe/emotionally blackmail into reading your book will inevitably have a vested interest in keeping you happy, and so there’s always a doubt that they will be entirely honest. My husband – long after the fact – confessed that when he started reading my first book, he was terrified that he’d hate it and not know how to tell me. Luckily, either he enjoyed it, or he’s a remarkably good liar playing a very long game. This time round, there’s more confidence, on both sides: he’s confident I can deliver a decent read, and I’m confident he’ll give me his honest opinions on anything he doesn’t like.
Oh dear. Honest opinions. Every writer’s greatest desire, and greatest fear. We want absolute honesty, but only if you loved it. The writing process is a very solipsistic one, and after spending many hours locked away in your own very carefully constructed castle in the air, it can be difficult to come back down to earth and be told that your character motivations are unclear and your chapter transitions too abrupt – and by the way you’ve used dashes when you should have used commas, and vice-versa.
How should the writer respond to criticism? Well, there’s any number of possible options. Crying uncontrollably. Sulking. Arguing with your reader – ‘I think you’ll find if you read more carefully you’ll see that was foreshadowed near the beginning of Chapter 3’. Ignoring the criticism – after all, what do they know, they’re not an artist! – and listening only to your muse. These options are all possible, but none of them is remotely constructive, and some may result in permanently falling out with your long-suffering reader. If you want to derive something helpful from the process, there is only one way to deal with criticism.
Suck it.
That’s right, suck it all up, take it on the chin and get over yourself. Listen carefully to everything the reader has to say, and don’t try to argue with them. So they didn’t appreciate your plot twist? So they didn’t much like your main character? Well, so be it. Maybe your plot twist is stupid and your character is insufferable. Maybe not. But the point is, you’ve got an opportunity here: your reader has given you the precious gift of an honest opinion, before the book is unleashed on the world, and you still have the chance to make some changes.
And of course, if they say nice things, you can bask in the smug joy of having created a thing of beauty. And, if someone is prepared to tell you the bad things, you know that when they say good things, they mean them. Honest praise – the most precious thing of all.
I’ve also found that my latest read, Misery by Stephen King, has been very good at putting things in perspective. Hey, so my husband found fault with some parts of my book! At least [SPOILERS] I’m not being held prisoner by a raving psychopath who’ll burn my manuscript and amputate assorted body parts if she doesn’t like what I’ve written.
Now to start thinking about that third draft…

Second Draft Blues

Nearly two months ago, I finished the first draft of my new novel, The Silvergreen Sea. After a period of reflection, discussion with my agent, and a little help from my writing group, I’ve now started on the dreaded second draft.

Why dreaded? Well, because while the first draft can be spurted out quickly and relatively thoughtlessly, second (and subsequent) drafts take real work. It’s easy on the first draft to dash something off with a casual ‘it’s not great, but I’ll fix it later.’ Now, later’s come around, and you gotta get fixin’. At least this time round, unlike last time, I haven’t left any huge gaping holes in the story with ‘more plot to go here’ scrawled at the top of the document.

One of the difficulties with the second draft is that progress is hard to quantify, as you’re never quite sure in advance how much work will be needed on a given section. On the first draft, I had daily, weekly, and monthly word targets, and I could always see exactly how far along I was on that handy Scrivener progress bar. With the second draft, the first four or five scenes needed only a brief tidy-up so I zipped right through them in a morning: then I reached a scene which needed a complete re-write and had to spend two whole days on it. The ghost of my former project manager self wants to go through the first draft, calculate exactly what needs doing to each scene and how long it should take, and draw up a full plan of action: but my current, writer self, just wants to get on with it.

If you’ve never written a book yourself, you may be wondering what sort of thing typically changes between a first draft and a second, or a third… the answer is, as so often with writing, that it depends. One book may be almost ready to go after the first draft and just need a bit of polishing; another may be far too long and need extensive cuts; another may be skimpy and need extensive additions; another may be wildly incoherent and need a complete rethink. My book falls somewhere in the middle. Some bits need to be cut, others need to be added, others changed around. One character becomes more prominent; another character falls out of focus. Other characters warp and transform, changing gender or magical powers. The basic plot outline and central characters will remain, but a lot needs to be rewritten.

It’s not going to be easy, and I don’t know how long it will take. But hey, this is my job now, and nobody else is going to do it for me, so here I go. I’ll let you know when I’m done.