The Free

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If The Godin says it, it must be true, right? Well, could be. His is one of three posts linked to from this round-up, all of which are worth a read and all of which, I think, are fundamentally saying not so much that books are dying, as that the infrastructure and systems in place to publish, distribute and sell them as physical objects are dying, or at the very least heading towards a radically different and very probably much diminished future.  Which seems kind of plausible, if nothing else.  Difficult to be confident that the ink-and-paper book business faces anything other than ‘interesting times’.

Despite that, I’m evidently still writing books.  I know this because look: someone’s somehow got their hands on a book cover.  And discovered an Amazon UK link.  Cool.

Hold your horses, though.  I can certainly vouch for the fact that my novel The Free should indeed be published next year, because I’m in the late stages of battering it into publication-ready form at this very moment  (I was until I broke off to write this post, anyway).  That cover, though?  If you’d read the book, you’d know that the ‘Cover Not Final’ tag appearing on the artwork is … well, highly likely to be accurate.  That rather fine image of knightly chaps looking mean and moody is kind of cool, but it’s not what you’d call a ruthlessly accurate representation of the text.

Mean and moody’s fair enough, mind you, so who knows what’ll be adorning the book when it does eventually hit the shelves next year?  Anyway, I’m aware I’ve not said much about my writing endeavours here of late, but with The Free nearing something that approximates to a presentable state, that’ll be changing a bit.  I’ve got some stuff to say about the perils and pleasures of rewriting and revising, I think, which’ll be along in due course …

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I’ll try to wrap up a couple more thoughts on this topic a bit more concisely than I managed in the first post.

Yes, I have yet more reasons why Winterbirth had a somewhat bleak tone to it.  The first of which is …

It wasn’t just a reaction to history, but to the contemporary world.  As I mentioned in Part 1, part of the reason the book/trilogy has the feel it does was my enthusiasm for narrative historical non-fiction, and the notion of borrowing some of its texture to create the illusion of reading about real people in a real world.  It wasn’t just the past of the real world that fed into it, though.  It was also the present when I was coming up with the story.  At the time – at any time, let’s be honest – it wasn’t hard to find dramatic and disturbing things being reported in the news, and the stuff that was at the back of my mind when I was pondering ideas for Winterbirth was the post-Yugoslavia convulsions affecting the Balkans.

Thousands of people were killed there as long-suppressed national, religious and cultural divisions resurfaced.  You could trace back some aspects (not all, by any means, but some) of what was going on many, many centuries.  I was struck by the notion that the present remained a prisoner of the past.  That the capacity for extraordinary and horrible violence remained latent in even apparently ordered societies.  The last bit of the 20th century saw us move away from the long era of vast empires confronting one another on vast battlefields, to one which was more chaotic.  More gruesome in some ways.  Everything looked greyer than it had once done.  Good and evil were more subjective, locally defined, transient qualities.  A lot of evil was going unpunished, in those days.  It always has done, of course; but a pervasive media has made it steadily more obvious.

Obviously you don’t have to write what you see around you, when you’re writing speculative fiction.  But it’s hardly surprising that sometimes people do.

Authorial inexperience.  I mentioned in Part 1 that sometimes an author, especially a novice author, might be making fewer conscious choices, and doing more going with the flow, than readers assume.  Separate but related point: perhaps an inexperienced author isn’t always as fully aware of the tonal effect his or her writing is generating as he/she might be.

I mention this only because I wonder – and I specifically don’t know, can’t remember quite clearly enough – whether I fully understood the cumulative effect of the style in which I was writing the Godless World trilogy.  Some of the small choices I was making.  I’ve got a feeling, and it’s no more than that, that were I writing the trilogy now, I’d probably lighten the tone a little bit.  Reading fantasy of this sort should, after all, be entertaining if nothing else.  It should provide enjoyment, excitement, alongside whatever other responses it’s generating in the reader.

Setting a bleak overlay to the whole thing doesn’t preclude entertainment and enjoyment by any means, but perhaps it does mean that entertainment and enjoyment have to work a bit harder to express themselves.  It’s possible I overdid the bleakness a bit, because my inexperience made it that bit trickier to step back from the day to day business of writing sentences, paragraphs and see the big picture; project myself into the reader’s shoes and visualise the cumulative effect of those sentences and paragraphs.

The thing about violence is …  I’m on thinner ice with this point than with most of the other stuff I’ve mentioned.  I’m not totally sure what I feel about it.  It’s complicated.  But there’s no denying I’ve thought about it, and that I had it in mind while writing the trilogy.

I’m a great big softie.  Never been in a fight in my life, so far as I remember.  Not a big fan of violence in general.  Except in entertainment, obviously.  It makes for exciting books, films, whatever, I do not deny.  But when I really think about it, I can’t get away from the notion that actually, really killing someone with a sword, or an axe, or a spear, is – it must be – by our modern standards an absolutely, horrifically dreadful business.  Cutting, hacking, stabbing a living human being at close range is not romantic or clean or easy.  Any world in which it was any of those things, not just for certain individuals (there will always be some, sadly), but on a widespread cultural level, would be a world I emphatically did not want to live in.

What’s odd, and makes this a bit complicated, is that I’m perfectly happy to watch, or read, and enjoy fictions that to a very great extent sanitize such violence, or revel in it, or completely ignore its inherent brutality. For some reason, when I’m the one doing the writing, things become more problematic.

There is a part of me, I think, that just instinctively rebels at the idea of painting a world in which people habitually kill each other, face to face, with blades as anything other than in some way cruel, bleak and traumatising.  I am, rather obviously, more than happy to write violent scenes.  In fact, I confess I actively enjoy it.  But it’s possible that I’m just on some level not happy, or perhaps not able, to write violent scenes that do not have unpleasant consequences, that do not reflect my personal repulsion at the very idea of killing someone with a sword.  That do not acknowledge that to my way of thinking, any imaginary world in which such violence is necessary on a large scale, or is celebrated, or is treated as normal, is to at least some extent inherently and inescapably grim.  Dark.  Grimdark, if you like.

And that’s a wrap.  Let there be no more talk of bleakness.  It’s the Vernal Equinox, after all.  The first day of Spring!  Sunshine and flowers will be with us any day now.  (But yes, it is true that it is currently snowing outside my window …. ho hum).

And P.S. here’s a random and trivial teaser: the word ‘vernal’ appears a lot in my next book, The Free.


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Published writers occasionally get asked, often by aspiring writers, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’, or some variation upon it.  On the whole, it’s not a question those published writers particularly look forward to, because it’s almost impossible to answer in any serious way that’s going to be useful or informative for the questioner, and the best frivolous answer was long ago delivered by, I believe, the inimitable Harlan Ellison: ‘Poughkeepsie’.

But I’ll answer it anyway, before suggesting an alternative query that might be more interesting and useful for all concerned. (Note: my answer will not be remotely as good as ‘Poughkeepsie’. You have been warned.)

Where do I get my ideas from?  Anywhere and everywhere, like pretty much all writers.

For example:

I got the idea for my first published story, ‘Farm Animal’, which appeared in Interzone many, many moons ago, from a dream.  (The one and only time this has happened, by the way).

I got the idea for my second published story, ‘Gibbons’, from the personal experience of spending three months in the rainforest of Borneo, studying – unsurprisingly – gibbons.

I got the idea for another story, ‘Flint’, which appeared in the anthology Speculative Horizons, from my non-fiction reading, specifically a book about shamanism and a book about prehistoric cultures.  (Speculative Horizons is a good little anthology in a good cause, by the way, and is close to selling out, so perhaps you’d like to take a look over here for info on what it contains and how to get your hands on one of the last few copies.)

I got an idea for a fantasy novel – which remains only a vague idea, with little likelihood of ever going further – from a map that appeared in a fantasy novel by another author.

I got the idea for my next novel, The Free, from a single, specific scene that popped into my head unbidden one day, and which not only does not appear in the novel as it will be published, but no longer has any close connection whatsoever to the plot, setting, theme or characters of The Free.

So there you are.  Anywhere and everywhere.  It’s completely useless as guidance to an aspiring writer, because the getting of ideas is not – not remotely – the hard bit of being a writer.

I’ve got a suggestion for what might be a better question to ask, and I wonder if it’s not closer to what someone’s really asking when they ask about where ideas come from.

‘How do you turn an idea into a publishable story?’

Now there’s a tougher question, and one that gets much closer to nailing the hard bit about being a writer.  There is a superabundance of ideas in the world, and more often than not in the head of anyone with a serious chance of becoming a professional writer.  90+% of those ideas will probably never make it into publication as stories, or story elements.

For the <10% (or whatever the number is) of ideas that make it from idle fancy to published prose, the process by which that transformation takes place is probably slightly mysterious even to those of us who do it, and no doubt happens slightly differently for every writer, but here’s a possible sketch of what it takes for an idea to become a story.

This is off the top of my head kind of stuff, so your mileage may well vary.  Indeed, it may be complete balderdash. Might possibly be a starting point for thinking about the whole thing, though.

An idea might be anything – a piece of dialogue, a visual image, a character hook, a theme, a scene, whatever – but for the sake of argument (and simplicity) let’s think of it as a single nugget of something – anything – that might become part of a story.  Maybe there’re two aspects to what you, as a writer, can do with that idea which we’ll call exploration and construction, since I can’t think of catchier names for them at the moment.  They’re not remotely as separate and distinct as I’m about to suggest, either, but what can you do?  Without generalisation and/or simplification we couldn’t say much about anything ever, really.

Exploration.  You mentally let that nugget roll, and follow where it leads.  You let it take its own path and see what connections, what consequences, what secondary ideas it can spawn as it rolls along through the back of your mind.  A kind of extrapolative free association, I guess, though it’s not entirely free because – as you’re a writer, and you know that what you’re hoping for here is a story – the chain or web of connections that initial nugget generates will hopefully have some kind of loose coherence and sense and ‘storyness’ to it.

This would be the bit of the process that takes the longest time, for me at least.  That idea nugget can be idly meandering around in my semi-conscious for years, trying to extrapolate itself into something more substantive than a nugget.  This would also be the bit where it’s liable to bump up against other ideas that have been performing similarly thankless gyrations in there for years of their own, and now and again maybe some of those bumps will result in a couple – or a clutch – of ideas that decide they belong together.

Most ideas’ll never emerge from this exploration, for whatever reason.  They’ll sadly wither, or go into hibernation, or be entirely forgotten, casualties of a Darwinian struggle for conscious attention fought out between all those aimlessly rolling nuggets.

Construction.  This bit might happen after or in parallel with the Exploration bit, I guess.  It’s the more conscious bit of the process, where you try to bolt the scaffolding of formal story onto and through an unruly, half-formed idea that’s grown into something with potential.  It’s where you try to make sure various tedious sounding but actually quite interesting things like closure, arcs, resonance, plot logic, coherent characters etc. etc. are in place to form a skeleton for your lovely, lovely idea to drape itself over.

Some of those formal considerations will quite likely emerge naturally from the Exploration stuff, given that as I said it’s not an entirely random or unstructured process due to the obsessive nature of writerly thought; even your subconscious starts to think in terms of story structures eventually.  But more often than not, you end up having to impose a certain amount of cold calculation on what you’re doing, if you want to end up with something coherent.

I guess all I’m saying is there is a sub- or semi-conscious bit and a conscious, considered bit to the whole thing, which is neither particularly revelatory or insightful.  Mildly interesting to muse on how this whole thing happens, though.

For what it’s worth (not a lot), my entirely unsustantiated guess at bits of the process that might cause problems for an aspiring writer (and published writers too, he says sheepishly, holding his hand up): not giving the Exploration, semi-conscious bit enough time; not having got into the habit of thinking dispassionately and instinctively enough about the Construction bit.  Once you’ve had a bit of practice and got your head in the right pattern of thought, it becomes much easier to recognise a more or less satisfying character arc, or closure or resonance, but if you don’t instinctively know what it feels like to write or read such things, it can be tricky.

I think.  Maybe.  Oh, I don’t know. How do you turn an idea into a publishable story?  Shrug.  Go ask someone else, please.

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… is being written right now.  (Well, not right now, obviously, since I’m writing this at the moment).

The working title is THE FREE, which I quite like and suspect it’ll stick all the way through to publication, though you can never be 100% certain of these things.  Said publication is still quite some way off, but when the time comes it’ll be by Orbit again.

What’s it about?  It’s a return to what you might call heroic fantasy, I guess.  Swords, magic and desperate doings in a world of mercenaries, rebellions and … actually, here’s a paraphrased and edited extract from the proposal I submitted to Orbit, which says it pretty well:

Once there were many free companies, selling their martial and magical talents to the highest bidder.  Only one now remains, the greatest of them all, known simply as The Free in acknowledgement of its unique survival.  In the last, chaotic days of a savage rebellion against a tyrannical king, a potent mix of venegeance, love and loyalty is about to bring a storm down upon The Free; a storm so violent it might mean the end for the last of the free companies.

It’s a stand-alone novel, and if it’s about anything – beyond the main objective of providing entertainment and excitement, of course – it’s about freedom, though not necessarily in the ways you might imagine.

And just for fun, since Friday is traditionally the day when I post moving pictures up here, here’s some mood-setting visuals.  These are not exactly direct influences, but they were definitely in the original mix when I was first dreaming The Free up, and they might just give you an idea of where I’m coming from …

Man, trailers were just dreadful back in those days, huh?  Also, the women in The Free have considerably more … agency than in either of those films.  Just feel a need to point that out.

SPOILER WARNING!!! before this last one, as it utterly and completely spoils the ending of one of the best films ever made, The Seven Samurai.  I absolutely mean it when I say: don’t hit that play button if you think you might ever want to watch it in its entirety (and you should, honestly).

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