Writing

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There was a tiny wee brouhaha on the internets earlier this month (really tiny by the standards of most internet skirmishes), as I found out while listening to the latest episode of the jolly good Coode Street Podcast.  Mentioned therein was the latest round of disagreements over the merits or otherwise of so-called ‘gritty’ fantasy.

If you’re interested, you can sample the back-and-forth with an early salvo, then Joe Abercrombie’s defence of grit, then a mildly derailing discussion thread, then a considered response to Abercrombie’s response.  Etc.  There’s lots more out there.

To none of which I have much to add, except stuff that’s specific and personal to me. Since I wrote stuff – in the form of The Godless World trilogy, starting with Winterbirth – that’s undeniably gritty and/or grimdark (ugly neologism, that) in general terms, it won’t surprise you that I’ve got opinions about some of this stuff.

They’re very much personal opinions, though. They’re not part of an agenda, or a manifesto. They’re not a defence of any other writer or what they’ve written. They’re certainly not a defence of ‘gritty’ fantasy in general, because I have to confess I’ve read very, very little of the stuff. I only know (roughly) why Winterbirth is written the way it is, so that’s the only thing I can talk with authority about. (I realise it defeats the entire object of the internet if people start talking only about stuff they actually know, but there you are.)

One more thing this is not, by the way: an argument for the quality or otherwise of Winterbirth and the rest of the trilogy as books.  It’s only about why I wrote them in the tone and style I did, not whether I wrote the things well.

So why is Winterbirth so bloody bleak? There are quite a few reasons, so I fear this is going to run long …

It just came out that way. Sometimes books, especially I suspect first or early books in a writer’s career, are a bit less considered and controlled than some readers might assume. There’s less conscious choice and more going with the flow happening.

To go back to a basic level, when I started writing stories in my pre-teens, they were all speculative fiction of one sort or another. When I later started writing short stories to try to sell, they were all speculative fiction. When I decided to try to write and sell a novel, it was a speculative fiction novel. In none of those cases did I choose from a wide range of possible ideas or genres; I pretty much had no ideas for fiction that weren’t fantastical or science fictional.

I wrote Winterbirth because that was the novel idea that presented itself. I wrote it in the tone and style I did because that was the tone and style that presented itself when I started typing. I think there were reasons why that gritty tone was what came out, as we’ll get to in all their overlapping imprecision below, but saying that is not quite the same as saying I chose it.

Trying to write a real history of real people. Not literally trying to replicate the messiness or complexity of real world history, but trying to imitate it in broad strokes. Why? Because I had been reading – still do, in fact – a lot of historical non-fiction. Mountains of the stuff. And I had been deeply, and consciously, struck by the dissimilarities between most secondary world fantasy fiction and real world historical non-fiction. The radical simplification (and to some extent cleanliness) of psychologies, conflicts, societies, histories that seemed to be present in some epic fantasy, especially of the 70s – 80s, compared to the moral ambiguity, messiness and general intricacy of real history.

Simplification serves its purpose when one is trying to create the impression of myth or folktale. I wasn’t inclined to do that. I was after the feel of history, because, to be honest, I was at that time more interested in reading about history than about myth. And my impression of human history is very much that it’s more often than not about psychologically complex people doing complex things for complex reasons. And that there’s a lot of grit involved.

Fostering immersion by analaogy with the real. So I had an instinct to write in a style that borrowed from certain aspects of the real world’s history. (Only certain parts, clearly). But I did also have in mind a sort of minor experiment.

I had personally lost interest in epic fantasy fiction at some point, in large part because I no longer found it nearly as immersive or engaging as I had in my youth. One reason for that was that I found it ever less easy to care about or be interested in characters and plots that ceased to seem plausible to me in psychological, cultural or moral terms. As I got older I, like many of us, became more sensitive to the complexities and grey areas in our own world and lives, and I saw very little of that reflected in epic fantasy. Quest fantasies involving contests between objective good and objective evil just no longer did it for me.

I could see, in the 90s, that secondary world fantasy was moving in a direction that did interest me more, through the work of folks like Guy Gavriel Kay and George R R Martin. I started to suspect that fantasy written in a style that echoed in some way the intricacies and texture of real history had much, much more potential to be a fully immersive experience for readers like me (not all fantasy readers by any means), by virtue of precisely that echo. It was emphatically not about actually trying to replicate the full spectrum of historical experience, but about trying to remove barriers to reader immersion by imitating some aspects of it and thereby trying to sell the reader on the illusion that they were reading about real people with real problems.

So part of the reason I approached Winterbirth vaguely as if I was writing a real history of real people was a conscious experiment to find out if that did create a more engaging, immersive experience for some unknown subset of the reading audience.

The real past was bloody miserable.  Most secondary world fantasy, if it’s going to borrow from any real world history, is going to borrow from pre-modern history of some era.  Now if – as I was – you’re consciously trying to replicate some of the texture of that history, how you perceive it’s inevitably going to colour the tone of the fiction you write.  I fully acknowledge that the distant past is a veritable rainbow of experiences, with an abundance of light to offset the dark.  Nevertheless, I’m personally satisfied that by comparison with the present state of much of the world the past was in certain important respects a harsh, grim and often brutal place.

Inter-personal violence was, I’m reasonably convinced, more frequent and extreme.  The violence of authority (or what passed for authority) against its own subjects and against external bodies was more frequent and extreme.  The value set on individual human life was lower, or at least thought of significantly differently.  The circle of empathy was, in general, more restricted, with sameness being more narrowly and otherness more widely defined than is broadly the case today.  I could go on and on.

None of that means that I think fantasies which borrow from that past should replicate its bloody miserableness.  Not at all.  It merely means that I, as an individual writer, who was borrowing from the past and consciously trying to replicate some of its texture ended up with something pretty bleak and miserable in part because my entirely personal opinion is that any empathetic contemporary observer of the lives most of our ancestors lived would be downright apalled by the suffering that was tolerated and inflicted.

Reaction against past fantasies.  This isn’t a complaint about pre-grit epic fantasy in any way.  It’s an observation about the inherent and undeniable fluidity of trends, styles and approaches in any creative medium.  ‘Gritty’ fantasy is recognisable as such only in contrast to ‘non-gritty’ fantasy.  In some sense, it couldn’t exist if it hadn’t been preceded by stuff that created a style from which it could diverge.

As I said above, I frankly lost interest in epic fantasy for some time.  It was only the early stirrings of gritty that brought me back to the genre as a reader, let alone a writer.  GRRM is the obvious, and oft-cited, forefather of all that is grit, but for me personally, my first sense of it came earlier, with Guy Gavriel Kay.

Nobody could accuse Kay of writing the sort of grimy, violent fantasy that many of the tone’s critics would define it as, but nevertheless I saw in his books much that would come to influence the way I wrote Winterbirth.  A turning away from notions of unnuanced good and evil.  A gradual deepening and layering of the psychologies at work in the characters.  An explicit turning towards real world history as the model for fantastical tales.  Cautious steps, in other words, towards a sort of psuedo-realism in secondary world fantasy; an inclination to write history instead of myth.

Personally, I was absolutely writing in some sense in reaction to my memories of early commercial epic fantasies, which had lost my interest.  Inevitably, because they had lost my interest, I wasn’t going to replicate their tone and style.  I was going to do something slightly differently, and folks like Kay and Martin had planted some ideas about what that ‘different’ might look like.

I personally find, incidentally, the distinction between the imitation of myth and the imitation of history a much more interesting way to think about trends in secondary world fantasy writing over extended periods than focusing on comparative levels of violence, grit, swearing, dirt, bleakness etc. etc.  So much so I might even get around to doing a separate post on it some time.

And … this is all getting a bit out of hand.  I’ve still got two or three more, decidedly significant reasons for Winterbirth‘s bloody bleakness just off the top of my head, but enough’s enough for now.  I shall pop back up to the post title and stick a Part 1 in brackets and maybe … perhaps … get back to this and round it off in a day or two.

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Now there’ll be those folks whose response is: ‘Well, I don’t need you to tell me that all that stuff’s a failure, Mr Ruckley.  I’ve read some of it!’  To them I say: ‘That’s mean.’  But also: ‘You might be right, but I’m talking about something else anyway.’ And: ‘Thanks for calling me ‘Mr. Ruckley’, by the way. That’s unexpectedly and unnecessarily polite of you.’

I was re-reading bits of one of the most interesting comics ever published the other day.  It’s called Understanding Comics, and it’s by Scott McCloud.  It’s a book about comics in the form of a comic, and for those of us who like the comics medium, reading it can be a bit like having a light going on your head. It’s a textbook, a manifesto, a meditation, an analysis, a history.  It explains a lot of what makes comics remarkable and different, and a lot about how they work.  If you like comics and haven’t read it, I prescribe an immediate trip to the library or bookstore to see if you can get your hands on it.  It’s called Understanding Comics and it really can change the way you understand comics.

But that’s beside the point. There’s a lot of Understanding Comics that’s of relevance to any kind of creator, not just those making comics.  What struck me in particular was one statement in the book, and how I might spin it into something worth saying to aspiring writers:

Ask any writer or filmmaker or painter just how much of a given project truly represents what they envisioned it to be. You’ll hear twenty per cent … ten … five … few will claim more than thirty.

That right there is, I think, both profoundly right and perhaps just a wee bit wrong. I’ve written one or two short stories for which I’d probably claim a bit more than 30% accurate representation of what was in my head. You can argue about the merit of what was in my head, of course, but for better or worse what ended up on the page was at least halfway there. I’ve got a feeling there are not a few creators of one sort or another around who’d happily claim over 30% for their stuff.

But broadly speaking? Sure, writing fiction is a tremendously disappointing process. A lot of it is about trying to manage and minimise your own failure in conveying the visions, the ideas, the themes, the sheer wonder that’s sitting right there in your head. Any writer who has high aspirations for their output – I don’t mean financial aspirations, so much as those relating to craft, art or communication – should probably try to get their head around that fact.

Because it’s not a bad thing. It’s not actually about disappointment or failure. It’s just a recognition that all those involved in the creative arts are, in some sense, attempting the flat-out impossible. As Scott McCloud says:

Media convert thoughts into forms that can traverse the physical world and be re-converted by one or more senses back into thoughts.

That right there is a next to impossible ask. Information, sensation, precision, texture is all going to be lost in the process of converting intangible, unbounded mental processes in one unique mind into limited, defined words. It is next to impossible to create a full, precise, unambiguous verbal representation of the infinite complexity of what is happening in your head. And however much of it you do manage to get down on paper is then going to be re-converted into mind-stuff by the reader. Frankly, it’s a miracle we manage to make this whole thing work as well as we do.

None of us, except perhaps I suppose a theoretically possible but improbably lucky few, will ever achieve 100% successful transcription of the magnificence inside our heads. We will fail. In some part, we will fail every single time we sit down to write. I know I have. McCloud again:

The mastery of one’s medium is the degree to which that percentage can be increased, the degree to which the artist’s ideas survive the journey …

And that’s what I’ve got to offer for aspiring writers: You are going to fail. You will never quite reproduce the wonders in your head on the page. Failure is not something to fear, or get hung up about. It’s an inherent part of the process. Pretty much everybody else is failing as well, whether they admit it or not. Your mission (My mission!), should you choose to accept it, is to aspire to fail less. To narrow the margins between what’s inside your head and what’s on the page.

Chances are, you’ll never hit that 100% mark, but there’s a wonderful thing about writing (and, I assume all the other creative arts and crafts): the more you practise, the more you do it, the closer you get. Your percentage will increase, and all you have to do to make that happen is to keep writing, and to take seriously the business of trying to write better.

Believe me, every few ticks upward in that percentage don’t feel anything remotely like failure or disappointment. They feel like gradual, immensely satisfying, success.

P.S. Yes, this post too is a failure. It was brilliant when I first thought of it. One of the best blog posts ever. Not so much now, huh? But it’s fine. Onwards and upwards!

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Once upon a time, I was an aspiring writer with no time for luck.  It wasn’t hard to find, out on the interwebs, those who hung on to various odd theories about how some folks managed to get their books published and others didn’t; one of the things that sometimes got said was that it was all about luck.  (That, or it was all about who you knew, what secret handshake you’d mastered, etc.).

The luck theory was, I suppose, a bit less daft than the various conspiracies proposed, but I still didn’t give it much credence.  I reckoned, in my infinite wisdom, that getting published and making a success of it was all about talent and application.  Maybe, I might have grudgingly conceded, the tiniest little bit of luck now and again; but mostly, not luck.

Now, I’ve got a different take on the whole business.  Sure, luck can play a part.  Not just in getting published in the first place, but in what happens thereafter.  I’ve had the odd bit of luck here and there.

The thing I’ve come to believe about luck, though, is that although you as a writer, aspiring or otherwise, can’t exactly control it, you can give it the chance it needs to make a difference.  You can invite luck into your writing life.  It’s not some numinous, magical force that picks folk out at random to sprinkle its beneficial pixie dust upon.  I mean, it might do that sometimes, but just as often the old cliche is true: You make your own luck.

Which brings me to the closest thing I’ve got to general advice for aspiring writers.  Luck might have a part to play in making your dreams come true.  You don’t get to decide whether, or when or how it will do so; that’s kind of in the nature of the luck beast.  But you can give it the chance to make a difference.  How do you do that?  Easy.

  • You write a lot, and you aspire to write well.  That means getting words down on (virtual) paper, finishing things you start, giving yourself the time and practice to get better at it.  You set your sights, and your expectations of yourself, high.
  • You put things you have written out there into the world.  Give them air.  You submit your work to magazines, publishers etc.  It’s difficult for luck to intervene if it doesn’t have the basic material to work with, and in this case that basic material is your work, sent out into the world.

I should note that this is not a roundabout way of advocating the self-publishing route that is so easily available now.  It has its place, no doubt, and there are those (not many) for whom it has worked magic.  But consider the possibility that on occasion it might also be a trap.  It’s an invitation to try a shortcut around parts of the first of those two bullet points and skip to the second: ‘putting your work out there’.  And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

So I’ve had my share of luck, some of it earned, some unearned.  None of it, though, would have happened if I hadn’t learned to finish pieces of writing, if I hadn’t sent them out to see what other, professional folks thought of them and taken rejection as a suggestion that I should try harder, if I hadn’t said ‘yes’ to certain opportunities or invitations that came my way that allowed me to get more writing out there, or get my existing writing into a different form.

All of which is perhaps just a long-winded way of saying that if you’re an aspiring author, or a published author who wants to get better or be more successful, luck might be able to help.  But if it does, it probably won’t be as a substitute for putting the hours in, risking and learning from rejection, aiming high, striving to improve.  More likely, it’ll be a result of those things.

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All the sections in my Godless World books open with quotations or extracts from (fictional) histories or narratives intended to add a little flavour, or colour I suppose, to what’s going on in the main text.

The first section of Fall of Thanes, the final book in the trilogy, opens with a couple of proverbs I made up:

Loss alone is but the wounding of a heart; it is memory that makes it our ruin.‘  A proverb of the Aygll Kingship, and

Pay no heed to grief.  It is only weakness leaving your heart.‘  A saying of the Battle Inkall.

The first of those, I noticed a loooong time ago, during the course of some casual ego-surfing, has become by some distance the most famous sentence I’ve ever written.  I’m using ‘famous’ extremely loosely, and indeed inaccurately, of course.  It’d be more precise to say it’s become the most widespread sentence I ever wrote.

Unbeknownst to me, that invented quotation has spread around the internet in various modest but thorough ways.

I suspect the process started when it got snipped as a stand-alone quote by appreciative readers on GoodReads, but since then it’s got sucked in to a vast swathe of aggregator sites that collate quotes about dealing with grief.  Occasional casual investigations have  turned it up on various twitter feeds, forums or tumblrs, where people use it as a tagline, or pass it on, or just quote it because they like the sound of it (eg it’s been doing the rounds on twitter again these last few days).

I mention all this because it’s a neat illustration of the degree to which anything and everything you publish, once it’s out there, is no longer yours.  It belongs to the readers, and they can – and do – use it or understand it in whatever way suits them.  That’s very nice, and I take it as a compliment that so many folks have liked the phrase enough to turn it into its own tiny meme.

But …

… personally, I don’t think Loss alone is but the wounding of a heart; it is memory that makes it our ruin is nearly as quotable as others seem to.

Sure, it’s a euphonious turn of phrase that also looks quite nice on the page.  It’s got a decent internal rhythm and structure, and gives a neat impression of saying something simple but almost profound (which was the point, after all, since it’s pretending to be a long-established saying).  I can see why people have latched on to it.

Except I’m not quite sure what people think it means, especially in the context of ‘comforting quotes in the face of real world grief’.  Sure, if you read it quickly it sounds like it’s comforting.  When I wrote it, though, it wasn’t intended to serve that purpose.  One of the minor themes of the Godless World trilogy is the degree to which the past, in one form or another, exerts an often malign control and influence over what happens in the present.  In that context, the proverb was intended as commentary on the nature of grief, not a comfort or solution to it.  Loss (bereavement’s the most obvious narrative example, though it was meant to apply to all sorts of other things too) as a momentary, transient event could and should be easily bearable, no matter how painful at the instant of its happening, were it not for the fact that we are condemned to remember that which we have lost, and driven by that memory to re-experience the loss, or to strive fruitlessly to undo it, or whatever.

It’s not my favourite thing that I’ve written in part because I think it has a certain bleak ambiguity to its meaning that might make it interesting as a phrase but isn’t quite right for an alleged proverb in wide circulation.  I’m a fairly stern critic of my own writing, though, so what do I know?

I don’t, personally, think it’s a particularly accurate or meaningful analysis of how loss and grief work in the human mind.  Not everything fiction writers put in the mouths of characters – even the anonymous coiners of fictional proverbs – is an actual reflection of the writers’ views, after all.  (That truism seems to escape a certain small minority of readers over and over again, mind you.)  I can’t discern any particularly helpful sentiment or guidance within it for the real world sufferer of personal loss (what proactive sense could you possibly extract from it, after all: ‘You’ll feel better if you just forget about it, and if you can’t forget about it, you’re going to be ruined by it’?).

I’m exaggerating to make a point, of course.  It could be interpreted as a vaguely sensible statement about grief and how to deal with it – something to do with moving on, not allowing memories to feed sorrow rather than rememebered joys, etc. etc. – but I suspect most folks who quote it in various places just like the sound and the look of it, without worrying too much about its precise meaning.

And my real point, which I have exaggerated to reach, is that on one level it’s utterly irrelevant what I think its meaning might be.  Once the words are on the page and published, it ceases to be up to the writer to define their significance, meaning and sense; that becomes the role of the reader, and it’s one in which the writer has no real business trying to interfere, unless univited to do so.  That applies to entire novels, which may be interpreted in ways the author did not intend, as much to single phrases which readers choose to extract from their context and re-interpret for their own purposes.

I’m nothing but pleased if a seventeen word phrase I came up with to serve a particular purpose has proved sufficiently comforting or interesting, as an isolated fragment, for people to think it worth passing on.  What they choose to do with, what meaning they choose to draw from it, is not something I can control.  It’s also not something in which my opinion carries any more weight than anyone else’s; those words meant a certain thing when they were in my hands, or my mind, alone, but they are gone from me now, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t mean something else to other people.  I’m delighted they’ve taken on a life of their own.

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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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There’s a non-trivial chance I’m going to regret this tomorrow, but hey ho, off we go. I spoke, the machine recorded it, so I might as well post it up here.

At the foot of this post you will find something in the region of eight minutes in which I read out, and talk about, a few of the character names from the Godless World trilogy. Listen in wonder to the secret origin of ‘Orisian’, and the mental hiccup that allowed me to name a character ‘Wagon’.

I should point out that, naturally, I sound nothing remotely like this inside my own head. As my personal experience of the world is the only one that really counts, I would like to assure you that I do not in fact sound anything like this recording would appear to suggest. I sound much, much better. You’ll just have to imagine it.

I believe that if you click on the link below, a window’s likely to pop up from which I address you. Alternatively, I believe that if you right click and do the ‘save link (or target or whatever) as …’ thing you can download the mp3 for more convenient listening. The file’s c. 1.9MB.

Enjoy, or not. Feel free to let me know if the former, and to keep it to yourself if the latter. Further audio files may, or may not, ensue if there’s any interest. I promise nothing, and rule nothing out.

Godless World Commentary by Brian Ruckley – Names

… 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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The next instalment in my stubborn effort to convice the world that podcasts are the best thing since … well, the best thing ever, really.

People always say you shouldn’t look too deeply into the question of how sausages are made.  I disagree.  I find almost any insight into the process and trade secrets of almost any human endeavour intersting.  I’m peculiar like that.

The Nerdist Writers Panel is the inside story of how US television series get made; or, more precisely, the unique and odd way in which they get written.  In every episode, three or four writers who worked on series you know and may or may not love – Buffy, Terra Nova, Community, Walking Dead, Supernatural, CSI, Fringe, etc etc – get together and talk frankly and often amusingly about all the behind the scenes stuff.

It’s revealing and informative and sheds a lot of light on a kind of writing that’s radically different from almost any other.  Fascinating and entertaining, even if you’ve no desire to ever be a TV writer yourself; indispensible if you do have such a desire, I should imagine.

My favourite recent episode is number 26, but I’d honestly recommend just about any episode to anyone interested in hearing gifted creators talk passionately and honestly about the joys and frustrations of working in one of the toughest entertainment businesses on the planet.

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… who knows?  The world the aspiring writer’s confronted with is a less structured, less restrictive, less certain place.  That, plus I’ve maybe changed my mind a bit about some of the stuff that used to be taken for granted ten years ago, back when I was scavenging for info on how publishing worked and what I had to do to get a seat at the table.

1.  Start with short stories.  This one was probably holed below the waterline even ten years ago, to be honest, but at some point before that it certainly used to be the prevailing wisdom that when it came to speculative fiction, one sensible route map for launching a career was to sell some short stories to the magazines and then ‘graduate’ to novel writing.  My impression is that nowadays a much higher proportion of novelists skip the short fiction stage and jump straight to novels.

There are all kinds of reason why it’s changed, but I suspect one of them is that there’s a much higher proportion nowadays of potential sf and fantasy novel readers who don’t pay attention to the short story outlets (new or long-established).  That, in many ways, is a good thing: the potential audience for the spec fic novelist has expanded far beyond the core audience of genre fans.  Personally (and despite rarely writing them myself) I still think short stories have enormous value as a craft-honing exercise for the aspiring writer.

2. You need an agent.  Well now.  This one’s complicated, and still – I’d say – more true than not.  But … but … the writing life’s changing fast, and the role and place of the agent is as much up for re-evaluation as any other aspect of the publishing business, now that the digital revolution is well and truly underway.

There’s the obvious self-publishing issue.  You don’t need an agent to get your novel in front of millions of paying customers now that the e-book is gradually becoming the key medium.  Unless you’re super-sharp and super-confident, and have plenty of time to spare, you probably still need one if and when the time comes to talk contracts with a publishing house (and most of them are, anyway, still very reluctant to look at unagented submissions as far as I know), but even then I wonder what the future holds.

One of my strong suspicions about this brave new digital world is that mid-list authors being published by the big publishing houses are facing an uncertain future.  Even if you can land a contract, my guess is that absolute income for mid-list writers is more likely to decline than rise in coming years, due to some combination of lower overall sales and/or the inevitable continuing downward pressure on e-book prices.  That being the case, sacrificing a non-trivial chunk of your income to an agent might eventually start to look like a really good reason to develop your own bargaining and negotiating skills.  Or your own self-publishing and marketing skills.

3. Advertising doesn’t work for books.  I can remember hearing or reading this repeatedly a few years back.  The consensus in the industry seemed to be that money spent on advertising a book was money that could probably have been more profitably used elsewhere (like buying high profile displays in bookshops, for example).  What actually sold books was word of mouth, covers and name recognition.  Advertising spend (posters, magazine adverts, whatever) existed to mollify self-important superstar authors and to front-load sales rather than increase them in absolute terms.  I’m sure the situation wasn’t as simple as all that, even twenty years ago, but I’m equally sure it’s a whole lot less simple these days.

I’ve heard self-publishers and niche publishers say that Facebook advertising (paid Facebook advertising, not just social networking) can indeed move the sales figures for books.  I can also see a scenario – in this connected, digitised, visual world – in which book trailers and other forms of online advertising, especially those designed to go viral, could have an effect.  But mostly, when it comes to thinking about the future of book advertising, it just looks like one of the ways big publishing houses could justify their existence in a hostile future.  If there’s any way of making book advertising work nowadays, I imagine they’re working and thinking hard to try to find it.

4. Publishers and agents have to love a book to take it on.  I was always slightly sceptical about this one, which you still hear now and again.  Not because I mistrust what publishers and agents say, but because the whole thing’s a business, right?  There are undoubtedly plenty of agents and publishers around who would decline involvement with a book because they don’t personally love it, even if they can see that it’s commercially very promising.  More power to them, I say.  But I’ve no doubt there are also plenty who are very happily, and sensibly, working hard to turn books they’re personally not exactly wild about into the bestsellers they believe they can be.

The very small publishing houses, who have their costs under ferocious control, can afford to be picky and choosy, restricting their publishing projects to those in which love of the material plays a major part.  The giants of the industry, which their overheads and mutlinational corporate masters – maybe not so much, in the testing years to come.  I mean, when the only certainty is uncertainty, would it really make sense to merrily turn down a book that looked like a seriously strong commercial prospect just because you didn’t absolutely adore it yourself?

5.  Aspiring writers shouldn’t try to follow trends.  I can think of a couple of reasons this used to be said, back in the day.  First, the time lag involved in writing a novel, submitting it to agents/publishers, revising it, getting it published and onto bookstore shelves, was so enormous that whatever trend the author had been aiming at had probably gone the way of the Titanic by the time their magnum opus actually saw the light of day.  Second, agents and publishers often seemed to be saying, in public, that what they really wanted to see was new stuff, not retreads of stuff that was already out there.

That trends exist, and persist, and are enormously powerful sales juggernauts seems indisputable these days.  Steampunk and urban fantasy, to name but two.  But what interests me more is the chaotic free-for-all that is the e-book market.  Low-priced, often but not always self-published, novels abound on the e-bestseller charts, and they can very easily be written and published a great deal faster than print books ever could.  Following a trend might starts to look more and more like an entirely sensible strategy, especially given that price and availability are quite clearly non-trivial factors in the aggregate purchasing decisions of e-book consumers, and perhaps more so than anticipated quality.

But me, I’d still say to any aspiring writer: ‘Write whatever you want to write.  If it’s similar to a lot of other stuff already doing well in the market, there’s no harm in that.  If it’s utterly unlike everything that’s ever been published before (unlikely, but you know what I mean), go ahead and write it.  It might turn out to be a triumph or a tragedy, but you’ll never know until you write the thing.’

6.  It’s not about luck.  Creating and sustaining a writing career has, I suspect, always been about three things: talent, persistence and luck.  I used to be pretty confident that luck was the least important of those.  I’m no longer so sure.  I am pretty sure that – even if it wasn’t always the case, which it probably was – persistence is now the only one of the three that’s indispensible.  And that’s all I have to say about that.

 

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There’s a very upbeat review of The Edinburgh Dead over on The Bookshelf Chronicles.  ( ‘2011 is drawing to a close and I think I just found my favourite read of the year’ !)

Nice little exchange with the author of that same to review in the comments here, in which it turns out we both very much like one specific line in The Edinburgh Dead.  And that line is … wait for it … wait for it …:

‘I’m not wanting any butter.’

Does that strike you as … I don’t know … a bit anti-climactic?  It points up one thing that I’m sure isn’t particular to me.  Lots of writers must have the same thing.  That thing is that the pleasure of writing, the satisfaction that the finished text can give you as its creator, is sometimes as much about the small things – the small victories – as it is the big picture stuff.  That tiny little line of dialogue gave me pleasure when I wrote it – you’ll just have to take make my word for the fact that it’s just the right length, tone and rhythm for its context – and it’s nice that someone else liked it.

(And in case that sounds too self-congratulatory, I’ll just note in passing that the small defeats can be just as frustrating as the small victories are satisfying.  Witness: I can’t spell the word ‘rhythm’.  Never have been able to, probably never will.  Every single time I write the cursed word – including in the last sentence of the previous paragraph – I have to check its spelling.  Pathetic.  I’m already starting to fret it still doesn’t look right … maybe I should just have a quick double-check …)

Over at the Writers Read blog, I’ve got a guest post reporting on what I was reading in November.  It includes Fascist dictators, etchings and horses.

And a very nice giveaway is open for the holidays – for those of you living in the UK and the US, at least.  Over at the Orbit blog you can enter a draw to win one of five sets of five jolly good books.  Including The Edinburgh Dead.  There’s two or three there I’d really like to read myself, but somehow I doubt I’m eligible …

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