The Free

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I wrote this mini-essay ages ago – it was intended for publication elsewhere, but that never happened. To be honest, I’d forgotten about it but then the trailer for the re-make of The Magnificent Seven came out and … well, why it reminded me of this will be obvious once you read on!

It’s timely for another reason, mind you. It’s mostly about The Free, my most recently published novel, and some of the specific influences on that book. As I might have mentioned here, The Free is getting some companion e-novellas now. The first, Corsair, is out now everywhere e-books are sold, ready for your downloading and reading pleasure. So seems like a sensible time to revisit this discussion about what was going on in my head when I wrote The Free in the first place …

I’ve always got little movies playing in my head when I’m writing, especially action scenes. Not the details, but things like movement, its pattern and rhythm, and – bizarrely – lighting. So basically, my little mental movies are kind of blurry but full of movement and very well-lit.

When it came to writing The Free, though, things got a whole lot more specific. Once I had the basic story in my head I realised it had a lot on common with particular movies that I really like, and I decided to dig around in those commonalities and see what popped up. It was a first for me; usually (I think) my influences are a bit more subterranean and a good deal less conscious. This time, for better or worse, I was paying close attention.

The movies in question are Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch and to an extent 13 Assassins. Not enough people have seen the last of those: it’s kind of a modern, streamlined version of Seven Samurai, turned up to a violent eleven. It’s beautiful, brutal and clever stuff.

So, I thought, what do I like about these movies, and what would a novel that tried to achieve a similar effect look like? Not all of the answers I came up with actually made it into The Free, but some did. It wound up being a book that’s deliberately reminiscent of those movies, but not a slavish retread – it has its own story to tell. Some of the similarities are pretty obvious (if you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I mean), others maybe not so much, and it’s a couple of the latter I wanted to discuss here.

Exhibit One: Endings. All four of the films I’ve name-dropped are to a greater or lesser extent about endings in particular ways and combinations that I reckon are interesting. They share an elegiac tone, and underneath their narrative skin are positively thick with the notion of ending, or passing. The end of the age of gunslingers or samurai, the age of the individual man of violence (women of violence too, in The Free). The ending of specific lives; lives of which we see only the final few days, but they’re days that seem to sum up the years that have preceded them. I like that model. Beginning a story right near its end appeals to me.

The other thing about these movies and endings is that in all of them, from early on, the plot’s end-point is made very, very clear. In three of the four movies, you even know where the climax is going to take place, who the antagonists will be, what the specific numerical odds against the protagonists will be, within the first … I don’t know, twenty minutes maybe?

On some level, all of this is back to front. You might even call it spoilerific. I don’t go quite that far in The Free, because I couldn’t resist putting in one or two twists, but the sustained action of the last 80+ pages of the book is in a sense the obviously intended destination, and I assume – want, even – the reader to recognise that from pretty early on.

The thing about having what you might call a ‘flagged climax’ like this is that it pulls the plot and narrative towards it. It exerts a sort of gravitational tug that by its nature puts a bit of momentum and energy and tension into the tale. The fact that you know the shape, if not the detail, of Seven Samurai’s ending from very near the start imbues the whole movie with a rich cocktail of meaning and foreboding and questioning.

Exhibit Two: Otherness and violence. Much of the distinctive magic and tone of all these movies resides in the otherness of their central characters. They exist in tightly defined ‘bands of brothers’ socially and psychologically isolated from everyone else – but I reckon their otherness is also fundamentally about their relationship to violence. How they in particular use violence, how they view its purpose, and how its application has shaped, bonded and isolated them.

The thing that struck me, though, was that in the case of the movies with seven in the title, many different views (and consequences) of violence are represented both within and without the central band of brothers. Violence is what defines many of these characters, but it does it in radically different ways. I don’t make a big thing of it in The Free – it’s supposed to be entertainment, not meditation – but nevertheless it’s there; everyone in the book, consciously or unconsciously, has their own particular reason for enacting violence, and feels its effects and consequences in different ways. The central characters are mercenaries, but simple greed is not one of the reasons. Because that would be kind of dull, right?

And the other thing about violence, of course, is that it’s exciting. The movies I’m talking about are all, in their different ways, steeped in the horrible beauty of violence on the screen. They’re not celebrating it exactly, but they undeniably embrace its visceral, choreographed appeal when presented as spectacle. It’s an abiding puzzle to me why something that most of us, if confronted with it in real life, would find horrible and traumatizing is so exciting and engaging to watch in a cinema.

To make violence both cruel and exciting, horrible and fascinating, folly and triumph, that’s clever. Embodying mutual contradictions without breaking the narrative vessel they’re contained within can be a challenge, but I think it’s worth trying, particularly in the case of violence. And in that I’ve always thought Seven Samurai is the champion. Its final battle scenes, amidst mud and teeming rain, are so loaded with contradictory beauty and horror, tragedy and triumph, it’s a wonder the thing doesn’t fall apart. But it doesn’t, because it’s a masterpiece.

The Free gave me an excuse to think about it and those other films – not masterpieces perhaps, the other three, but well worth a wee think – and that if nothing else made the writing process fun.

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Here we are, back with Moving Pictures on a Friday, because this caught my eye:

Not even sure I knew it was coming, to be honest. Maybe I did and then forgot. Either way … five things about it:

1) That’s one film that really didn’t need remaking, don’t you think? Not that that ever stops a remake nowadays, I guess. So fair enough. Have at it, Hollywood!

2) Denzel’s sporting some fine facial hair. Not as good as Yul’s bald pate, but at least a little bit eye-catching.

3) Chris Pratt is going to be in every big film from now on. Is that the plan? Because I like him a lot, but it’s starting to get hard to see him as anything other than CHRIS PRATT. Whatever character he’s playing is disappearing behind the fame that is CHRIS PRATT.

4) Looks rather like they might have one token good Native American and one token bad Native American.  I really, really hope they don’t play those tokens and then have them fight each other to the death, because if the good Native American’s purpose in the plot is to kill the bad Native American that’s just … well, it seems like a lousy idea, that’s all. Deeply last century.

5)  Have I mentioned that I wrote a book – The Free – partially inspired by The Magnificent Seven? Or, more accurately, inspired by the film M7 itself is a remake of: Seven Samurai.

Have I further mentioned that there are three e-novella prequels to The Free coming out this year? Oh, I have: all the details are here. Anyway, the first of those prequels is available right now, everywhere e-books are sold. It’s called Corsair, and it’s over 20,000 words of mayhem and formative character moments in a world where magic is dangerous, unpredictable and at best a double-edged sword. A little taste of my version of The Magnificent Seven!

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Well, The Free was a Kindle Daily Deal in the US last month, which meant folks could get the e-book version at a bargain price for one day only. That was nice, and might mean a few new visitiors wandering around these pages.The Free Cover gif

Just in case, a couple of quick pointers for any new browsers. You can see info about my other books, unsurprisingly, on the Books page here. I’ve written some short stories too and you can read one of them online for free over at Lightspeed Magazine: Beyond the Reach of his Gods.

And if you liked The Free, want to stay in touch with what I’m up to, get an occasional shot at winning a signed copy of one of my books, all that kind of thing, the perfect place for you is over at the Facebook page where people who like my stuff hang out: Winterbirth on Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter, if you’re so inclined.

You can also, of course, subscribe to the feed for this blog, so you don’t miss future content. Been on a bit of an extended blog holiday these last few months, but posting’s going to be picking up again now.

And finally a last little bit of news – more like a hint of news, really: the world and the characters of The Free have more story left in them, and it’s on its way. More details on that in due course …

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As some folks may have heard, I wrote another book. And the good folk at Orbit are going to publish it this year!

That pile of paper there is the proofs for The Free – a stand-alone fantasy novel coming out in a bookshop or digital venue near you this October. The proofs are the last stage before the whole thing is kind of locked down, so I spent a fair few hours not long ago reading every single word of the thing all over again. Line by line, sentence by sentence, hunting for mistakes, typos, embarrassments, all that sort of thing.

It’s a strange experience for me, this bit of the writing/publishing process. Once a book (or story, or comic) of mine is published, I’m profoundly disinclined to ever read it, not even a little bit of it, again. It’s finished and I can’t change it and all I’m likely to see if I read it again is stuff I wish I could change. Reading and correcting proofs is kind of half-way into that territory – it’s too late to make big changes – but still embedded in the revising process to some extent, because little tweaks are possible. So I’m at ease with it, in a way I’m not at ease with re-reading the finished, published novel. Kind of like it, in fact, because once you get to this point you know you’re pretty much done. This thing’s happening. This book’s going to be for real soon.

In fact, The Free is going to be for real on or about October 14th. Not all that soon, I know, but it’s avilable for pre-order on all the usual online sites. If you’re at all inclined to do such a thing, pre-ordering is helpful and encouraging so you get my (impersonal, anonymous) gratitude if you take the plunge. I don’t think you’ll regret it – I’ve read The Free quite recently, after all, and I didn’t think it was bad. All nearly 450 pages of it.

The book’s right there waiting for your anticipatory support on Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon CA, Barnes & Noble etc. (But sadly not yet my personal preference these days – now that Amazon has bought up virtually every other independent online vendor – Wordery, which is a newish UK-based site that does free worldwide shipping. So you can’t pre-order The Free there yet, as far as I can see, but why not bookmark or sign up with and try it out sometime? Competition is a good thing, and boy does Amazon need some competition).

More to come about The Free in coming weeks and months, of course. For now, though, here’s the start of the contents because … well, why not?

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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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… 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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