Myself and Fantasy author Jo Reed were recently invited to tea at crime writer JJ Marsh's house to chat about fantasy literature and the things that inspire us to write it. JJ said you're welcome to join us, just leave your shoes at the front door - something about new carpets.
Monday, 18 February 2013
I am absolutely overjoyed to announce that I’m now represented by the estimable Mr John Jarrold of the John Jarrold LiteraryAgency.
What does this mean? Well, to me it means everything. It means that my supernatural chiller Through the Eyes of Douglas has been weighed and measured by a respected figure in the publishing industry and deemed fit for purpose.
It also means that maybe this guy will finally get the fuck out of my hard drive. Meet the Debt Collector:
Friday, 15 February 2013
A while ago I talked about the research that went into Through the Eyes of Douglas, a novel that starts out in the 1980s and ends up in 2005 to the backdrop of the London Bombings. As recent as these historical periods are, the research was extensive, but the one thing that didn’t concern me was the sense of place, as I have actually lived through these times. That’s the beauty of writing urban fantasy, the stage is already set.
The Outcast Gully Morgan, my current work in progress, does not afford me that luxury. Yes, it’s set in the real world, but it starts out in a post-apocalyptic near future and then plummets into past periods of history, periods I did not live through. It wasn’t entirely an empty stage though. I had a layman’s working knowledge of these places already, knowledge I had gleaned from old movies and such, but I knew straight away this wasn’t the route I wanted take. Not if I wanted to write something of worth.
I recently finished the Wild West leg of the story, and for a fifteen-thousand-word segment, it took a great deal of research not to fall through the batwing saloon doors and straight into a ‘Howdy partner’. I want Gully’s leaps into history to be gritty and real, even if it doesn’t gel with the reader’s preconceived ideas of these periods. But this doesn’t make for a speedy first draft.
I’m currently in prohibition
1925. I chose San Francisco because it’s less well known and doesn’t
come with the high profile baggage of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, and so replacing
Pete and Tom McDonough (the crime leaders of the day) with my guys seemed less
of a liberty. This still doesn’t help
the fact that I wasn’t alive at this time, and so cultural and political
climate needs a lot of research if I want the authenticity I’m looking
for. That’s a lot of work for maybe just
a few throwaway lines, and again, does not make for a speedy first draft. San
Picture this: Gully appears in prohibition
in a warehouse behind a wall of boxes.
On the other side of the boxes there are three gangsters beating the
hell out of another guy for some reason I haven’t figured out yet. I know roughly where this is all heading but
haven’t joined the dots to my satisfaction, and I can’t concentrate on that
right now because I’m preoccupied with something else: What’s in the boxes? San Francisco
Sounds stupid, but until I know what kind of warehouse this is, I can’t fill it with stuff. So I need to research the industry of the area and work out how this would fit into bootlegging booze. I could just be vague, couldn’t I? I mean, readers of sci-fi fantasies don’t care about this stuff do they?
I’m one of those readers. I fucking care.
I have little time for writers and novels that don’t care about or value the finer details, because by extension it means they don’t care about or value their readers. It’s like Michel Roux Jr serving you a perfectly cooked fillet of beef with no seasoning. It’s nice, but it could have tasted sublime and left you dreaming about the next time you were going to visit his restaurant.
Wednesday, 19 December 2012
A while back, when I was just embarking on my third novel, The Outcast Gully Morgan, I was fretting that the idea had arrived too fully formed, and that there’d be no room for the creative process to take hold. I like changes in direction, changes that occur because the characters have dictated a new route for themselves or that some insignificant plot detail has snowballed and become so large and unstoppable you have to make way for it. There’s organic beauty in that. Both my other two novels went through a similar metamorphosis, with Through the Eyes of Douglas, my latest novel, undergoing the biggest change in direction. It took a hefty rewrite, but when a truly good idea comes along, you cannot pass it up because of the extra workload involved in reshaping the story.
In between finishing
Douglas and starting on Gully I wrote a short story. The Pig
Farmer’s Burden also came to me fully formed, but over the course of five
thousand words the creative process did its thing and changed the story. It ended up being shortlisted for the
Bridport Prize out of more than six thousand entries, so although I liked the change, it was nice to know
that the creative process I have come to rely on was appreciated by others too.
I’m about a third of the way through Gully at the moment, and it’s taken that long for the creative process to do its thing again. I wasn’t looking for it (and nor should you), but a character that was only going to be a bit player has barged his way into the story and handcuffed himself to the plot. To accommodate him I’ve had to make some changes, and while making these changes other things have come along and handcuffed themselves to the plot. Add to this the discovery of the story’s theme and my initial idea is looking quite a bit different. Is this new direction better than the original one? I believe so.
The biggest development in this new direction is that what was originally intended to be a standalone novel has now demanded to be a trilogy. I’d always sort of vowed never to write a series of anything, but although the ending to this first book will reach a definitive conclusion, the what if? possibilities that present themselves are just too rich not to be explored, both as a writer and a reader.
It’s a little scary taking on a project this big, especially when I have no agent and no publisher, but I’m very much of a bloody-minded nature and will always write what needs to be written, and not what the market dictates I should write. Gully is very different, both to what I’ve written before and to what’s out there in the marketplace, and compounding my fear is that Through the Eyes of Douglas is still sitting in my hard drive, so my bloody-minded attitude has already been kicking me in the balls for some time now. The one ray of hope I’m clinging to though is this: Dark Heart was different, and very much the product of the creative process. If Leo could do it, so can
Wednesday, 7 November 2012
It was interesting to see Ian Rankin’s work process last night, and how the ‘novel-a-year’ thing works for a fulltime writer – which for Rankin is more like six months as promoting the previous novel seems to be a big time-suck for him. Knowing a character as well as Rankin knows Rebus must save him a lot of time in the writing process, but still, a novel in six months is impressive, and I doubt I could do it. The thing that impressed me the most though, was his willingness to listen to his editor. I’m lucky enough to be part of an amazing writing group that boasts successfully published writers and talented newcomers, in all genres. Each of us has particular skill sets and expertise and so we all benefit from a kind of super-editor, but it must be tempting for a writer of Rankin’s stature to lift his nose at such meddling, and just pump out his novels unvetted. It’s this kind of willingness to put out the best work he can that deserves to keep him in beer money for as long as he can hold a pen and a pint glass.
Ms Rice, are you listening?
Monday, 5 November 2012
I haven’t updated the blog for a while, especially with anything writerly, so here, have it all in one go why don’t ya…
Progress on The Outcast Gully Morgan ground to a bit of a halt recently, namely because of my other novel Through the Eyes of Douglas got treated to a rewrite. But Darren, it was perfect wasn’t it? I hear you say! Well, there’s no such thing as literary perfection, but the pursuit of it is an honourable endeavour, and certainly worthy of my time. Also, I’d been smart enough to bow down to some sage advice… eventually. A very large and well-known literary agency (after reading the novel twice) highlighted a flaw in the structure of the story, which I duly la-la-la’d with my fingers stuck firmly in my ears. When the same flaw was highlighted by a very large and well-known publisher, I decided to pull said fingers from ears and apply them to a rewrite. Six weeks later and I had a wife that I’d pushed to the limits of neglect, a set of bloody fingers, but also what I believe is a very fine novel. We shall see.
Notes on editing:
After I completed the first rewrite I decided to upload it onto my wife’s iPad to go through it again. I can not emphasize enough how beneficial this was. Sitting in the living room and reading my work like a book showed up a whole heap of stuff that I’d missed over and over again whilst working on the PC. Namely repetition, but also reading the whole novel in a few sittings, tiny inconsistencies and continuity blips present themselves like shining beacons, and once these were dealt with, the finer aspects of the writing can be focused upon:
Paragraph construction is a bugbear of mine, and I know I’ve mentioned it before in here, but if your hope is to be more than just competent, then these details should be on your radar. Sentence length, and the way that different lengths fit together to make pleasing rhythms, should not exclusively be the concern of the poet. Prose fiction can benefit hugely from good rhythms, and once you’ve tuned your ear to it (and most good writers will have a natural ear for this), the clanging of poor rhythm will be unbearable for you, and you’ll just HAVE to fix it. I’ve spent way too much time on complicated paragraphs where I can’t quite say what I’m trying to say whilst getting the rhythm how I want it at the same time, but that's usually an indication that the paragraph is too complicated and could do with chopping in two or rewriting completely. Think of a paragraph as a mine field, and think of repetition, clumsy alliteration and lousy rhythm as the claymore-detached limbs left behind by the lazy writer who couldn’t be bothered to navigate with due care and attention.
Then I try and fix all the unnecessary stage direction, and boil down the component parts of an action to characterise the movement simply and clearly, and also deliver it with an originality that still gives the reader goosebumps of recognition. Cormac McCarthy is the master of this. In just a few strokes he paints a picture of what a character is doing without bombarding the page with every little detail. I can only aspire to his greatness, but in the meantime I’ll aspire to not tell the reader that my character pulled a chair out with his right hand and walked around it to sit down, or brought his leg back to kick a dog in the head with his left foot.
Notes on reading:
This year I’ve given up on more books than I can ever remember, both literary and genre, and for all sorts of reasons. I used to struggle through a book if I’d started it, but not anymore. The final straw was picking up Justin Cronin’s The Passage, thinking I’d fall back on a big ole commercial crowd-pleaser, but four hundred pages in and I nearly slipped into a coma. The remedy was picking up Stephen King’s The Shining again. I don’t usually read books twice because I like to explore the new, but fuck me, I was in a bad place. (By the way, that anymore and straw combo above is the sort of thing that makes my chunder-valve flutter.)
So that’s about it. I’m sort of back into Gully, and I’ll keep you posted on the progress, as I will with
Thursday, 11 October 2012
A few years ago, when the kids were still young enough to get grounded, we had a system whereby they could shorten their sentence in return for some academic work of my choosing. For instance, my youngest boy did something dumb and got himself grounded for a week, and I suggested Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea would serve as 3 days off his tariff. He read it, answered my check questions, and got out early. But it wasn’t always reading.
On the next occasion it was the middle son that had earned himself a week inside. My suggestion this time was a couple of essays – a thousand words a piece on Malcolm X and (you guessed it) Lance Armstrong. I thought he might gain some inspiration in the research on these two men (men whose futures had drastically changed for the better in my opinion), as I’d given him a strict “no copy and paste” stipulation for his reprieve. He handed in the two essays and off he went. Since then the boy has grown. He’s a workingman now with a family of his own. I’m very proud. But I wonder what he makes of the message I made him learn all those years ago? I hope it’s that if you are a cheating bastard, you will be found out eventually. It's a real shame; Armstrong could have finished last in every race and would still have been an inspiration.
Anyway, I have to go. The doorbell has been ding-donging for ten minutes now, and I can’t put it off any longer. My youngest son is standing outside in the rain with what looks like the thousand word essay I made him write a few years back on Jimmy Savile. He does not look pleased.