Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Thing With Dragons

This being St George's Day, I thought I'd have a look at dragons, and specifically at the key problems with dragons when it comes to fantasy literature.

They've obviously been a part of literature and consciousness for a long time. We have creatures of broadly that 'family' showing up in Ancient Greek myths (what is the hydra but a multiple choice dragon?) in Chinese and Northern European traditions, all sorts of different places.

Yet for the modern fantasy writer, they have a couple of small difficulties. They aren't humanoid. They're big. They're solitary. They're generally intelligent in a lot of cases. They're also immensely powerful, to the extent that if they're common, we have to ask the question of why humans are in charge and not them.

So, we have a creature that is hard to humanise on one level, because it can't fit into human cities, or relate to humans on a casual level. We have a creature that is also so powerful that it's a little unbalancing in many settings.

How can anyone possibly use one of those?

Well, obviously they have, using a number of pretty consistent strategies:

There's the strategy that has the dragon as a singular monster to be defeated. It's powerful, it's big. It's terrifying. But it's a monster. It's not really much of a character. It sits around on a pile of gold (because it's planning for its retirement, or just because it's a big, scaly magpie) and waits for heroes to come along and try to stab it. Occasionally, there are lots of them, but that doesn't change the part where it's just another sort of monster.

There's the strategy that has dragons as something to be tamed. Yes, they are powerful, but in this they are usually not also intelligent. So a great hero (or just a particular class of knight, depending on the series in question) may be able to prove their worth enough to control and use dragons.

Occasionally, we get the dragon as a mentor and/or manipulator. In this approach, it is intelligent, but its difficulties in fitting into a human society mean it is relegated to working through intermediaries, like the heroes. Exactly why it should care is often not established.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Quantity and Outlining

A few thoughts, all jumbled up together this time. First is on quantity of output. One thing I've noticed is that authors at the moment seem to be aiming for relatively high output. Even quite famous authors seem to have multiple projects on the go, while e-book based authors in particular seem to put work out at a tremendous rate.

I'm not complaining about this. Indeed, as a ghost writer, I tend to write a lot of stuff myself. But it is interesting that quantity seems to have become one of the key dynamics of the writing game at the moment. Rather than that one big hit, it feels like everyone is aiming for multiple smaller ones, with each one making just enough of a profit. Yet there's also a balancing act there. It's easy to rush things, and settle for producing something okay when you could produce something that will be life changing for the reader.

My other thought was on outlining. I change the way I plan a lot, yet the ability to sit down and simply write out a one or two page synopsis seems to have been at the heart of all the novels I've finished. If I can do that, I know that I know the shape of the story, complete with the ending and the major stops along the way. If I can't, then there's probably a problem in there that I haven't seen in other planning.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

What do you have to say

A friend of mine once told me that he wasn't planning to write any more stories at that time because he felt like he didn't have anything he hugely wanted to say. At the time, I didn't get that. It felt like waiting around for that perfect piece of inspiration and a burning topic just to write short stories was a bit over the top. After all, he could still write something entertaining and interesting.

Yet now I have a few novels under my belt, I can sort of see where he was coming from. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with the purely 'fun' novel. Indeed, that is something occasionally levelled at Court of Dreams as though it is an acusation, when it really shouldn't be. Wodehouse built a career on 'fun' novels. Although I do worry a little, because CofD was actually meant to contain quite a bit about family, duty and responsibility, so if that isn't coming through, maybe I got that part wrong.

Certainly now, I can feel the importance of having something to say. It isn't enough to knock out a novel for the sake of putting one out there. It isn't enough to just follow a vague genre template with a few twists of location or character (although there are obviously genres where doing so is considered the norm). I think this is perhaps one of the pressures of a world where people can publish whatever they want, in whatever volume they want. It's easy to be caught up in a competition to keep up.

Instead, I currently feel like the competition is to say things better. To have something that you feel deeply interested in and explore it. That doesn't necessarily have to be what other people would think of as a big issue (although I explore some pretty big ones in 'The Glass', for the current WIP I'm thinking about history and the ways we think about it, which is clearly primarily of interest to me). It does have to be something that means enough to you to be worth seventy or eight thousand words.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Multiple works.

Novels, novels, everywhere... I'm working on about three at the moment, although it may be two again after my attempts to play around with my own the other night.

Sometimes people ask me how I keep everything distinct in my head when I happen to have more than one thing running at once. The answer is complicated. Partly, it's because I don't try to do it all in my head: I'm relying on carefully written plans/outlines to give me the shape.

Partly, it's because characters in books are closer to one another than most people admit. We see so little of them, and in such a controlled way, that creating differences between them is relatively straightforward. Particularly if you happen to view them as a part of the story as a whole rather than separate individuals, because that helps to give each one some of the flavour of the story.

Partly, it's an organisational thing. I tend to work on particular pieces at different times of the day (or at least in a consistent order) so I know which space my head has to be in for each one.

On a separate note I may just have given up on the idea of complete spontenaity for novels. Pantsing through the current idea has been giving me some nice ideas, but I just realised I have no idea where it is going.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Witchy Business part 2

It occurs to me that I only put in a link to the amazon uk page for Witchy Business in the last post. So, for all those elsewhere here's the link to it on amazon.com. Currently, it's running at #2 overall in free books for fantasy, and was briefly the bestseller (bestgivaway? bestfreebie?) in the 'witches and wizards' sub category. I enjoyed working on this one with Eve Paludan, and I hope it does well for her and JR Rain. Especially because I'm writing this while procrastinating on writing the sequel.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Witchy Business.

A novel I worked on, Witchy Business, is out now and for the next few days, it is apparently going to be free on kindle. It's the story of Elle Chambers, insurance investigator and witch, who finds out during the course of the search for a missing painting that most of what she has believed about herself through her life has been a lie. Oh, and that she can't trust even the people closest to her.

I worked on this one with Eve Paludan, doing a lot of the work on the original novella and then doing some work helping to blend together our different parts on this. Writer JR Rain has since taken on the project, and is promoting it in association with Eve. You can find the free kindle version on amazon.co.uk here

Friday, 5 April 2013

Pieces Stacking Up

Just a quick check in that's partly about writing, but more just about things I've been doing. I've got a variety of things that are out with people, or building up to publication, or something similar. There's a project that is due out in the next couple of days that I worked on in that interesting space between ghosting and collaborating, that could potentially be moderately big, but that I can't talk about until it happens.

There's my last manuscript, which is out with a publisher at the moment, waiting for them to say yes or no (a very small publisher already said yes a while back, but I wasn't sure what they could do that I couldn't).

There's my short story 'A Sense of Adventure' which is due out there in Wendy Tyler Ryan's Second Avenue Second Hand anthology shortly, or soon, or eventually. One of those, it being a truism of editing land that time never seems to do what anyone thinks it's going to once you're there. I'm sure that it's going to be good, though.

I also found a fencing mask that I can wear my glasses in, which is probably a fairly random thing to add in here, but seems worth mentioning. It means that, for the first time in years, I can see perfectly as I fence. It's amazing how often, you only notice the difficulty with something once you've found a better way.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013


The quest for perfection is an oddity. Towards the start of last month, I wanted to start writing something amazing. Something brilliant. Something that will change the life of whoever reads it. So naturally, I wrote something, and deleted it as not good enough, and wrote something, and deleted it, and so on.

Instead now, I'm just accepting the likelihood that my first draft isn't going to be wonderful, and now words are flowing. I'm not even entirely sure what happens next half the time, but that isn't the point. The point is that, by allowing myself the luxury of possibly writing poorly (something I can't always afford in the day job. I'd never meet the ghost-writing deadlines) I'm getting stuff written. Stuff that I can then make better as needed.

And yet... well, there's always the other side of this, isn't there? The writers who churn out the same old stuff again and again. The ones who don't have anything interesting to say, or just produce another teen vampire romance exactly like everyone else's teen vampire romance (is anyone still doing this?) There is a point where it's important to say to yourself that you can do better than that, so where does the balance lie?

For myself, I just want to do the best with an idea I can. Preferably by trusting myself to keep going until the end. There's enough red ink waiting after that.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013


I have an uneasy relationship with sequels. I have written them. I have read them. Yet I'm not sure that the sequel is generally such a wonderful thing, artistically speaking.

I've read plenty of sequels. As a reader of fantasy fiction, I am, almost by definition, a reader of triolgies and sequences, cycles and series. From the three parts of the Lord of the Rings, to the extended runs of most urban fantasy authors, sequels are unavoidable. They have their moments, too. Over time, authors grow into characters, so that they get more from them and start to understand the detail of them better. I would argue here that Jim Butcher's current Harry Dresden is a very different character to the one at the start of the series.

I've written them, too. Well, that's obvious. I'm a ghostwriter. I write a lot of YA and romance, and sequels are commercial. The reader knows what they're getting, and if they liked the first one, then there's a much better chance that they'll buy the second one. There's even a trend towards giving away the first book in a long series free, to get people hooked on it. I've even written sequels for my own work, in the form of Witch Hunt, and in a never quite right sequel to court of dreams that sort of makes fun of vampires, and which probably won't see the light of day.

And yet...

My current thinking is that sequels have inherent problems to go with their benefits. Ones that can be quite hard to overcome. You see, if you've written a complete story in the first one, then you've already had the main character undergo a meaningful character change. So what is there to do in the second one? And the world... well, if you're doing it right, the world is a reflection of the themes and needs of the first novel.

It is, I suppose, a little like cooking. You create this amazing dish out of the best ingredients you can, blending them together perfectly... and then you want to try to make something else out of the leftovers. It isn't impossible to do it as well, or even better, but it isn't easy.