The road from Earthsea

The other day, I was thinking about how I ended up being a writer of fiction. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for about as long as I can remember, but it’s only in the last few years that it’s become, essentially, my career. It could have been very different. Though I’ve always loved reading, and have always been moved and excited by books, there’s no immutable law that makes readers want to be writers. But I did end up wanting to write, and one trilogy of stories in particular was responsible for it.

As a child and a teenager, I read a whole range of science-fiction and fantasy literature: everything by Tolkien, the first Dune novel, Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (as it was), John Wyndham’s classic British SF, Narnia (surprisingly clever and brilliant when read as an adult), as well as lots of lesser-known titles which mostly deserve to remain obscure. All of these kindled an interest in fantastic worlds and story-telling, though none allowed it to bloom quite as much as the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula Le Guin.

These books are loved by thousands. A quick and unscientific look at Amazon uncovers over four hundred reviews for the first book in the original trilogy, A Wizard of Earthsea, with more glowing five-star scores than all the other ratings combined. This, on the face of it, is odd. The Earthsea books have always been marketed as ‘high fantasy’, which must lead many readers to expect all sorts of beast-slaying, sword-swishing, and epic-scale action. Earthsea has none of this. Its central characters are laconic, gentle and restrained. Magic runs through all the stories, though on the whole it’s a very subtle business. The more powerful a wizard becomes in Earthsea, the less he uses his gifts, mindful of the need to maintain equilibrium. Le Guin’s metaphysics is influenced by Taoism, a spiritual discipline placing emphasis on harmony with the structure of nature, and Western academic psychology, with its rich treatment of the unconscious mind and its symbols. The resulting combination is a deeply satisfying, nuanced vision of how a magical world might work.

Other aspects of Earthsea are also beautifully realised. The stories all take place across a collection of small islands, dominated by the sea that surrounds them. Le Guin writes in an elegant, spare style, using a few choice words and phrases to conjure up a wholly convincing ecosystem. Her world has a mixture of cultures, climates, political systems and social mores that are every bit as complex and rich as those of reality. Interestingly, the dominant race on Earthsea is non-white, and the most barbarous islands in the archipelago are inhabited by blond, pale-skinned warmongers. For the Fantasy genre, dominated as it is by Anglo-Saxon types in a quasi-European setting, this detail is refreshing. In fact, everything in Earthsea is refreshing. There are dragons, wizards, warriors and haunted tombs, though in Le Guin’s hands each of these stock elements takes on a new and surprising life.

For me, as for many others, the first three books, written between 1968 and 1972, are the most successful. Le Guin went on to write several more in the 1990s, but evidently felt that her earlier vision was deficient and changed some of the central ideas. I can understand why she did this, but the resultant stories were, as far as I’m concerned, far less likeable. Nonetheless, this doesn’t detract from the achievement of the earlier books, which between them constitute a beautiful, strange and moving whole. In particular, The Farthest Shore, which won the US National Book Award in 1973, is a poignant and sophisticated tale that matches up to any novel I’ve read since, whether children’s or adults’, fantasy or non-fantasy.

Of course, writing action-packed tales set in the Warhammer world is somewhat different to this, and I’ve never tried to emulate Le Guin’s style or goals in what I’ve done. I don’t think she’d like Warhammer at all, and I fear she’d be horrified to learn that her work has helped produce blood-soaked tales of treachery and corruption in Averheim. Nonetheless, she remains an inspiration to me as a writer. No one else can summon up such a rich imaginative vista with such simple, restrained language, and no one else has produced quite such a coherent, sympathetic and wholly original fantasy world.

Re-energised

Games Day logo

Well, it’s the morning after Games Day, and I reckon I’d better post while things are relatively fresh in my memory. It was only my second GD, so I’m still newbie enough to get excited about it. If I’d been less of a newbie, I might have remembered to take some photos. But I am, so I didn’t.

The more I reflect on the day, the more I’m convinced that such events are pretty much essential for an author’s sanity. Most of the time, writing is more or less an isolated existence, with only the uncertain medium of the internet to give you an idea how your stuff’s being received. While this can be helpful – getting a good review is still a buzz – it’s no substitute for readers coming to chat, in person, about the books they’ve enjoyed and why. And it was also great to have some time with the other authors, artists and the BL publishing team on the Saturday night. As I’ve noted here before, for a bunch of people who spend their time writing, editing or selling books mostly concerned with large-scale violence and mayhem, everyone’s really very nice.

Anyway, the day was spectacularly well managed from my point of view. Thanks to Alex for deftly sorting out the hotel bookings and transport, to Mal and Caroline and everyone else who masterminded the organisation of the day, and to Vince who looked after our fragile artistic egos during the signing. I’m sure that leaves out many people at BL who worked very hard, but all efforts were much appreciated.

With no brand-new releases on show this time, the actual signing portion of the day was pretty quiet for me this year, but that did give plenty of time to have a chat with those hardy souls who’d bought Sword of Justice or Iron Company. Thanks to everyone who came by to get a sig, or to comment on a book they’d read, or just to say hi. One guy said that Sword of Justice had actually rekindled his interest in Fantasy again, while plenty of people who enjoyed the book expressed a burning desire to find out what’ll happen in Part II. That was all very cool, and made those long nights hunched over the keyboard seem worthwhile.

I remain hugely impressed by – and slightly scared of – everyone who made the effort to dress up (particularly the Titan menials, who were all superb). And it was also good to put some faces to internet names, and to get re-acquainted with some readers I remembered from GD09. My sieve-like memory will no doubt let me down in the future, but I will try to remember names!

So, re-enthused and re-energised, it’s time to get back to the actual writing. Fenris calls!

Dealing with feedback

For anyone interested in writing and the issues that go along with it, I’d really recommend Mark Charan Newton’s blog. Mark’s a member of the BL team, but he’s also the author behind books such as City of Ruin for Tor, so knows what he’s taking about from both the author’s and the publisher’s point of view. I came across this post on reviews a while back, which gave me some food for thought.

As my current project progresses (slowly), I’ve naturally been keeping an eye on the reviews for Sword of Justice. Recently I posted a link for a blog review where the reviewer loved it; today, I came across one where the reviewer hated it. Like, really hated it – looks like he didn’t get very far into the book before giving up (which I guess raises its own questions, but hey). In the interests of balance, here’s the link.

It’s an interesting experience, trying to make sense of very different views on your work, particularly when there are some polarised opinions out there. It would be nice, perhaps, to be able to remain entirely detached and approach every bit of feedback with cool equanimity. Sadly, though I’m sure it indicates some kind of deep character flaw, I find it almost impossible to do – my instinct on reading a negative review is to become instantly defensive and try to find reasons why the criticisms aren’t fair. Of course, that’s not going to get you very far. Anyone who’s spent good money to buy a book has a right to say what they thought of it, and there are plenty of times where the criticisms pick out something that really has gone wrong.

So Mark’s post struck a chord with me. There’ll always be a spectrum of responses, and reading novels is an irreducibly subjective business – there’s no book written that hasn’t been hated by someone (and loved by someone too). The key thing is to try to take what you can from the reviews, and use them to make your stuff better. I guess the ultimate zen-like state to aspire to is when you can receive praise and brickbats in equal measure, taking on board the useful stuff from each.

In other news, much progress has been made on my latest 40K project. There’s a fair bit that’s ended up on the cutting-room floor, and there are some difficult episodes up ahead, but – thankfully – the halfway point looms…

Hard graft

I love my job. Really, I do – it’s an enormous privilege to be paid to tell stories about cool characters in the GW universes. But sometime the words don’t come easy, and the last couple of weeks have been a hard grind. I’ve been testing the patience of my editors with deadline slippage, which is never something that’s good to do (however, as ever, the support from BL has been fantastic). So, I’ve been getting my head down and wringing out the words every day this week, gradually shaping something like a story. Finally, I seem to be getting somewhere, and some recent edits have helped me see where I want to get to.

The key issue I’ve been grappling with is pace, the timing and placing of events within a novel. Black Library books are like Premier League games – they should be fast-paced and frenetic, matching the war-torn nature of their environments. But as the best recent BL novels have shown, that doesn’t mean they need to neglect the proper character and plot development that’s at the heart of all good novel-length stories. I’ve been reading a lot of the latest 40K and Heresy output to help me get immersed in the grimdark world of the far future, and I’ve got to say there’s some cracking stuff in the pipeline. It’s hugely inspirational – and also a high bar to match.

So, the work goes on. It’ll be worth the sweat and tears when the final product emerges. As I work my way into 40K, it’s been massively encouraging to see the warm reception Sword of Justice has got so far. Here’s a wonderful review from the Team Preston blog. I’ve been reading this blog for a while, and the guy knows his Warhammer, which makes a positive verdict all the more heartening.

Submissions window closing…

As I blogged previously, the Black Library is one of those rare publishers that actually look to give new writers a break. I should know – they gave me one. Their submissions window for 2010 is almost closed now, so you’ve only got about three weeks left before those synopses and summaries have to be in. In my experience, a lot of BL readers also have an interest in writing – you just have to look at the fiction sections of any of the forums (like the Bolthole, for instance) – so it’s great that the opportunities exist. So for anyone still working away on their submissions – good luck, make sure you read the guidelines carefully, and send it in on time!

As for me, I’m still working on getting to the mid-point of my next novel. Making the shift to 40K is interesting. It feels like there’s so much more lore and background detail to get on top of than Fantasy. That’s probably an illusion – I’m just much more familiar with the WHFB setting – but exploring all the gothic goodness of the 41st millennium (or, to be more exact, the 32nd millennium) is a huge, endlessly fascinating experience. At some point in the future I’ll be blogging about the unique challenges of writing for Russ’s feral sons, but for now I’m just keeping my head down and doing it.

In other news, there’s a nice review of Sword of Justice here. Good to read some balanced, thoughtful appraisal – something that’s always useful for an author. The vibe on the forums for the book has been pretty cool so far too. As ever, I’m always up for getting feedback from readers on here, so if you’ve read it and have something to say (good or bad), comment away…

How to get published by BL

I don’t have a lot to blog about at the moment regarding my own stuff. I’m immersed in all things Space Wolf at the moment, and enjoying every minute of it, but it’s a long time before any of that will see the light of day.

I’ve been thinking for a while about blogging on the craft of writing, and the things I’ve learned since starting out as a neophyte with BL. Gav Thorpe beat me to it, though, and as he’s been at this game a lot longer than me, I reckon it’s best to defer to experience. Good advice on that blog, there.

However, BL have recently changed their submissions policy. It used to be that the only way to get a commission from them was to be hand-picked by their roving talent scouts or win a place in the regular open anthologies. That appears to have changed now – there’s a submissions window for book proposals that currently runs from May to July – for more details, have a look at the guidance on the website.

Since the change, there’s been a fair bit of chat on the forums about what BL are after, and how you might improve your chances of picking up a commission. As someone who’s fairly new to this writing gig, and can still remember those first faltering steps, here are a few thoughts that might prove helpful.

Pitch

This is the most important bit of a novel proposal. It’s your sales pitch, the bit where you convince your editor that you’ve got something worth pursuing. People seem to get very hot under the collar about this, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what works here. My advice is to keep it short and snappy – think of it like a newspaper headline: you need to keep the editor interested, and stop him throwing the rest on to the slush pile. Don’t write it ‘in-style’, with all the verbiage you might out into your actual prose – strip it to the bare bones of the story. If you can’t do this in 500 words, are you sure you actually have a decent story? In essence, almost all plots are in pretty much the same format: The Marines Synopticon are really cool because of x, y and z; here’s what happens that places them in massive jeopardy; here’s how they address it using their unique characteristics, and what happens in the end. Try taking your favourite BL novel and giving in the synopsis treatment – what are the really basic story elements?

Synopsis

If you’re pitching a novel, BL are going to need reassurance you can sustain a story over 100,000 words. That means maintaining pace and structure, not letting the action flag, and getting the balance right between jeopardy and pauses for breath. Many fantasy writers got their first bug for writing from massive books like Lord of the Rings. Now, I’m as big a fan of that as the next guy, but it’s a terrible guide to writing tightly-plotted action-based fantasy/SF. If your chapter breakdown has large sections where the heroes are travelling from A to B (albeit with lovely descriptions of the lower Reik valley or the nebulae around the Eye of Terror), then you’re failing. Every chapter should advance the story in some way – there might be a decisive battle, or a revelation about a key character, or a major twist. If each of your chapters takes up a paragraph in the synopsis, think about what’s driving the story in that paragraph. If there’s nothing there except ‘The Marines Synopticon advanced slightly closer to the Planet of Death’, then it’s failing again.

Characters

The most important bit. Lots of fan-fic (which I often like a lot) gets this wrong. It assumes that we’re interested in the Marines Synopticon, whereas we’re actually interested in Brother Bolterhead of the Marines Synopticon. Tie-in fiction in the Warhammer world can give the impression it’s about types of warrior or unit. But that’s just the background – it’s characters that readers care about. Over the course of a book, your lead characters should be fully fleshed-out, and they should develop. A great example of this, and so much else, is Helsreach – read that to see how to draw differentiated characters, and how to show their progress as events march on around them. And then read it again, just because it’s awesome.

Technical stuff

Final thing – get your technical stuff right. That’s grammar, spelling, formatting, and fiction conventions. Some might say that this isn’t important, and that a good story can shine through ‘idiosyncratic’ delivery. They’re wrong. Having good grammar won’t ensure a good story, but having bad grammar will ensure a bad one. Learn how dialogue is formatted, how scenes are broken up, how punctuation works. It’s dull, but it’s essential. Only once you’ve got that down can you really start to play with style and find your own voice. That’s as true for your synopsis as it is for the full novel.

So that’s it – my lightning guide to pitching. Some of you might have read some of my books, of course, and seen how far short some of them have been of these goals (What, characters? In Masters of Magic?). Yeah, well, we all take time to learn these lessons. The only hope for any of us is to keep reading and keep working at it. But it’s a lot of fun, so good luck, and keep at it.