Friday, 22 May 2015

Things to do in writing

Following on from the last post about stuff to avoid in writing, here’s some stuff to do.

Copy Julius Caesar. As we all know, Hannibal was a far greater soldier than Julius Caesar, but the Roman chap was praised by Cicero for his use of vocabulary. Essentially, Caesar used words that almost everyone knew but which they didn’t use all the time. This meant people could understand what he wrote (just as well, as the dictionary wouldn’t be invented for over one and a half thousand years) but the words he used still had some novelty value.

Enjoy yourself. The more you enjoy the work, the happier you’ll be and the easier/better the writing will be. If you’re not enjoying what you’re writing, consider what would make it better and whether a reader would like to read it.

Proofread. Proofreading is the leg day of writing. But friends don’t let friends miss leg day. Even if it’s hateful and belongs in the ninth circle of hell. The odd typo in 100,000 words or so can be forgiven, and they do crop up with even the best of writers. But if someone downloads a sample or buys your book (especially if self-published) and the first page is alphabet spaghetti, the first impression you’re making is not a good one. If you absolutely despise it and aren’t good at it, you can hire someone for this. Personally, despite loathing it, I prefer to do it myself (I’d be livid if I paid someone and there was so much as a comma out of place).

Start and finish strongly. The start can dictate whether the book is bought. The end will have a very large impact on how the book’s received (it’ll be the last impression the reader has of that story). Primacy and recency are well-known psychological factors which mean people tend to remember the first and last things more than stuff that happens in the middle. Start and finish strongly.

Cut, cut and cut again. Generally, writers have a lot of fat to slice off their work. It increases pace, reduces tedium, allows more story-stuff to happen [in relative terms] and improves the writing in just about every way. There are exceptions [I usually have to add stuff, but I’ve only encountered one other writer who has this unusual approach], but by and large chopping off bits here and there is the way to go.

Avoid over-working. I mean this in terms of both never taking a break and having too many projects on the go at once [you’ll discover for yourself what you can manage with full-scale books, novellas, short stories, beta reading and so on]. When writing a first draft, I often take one day off (at least from that work-in-progress) after finishing a chapter. Striking the balance between a strong work ethic and avoiding a ridiculous amount of projects/deadlines is important.

Coming next: some early thoughts on The Witcher 3.


Sunday, 17 May 2015

Things to avoid in writing

Below is a short list of stuff to be avoided (in general terms, not absolutely) when writing fiction.

Suddenly/unexpectedly. Ironically, these two words rob their meaning from any sentence they start. If you tell the reader a sudden thing is about to occur, the thing [when it does occur] is no longer sudden.

Adverbs. Adverbs are words like ‘swiftly’ or ‘desperately’. They don’t have to be avoided altogether (particularly in speech) but overusing them is a sign you’re getting the nouns/verbs wrong. If you use ‘hobbled’ you don’t need to point out the walking action is taking place ‘slowly’. The verb ‘yearned’ indicates the character ‘desperately’ wants something. [However, adverbs can be used for comic effect**, but still shouldn’t be overdone].

Names that are impossible. In fantasy/sci-fi there can be a temptation to have names which are highly original, which can make them bloody hard to read, let alone pronounce. It’s just annoying for the reader (although you could give such characters a sensible nickname).

Unnatural dialogue. “I had a shock encounter today. I was walking in town when I bumped into Nicola Sturgeon, who is the First Minister and also leader of the Scottish National Party.” Unlike Ed Miliband, your characters need to be able to speak human, even when conveying information to the reader.

The Never-Ending Sentence. Generally, short sentences are better. They’re simpler, easier to understand, and put across a greater sense of pace. Reading a book should be as easy and relaxing as listening to music. [Except for when you’re having innocent people brutally murdered, obviously**].

Don’t be precious. Your work isn’t the One Ring, and you’re not Gollum. Everything anyone writes is riddled with imperfections and room for improvement. Of course, you don’t have to act on everything a beta reader says (especially when two beta readers have diametrically opposing opinions on the same sentence. Or chapter) but you should consider every comment they make. The odds on the first draft being the finished product are bloody long.


Monday, 11 May 2015

No King Required

When putting together the political structure of a fictional country, the default setting for fantasy is a kingdom, for obvious reasons. People know, more or less, what a kingdom is and how it works. But history does furnish us with some other interesting forms of government/inheritance that could be of use in fantastical writing.

One of the most unusual, which I read about in Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies, was the system used by Montenegro prior to the end of World War One (when it got shafted by Serbia and was betrayed by its allies, sadly including the UK). The country was ruled by a prince-bishop. Not only that, the nephew of the ruler was the chap who inherited. That sounds very odd, but it does have an advantage. The ruler’s brother will not seek to claim the throne, because his son will inherit. The ruler’s son will not, but his son might. The zig-zag, as it were, inheritance could actually be more stable than the more obvious eldest son model used in traditional monarchy.

Rome’s emperor was often the son of his predecessor, but this was never the case during the Golden Age of Imperial Rome. From Nerva to Marcus Aurelius (who buggered it up by letting his psychopathic son Commodus get the job, after Lucius Verus) the emperor adopted an heir. It worked rather well. This period saw an end to the civil wars that had preceded and would succeed it, and the extent of the empire grew to its largest size.

Reincarnation is used to determine the Dalai Lama. It can take a few years for the successor to a departed Dalai Lama to be found. The People’s Republic of China (which is in control of Tibet, of course) has stated that it has supreme authority on the selection of the next Dalai Lama, which may make things rather messy.

A slight twist on monarchy is the diarchy (two kings). In a small way, England had this in 1689 when King William and Queen Anne were both monarchs in their own right. However, Sparta had two kings as a matter of course. Naturally, there’s scope for regal rivalry, but it also enables supreme authority to be in two places at once (as per the two consuls of Rome).

My knowledge of Renaissance Venice is not fantastic, but the power of the Doge and its shadowy council of wealthy chaps [not its official title] was significant. The Doge Enrico Dandolo was instrumental in the Fourth Crusade attacking Byzantium, which had the short term impact of improving Venice’s power significantly, and the long term impact of bringing down the Eastern Roman Empire and allowing the Ottomans to overrun half of Europe. The Doge was elected but usually served for life, although his executive power was diminished later on. Wealthy individuals formed a sort of aristocracy within Venice, and they had the real power for much of the republic’s life (it ended with Napoleon’s conquest).

The Ghibellines and the Guelfs [which sound a shade Red Dwarf] were the supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, respectively. Centuries ago, the Pope was not merely a spiritual leader, but one who also held temporal power. For a time, the Pope also had a dominant moral position, approving (or not) marriages and playing a critical diplomatic role to foster peace (or not) in Europe. The Pope was, as now, chosen by the college of cardinals.

So, there we are. A mixture of gaining power through election, inheritance, adoption and reincarnation, and roles that mingle the spiritual with the temporal. There’s nothing wrong with kings, but other supreme leadership roles are available.


Saturday, 25 April 2015

Review: Sallust: Catiline’s War, the Jugurthine War, Histories

Just finished this relatively short book (165 pages, discounting notes and the introduction). It’s cut into three pieces: Catiline’s War, the Jugurthine War, and the fragmentary Histories, with the Jugurthine War being considerably longer than the other two (which is fortunate, as it’s also the most interesting).

Sallust wrote of events in the late 2nd century and first half of the 1st century BC. At this time the Roman Republic had utterly destroyed their feared enemy Carthage, and, with it, had begun the process of dissolving Roman virtue in arrogance and prosperity excessive to the point of luxury.

Sallust’s writing has a fatalistic, doomed feeling to it (not unlike the general sentiment of Battlestar Galactica). He writes of a Rome that’s master of the world, but whose leading lights have become haughty with the people and susceptible to luxury (which makes them open to bribes and corruption, to the detriment of the commonwealth). At the same time, the masses have sunk into timid obedience, their tribunes shorn of power at the hands of Sulla.

Given what happened later that century, it has a prescient undertone.

I had some knowledge of the Jugurthine War beforehand, thanks to Gareth Sampson’s The Crisis of Rome, but none whatsoever of either Catiline’s War or the Histories.

Catiline’s War essentially casts Catilina as a conspirator villain, and Cicero [at this time consul] the heroic fellow who defeats him. It’s a fairly concise episode depicting Rome’s descent into vice. I had a little difficulty getting into it (lots of names, most of whom I’d never heard of and found it a bit tricky recalling who was who).

The Jugurthine War is a little longer, and tracks the remarkable career of Jugurtha, exemplary soldier, fratricidal war-monger, betrayer and king. This very enjoyable episode also includes important characters from Roman history, particularly Gaius Marius (who eventually defeated the Cimbri and was married to the aunt of Julius Caesar) and Sulla (who served as Marius’ deputy during the war, but later came into conflict with him). Jugurtha was notable for enjoying some success bribing the Roman Senate to ignore his fratricide and seizure of Numidia (not a Roman possession at this point, but a Roman ally).

The Histories are in fragments, several of them complete letters, others much shorter. It seems to cover a later period than Catiline’s War, with opposing sides addressing the Senate, and an interesting final letter, which was written by Mithridates to the King of Parthia.