Monday, 27 July 2015

The Decline and Rise of Mankind

There are two competing approaches to the state of mankind in Greek mythology. Basically, things are either gradually degrading and getting worse, or civilisation is improving the world.

The Golden Age, as Hesiod wrote, was a real concept in ancient myths, based on a blessed age of mankind when there was no war, the climate was splendid and food plentiful. Mankind then progressed through the Silver and Bronze Ages, ending with the Heroic and Iron Ages (Iron being current for Hesiod, writing about two and a half thousand years ago). In short, everything’s deteriorating over time.

However, there is a directly opposing perspective. Namely that mankind is civilising the world, and that as civilisation progresses so everything improves. There are a huge number of Greek myths related to monster-slaying, effectively taming the relics of vicious antiquity and making safe lands previously plagued by chimeras, the hydra and so on.

Have to admit I had to check this on Wikipedia, but another aspect could be technology. Prometheus was punished by Zeus for giving fire (technology/knowledge) to mankind, and some say this ended the initial Golden Age. By chance, Prometheus is also sometimes associated with Lucifer, and the knowledge of fire equated with eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. So, the ending of the Golden Age and the exile from Eden could be directly comparable or (if you choose to view things this way) even the same event.

The idea of industry as a bad thing is no stranger in fantasy either. The iconic images of Saruman having the trees torn down are pretty unambiguous, as is his treatment of the Shire (at the end of the book, the films take another path).

On the other hand, Red Country (by Joe Abercrombie) has new technologies advancing warfare and other spheres, and the opening up of new country as civilisation expands to reclaim land lost by a fallen/declining empire.

The idea of fading magic being gradually surpassed by improving technology is not a new idea in fantasy, but the deterioration/improvement of the world as entropy and progress clash is an interesting idea to explore.


Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Perseverance is King

There are many challenges to writing (as well as delightful moments), but perhaps the most difficult is the will to persevere, especially with the first book.

Self-doubt racks many writers. Writer’s block can be a problem for some as well.

Remember that the first draft isn’t meant to be a polished shiny diamond you can present to the world. It’s a roughly hewn lump of rock. The first draft is just about hacking the damned thing out of the earth (a good description I read somewhere or other was that the first draft is when an author tells him/herself their story).

Just keep going. If you can’t write a lot, write a little each day. You can improve the writing quality, expand upon some sections and cut others during redrafting.

About halfway into the first draft might be the most difficult time, especially for a first story. Initial enthusiasm has been whittled away, and the light at the end of the tunnel is barely visible. If you’ve written something before, just remember you probably felt this way then, and you got it done. And if you did it before, you can do it again. If it’s your first, remember that most writers go through an awkward phase when they’re far from the beginning and far from the end.

Redrafting might seem lovely or might seem horrid, but it’s vital to spend the necessary time cutting the chaff and allowing the wheat to shine forth. It’s usually a good idea to get some objective people to act as beta readers, and to take account of their views (if a beta reader points out a flaw you can correct it. If a reviewer points out a flaw it’s there forever, and even if you amend an e-book the review remains up).

Writing novels is a marathon, not a sprint. Just keep on going. Don’t be afraid of walking very slowly when times are tough. Slow progress is infinitely better than no progress.

Perseverance is the single most important quality for a writer. More than marketing ability, more than writing ability, more than being best friends with editors of major magazines/papers. If you give up, nobody will ever read your book. So, keep buggering on.


Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Planned Versus Spontaneous Writing

It’s not a binary choice between planning and spontaneity so much as a spectrum, and there are advantages and disadvantages to writing in either way.

If you’ve got a very complex plot it can be easy to lose your way, even with planning. On the other hand, if you’ve got a simpler, single focus approach (such as Sir Edric) then spontaneity is easier to handle. Making stuff up as you go along can seem to save time (on planning) but it can also mean you spend more time redrafting (it’s important to get the storyline right first time, because correcting that takes ages. Improving writing quality or adding/cutting scenes is relatively simple, provided scene changes don’t alter the storyline).

The real advantage of spontaneity is that you can bring things out of left field, and instead of writing (even loosely) to a plan you’re writing in a more natural, less mechanical way.

Temple was the most spontaneous book I’ve ever written. I knew the premise and the final scene, and just about everything in between was made up as I went along (here and there I had vague ideas, but no more than that). This led to a not necessarily efficient or even use of time. Excepting one scene added later, I wrote chapter three in an afternoon. Chapter four took me something like a month (I massively rewrote it twice, completely changing the personality of one ‘guest’ character, and altering the identity of the second twice). That said, The Tower of Uz-Talrak remains one of my favourite chapters, and is proof that, even if you’re very dissatisfied with your initial attempt, redrafting can make a huge difference. If the basic storyline works, everything else can be polished after the first draft.

Journey to Altmortis was more planned. I had a brief outline of each chapter, using bold and underlining to ensure I had sufficient points of excitement and plot development (or both) throughout. Whilst I did deviate from the plan, particularly adding more scenes after the first draft, the finished story is very similar to the plan.

Kingdom Asunder (not yet released) is the first part of a trilogy, and presented a new challenge for me in that it has to work by itself, but also as part one of three. So, the end had to be both a conclusion, and open-ended enough for more story to occur. It reminded me of the first corner in an F1 race (you can’t win the race at the first corner, but you can definitely lose it).

I think it’s important not to nail everything down, and not to ignore a good idea that springs to mind because it wasn’t in The Master Plan. In Sir Edric’s Kingdom (not yet released), one chapter ended up being enormous, so I cut it into two. Likewise, one chapter’s pacing seemed a bit off, so I added a small scene which ended up including a reasonably significant character who made subsequent appearances in several chapters.

At the same time, knowing where you’re going enables you to write in such a way that can foreshadow future events, or exacerbate tragedy/comedy when you come to the climax. In short: it helps avoid the hell that is deus ex machina.

Temple was the most enjoyable book I’ve ever written, but the process was so slow and haphazard I can’t write like that for stories of any real size. A little planning, for me, does a lot to speed up the writing, and a plan can always be deviated from (or occasionally ignored). It’s very much a subjective matter, though, with no one rule that fits all writers.