Thursday, 28 December 2006

The state of the art.

I try to do a blog a week on this site. Normally, Friday or Saturday, but I just realised that I will be away from my computer for the next three days. So instead of offering some deep and meaningful discussion of say the 'laws of physics in a world of magic' or whether three books really are better than two, I’m simply going to say where I'm at with my writing.

Being a full-time teacher with a commitment to teaching well (hey, you can only try) I find writing during term time quite difficult. My last really sustained bash at the final volume of the Lamb among the StarsThe Infinite Day was in August. However, in the last week, I've actually had about four full days writing. There were some interruptions: Christmas, church, family visits, none of which I either wanted to – or could – push to one side. Anyway, I have been getting along quite well. This stage of writing is a little bit like throwing a bridge across the chasm but only being able work from one side. You begin to wonder whether you are going to overshoot or undershoot. So far, I am on 144,000 words and have a limit of around 220,000. There is a lot to happen, but I know what's going on. Of course, editing can tighten up a book and we could lose perhaps 10% of what I've written. On the other hand with this being the final book in the series there are issues about ‘closure’ to do with characters. And one would like to slowly build to a climax, rather than race frantically towards it. But I definitely can't put in a whole new subplot.

What I find extraordinary is to think how people were able to do this before the word processor. They must have very carefully planned out where things were going to go. I find myself constantly slipping back a couple of chapters to insert in Chapter 8 some fact that we need to have in Chapter 20. Sometimes, I find myself going back to boost characters so that when they are required later, they don't appear from nowhere. I suspect someone, somewhere has done a scholarly work on the influence of the word processor on the way we write. I have a suspicion that our not-too-distant ancestors could craft perhaps a couple of long sentences or even an entire paragraph in their heads and then write it down. Personally, I struggle to come up with more than the rough draft of a sentence which I then play around with to make it sound right. Is this just me? And does it make books better or worse?

Anyway back to the text!

Friday, 22 December 2006

My problems with magic

One of the great problems I have as a writer is that of identity. When people ask me what sort of thing I write I often mutter, ‘well, fantasy’ or ‘science fiction’. (Actually I sometimes worry that I have slipped down the gap between the two terms. I have too much science for the fantasists who want the occult to ooze off every page and too much supernatural for the scientists who are desperately allergic to any hint of the paranormal. I think the phrase speculative fiction is much better, but it hasn't really caught on.) Anyway, one of the problems with using the word fantasy is that it is assumed that magic is a major element.

Now,I don't really do magic. There are no witches or benign wizards in my books. (Actually in Dark Foundations magic does occur, but it spectacularly backfires in a manner that I would like to think would get me undying praise (and purchases) from the Christian Right.)

But why don't I do magic? I have three objections; theological, scientific and literary. The theological objection is pretty mainstream; magic is manipulation and God is not a god who we can bend to our purposes. The scientific objection – and I am a scientist – the fact is that successful magic rarely occurs in this age of the world. God in his wisdom seems to me to have largely restricted its use: we are pretty much left with those forces governed by the so-called ‘laws’ of physics. And I think that is for our good. A world with magic set loose would be a pretty terrifying place for the weak.

My main objection however, is literary. For me, the problem of magic is that everything is possible. And if everything is possible, the one thing that is not possible is tension. In order to create tension, there must be some sort of resistance, some kind of challenge. And unless you make it (by creating laws of magic etc) there is no such resistance in worlds steeped in magic. In this way magic corrodes reality. Why plough fields to make crops when you can create bread by a spell? Why work to learn medicine when you can heal all ills with a whisk of the wand? Has anyone ever seriously considered the mechanics of say, Hogwarts? Why bother even learning when knowledge could presumably be instantly transferred by magic? Authors of such books get round this by creating various laws and rules of magic so that the very things the hero needs to do cannot be done magically. Consider Lord of the Rings. The Chris Walley Shorter Version has Gandalf turning up on page 20 or thereabouts and saying to Frodo: ‘You have a magic ring that needs destroying but I however have found the Famous Item Transporting Spell.’ And with a few arcane words and a wave of the wand, the ring is transported into the heart of Mount Doom. End of book. I think actually Tolkien realised that this was a problem. Have you noticed how rarely Gandalf uses magical powers? He is far more a prophet (in biblical terms) than a sorcerer. Interestingly, the same principle is at work with Superman, who because he can do almost everything, is actually far less interesting than some of the superheroes with inferior powers. So I don’t do magic. Or even the sufficiently advanced technology (such as matter replicators or transporters) that achieves the same purpose as magic.

As this is Christmas it might be worth pursuing these thoughts in a theological direction. In the Bible, the miraculous is really rather uncommon and when it does occur – it is rarely – if ever, ordered from below, as if it were magic. There are no good wizards in Scripture. The miraculous is only granted by God on his terms and in his time. I like to think that in being wary of magic I am in good company.

Have a good Christmas!

Friday, 15 December 2006

On epic fantasy sequences (again).

CSSF Blog Tour

This is very much an addition to a blog I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the problems of writing epic sequences. There I was concerned with the problems of writing such things but there is of course the whole dimension of actually finding a market for them. It seems to me that there are particular problems with the three, four or (heaven forbid) the even longer epic.

Marketing is a major factor here.
You have to get the reading public drawn in to a) buy the first volume and b) want the successor volumes. Yet here there are problems. Because the writer is setting out on a large-scale work, he or she needs to lay foundations in the first volume. But foundations, in the very nature of things, are not the most attractive subject. First volumes can sag (even Lord of the Rings has a very slow start) and this is bad news. How bad the problem is could be measured if we knew what the fall-off rate was from volume one to two and so on. I suspect it's pretty high; my guess would be that each volume sells 75% what its predecessor did. So you need pretty high Vol 1 sales! I also suspect that it's hard to revive a flagging epic. A great Vol 3 is hardly going to help slow sales of a rather dull Vols 1 and 2.

I also wonder whether publishers know what they are letting themselves in for. Now I have no intention of criticising publishers (I love Tyndale). But I can imagine that it is very easy to buy into the concept of a series without realising the implications. Trilogies etc are, like children and pets, a serious commitment. And curtailing them is a sad business. (See for example, the discussions about the news that
Kathryn Mackel's Birthright Project may be cut short two-thirds through the planned trilogy -- Just click the CSFF button above.)

I wish I had some idea of a solution for both readers, writers and publishers. One thought is that we write our epics as a series of standalone volumes so that if the concluding books are cancelled, we still have something worthwhile. The problem with it is that many themes just don't work on this basis. The heroic quest certainly doesn't.

One final thought on this difficult topic, here, as elsewhere, Tolkien stumbled on a winning formula. He wrote a popular standalone book (The Hobbit) and then 15 years later (if memory serves me right) submitted the completed trilogy of Lord of the Rings to Allen and Unwin. But even then, he had some massive support from folk like C. S. Lewis. And it still took years before it sold massively.

Maybe we need more books that aspire to be the Hobbit and less Lord of the Rings.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

On problems in writing science fiction and fantasy (with a Christmas link)

I have already touched on some of the issues in this general area but I was just writing something just now and a particular issue emerged which I thought I would share it. The sentence I was writing was this: “He gave the order and the man jumped to his feet as quick as….” As quick as what? As quick as… A rabbit? A speeding car? The recoil on a Strumback M31 battlelaser? In ordinary speech we use similes endlessly. ‘As thick as X,’ (our most disliked person); ‘as good-looking as Y’ (our current hero/heroine), ‘as strong as an ox’ (Hmm, when did you last see an ox?) But we use similes (and related metaphors) all the time and when we do we use imagery from the world about us. Our language reflects our world .

Now do you see the problem with dealing with the exotic cultures of fantasy? In my case, my character is a military man from worlds where there is very little in the way of nature. And with its loss, goes a whole range of imagery. He can't easily used words such as bird-like or tree-like. Of course, I could do something wacky, like 'as fast as a Jegerbanian rat' but you can't do it often and sometimes it comes over rather odd. What is rather alarming is the speed with which some of our imagery dates. ‘As fast as a Pentium’ sounds pretty pathetic now. How about ‘with Spitfire like’ speed? Even ‘watch-like complexity’ sounds a bit dated.

In this respect, future and fantasy cultures are much easier to deal with in film. We can see rather than be told. The good news about fantasy and science fiction is that it exposes us to strange and exotic cultures. The bad news is that it is sometimes hard to relate to them. I suspect it is this, amongst other things, that C. S. Lewis is referring to in a wonderful aside of his in an article whose location I have lost (reference please someone) about the importance of having ordinary people in science fiction/fantasy/ speculative fiction. He writes thus: ‘to have strange things happen to strange people is a strangeness too much.’ Here as elsewhere, I doff my metaphorical cap in utter agreement. Not just true, but elegantly expressed.

Now let me add a seasonal aside. As a Christian I believe that God, acted uniquely in human history in the events recounted in the Bible. Why then, some people ask, then rather than now? Is it perhaps, I answer, because the biblical cultures were so low down in the development of technology that their imagery is almost universal? Even if we personally have no experience of shepherds or carpentry we do not have to go too far back in our own culture to know what a shepherd or carpenter did. We must be very grateful that the Son of God did not become incarnate as a computer technician or a car mechanic: his words would have become incomprehensible within a generation.

Saturday, 2 December 2006

On the writing of epic fantasy

Large-scale fantasy epics spanning many books are pretty common these days. The temptation for budding writers and – believe me, I hear from a lot of you – is to write just this sort of thing. What I want to do here is to give a warning: be very careful about venturing on the longer and perilous road to Mount Doom (or wherever). Let me give you three reasons.

The first is that an epic saga of say 600,000 to 750,000 words is not simply a scaled up version of a 100,000 word novel. You don't just keep writing longer! The best parallel is in architecture. The novel is a house and the multi-volume epic a cathedral. To go from the first to the second is not simply a matter of scale. You need a much larger and more complex architecture. The saga needs to have a very different structure; with such things as a different pacing of high points and the relaxing and tightening of the plot. Rather like any traditional symphony, all the main components (the however many volumes there are) need to work separately. The practical implication is this: I don't really think you can just start writing with the intention of ending up with a satisfactory creation in a few years time. At very least sketch it out!

Secondly, staying with the architectural image; size of building is linked with depth of foundations. A single floor cottage can probably be constructed even on poor ground with very little effort. But a cathedral, with its great height and vast spans, must have deep and solid foundations. With the most successful epic tales you always get the feeling that you are walking into a real world with an existing, if largely untold, history. The reader must sense that were he or she to metaphorically tap the walls, they would ring hard and solid and were they to open the books on the shelves in the heroes library they would have facts and histories in them. This sort of foundational depth is probably not conjured up in weeks or even months. It is salutary to remember that the type example, Lord of the Rings, was fermented and matured for nearly 40 years in Tolkien's brain before it was completed and published.

Thirdly, because of these factors, you ideally need to do what the master did with Lord of the Rings and that is write it all and then go back and edit it. If you write and publish it volume by volume by the time it comes to the last book, with the previous books irrevocably published, you will find that the die is cast. You cannot now introduce major new characters, reveal that your hero is a diabetic or invoke hitherto unsuspected magic or acts of God. Your first pages determine your last.

That sounds like I know what I'm talking about. I'm not sure I do. But I'd wish I read the above a long time ago.