I came across a blog for writers that I hadn’t seen before – called Writer Unboxed. At present it’s featuring an interview with Joe Abercrombie on the craft of writing. I haven’t had the chance to read this yet, but it looks interesting.
This is quite an interesting post from the Moorcock Miscellany site regarding a book called Formulas for Now. It would be interesting to know what the actual formula for his books Cure for Cancer and Mother London are. Does this mean a plot outline, full planning for the novel or something a lot simpler? It’s really quite hard to tell and unfortunately the Thames and Hudson and Amazon sites don’t provide much further info.
A commonplace of advice for writers is to read lots of other books. But what books should you read and how should you read them in order to write better? You could take the approach of trying to read as much as possible of everything, as much as possible of the greats of literature, or perhaps just stick to your chosen genre (but sometimes getting together a list of Nazi zombie ghost stories can be tricky).
None of these approaches is really going to work very well. The best thing to do is to take the best from the best and learn how they did it and then try to apply it to your own writing. As all genres should have good plot, good characters, good dialogue etc then just sticking to your own genre for this is pretty daft. Getting a knowledge of the other writing in your chosen genre is important though, but more for seeing how others have dealt with ideas and concepts – i.e. you don’t want to go to a publisher with what you think is a neat idea about a dark lord who creates a ring of power etc (oh but this still does happen doesn’t it!)
This is where Francine Prose’s book is a lifesaver. In eleven themed chapters she covers all the vital aspects of fiction writing and shows brilliantly how some of the great writers have dealt with these areas. I particularly like how she starts with the smallest unit of writing, Words, and builds outwards to show how the nuts and bolts of language are important to get right, not just snazzy plots or great themes. She isn’t afraid to criticise them as well where necessary, for instance the way in which Dickens repeats characters’ gestures to signpost their identities for reader.
Her technique is to take passages from great writers to illustrate what makes good writing. She appreciates that no one way is right, but shows how great writers use language to put across their stories with greater power. For instance in the chapter on Sentences, she comments on the famous 181 word sentence from Virgnia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill” and how that sentence is perfectly comprehensible and readable because of the skill of the writer and how actually the words build upon each other creating a growing force because the sentence seems that its beautiful form will go on forever. In contrast she discusses these lines from Chandler’s The Big Sleep :
There was no fear in the scream. It had a sound of half-pleasurable shock, an accent of drunkenness, an overtone of pure idiocy. It was a nasty sound. It made me think of men in white and barred windows and hard narrow cots with leather write and ankle straps fastened to them.
She describes these as “wonders of snappy, outrageously excessive tough-guy prose”.
As well as being a good text for learning to write better, I also found this an inspiring book. Both in terms of wanting to hone my skills and also to investigate some of the writers I hadn’t heard of such as Henry Green or Scott Spencer.
One downside for me was that she doesn’t really deal with many genre writers in her examples. There are also moments when she uses the clichés found in really bad pulp SF writing to hammer the genre as a whole. This is a shame and perpetuates the unnecessary genre/mainstream battle that seems to be particularly popular at the moment.
Bayaz and his party venture to a new continent and across the steppe via ancient ruined cities looking for something that will defeat the rogue Magi who threatens the world. The most interesting part here is the development of the Luthar character and the relationship between Logen Ninefingers and Ferro. Say one thing about Logen Ninefingers, say he’s a memorable character.
In Angland Union forces fight against the invasion of Bethod’s forces. This chapters featuring this plot contain some excellent battle scenes and is probably my second favourite part of the book.
But probably the best features Glotka who arrives in Daroska to find out what happened to the last Superior and get the defences sorted out in preparation for attack by the Gurkish. He does well in pulling things into shape although he annoys the ruling council in the process. All the while he is worrying about his possible fate if he fails, providing his own commentary nearly everytime he speaks to another character. “Found floating face down in the docks” is how he imagines his death being reported if he puts a foot wrong with his superior, Arch Lector Sult.
All in all a good book and a good read, but not sure if it was all really necessary in the grand scheme of things.
Why do I feel like this? Well I don’t know him personally, but you can tell that he has got a wicked and subtle sense of humour and a great way with words. In many ways his books are standard fantasy fiction fare. The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie is the first part of a trilogy for instance and is a fairly weighty tome. The book is set in a world with a mix of medieval and colonial era style settings. The main country featured is the Union, which is very much like Great Britain – a number of separate nations brought together with colonial aspirations to the north in Angland and to the south in a city called Daroska which is very much like the Raj in India or maybe an outpost in the Arabian Gulf.
The plot is constructed so that we follow the character arcs of the main characters and how they fit into a larger narrative that is made up of world events. In The Blade Itself this larger narrative is about the threat to the Union from the king of the Northmen, Bethod, and also the dangers posed by a rogue magi, Khali. However, its really the individual character narratives that provide most of the interest and I think this is where Abercrombie raises his work above the humdrum of regular fantasy concerns.
Abercrombie’s narrative switches between a number of viewpoint characters, most of which have been constructed well. Probably my favourite of these is the Inquisitor Glotka, once a dashing cavalry officer and now a cynical and very funny secret policeman. His scenes are definitely the best in the book. Other characters such as Logen Ninefingers and Jezal Luthar work well too and you can see how they are all going to come together eventually in a satisfying conclusion to the first book. The Blade Itself however is definitely not a stand alone book. In the best traditions of fantasy trilogies it is just getting things started, by the end of the book we have all our heroes pretty much together and ready to set out on an important quest.
This sounds a bit clichéd, but you ignore that because of Abercrombie’s earthy and descriptive style. This is what he really excels at and its what keeps you reading and basically enjoying nearly every page. This is definitely muddy fantasy in the best traditions of something like the Warhammer game, where warriors are scarred, swear constantly and life is cheap and muddy and deadly. But Abercrombie doesn’t write with a blunt instrument like some other British fantasy writers do, such as Stan Nicholls or James Barclay. His descriptive powers really make you feel like you’re there tramping through wet woodlands or watching as Glotka hauls his crippled leg up yet another flight of stairs.
Here’s a paragraph that shows this quite well:
“The gorge was deep. Very deep with sheer, rocky sides. Here and there a tree clung to a crack, growing out into the empty air and spreading its leaves into space. The river hissed away far below, fast and angry, foaming white water fringed by jagged black stone. That was all bad, for sure, but the real problem was closer to hand. The big Shanka was still with him, swinging gently back and forth with its dirty hands clamped tight around his left ankle.”
Abercromie uses sound as well as sight to describe the scene, but he also supplies the viewpoint character’s opinon: ‘very deep’ the gorge seems, and ‘all bad’.
I think my only reservation would be the setting. We have seen it all before, but the way Abercrombie tells it makes it fun and exhilarating, but having only started reading the second book I’m not sure if it will ultimately prove to be a let down in the grander scheme of things. The style at the moment is winning over the feeling that there is a lack of substance to it all. I would also have to say that some of the minor characters are real clichés. There is the pathetically weak old king of the Union, the evil barbarian king etc. Although there’s nothing unrealistic about these characterisations on their own, they do feel a bit hollow when set against the main characters of the story. But then I perhaps shouldn’t complain as the story isn’t about these other characters anyway.
Baudolino by Umberto Eco
As a reader of this text I feel like I am in the middle of a postmodern laboratory experiment. For this set of clinical trials the Eco research unit is testing the application of intertextuality theory to the comic novel, having undergone two previous trials that I know of on the murder mystery – The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. The subject of these earlier excellent novels leant itself well to the fictionalisation of Eco’s main theme of the interpretation of truth. This latest novel, with its comic tone does not succeed as well.
The book (or perhaps I should say text?) centres on the character of Baudolino, a poor peasant boy catapulted to the court of Frederick Barbarossa, the German Holy Roman Emperor in the twelfth century. He rises on the basis of his own wits and ability to tell a tall tale to become Frederick’s adopted son and a key advisor. As such he finds himself connected with a number of the key events of the age and in particular the legend of Prester John, the Christian King who was supposed to live to the East beyond the lands of the Muslims. The book revolves around the search for this king. The theme of the book, however, is the main driving force of the narrative. Truth, its interpretation, its fabrication, its composition in texts and the metaphysical and scientific nature of it are at the heart of Baudolino.
As mentioned above truth also formed the theme of Eco’s other fictional works. Umberto Eco’s day job is as a Semiotician, a postmodern study of signs. His work is concerned with how perceived truth is constructed by texts. This interest seems to have become the raison d’etre for writing this novel. Unfortunately it takes away too much from the plot of the book and the actual narrative connected with the characters. Baudolino himself, the main character, is interesting and he certainly experiences enough events. However, the author rarely keeps his narrative sharp enough and connected enough to drive the story forward with tension. The book reads like one of those dull medieval travel books which recounts a series of remarkable events, but with no unifying theme to connect them. Only twice in the book are there moments of real tension, which were hinted at early in the book. Unfortunately Eco does not use his narrative skills to keep these going through the rest of the story.
I was looking forward to reading this book as I had really enjoyed The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, partly because of their setting and themes, but mostly because Eco was a good storyteller. For some reason he seems to have left his fiction writing skills at the door on this one. This experiment has failed.
Paprika  is another one of those Crazy Japanese Anime, but this time with more of an urban setting, reminiscent of some contemporary Japanese horror but with a lighter touch. In a way it seemed like a film version of something like Watchman in style and tone – quite sinister but funny as well.
The story is about a device called the DC mini which allows the recording of dreams and thus the ability for therapists to help their patients by sharing the dreams of their patients. However, the device is still in development and things go quickly wrong and surreal when one of the maverick scientists working on the device steals it.
The eponymous heroine of the film, Paprika, is an alter ego of one of the other characters, and is involved in the treatment of the police officer responsible for tracking down the missing device.
As the film rapidly progresses, its quite short, the divide between reality, dream and fiction becomes very confused and blurred. I enjoyed the film and would definitely watch it again – lots of thought-provoking moments and some good jokes.
Here’s the trailer:
I, Claudius is well-known to the modern reader for its evocation of ancient Rome and its terrible cruelty and vice. Brought to a wide audience by the BBC mini-series, the book is the most famous historical novel dealing with the period. The book is meticulously researched and conjures up a picture of Rome and its principal characters that at once seems real and allows the modern reader to understand. The author Robert Graves was an expert in the ancient world. Principally Graves was a poet, but he also excelled as a scholar of myth, Greek myth in particular. His research of the historical period and its culture appears to the lay-reader to be first class.
The book deals with the murderous family history of the Claudians and their relatives which gave Rome its first emperors starting with Augustus through to Claudius himself and his nephew Nero. The degree of cruelty and vice is almost incomprehensible to the modern reader especially as the book was written before the horrors of the second world war. The main character is the narrator Claudius who is also positioned as the writer of the book, having wished to leave a testament of his times to the readers of the future, in perhaps nineteen hundred years time. The unlikely hero narrates the story of the rulers of Rome from his grand-uncle Augustus down to the end of his mad nephew Caligula’s reign. The style is very much as if the book were a work of history with only the occasional descriptive passage of events witnessed by Caligula or dialogue that involves him. In an early commentary on this style Claudius compares the history writing of Livy, who was fond of creating speeches for his historical characters, and Pollio who would only recount the facts. Claudius’s method is to follow Pollio in style.
As a reader this was not what I expected. I had vague memories of the TV drama and was expecting an exciting and in-depth novelisation of the times rather than a faux-history. The book lacked immediacy for me because of the narrative construct, although I can’t fault Graves’s commitment to historical veracity (although he pushes hard his speculation that Livia, Claudius’s grandmother, was the power behind the throne for most of this period). As a novel the book didn’t stand-up well.
I have now published a page for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at my Stupor Mundi website.