In Dreams Awake

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.

(Henry David Thoreau)

Thursday, 26 June 2014

A Leap of Courage

  In a Fantasy novel there's going to be some fighting. Maybe a pitched battle, maybe a riot, but there's nearly always physical conflict of some sort. In my work I try to show it as an ugly thing, which means a degree of realism. I remember that I'm telling a story, people don't want to see anything too graphic, but I also think of Saving Private Ryan and know there's a place for a certain amount of gore.

  In the real world we've come to disassociate war from its horror, to a large extent. We've all seen the images taken from cameras on aircraft, or tracking a missile to target, and they really do look like video games, all green flickers and numbers down the side of the display. It's the reverse of what the ancient Greeks did, in a world where warfare took place at a distance, in an exchange of arrows and stones. Greek warriors were farmers who couldn't be away from home for long, and their homeland was mostly mountains with few flat places, both of which factors contributed to their preference for close up, hand to hand fighting. This was a choice, not a last resort: it's how they wanted it. But it was a genuine transformation of warfare, because up close combat is visceral and personal, and it takes a leap of courage to brave it. An arrow is aimed at an area, but a swinging sword is meant to kill you, and you can see the eyes of the man who wields it. The awfulness of death is right in your face the whole time.

  In truth, war is still like that. So is suffering, for people in pain or hunger. In the Western world we rarely come closer to such things than a picture on a TV. They're far-off events, made impersonal by distance. Yet hundreds of thousands of people have died in Iraq over the past eleven years, many of them killed with knives or marketplace bombs. Tens of thousands have died in Palestine over recent years, either at Israeli hands or one another's. Perhaps more than two million have been killed in DR Congo during its long civil war, often hacked to death with machetes in the bloodiest conflict since World War Two. In those countries, and many more, war isn't a distant or impersonal thing, it's a horror that walks at your shoulder every day.

  I have an upcoming series called The Blessed Land, in which the battles are made very shocking. I do it deliberately, because part of the story addresses a group who trigger a war simply for their own interests, and I wanted to show what they caused as unflinchingly as I could. I'm also writing the TROY series, of course, which of necessity includes a lot of battle scenes; there's no way around that. But having written these stories, I want now to move away from it if I can. There are other ways to show conflict, other means of raising tension.

  It's very hard to think of a Fantasy novel that doesn't include armies in battle though. Guy Gavriel Kay's The Sarantine Mosaic makes a stab at it but does have some scenes. Mark Chadbourne manages it sometimes, Storm Constantine goes through much of the Magravandias series without it, and there are Peake's Titus books, but for each of them, there are dozens which revel in it. Anything by David Gemmell or David Eddings, Jordan's Wheel of Time, Lord of the Rings, most of Terry Brooks' Shannara stories... the list just keeps going.

  There's a place for battle in Fantasy, of course there is. I'm not saying I want to cut it out completely. But I want some of my books not to focus on it, or wallow in it. If I'm any good at all I ought to be able to create an intriguing plot through more subtle conflict. After all, as the countries I mentioned above show, there's quite enough war in the real world without us escaping to invented battles as well.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Back on the Path

  Hi everyone, and first of all an announcement. TROY: A Brand of Fire is now available via Smashwords, at So now you can find it in pretty much all online book stores and almost all formats. Just $0.99, too.

  OK, plug over, now onwards.

  I read out a sample of my work at the monthly authors' meeting at Barnstaple Library last Saturday (the 7th). It's the first time I've read in that group, and I picked a new piece - the opening of Kaprikorn - because it's a first draft, and still pretty raw. I thought I'd be better able to make changes as suggested than with a more developed piece.

  Well, that was a good call. The other writers liked it, generally, and some parts they thought were very good. But I still came in for some criticism - all of it deserved, too. Some of the (justified) comments were that the story starts too slowly, that the 2nd passage ought to be 1st, and that it's not immediately clear that Mani is the main character. People liked my use of language and my characters, but not the structure of the story.

  Someone once said that we write first drafts for ourselves, and only think of readers when we reach the second draft. Well, maybe. But I think writers often write for ourselves even when redrafting or editing. It's natural enough, since we spend so much time planning and writing on our own, that we'll listen to our inner voices more readily than we will to outsiders. Bit by bit other people's voices fade away, while our own remain clear. We end up losing sight of the goal.

  That goal is, of course, to publish a book that will sell at least reasonably well. Structure is very important in achieving that. What galls me a little is that I know it: I critique others in the Library group (constructively, I hope) on the same grounds. Throw the reader into the story from the first line, set up the dramatic tension right away. Simple things, but critical too, as important as cutting out adverbs and keeping a limit on your metaphors.  Writing isn't just about inspiration. It's about knowing how to put one word atop another and then another atop that, paragraph on paragraph, building the novel layer by layer.

  It's also about support. I'm late coming to that realisation, perhaps, because I've tended to think of authors as solitary folk - and we are, that's still true. But we're not entirely solitary folk. It does us good to meet up and chat, exchange experiences and triumphs, and commiserate over setbacks. At the same time we help remind each other that the fundamental things apply, and we can nudge each other back onto the path when our feet stray a wee bit from it.

  The guys at the Library are right, Kaprikorn needs to be reshaped. I can do it easily enough, I think I know how already (though TROY II has to be finished first). But without the honest advice of Rebecca, Michelle, Sue, Colin and all the others, I might not have seen it until so late that a total rewrite was needed. So thanks people, you saved me some work and you led me back out of some treacherous ground.

  It's good to have friends.