Reflections on fantasy, SF, writing, music, technology, life…

Solitude, coffee, music: Ian Rankin on how he writes

As mentioned before a while ago, I am a big fan of Ian Rankin, the Scottish crime fiction writer. Therefore I was fascinated to read this article by him in The Guardian about how he writes:
Ian Rankin: ‘Solitude, coffee, music: 27 days later I have a first draft’

I found particularly interesting his different approaches to the first, second and third drafts of his novels and that he does not research too much early on.

Incidentally, his taste in writing music matches mine pretty well, as does his need for solitude and coffee… I live in hope of emulating some of his success!

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Emotional truths in the history-based novel’s characters

This article on the challenges of writing a historical novel that has characters true to their time caught my eye. While it is not directly SF or fantasy related, it has some useful insights in developing characters that reflect the culture and society in which they live. This not only applies to historical fiction but also fantasy and SF set in thee past but also is relevant whenever the story is set, be it present day, near or distant future, on Earth or out in space.

Emotional Truths and Historical Lies in the Shadow of the Great War

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Review: “Self-editing for Fiction Writers”

Late last year I made the decision to undertake a proper edit of my first novel, “Rose In Winter”, which has waited in the twilight zone between second or third draft for over a year. To help me tackle this, my family gave me two books on editing for Christmas. The first, reviewed here, is “Self-editing for Fiction Writers – How to edit yourself into print” by Renni Browne and Dave King, both professional editors.

I think it is fair to say I have learnt something useful from each chapter. These are:

    Show and Tell
    Characterisation and Exposition
    Point of View
    Dialogue Mechanics
    See How it Sounds
    Interior Monologue
    Easy Beats
    Breaking Up is Easy to Do
    Once is Usually Enough

As someone who has struggled with writing natural sounding dialogue and with finding the unique voice for the different characters, I suspect those two sections will be the most useful but the tips and all the chapter summaries have proved their value already.

Strongly recommended if you are having problems with editing!

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Excellent Scrivener template to help start that novel

As long-time readers of ‘Nightspore’ will know, I have been a fan of Scrivener writing software for quite a while now and find it an invaluable writing tool.

I did struggle a bit when I first started using the software because of the scope of what it does.

What would have helped me start “Rose In Winter”, my first novel (previously I had stuck to short stories), is a template that did more than just help format the final output and provide buckets for research etc. Although Scrivener’s storyboarding and synopsis tools are very powerful, there is much more that can be done with it if one knows where to start.

Impatient to get going, I took a “let’s start writing” approach which has since proved to be bit of a problem as I had not worked out enough of the plot and structure for my novel and had almost nothing beforehand on the characters. It all just “grew” – I am now trying to sort out the unholy mess by developing character outlines and breaking the story down into five (possibly more) novelette / novella length sections.

Last week, while browsing the Online Writing Workshop‘s Discussion Forum I finally found that “starting a novel” template tool I needed. OWW member Caroline Norrington has developed just the answer.

As well as manuscript parts for ‘just typing your novel’ she has included detailed instructions and ‘fill in the blanks’ elements for the conventional three act structure, semi-structured plotting, scene building and a wealth of material around developing characters (which I really wish I had found a year or two ago!). Also, of particular interest to fantasy and SF writers but useful for any novelist, there are sections on ‘world-building (such as cultures and geiography) and other research.

As if this was not enough, there is also a section on producing your final output in paperback novel format or as an e-book, complete with instructions on how to include cover art-work.

Rather than include the template here, I encourage you to read Caroline’s article about the template on her website. Not only will this have her latest version (I understand her template is being refined at the moment) but there are also screenshots and more information about what the template covers.

Highly recommended!


The interactive future of e-books goes mainstream?

The Observer today (Sunday 10 March 2013) has an interesting article on the future of publishing – Top novelists look to ebooks to challenge the rules of fiction – looking at how ebooks can facilitate an interactive story.

It is unfortunate that the article starts with the usual “downer” on fantasy novelists, a set of comments worthy of the “How Others See Us” section in Dave Langford’s Ansible. Why wouldn’t a fantasy or SF author use such tools? We tend to be in the vanguard of new technology yet get sneered at whenever mainstream “literary” (read subtext = “good”) novelists finally catch up.

Rant over – the article is still worth a read.


500 words a day

I have just finished the first draft of my first novel. Phew! Up to now, I have only written short and novelette length stories and had a real challenge over trying to develop an idea to novel length.
The method I used to do this, after having struggled for 18 months to get 19k words (or a third of the way) into my first novel attempt, was to use what the Fantasy Faction site refers to as “The Brandon Sanderson Method”: put simply, write a minimum of 500 words a day, every day. Without fail. No excuses.
For me, having a goal and a commitment to finish was essential. I had put the 19k so far and the outline, plus research, into Scrivener. Drafting in Scrivener gave me an update on the overall word-count each day and I tracked my progress over nine weeks that saw me complete the first draft of all thirty chapters to produce just over 60k words.
The discipline was important. Some days I sat at the laptop at close to midnight, trying to get up to my 500 words when previously I would have stopped and gone to bed. Other days, I was well over the minimum with no problems.
Writing every day kept the story fresh in my mind. No “Oh, I’ll leave it for today” becoming a week then a month or two! It also helped that I had a chapter by chapter outline prepared early on and set up in Scrivener so if one bit didn’t work I could go forward or backward and work on some otnher part.
Now all I have to do is revise it! (Oh, and develop the outline of a couple of follow-on stories… and outline another novel idea I want to work on for my next 500 words a day project.)
I could be busy…

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Ian Rankin on writing

The “First Fictions” weekend at Sussex University kicked off with an interview with Ian Rankin by local thriller writer Lesley Thomson. Given the theme of celebrating and championing first novels, past and present, Rankin read an extract from “Summer Rites”, his first novel. A black comedy with some fantasy elements, set in a hotel in Perthshire, it is unpublished (and, he says, will remain that way).

He also spoke about his early attempts to write, his first Rebus novel, the first Malcolm Fox novel and his first graphic novel (200 pages, four frames per page and which required at least a page of text per frame so he wrote about a 1,000 pages – so much more than a conventional novel).

When he started his “aim was to be a Scottish literary author not a crime writer” – he did not read crime fiction. He wrote his first three novels while doing (or instead of writing) his uncompleted PhD thesis on Muriel Spark. (Apart from “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” he highlighted that he liked “Loitering With Intent” which is about writers.)

In responding to questions about how he writes, Rankin made it clear he does not fall into the disciplined, timetable writer model. He works better with a deadline. “If my days are loose and baggy I can’t write, when I had a job I got more done.” With time allocated to writing he “did research: reading the paper, watching TV or DVDs – it’s all research!”. He noted that he “writes best in the afternoons and evenings” and although he had written some 20 to 25 novels “it isn’t getting any easier”.

In talking about the structure of a crime novel (crime / start; investigation / middle; resolution / end) he noted a significant difference between American and British audiences. “American readers are impatient. They want a murder on page one and a firm resolution at the end. In the UK you can have a more ambiguous ending.” He noted that one of his Rebus novels (I didn’t catch which one) has an additional chapter written for the US edition, specifically to address this. (Rankin is not the first author I have heard comment on this. Christopher Priest’s excellent novel “The Glamour” would only be published in the US after a rewrite of a lovely, challenging and ambiguous ending in the UK first edition.)

On being asked his writing tips he summarised these as:
– write every day: as good discipline and to keep the story and characters fresh in your head
– read a lot, write a lot
– don’t be afraid of criticism: read what they say but don’t react to everything
– don’t change your style just to fit to fashion
– get lucky, stay lucky!
– stick at it.

As an aside, I was lucky to get a chance to speak to Ian after his interview and in talking about living in South West France (he lived for a while in the north-east of the Dordogne while I am in Lot) he mentioned liking our local Cahors red wine! Good endorsement!


Novel series – what works? what doesn’t?

For relaxation, as well as fantasy and SF, I tend to devour thrillers and crime novels.  It is always a joy to stumble onto a new series and explore the world the author created for the characters over a period of time.

Recently, some series that worked for me include Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium / Dragon Tattoo” trilogy and Philip Kerr’s “Berlin Noir” series about PI Bernie Gunther and which are set in 1930’s and 1940’s Germany.  Series that haven’t worked so well for me include Jo Nesbro’s “Harry Hole” novels and Karen Rose’s “romantic thrillers” (a new sub-genre for me!).

That is not to say I disliked the latter two series nor imply I could not read them, I just found them less satisfying, particularly over a number of novels.  This started me wondering about what worked and what didn’t when an author is producing a series of novels.

Nesbro’s work suffers from the publisher’s blurb calling him the “new Larsson”.  He is not – apart from being a Scandinavian author.  His characters and setting have more in common with, say, Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, police investigation of crime, rather than Larrson’s journalist-focused thrillers.  Unfortunately, with Nesbro’s world the part that really bugged me is Harry Hole, his main character.  A near-alcoholic who keeps relapsing after being on the wagon for half a novel, Hole is intensely frustrating to follow – I feel like screaming at him to “get a grip”.

I have  a different problem with Karen Rose’s novels.  Her novels do have a number of strengths. Beyond the common-or-garden serial killers that are the antagonists in the early novels, she tackles difficult subjects, such as the aftermath of gang rape, child abuse, white-slavery and under-age prostitution from the point of view (PoV) of the victims.  These are, I feel, handled well, and make her stories interesting and not run-of-the-mill.  She works effectively in Greg Iles territory. She brings in new characters to provide PoV in each novel but characters from earlier in the series pop back up and one finds out what happens to them after their (always traumatic) experiences that were the focus of a prior novel.

The problem for me is in the structure and predictability of her novels.  She has a template: there is a “hero” and a “heroine” who provide most of the PoV narrative, there is a “bad guy” who crosses their path and makes life hell until the final scene.  Just when they seem to have resolved their problems, one of other of the hero / heroine will be trapped by the bad guy.  The other heroine / hero will save them.

Rose’s novels are categorised as “romantic thrillers” so the other predictable part is both hero and heroine are singletons, doubt they can find the “love of their life” and find the chemistry of their contact with the other setting off all the bells – but there is always misunderstanding and misinterpretation seen through both PoVs so “the course of true love is never smooth”. Hmmm! The sex scenes between hero and heroine tend to be “same-y” and boring so can be skimmed to get to the next plot twist.

In different ways, both Nesbro’s and Rose’s writing is formulaic. In neither does it feel like the main characters are developing a real human beings.  The strength of both Larsson’s and Kerr’s work is in the characterisation.  Supporting this is the believability of the world they construct for these characters to interact in.  Sex, when it occurs, is appropriate to the stage the story is at and is not boring either. The characters change, neither being as frustrating as Nesbro’s Hole nor as cardboard as Rose’s, who are interchangeable between novels.