I’ve just started reading The Passage by Justin Cronin and this starts with an entire chapter of exposition. The audacity! But Cronin does it very well. He litters the exposition with little details that highlight character to the extent that by the end of the chapter you really feel for these characters. It’s a brilliant bit of writing, but then it’s clear he knows what he’s doing.
As writer Adam Christopher says in the comments of Mark’s blog post
I think rules are essential for learning the craft, but once you’re there, you can do what you like. It’s like driving. You don’t become a stunt or racing driver without learning to drive first. That’s the basic foundation. Once you’ve got that, you can do what you like.
I think this is true. It’s very easy to say that writing is simple. In essence it is: you put one word after the other. The real skill comes in selecting which word and in which order, and I think it’s fair to say this is a skill no-one has ever truly mastered.
So there are times when ‘tell’ is better than ‘show’, but you have to know you’re doing it. It’s very easy for your story to go flat when you tell. There are a million and one different ways of writing any scene. What you have to ask yourself is “Is this the best way to write this scene?”
The mantra exists for a reason. It’s easy to fall foul of it; very easy, even for pros. If someone reading your work mentions it, there’s obviously something there that has thrown them out of the story, and maybe there’s a good case for more dynamicism. It’s easy to put up a spirited defence that the exposition serves a purpose, but if people are noticing it, there’s a good chance it’s not working.
And I guess that goes for all the rules. They are there to be broken, but only if the need exists and it will enhance the story
It surprises me but for some in the Fantasy community, Harry Potter is considered the black sheep of the family. Like it if you must, but we’d rather you didn’t. I’ve even seen people argue that it’s not fantasy at all – you know, despite the magic and the wands and the house elves and dragons and such stuff.
I resisted Harry Potter when it first came out. I’d covered a lot of fads and this had fad written all over it. But I was working for a magazine around the time of the first movie and needed to write an article about it. Now some can know nothing about a property and write about it as if they are a fan but I think such articles lack an honesty that can get the writer rumbled if they slip up on a fact. So I decided that I had to read the first book.
I remember sitting down that night thinking “well at least it’s short” and then being hit with how great the book was. I went out and bought the other 3 books then available in the series the very next morning.
Because I’ve been keen to avoid spoilers, it’s meant that for the last 3 books I pretty much locked myself away for 24 hours and read them solid. I knew, doing what I did, I’d not be able to turn on the computer without getting some spoiler.
I’d like to go back and re-read them all at some point but for now I’m just happy to re-enjoy them through the films. And I really can’t wait until Deathly Hallows. It was an exciting book and the film looks fab
So I’ve got a personal deadline looming, a ton of writing to do, and what do I do? Go camping for the weekend, of course.
But one of the most important things about writing is the downtime. My best ideas have never come to me whilst sat at the computer waiting for inspiration, but when doing other stuff, typically driving (although it’s different for different folks). And so it’s important to try and balance my life so that I do have what I call “thinking time”, although it’s not so much thinking as “time to allow the brain to unwind”.
Last year, I made the mistake whilst working on a first draft of cancelling all my free time. All social engagements were cancelled, my normal weekend walking days were given over to writing and I had a pretty miserable existence for a month. With hindsight I went too far, to the extent that my enforced solitude became a hindrance rather than a help.
And therein lies the problem. There are times when you really need to just knuckle down and get on with it, and times where a trip to the shops or watching TV will give your brain time to relax and untie that plot knot you’ve been worrying about.
Of course, you’ll con yourself. You’ll say you need more “thinking time” because you’re still waiting for the muse, and as we know, the muse doesn’t exist (at least not in those instances). So far better to have pre-arranged social engagements that you work around. Guaranteed they’ll come when you think “Gah! I could have written an extra 10k this weekend if I’d been home” but truth is you probably would not have.
My camping trip didn’t really offer me much insight, just mild heat stroke and a banging headache due to the weather, but now I know today I need to knuckle down and get a lot more words done. Deadline is looming!
I’d enjoyed Nights of Villjamur but had issues with it. A very good debut novel and a book I’m happy to recommend to people despite my slight issues with dialogue. I was looking forward to City of Ruin. If Newton could build and improve on Nights, then City of Ruin could prove to be a very good book. At Eastercon, there was a group of us chatting about various novels and giving our honest opinion on them, outside the earshot of writers (although to be honest, no-one said anything there, that hasn’t been repeated in their reviews). It was there I enquired about City of Ruin to those who had seen early copies.
“It’s very good,” I was told with a look that said this was a book to get excited about.
And for the last few months I’ve been eagerly awaiting it. The problem with hype though, is that more often than not it can lead to disappointment. I’m a passionate person, and I try not to let it get ahead of me, but I have to be honest and say I was expecting a lot from City of Ruin.
City of Ruin didn’t just meet my already high expectations, it blew them away. This was a novel, I couldn’t put down, that ruined my weekend plans, simply because I kept saying “just one more chapter, I have to know what happens next”
The issues from Nights of Villjamur have been addressed, and as a result you have a novel that is not only a fine sequel but a much better book. In fact, such a good book, that within 50 pages it was one of my favourite novels of the year, and then it proceeded to get better and better
Now, I accept that a book can’t be for everyone, that one person’s favourite is another person’s least. I think good books do that because they don’t play safe. They take big bold steps that risk alienating the readership. This is why reviews are so subjective. And this book doesn’t just throw ideas out there, it incessantly bombards you with them becoming bigger and bigger as it does so.
Many familiar faces return from nights of Villjamur. Brynd is now in charge of the defence of the city of Villiren against the anticipated onslaught of the alien Okun, yet faces another challenge when his homosexuality is uncovered. Jeryd is now an inquisitor in Villiren and is tasked by Brynd to look into a mystery surrounding missing persons. And Randur is still on the run with the Empress and her sister, trying to get to Villiren to enlist the support of Brynd and his Night Guard.
There are also a few new characters, the most stand out being Melum, a half-vampire leader of the most feared gang in Villiren. He’s a delightful ‘bad guy’ who is really nuanced and detailed, and an absolute joy to read.
What I liked was that each of the story seemed to have it’s own pace, meaning that some stories didn’t even start until well into the novel, some left hanging for what felt like hundreds of pages. This made the book seem much larger, as if you were reading a 1000+ page trilogy rather than a 466 page single novel.
For me, Jeryd’s arc was my favourite and in some ways reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s guards series – no not when Pratchett is being silly and humorous, but those rare moments of climax when things get serious and the humour drops away to reveal a great story about characters you love. What I especially love about this arc, is the way the reader is one step ahead of Jeryd, you’re feeling pretty smug with yourself, waiting for the big reveal, and then a revelation comes out of nowhere and blindsides you. Brilliant, just brilliant.
My least favourite arc was Randur’s. My big problem was that it felt, not like a story twisting and turning to conclusion, but a story where it wasn’t sure where it was going. That didn’t mean it didn’t have it’s moments, just that compared to the other character arcs, it felt a little lacking.
The result was an overall pace that was morish. “Just one more chapter,” you’d say and then get lost for another four. And when things result in a big battle in the end, there was an epicness to it that I’ve felt Epic Fantasy has been missing for quite a while.
It was a novel that started well and just kept building. On page 300, with approximately 150 pages to go, I decided to do something evil. This was already now one of my favourite fantasy novels of recent years, so I said to myself “forget how much you’ve enjoyed this so far, let it prove itself again.” And it did with a brilliant defining moment of Melum that had them doing something that made you cheer without destroying what had made this character great.
Just when I thought I had reached the pinnacle of enjoyment with the novel, it would throw something new in. And it kept doing that for 460 pages, an unrelenting barrage of ideas and twists and turns, from big epic battles that would not seem out of place in a war movie, to giant monsters made of coins or corpses to giant spiders and mad scientists. This novel doesn’t just grab your attention, it assaults you.
There’s every chance this may not become one of your favourite fantasy novels of all time but this pushed all my buttons, created some new ones I never knew about and pressed them as well.
Without a doubt my favourite novel of recent years and one of my favourite fantasy novels of all time.
Things move slowly in the publishing world. So slowly that I find myself often getting very impatient with it all (something I need to work on). But it can mean that it can sometimes be easy to forget how far you have come.
A year ago, I was in the process of selling the site off, of wondering whether I was making the worst decision of my life. How stupid to give up something so successful because of a belief that you had a skill.
I caught up with an old friend last night and was recounting this story.
“I’m still not sure I made the right decision,” I said.
“But look how far you’ve come,” he said.
I scoffed at this, not feeling like I’d made any real progress. But he reminded me about how my short stories took a marked jump in quality, so much so, I managed to actually place one. Then there was the hard work I’ve done networking and the progress I’ve made with the novel, making it a stronger and more compelling story. There was the longlist nomination and last of all there was the website. Individually, these may not amount to much but taking a step back through his eyes, I could see that I was wrong to scoff. I might not be moving forward at the speed I would like (that impatience thing again!), but I’m still moving forwards, and have accomplished a lot in the last year to be proud of.
Writing is a journey, and we are often so focused on the destination that we never look behind us to just stop for a second and see how far we’ve come.
Sometimes things will move slowly, other times they may rocket along, but the important thing is always moving forwards. What have you achieved with your writing in the last year? Where were you a year ago, compared to where you are now?
Today saw the start of the big rewrite of the novel.
Basically, I need to take a 50,000 word part 1 and turn it into a 100,000 word novel. I’m pretty decided that the start and end will essentially remain the same. The middle will see some alteration to include some elements that would otherwise now reside in book 2, and I’m still planning a lot of those out.
This morning was a trip to the library to work on the early chapters. I’ve rewritten these more times than I can remember and I was pleased that when I went over them again, I didn’t see a lot I wanted to change: mainly some clunky sentences to smooth out. I also dropped the paragraph of character backstory for Darwin and Cassidy and I was really surprised how much that lifted the whole chapter. For someone who is never pleased, I was, surprisingly, very pleased. I’m really proud of the first 2 chapters.
So Chapters 1 and 2 got copied across, with very little change but I came unstuck on chapter 3, Mr West’s first chapter. I’d decided some time ago, he needed a bit of a character arc, and I plan to have fun with this. But this means I have to alter some of his motivations. In the draft I had, he starts much further along his character development than I now want. So this means Chapter 3 needs the half of it rewriting.
I pretty much left it there as I’m not exactly sure of his character arc just yet. I know where it’s going but not entirely sure how it gets there or where it starts just yet.
Even so, that’s 7000 odd words already in the bag. if only all days were this easy!
Mark Charan Newton talks about some of his favourite orchestral pieces over on his blog. I’m a big fan of orchestral music to write to and have a library of movie soundtracks I can call on depending on the mood of the scene I’m writing.
Something light and thoughtful might call for Lady in the Water or I, Legend. Something a bit more mysterious might call for something like The Fountain. Or if I want to blow shit up there’s soundtracks like Stardust.
But, with apologies for people who saw this on the old blog, the album I’ve been writing to solidly for the last few weeks is Two Steps From Hell’s Invincible.
Two Steps From Hell are a company that specialise in writing music for movie trailers. They’ve never scored a film and this is their first album (released due to public demand). They are effectively music for hire. But what music!