Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Farewell, celebrity!

Last night I met an intelligent and inquisitive group at Chichester Library who had gathered to hear my observations on 'The Road to Publication'. Some of them were kind enough to buy the book or indicate that they had already read it (so particular thanks to Helen, Elisabeth and Phil). I enjoyed the evening and I hope the audience of twenty or so did too.

The evening did, however, mark the end of my brief period of celebrity. Having taken part in half a dozen or so events to promote The Dog of the North, the diary is now empty. With an Amazon sales ranking of 350,000, the book is slowly slipping from the very limited prominence it once enjoyed. (At least until the paperback launch next year...).

There is an expectation in today's publishing industry that the writer will be prepared to do the legwork of publicising the book, giving talks, sitting on panels, holding signings etc. This is perfectly reasonable--after all, I want people to buy and read the book, and putting myself out there in person is a good way of doing it. It was something I regarded as a necessary evil, but having been through the process, to my surprise I find it was fun.

Now, of course, I need to concentrate on what put me there in the first place: writing commercial fiction. The Last Free City is moving along, if at no great pace. It is not out of the question that we will see a first draft by Christmas.

For today, though, we wave a cheerful adieu to our period in the admittedly low-wattage literary spotlight. To all of you who came along to the events, thanks for your support. I hope to see some of you again in the future!

::Acqured Taste will continue unabated with progress updates, reviews, recommendations and the occasional item to defy categorisation...

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Winning Formula

Over on Alis Hawkins' blog the question cropped up, almost as an aside, about the validity of criticising novels as "formulaic". The consensus among the writers who hang out there was that writing "formula fiction" is more difficult than it looks, and that good formula fiction is good fiction, full stop.

I've long been an exponent of the idea that there is very little new under the sun. Shakespeare reinterpreted existing stories, and wrote his five-act comedies, histories and tragedies to a pattern with which his audience would be familiar.

Formula applies to drama at least as much as to prose. In our house we're fans of various American crime series, almost all of which could be described as formulaic. The only one we religiously watch, and set Sky+ to avoid missing, is Bones. And yet Bones is utterly, completely a formula show. If you were designing an archetypal police procedural, you'd come up with something like this: an FBI forensic lab peopled with impossibly intelligent and good-looking--yet variously troubled--characters of both sexes. You'd certainly have a male and a female lead who have a mutual but never quite disclosed attraction, and of course their personalities, as well as being borderline dysfunctional, would also be completely contrasting. That is Bones in a nutshell; but it's also, to name a couple of others, also Law and Order: Criminal Intent (which we also watch) and the various incarnations of CSI (which we don't). It's not a million miles from the show which, at its peak, was the greatest of all US dramas, NYPD Blue.

Suits and Shades: the makers of Bones understand
how to make a cop show look cool

What makes Bones a must-watch show in Bosham is not the formula, then. It's the fact that the show's writers understand the formula and--here's the difficult bit--they do it bloody well. If it's different from Criminal Intent, it's because it's actually not very interested in the crimes. Yes, the play about with entomology and blood spatters; the characters can call up the most recondite knowledge at the drop of the hat. If it were aiming for realism, it would be implausible--but the real effect is to satirise the form. The writers of Bones understand the tradition they're working in but, like Len Tyler with The Herring Seller's Apprentice, they're quite happy to subvert it.

Two factors distinguish Bones. The characterisation is consistently excellent. By paying only the most perfunctory attention to plot, there is room in each 43-minute episode to explore the characters. Emily Deschanel, as the brilliant but blinkered Dr Brennan, and David Boreanaz as the strong but sensitive Agent Booth, create a relationship at once funny, tender and believable. And as my adjectives suggest, they're working with what could easily become stereotypes. The second great feature of the show is the dark comedy which underpins it. This is a show ostensibly about violent death, but it's one you can only really understand once you've recognised that it's a comedy. And it's much funnier than most productions which set out to be overtly amusing (let's take, as an example, the execrable There's Something About Mary [1998], one of the most witless productions of the human mind).

Creating to a formula--a less prejudicial term might be "working within a tradition"--is more difficult than it looks. If you're reading a book or watching a film that you don't like because it's formulaic, the chances are it's because the formula is badly executed, not because the formula doesn't work.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Taking Stock

Over the past few days I have been taking stock of progress on The Last Free City. Yes, "taking stock" is another one of those euphemisms for not doing very much... Things have been rather busy at work: while we're not yet in David Isaak territory, the collapse of the Icelandic banking system has had a knock-on effect for my own employers.

What I have been doing is creating a "master file" of the work I've done to date. This doesn't require quite the same emotional expenditure as actual writing (the task which must be displaced and avoided at all costs). I've taken the main narrative and stitched in the secondary one, and then insinuated the embryonic third storyline. Not everything is in quite the right place, but I have 120,000 words of first draft, of which maybe 100,000 is good enough to survive.

One thing which is apparent, though, is that my much-loved opening scene will have to go. It's a duel (you don't say...) which tells us in stark detail about the villain's character. You know from the outset that this is a cruel, violent man that you don't want to get on the wrong side of. And that's the problem. The second narrative strand of the book takes him from adolescence to the dawn of his warped career as arriviste and murderer (and in the value system of the book, being an arriviste is considerably the greater sin). For that strand to work, I can't afford the reader to see on page one that there is no hope for him. I need the reader to hope against hope that his good points will be enough to see him redeemed from his ruthlessness and ambition. And the only way that can work is to sacrifice my marvellous set-piece opening: so it goes.

How does the overall narrative hang together at the moment, then?

Strand 1 (the "main story") - 75,000 words.
The extended denouement is still to come

Strand 2 (the villain's backstory) - 40,000 words.
Essentially complete. Covers five years a generation before Strands 1 and 3.

Strand 3 (the outsider ) - 5,000 words.
Needs to be extended and integrated with Strand 1. This is the main piece of work still do. Until it's finished I can't move on and complete Strand 1.

the first draft therefore only has two major tasks outstanding: working up Strand 3 to become a story in its own right; and then letting Strand 1 run to its conclusion. The two together could add another 50-60,000 words so, ironically given my concerns that the book isn't big enough, I could have a first draft over 150,000 words. And my second drafts are usually longer.

Good job fantasy readers expect a long book...

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

::Acquired Taste has had a makeover don't say.

My old template had a lot of bugs which I've finally lost patience with. With my tail between my legs, I return to the dreary conformity of a Blogger standard template...

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Why Does Everyone Hate J.K. Rowling?

There was much adverse comment last week at the news that J.K. Rowling is the world's highest earning writer, generating $300m last year: to quote The Guardian, by no means alone, "sickening reading for the majority of authors who are struggling to earn a living".

Rowling's crimes are various: she is rich; she writes derivative books with no literary merit; she gives money to the Labour Party; she sued a hapless and penniless fan who sought to publish a Hogwarts Encyclopaedia. Let's look at all this a little closer.

Rowling is undoubtedly rich. That money has arisen almost entirely from the Harry Potter books. The long and short of it is that those books have sold a hell of a lot of copies, and been made into films. Yes, they have been hyped by a publishing industry keen to profit from the books' popularity--but the sustained success of a seven-book series suggests that she has touched a lot of lives with her work. I've read all the books, seen all the films, so she's probably made about thirty quid out of me. Is that really so excessive?

Literary merit is harder to measure. Many of her detractors seem to me not to have read the books, or to given up after the first three; the later books in the series have an ambition and unflinching quality which to my mind makes them likely to endure well beyond the negative opinions of her opponents. And derivative? Well, Rowling is working in a particular tradition - but none of us works in isolation. I hope I don't disillusion anyone by observing that the plots of Hamlet and Othello are not entirely Shakespeare's own work...

Recently Rowling made a donation of £1m to the Labour Party, a measure of support for a beleaguered Government which should be respected even by those who don't vote the same way. Rowling has consistently championed social causes and supported this with significant amounts of money. That she can afford to misses the point: having money doesn't in general make us any keener to part with it.

Then there is the case of Steven Van Der Ark, who sought only to make an honest buck by producing a faithful Harry Potter encyclopaedia. So faithful, in fact, that it used almost exclusively Rowling's own words. There is a widespread view that a writer as wealthy as Rowling could have turned a blind eye to this minor piece of copyright infringement. I wonder whether those who have denounced Rowling's rapacity would be quite so blase if it was their own work that was being plagiarised in that way.

So why does everyone seem to have turned on one of our best-selling writers? Sadly it seems to come down to envy. Rowling's books are good, but they aren't so good that the revenues should dwarf what other writers are making: she had the fortune to be in the right place at the right time. I am sure that she would acknowledge as much. But wouldn't be a more charitable perspective to congratulate her on her success, and acknowledge that a writer who has hooked so many children on reading deserves all the rewards she gets?

So, with all due respect to those at The Guardian, despite the £27 royalties I have banked to date from The Dog of the North, I am not "sickened" by Rowling's success: I am heartened by it. And so should everyone who thinks that books are important.