Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Science-Fiction & Fantasy Films, 2001-2010

Numbers 2-4

Our survey of the decade is drawing to a close, with my favourite ready to be announced on New Year's Day.  For today, though, three remarkable forays onto the big screen worth the attention of all SF/F fans.

4. Batman Begins, dir. Christopher Nolan, 2005

I might have done better to treat Nolan's Batman franchise as a single entity, but both films are so remarkable that they deserve their own space.  Batman, of course, had a long (and to my mind, not particularly interesting) history before Nolan's involvement; Batman Begins is a thrilling journey into how Bruce Wayne/Batman came to be.  There is always a fascination with origin myths.  The material could easily be flaccid and cliched: boy experiences trauma, but returns stronger to exact his revenge*.  Christian Bale is such an effective Bruce Wayne that the audience never feels they are watching something they have seen before, and the film is particularly impressive in the way it demonstrates the darkness at Wayne's core--and shows that as essential to the 'Batman' persona.  I prefered it, by a whisker, to The Dark Knight, because the emphasis was so squarely on Wayne/Batman; the later film's focus on The Joker and Harvey Dent for me dilutes that a fraction.  But they are two magnificent films.

3. Inception, dir. Christopher Nolan, 2010
You may by now get the idea that I'm a fan of Nolan's work, and you'd be right.  Always willing to challenge the boundaries of commercial cinema, Nolan has a deep understanding of how to construct a story to keep the audience's attention.  Inception has all the trappings of a Philip K Dick story - games about the nature of consciousness and identity, weird but consistent inner worlds - but with an adamantine control of structure.  It works as a film not because of all the Dickery, but because the underlying model is the old-fashioned heist movie.  Nolan works with a number of his favoured actors--Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy--and Leonardo di Caprio is no Christian Bale, he is strong enough to lead this film.  The film explores three dreamscapes, and had the third been as strong as the first two, Inception would have been top of my list.  As it stands, the comparative weakness of that last section just tarnishes the lustre of what remains an extraordinarily accomplished and ambitious film.

2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, dir. Peter Jackson, 2001-03
If The Lord of the Rings was conceived as a single novel, then the film sequence should also be regarded as one--very long!--piece.  It is not flawless--some of the minor characters are stock buffoons, and the triple ending of the final film is deeply wearisome--but it has such epic scope and brio that almost everything can be forgiven.  Fidelity to the source material is not always necessary in film, and Jackson tweaks where he needs to, and in some respects he improves on Tolkien.  The monumental scale of the battle scenes astounds even today, and the quality of the ensemble cast (especially in the first film) is compelling.  The sense that the fate of the world is at stake is much more present in Jackson than Tolkien.  The Lord of the Rings, on the big screen as on the page, remains the touchstone against which future fantasy will be measured.

* a description which fits The Dog of the North and Vance's Emphyrio equally well.  It ain't the plot which does it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Top Science-Fiction & Fantasy Films, 2001-2010

Numbers 5-7
Did you agree with the inclusion of No.8-10 on the list?  Today we'll be looking at an altogether more impressive set of films.

7.  Minority Report, dir. Steven Spielberg, 2002
Philip K. Dick's fiction has been fruitful ground for film-makers, dating right back to Bladerunner.  Dick was much better as a writer at throwing out brilliant ideas than he was at translating them into formally satisfying fiction, but those brilliant ideas make fantastic elevator pitches.   Minority Report is certainly not especially faithful to its source, but it builds on the idea of a police force which maintains order by being able to see crimes about to be committed.  This future, and the tensions and contradictions it embodies, are neatly realised in Spielberg's vision, and the presence of Tom Cruise at the height of his stardom does not unbalance the whole.  A pacy thriller and subtle exploration of a deterministic future, Minority Report remains an underrated piece.

6. The Dark Knight, dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008
Nolan has an extraordinary body of work, and although The Dark Knight is remembered primarily for Heath Ledger's bravura turn as The Joker, the film is much more impressive than that would suggest.  Most comic book adaptations rarely impress on the big screen, but Nolan's vision of a dark and corrupt Gotham City never fails to grip.  Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne is a dark, unhappy soul and he's entirely at home here.  Anyone who remembers the earlier film representations of the Caped Crusader will be astonished at the power and resonance Nolan has extracted from the source material.  The special effects are stunning, but the viewer is so caught up in the narrative that they are hardly noticed.

5. Serenity, dir. Joss Whedon, 2005
Whedon is in some ways Nolan's antithesis.  Every bit as talented, he has the sad knack of creating excellent work which fails to score the commercial success necessary to continue.  Firefly and Dollhouse were both remarkable TV series and both were canned prematurely (especially Firefly).  Serenity is the film we got to round off the Firefly series instead.  It's a fine film, pleasantly low-tech, with nuanced characters and a script well above the norm for the genre.  An ensemble cast create a believable and likeable crew, enhanced by a crackingly menacing turn from Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Whedon's vision here is the nearest cinema gets to Jack Vance.  It's a fine end to the Firefly experiment, but it leaves the reader melancholy for all the TV series we might have had.

Next: films 2, 3 and 4.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Top Science-Fiction & Fantasy Films, 2001-2010

With the first decade of the new millennium coming to a close, I thought it would be fun to look back at some of the best movies of the period; this being an SF/F blog, though, I'll focus on that genre.  I don't claim to have seen every film released, so my list is necessarily partial.  If your favourite is omitted, it may simply because I never caught it (although if your favourite is 2012, it's not on the list because it's sh*te).

Today we look at films No.8 to 10 on the list.

10. The Butterfly Effect, dir. Eric Bress &  J.Mackye Gruber (2004)
This was pretty much uniformly panned on release; time and two worthless sequels haven't helped its reputation either.  Starring Ashton Kutcher (bear with me here) as a time-traveller who can go back an alter the past, The Butterfly Effect is not particularly original in concept, but it scores points for the bleakness of its vision.  Evan Treborn (Kutcher) repeatedly goes back in time to right past wrongs, only to find that his efforts make matters progressively worse.  This plays out--in the directors' cut at least--to an inevitable but grim conclusion.  The logic of the time-travelling works more logically than in many such films, and while it is not a classic, The Butterfly Effect deserves more credit than it gets.

9. Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)
I described this at the time as great cinema, but not a great film, and that still feels about right.  The 3D pyrotechnics overshadow a plot which never rises above the serviceable, but the overall effect is certainly dramatic.  3D does not in itself make an exciting film (step forward Alice in Wonderland), so Cameron deserves credit for making a picture which fairly skips along.   A science-fiction film which gets so many people through the doors can't be all bad.

8. Harry Potter sequence, dir. various (2001-11)
Harry Potter, whether on the page or on screen, tends to polarise opinion.  I'm a fan of the books, and the films have been enjoyable, if undemanding, entertainment.  They deserve credit for fidelity to the books, and the quality of the child actors is much better than generally recognised.  The films are likely to remain staples for years to come, and to bring a new generation to the books.  The special effects are consistently excellent, but--unlike Avatar--never outshine the plot or the characters.

Come back soon to see the films I've rated No.5, 6 and 7!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

2010 - Best and Worst

The year has come and all but gone with extraordinary rapidity.  Before it fleets away, I thought I'd encapsulate the artistic highlights of the year (which, to be fully appreciated, must be counterpointed by the lowlights).

Best Writing Achievement
The publication by Editions Andreas Irle of the German edition of DragonchaserSerendip may not be setting the publishing world alight, but it's always good to have a new book out.

Worst Writing Achievement
The stalling of current WIP The Fall of the Fireduke at the 20,000 word-mark.  Re-reading bits of it last night, it's not quite as bad as I thought, but there's still plenty of work to do.  Big decisions need to be made on whether to continue with this project.

Best Film Seen
The Town, Ben Affleck's slick heist movie.  It does nothing original, but does it all brilliantly.  An honourable mention for Christopher Nolan's Inception, a far more ambitious picture which with a more ruthless editor might have touched greatness.

Worst Film Seen
2012.  A film to make me despair at the state of the movie industry.  Everybody involved should feel an abiding shame.  Awful on every conceivable level, a monstrous misuse of time, money and creativity.  Makes The Poseidon Adventure look like Citizen Kane.  At least I didn't pay to see it at the cinema.

Best Book Read
Now this one's difficult.  David Remnick's biography of Muhammad Ali, King of the World, was spectacular, RJ Ellory's A Quiet Vendetta maintained his exemplary standards and Ian Mortimer's The Time-Traveller's Guide to Medieval England was a wonderfully fresh and accessible take on a well-worn subject.  I was delighted too that Sharon Penman proved with Here Be Dragons that The Sunne in Splendour was not a one-off.  To avoid chosing among them, I'll note that I re-read Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy, and that trumped the lot.

Worst Book Read
These days I'm much more ruthless at abandoning early books I don't enjoy.  Of those I finished, I ended up weary of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, although I admired the craftsmanship (and Beyond Black was a contender for Best Book); the wooden spoon must therefore go to Ken Follett's truly appalling World Without End, which managed to be boring, leaden and offensive.

Best Blog
I've greatly enjoyed Nevets.QST, and not just because Nevets gave The Dog of the North a glowing review.  Nevets charts his progress as a writer with clarity and sometimes lacerating honesty--as well as a lot of generosity

Worst Blog
::Acquired Taste.  Hands up here; we've been bloody feeble this year...

But let's finish on a positive note with a look ahead to 2011.  Three standout titles are on the horizon: award-winning Ryan David Jahn's The Dispatcher; L.C. Tyler latest Ethelred and Elsie mystery, The Herring on the Nile, and Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes, which looks set to be another gritty deconstruction of the sanitised fantasy tropes.

Best wishes to all visitors for Christmas and the New Year!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Season of Economy

No doubt many of you will be wanting to buy copies of The Dog of the North for friends and family; and has taken unscrupulous advantage of this by increasing the price of the paperback from £5.99 to £7.19.  As a service to prospective readers, therefore, I have researched those online retailers who now undercut Amazon.  In the UK the book can be acquired most cheaply at the always competitive Book Depository for £5.98 with free postage.  I suspect that German retailer Hitmeister, charging £26.73 plus postage, will probably not be selling out.  German readers will also find the UK Book Depository site the cheapest, retailing at EUR7.15.  For US readers, postage is again free from Book Depository, with the book selling for $9.43.  (, by contrast, charges $11.66 plus postage).

For those of you with Kindles, this edition is usually the cheapest.  Now you can all get back to your Christmas shopping!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Dog of the North - now on the Kindle

Tempted by the idea of reading some fantasy fiction but too lazy to prop up a 474-page book?  Or no more room on your groaning bookshelves?  Perhaps you baulk at paying £5.99 for a reading experience but regard £5.69 as entirely reasonable?

If so, the new Kindle edition of The Dog of the North  is just the thing for you.  I've had my Kindle for a couple of months and I'm very taken with it.  My only gripe has been the relatively limited range of books available, a concern I now feel has been entirely addressed by this latest development...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why Should I Read...?

The King of the World
David Remnick,1998

When people under 40 think of Muhammad Ali, the image that comes to mind is probably the national--or world--treasure, bearing his illness with dignity and commanding universal respect and affection.  Those slightly older may remember his epic boxing matches with Joe Frazier and George Foreman in the 1970s.
Remnick's biography goes back still further, concentrating on his early career, particularly his first world title fight against the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston in 1963.  Sometimes I'm asked whether sports books are important enough, or serious enough, to deserve critical attention.  The King of the World is one example of why they are.  
I'm not really a boxing fan--there's something highly disturbing about watching two invariably black men inflicting brain damage on each other for the entertainment of a predominantly white audience--but this is a compelling book, because it's about much more than boxing.  In the early 1960s, Ali--or Cassius Clay, as he was then--was a hugely reviled figure.  Conservatives despised him for getting above his station (with his ready wit and showman's personality, he just did not know his place), while liberals felt his association with Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam undermined the civil rights movement.  (Ali's commitment to black separatism caused great ill-feeling with the more integrationist Floyd Patterson, culminating in a merciless beating for Patterson in a 1965 world title fight.  Patterson consistently referred to Ali as Clay long after his conversion to Islam). 
If all this were not enough to seal Ali's unpopularity, he then had the temerity to refuse to be drafted to Vietnam, a move which seems more courageous and principled now than it must have looked at the time.  "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietkong", he memorably said.

Remnick's book, in focusing on the point at which Muhammad Ali invented himself, illuminates not only a fascinating character--more deserving of our admiration than our pity, despite the illness that overtook him as he fought on too long--but a pivotal period in US history.  The final word should go to Ali himself:

Monday, November 15, 2010

Kindle Debut

First it was self-published.  Then it came out in German.  Now Dragonchaser is available on the Kindle.  At £1.71 (the US version retails for $2.71), what do you have to lose?

This is my first foray into the ebook market and it will be interesting to see how it goes.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Trapped in the Present
The decline of history teaching in our schools

There was a fascinating article by Simon Schama in the Guardian about the teaching--or lack thereof--of history in English schools. 

My own anecdotal evidence suggests that right across the secondary school system our children are being short-changed of the patrimony of their story, which is to say the lineaments of the whole story, for there can be no true history that refuses to span the arc, no coherence without chronology. A pedagogy that denies that completeness to children fatally misunderstands the psychology of their receptiveness, patronises their capacity for wanting the epic of long time; the hunger for plenitude. Everything we know about their reading habits – from Harry Potter to The Amber Spyglass and Lord of the Rings suggests exactly the opposite. But they are fiction, you howl? Well, make history – so often more astounding than fiction – just as gripping; reinvent the art and science of storytelling in the classroom and you will hook your students just as tightly.
 I enjoyed history at school in the early 1980s, to the extent of nearly reading it at university, but even then I came away with the sense that I didn't understand the chronology.  I left school having studied history to A level, very well informed about 19th century British and European history and not a whole lot else - a smattering of the Romans and Tudors, perhaps.  It wasn't until I left university that I decided to read myself into history, starting with the ancient Greeks and finishing with the Napoleonic wars.  Twenty years later that project is still not complete to my satisfaction (the more I learn, the more avenues for further exploration open up), but I do have a sense of the continuity of the historical record--even if not gathered at school.

These days, I understand, things are even worse.  Most children study the Tudors and the Nazis, and very little else.  One need not be a knee-jerk little Englander to find this profoundly depressing--future generations growing up with no concept of our past, which gives context to their tomorrows.

It also has interesting implications for genre writers.  Authors of historical fiction in the past might have been able to assume some background knowledge in their readers (Shakespeare probably didn't have to tell his audience who Henry V was), but today that's no longer true.  Everything has to be built from the ground up.  Yet the role of the historical novelist is more important than ever, for if schools are no longer allowed to teach history, writers become the teachers as well as the entertainers.  But children leave school without realising just how thrilling history can be, is there even a long-term market for historical fiction?

Even for fantasy writers, the subject is relevant.  My Mondia novels, in particular The Dog of the North, draw heavily on Renaissance Italy.  Yet for the reader unschooled in history, that connection is never made.  As readers become less and less acquainted with our past, there becomes increasingly little distinction between historically-flavoured fantasy and the freer-wheeling interpretations like Jack Vance's Cugel books.  Does it matter?  After all, any fantasy novel must stand on its own merits, not its inspirations?  Maybe not, but as writers we need to understand our audience--and it's an audience that, year by year, becomes less well versed in its own history, or as Schama puts it:

The generations who will either pass on the memory of our disputatious liberty or be not much bovvered about the doings of obscure ancestors, and go back to Facebook for an hour or four. Unless they can be won to history, their imagination will be held hostage in the cage of eternal Now: the flickering instant that's gone as soon as it has arrived. They will thus remain, as Cicero warned, permanent children, for ever innocent of whence they have come and correspondingly unconcerned or, worse, fatalistic about where they might end up.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Recent Reading

Things have been quiet on the blog lately, not for artistic reasons but because real life is intruding more than the ideal.  (Without burdening the casual reader with excessive detail, it is not the best time to be working in the UK public sector at the moment).

I have also been immersed in Adrian Goldsworthy's monumental biography Caesar, essential reading for anyone interested in the late Roman Republic.  Goldsworthy reviews the sources for the period to synthesise a fascinating account of Caesar's military and political career.  With a supporting cast as vivid as Pompey, Cicero, Crassus and Cato, it's hard to make this dull, and Goldsworthy seizes his opportunity.  I'd have regarded myself as a relatively well-informed general reader on the period, but I learned a huge amount from the book.

I found the political machinations more interesting than Caesar's military campaigns.  The difficulty in writing about the latter is that the only real source is Caesar's own Commentaries, which are simply propaganda written for the Roman Senate.  The various Gaulish tribes are never fully realised, being only legion-fodder for Caesar's conquests.

Caesar is a balanced assessment of Rome's most famous figure, and illuminates by showing him firmly in the context of his times and society.  I highly recommend the book, but make sure you have some time on your hands!

Monday, October 11, 2010

On the Big Screen

The Town
dir. Ben Affleck (2010)

Yesterday I caught the latest Affleck vehicle (he stars as well as directing and co-writing, so if you don't like the film you know who to write to).  In many ways it's wholly formulaic - a heist movie in which Affleck is a bank robber trying to go straight after one last job, which he takes on against his better judgement.  He falls in love with the manager of one the banks he's robbed (played with luminous appeal by Rebecca Hall) and of course this proves to be redemptive*.  The robbery does not, of course, go according to plan, and Affleck is forced to scramble for his life.  The ending, if not exactly happy, is appropriate and gives overtones of a brighter future.

You've seen this a hundred times before and yet--somehow--The Town is a scorching film.  Affleck manages at once to be level-headed, capable and yet vulnerable.  The blue collar Boston environment is vivid and believable.  This being Affleck's film, the audience's sympathy is with him, but unusually for the "villain as hero" genre, the police chasing him are not portrayed as bungling or corrupt: they're professionals with a job to do, and Jon Hamm as the FBI man always has our respect even as we want him to fail.  The action sequences are directed with brio, and the central relationship between Affleck and Hall, while not exactly convincing, is always compelling.

"Formulaic" is often thrown up as a criticism of films--and indeed books.  But what some see as a formula might more accurately be described as blending together elements which have been proven to work in the past.  What matters is the skill and vigour with which the ingredients are combined.  The Town might be formulaic--but so is Pride and Prejudice, so is The Big Sleep, so are Patrick O'Brian and Richard Stark.  If you don't like your dinner, blame the chef, not the ingredients.

I expected popcorn entertainment from The Town.  I found something rather better.  Highly recommended!

* I am no relationship expert, but this is not a dating strategy I would recommend

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Why Should I Read...?

Len Deighton, 1970

In my teens I read a lot about the Second World War, a phase I'm sure most bookish boys go through.  Until re-reading it this week, I haven't read Bomber for at least 25 years, but it always remained in my mind as a remarkable book, even once I had long forgotten the details. Reading it again now I can see why I remembered, and why judges as good as Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess rated it among the great novels of the 2oth century.

Bomber  is set in one single day ("31 June" 1943) and tells the story, in clinical "docudrama" style, of a bombing raid against a German industrial city.  The novel uses multiple viewpoints and perspectives, both from the British and German sides.  The raid is a disaster on every level: the light Mosquito bomber, in a precisely choreographed scene, drops its marker bombs by accident on a sleepy market town, with the result that the 700 heavy bombers following carpet-bomb the town instead of the target.  Most of the inhabitants we see are killed, as are many of the German fighter pilots and the British bomber crews.  Deighton doesn't take sides; instead, with chilling detachment he chronicles the varying fates of the characters, who die heroically, farcically, gruesomely (one plane is downed by a bird strike, another from friendly fire).  Of those who survive, one German pilot is arrested on landing and subsequently executed for protesting against concentration camps; the star British pilot is taken off flying duties for refusing to play in a regimental cricket match.  For all the crisp precision of the prose, this is an angry book, showing up the horror of mechanised warfare.

Technically the book is also a tremendous achievement.  Deighton makes us care about the characters despite the pared-back prose (and also allows us to differentiate a large cast in our mind), and to admire the bravery of both the bombed and the bombers.  I suspect that 40 years ago the book was even more revolutionary, both stylistically and in the way in which all the characters are portrayed as victims.  (I suspect that Alastair McLean's action stories like The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare are more typical of the period).

Bomber is not an easy read, but it is a bleak masterpiece.   

How has it influenced me?

Bomber was probably one of the first novels I read that dispensed with any pretence of happy endings.  The novel is a gruelling read but the reader recognises the rightness of the downbeat conclusions.  If the bomber crews had all come back safe, if the German pilots had all survived to collect their Knight's Cross, we might have been pleased for men we had come to care about, but it would have been the wrong ending for the novel.  It also shows that the writer can create sympathy for the characters without purple prose.  Deighton's ability to create memorable characters in a couple of paragraphs--one or two telling details can do it--is also something we can all learn from.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On World-building - Less is More

Tim Stretton may be one of the best fantasy world builders ever.  It's all done through the story, not lengthy explication.

So says fellow writer CN Nevets.  Is he right?  Probably not, in truth, although I appreciate the sentiment, and it does give me the chance to outline my theories on the business of world-building, probably at tedious length.

What do we mean by world-building?  According to Wikipedia, 

Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a fictional universe. The result may sometimes be called a constructed world, conworld or sub-creation. The term world-building was popularized at science fiction writer's workshops during the 1970s. It describes a key role in the task of a fantasy writer: that of developing an imaginary setting that is coherent and possesses a history, geography, ecology, and so forth. The process usually involves the creation of maps, listing the back-story of the world and the people of the world, amongst other features.
Swallow that undigested and you've already fallen into a hole so deep you can't climb back out.  You may, as a writer, want to flesh out your world to give it a "history, geography, ecology, and so forth" (the "so forth" gives me the shivers); you can't, though, expect your readers to have the same level of interest.  The more of this kind of work you do, the harder it is to resist bringing it into the story--almost always to the detriment of the text.  Few readers will be engaged by a travelogue--reader engagement is created by character and plot.

Many readers have praised the world-building of the Mondia series (no, really, they have), but if I reference back to the Wikipedia definition, I could tell you nothing about its ecology; less about its history than the reader might imagine; and the geography arises entirely from the maps I created before I started.  I need to know more than the reader in all of these areas, but to be convincing and engaging I need to emphasise elements other than world-building.

It's important to realise why we are world-building.  If you are writing a novel, the setting is not an end in itself; it's one component of a multi-faceted work of art.  Here, as in so much else, Tolkien clones often miss the point: The Lord of the Rings does not succeed because of the author's obsessive documenting of Middle Earth, but because of the epic scope of the narrative.

However much world-building you do as preparatory work, you only need to show the reader enough to give the story texture and credibility.

Glount had been the seat of the Dukes of Lynnoc for a thousand years.  One of the oldest cities of Mondia, squeezed between the Penitent Hills and the sea, it had long been a centre of commerce.  If Croad was a poor cousin to Emmen, Glount was an older uncle, steeped in every vice and abomination concealed under a veneer of urbanity.  The Dukes of Lynnoc embodied the essence of their city, and could trace their lineage back to its foundation with only a minimum of creative genealogy.  A powerful independent city for six centuries until its fall to the first King Jehan, it had taken its absorption into the Emmenrule with scarcely a blink.  Things went on as they had always done, and while the King away in Emmen might wield a nominal authority, to the folk and rulers of Glount, matters went on as they had always done.
--The Dog of the North

In the passage above, I am trying as economically as possible to give the reader a flavour of one of the story's minor locations.  I resist the temptation, therefore, to list the lineage of the Dukes of Lynnoc for the thousand years in question (and indeed, never felt the need to compile one in my preparations).  In mentioning "the first King Jehan", my aim is to create a texture of history (there must be at least two Jehans) without overcooking it.

The paragraph above is simple exposition, and this is important too.  It's all too easy to convey information to readers solely through dialogue, which is frequently takes place for no identifiable dramatic reason.  If you want the reader to know something, the best way is often just to tell them in simple declarative prose.

I also try to make my exposition short.  "Little and often" is the best policy here.  In The Dog of the North, the idea of separate Winter and Summer Kings is critical to one of the plot strands, but the reader would be poorly served if I set out all the details up front.  Piece by piece, the reader learns (much of it alongside Lady Isola and Lady Cosetta, who as outsiders are well-placed to be fed the information I need the reader to have).

Lady Cosetta let out a gasp.  “I had heard Mettingloom was remarkable,” she said.  “But I never imagined this.”
“‘The City in the Sea’,” said Beauceron.  Allow me to point out the main features.  You see the little cluster of islets ahead, through the neck of the bay?  That is where the customs men, or Pellagiers, conduct themselves.  Then, rising from the sea itself, you see the ‘Metropoli’:  a cluster of closely-packed islets.  They are linked by bridges, and instead of roads, there are waterways – the famous ‘aquavias’. That is where we find the King’s palace, the Occonero.  Over to the left you see Hiverno, the Winter King’s residence.  The Summer King’s retreat Printempi is behind the Occonero and not visible.”
That is the first we hear of the Winter and Summer Kings.  For now, it's enough: it's time to get on with the story again.  The reader will not understand everything at once.  That's not a bad thing, because it helps foster the curiosity which will draw them into the story.  A few pages on, I'll feed them a bit more.

Those are my general principles for world-building.  I can summarise them in two precepts.  First, respect your reader, who has come to you for a compelling story, not a display of your cleverness; and trust your reader, who doesn't need to be told everything on page one to remain interested in your story.

I'm interested in other writers' views too.  How do you go about it? (And, since all writer must establish their credible fictional worlds, I'm addressing a wider audience than the fantasy community here).

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Back on the scene

I've been away in Turkey for a late summer holiday--hot and sunny, since you ask--but sadly that's all now in the past.  Summer holidays are great reading opportunities for me, and the best book I read was RJ Ellory's A Quiet Vendetta.  Ellory has become a crime writer of the finest class: challenging plots, beautiful prose and a superb control of voice.  Highly commended too was Sharon Penman's Here Be Dragons, which after a slow start grew into a powerful and moving political and personal drama.  I'll be reading the others in the series.  On a less exalted level, Robert Harris's Lustrum marked a welcome return to form.  The late Roman republic is well-tilled soil, but Harris finds something new in giving us Cicero's unmasking of the Catiline conspiracy.

I had hoped too to think through some questions on The Fall of the Fireduke, and although I made some progress here it was less than I had hoped.  Instead, my mind found itself perversely exploring a different novel idea entirely, the result being that I now have an almost complete novel outline in my head.  If the idea's good enough, it will keep, so this one's filed away for future use.

I probably won't get much writing done for the next couple of weeks: it's the Chichester Writing Festival this weekend, and I am presenting training courses at work--something I enjoy, but which leaves me too enervated to write.

At the weekend I will also be taking delivery of the long-awaited Kindle.  Next year's summer holiday, I hope, will not be accompanied by a bag filled entirely with books...

Friday, August 27, 2010

Work in Progress

I have made the occasional tantalising (perhaps...) remark about The Fall of the Fireduke, my current work in progress.  This is not the book that a writer concerned with career advancement would write; it's set in Mondia, which has so far proved commercially unfortunate.  It takes place at a different time, using different characters, to the previous Mondia novels, so it could be seen as a standalone.  However we view it, it's the novel I need to write at the moment, before perhaps trying something different.

I'm now about 20,000 words in: generally about the point I start to think this is not going according to plan (even where I don't have a plan).  I'm writing this one to a slightly different method.  I envisage at least two, perhaps three, narrative strands, but I'm writing one from start to finish, rather than interweaving as I go.

In some ways this approach is easier because I'm not confused by switches in voice and point of view.  On the other hand, it leaves the story feeling very unbalanced.  This main story is about Floreyn, a young man who falls into the clutches of his family's enemy Duke Varrel.  Floreyn finds his captivity less irksome than he had imagined, largely through the charms of Varrel's neice Tanneke (OK, I know you've heard this one before).  There is a clear narrative structure here, but in writing up, there are an awful lot of Floreyn-and-Tanneke scenes in close proximity.  If this was the whole story, I think the reader would be bored.

I know as I write, though, that if I have two Floreyn-and-Tanneke scenes together, I can break that up with one of the other POV's.  Elsewhere, Tanneke's sister Adelisa is trying to ensure that her drunken husband Sir Eglamour does not endanger their son with his inept scheming; and Duke Varrel's household has been infiltrated by a would-be assassin.  There's enough there for variety, and no need for like scenes to sit too close together.

I've never written a novel this way before.  The two narratives in The Dog of the North  were written together for most of the novel before I cracked on and finished off Beauceron's about three-quarters of the way through.  In The Last Free City, I wrote Todarko and Oricien's narratives together throughout, before interleaving Malvazan's last.  But for The Fall of the Fireduke, I have to take a leap of faith that two narratives I've only sketchily conceived will complement and strengthen the one in progress.  And if they don't the novel fails.  That's scary.

At this stage, I am not sure if the third narrative strand, Varrel's assassin, has enough legs to work.  Gaspar, our would-be assassin, is fun to write and has the most fully-realised voice in the book.  On the other hand, unless I want to write fantasy's The Day of the Jackal*, there is limited fictional mileage in having Gaspar follow Varrel all over the place, trying and narrowly failing to kill him at every turn.

Nonetheless, The Fall of the Fireduke is moving forward.  Stretton's Law--you see it formulated here first--is that all first drafts are crap at 20,000 words.  I'm intrigued enough to write on, the only way to answer the questions:

~ will Floreyn overcome familial rivalry to get the girl?
~ will Gaspar manage to kill the Fireduke?
~ and will he find out who is paying him to do so?
~ will Varrel succeed in his treasonous scheme to usurp the crown ?
~ will Adelisa rise above her unhappy marriage to secure her son's inheritance?

Actually I know the answers but I think it's going to be fun getting there... (feel free to guess the answers - there are no "maybes", they are all Yes/No.  A prize to the first person to get all five right!).

* now there's an idea...
At the cinema

When I wasn't writing or cooking over the past few weeks, I took a couple of trips to the cinema.  Over the latest Twilight film we will draw a veil of discretion, pausing only to observe that it almost certainly delivered what its target audience wanted; Inception, however, was rather more interesting.

Christopher Nolan has the happy knack of being able to make intelligent pictures which unite critical and commercial success.  His two Batman films are both superior examples of their type, and The Prestige is an undervalued gem.  The first two hours of Inception, meanwhile, are so compelling that they mitigate the flabbiness of the final half-hour.  Nolan also gives us a nicely ambiguous final scene; in a film about the interface between dreams and reality, anything else would have been crass.

The plot is not meant to be summarised in a sentence.  Leonardo di Caprio leads an assorted team who can enter their target's mind to extract information--or, in the case of the "one last job" of the film--implant an idea.  Most of the film, therefore, takes place with the cast running around inside another character's head.  If, like my film companion, you can't buy that idea, you won't like the film, but if you go with the flow, it'll carry you along.  And for all its intellectual trickery, Inception  is at heart a very old-fashioned kind of film--a heist movie: the ill-assorted comrades, the meticulous planning, the botched execution.  The heist struture is what orders the narrative and makes the film, for all its hi-tech gizmo chic, surprisingly easy to follow.  (The deft skill of Nolan's infodumps also has plenty to do with it).

Once we see Inception as a heist movie rather than a Borgesian deconstruction of reality, it all makes rather more sense.  Its closest cousins are not The Matrix or Avatar, but Reservoir Dogs, The Italian Job and The Sting.  As with The Dark Knight, Nolan has made a first-rate genre picture, and none the worse for that.  See it if you get the chance.

Monday, August 23, 2010

'Serendip' is coming!

Publication of Editions Andreas Irle's Serendip, the German edition of Dragonchaser is nearly upon us.  The proprietor of Editions Andreas Irle--Andreas Irle, as coincidence would have it--has created a page on the EAI website, showcasing some excerpts and a downloadable first chapter.  Those of you of the German persuasion should proceed there immediately, without pausing to mention the World Cup.  The book is now available for pre-order from

Serendip is the first book of mine to be translated, and it's a strange experience to have book with my name on it, which I can't read.  How do I know the quality of the translation if I don't speak German?  There is no cast-iron assurance: it may be my story, but they're no longer my words.  In this case, I can be confident.  Andreas is a friend of many years's standing from the Vance Integral Edition, but more importantly, he is a well-respected translator of many of Vance's works.  Since I acknowledge my debt to Vance on my own work, it's reassuring to know that my translator has a similar understanding and enthusiasm.

Even if the worst has happened, and Andreas has chosen for his own purposes to interpolate observations along the lines of "Die einzige Sache, die schlechteres als Tim Stretton' stinkt; s-Arbeit ist der Autor selbst"*, at least I won't understand it.  And such a maverick edition would rapidly become an internet phenomenon, and swell both of our bank balances.  Andreas, you didn't...did you?

*"The only thing that stinks worse than Tim Stretton's work is the author himself"
Chichester Book Club

I'm delighted to be part of a new be part of a new site, the Chichester Book Club, which showcases the work of published writers working in my local area.  I know some of these writers already, but seeing everyone's work together shows what a diverse writing community Chichester has.  The site is the brainchild of Isabel Ashdown, whose debut novel Glasshopper  is garnering rave reviews.

Whatever your reading tastes, there's likely to be something for you (disclaimer: if you like fantasy, you're pretty well stuck with me), so why not pop over for a browse?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

What I've been up to

Things have been a bit quiet over here for the last two weeks (although followers of @timstretton on Twitter will have been vexed by periodic tweets).  I have not been wholly idle, and over the next couple of weeks I'll be blogging about:

~ my current work in progress, The Fall of the Fireduke
~ the imminent German publication of Serendip (Editions Andreas Irle's translation of Dragonhaser)
~ summer reading - the latest by LC Tyler and KJ Parker's fantasy Colours in the Steel 
~ Inception    
I have also spent a lot of the summer cooking, so if you want my observations on chicken cacciatore or greek salad omelette, I'm your man.

Monday, August 02, 2010

On My Travels: Budapest

I'm just back from five days in the Hungarian capital.  I can rarely visit a new city without wanting to reinterpret it in some fictional context, and Budapest was no exception.  It's a fascinating place, and what excited me most about was the sense of historical layering.  In the past couple of years I've visited New York, which seems to exist entirely in the present, and Bruges, which deliberately sets out to reflect nothing but its past.  Budapest, by contrast, seems at once to embody the countless waves of invaders and occupiers who have laid down the strata which make up the city.

I didn't expect the Turkish influence to be as strong as it was, but from the Cafe Kara near our hotel to the thermal baths dotted all over the city, the sense of the old Ottoman Empire was pervasive.  At the same time, though, a traditional European sensibility was in evidence:
Buda, overlooking the Hungarian Parliament
Budapest embraces and reinterprets its own history.  The impressive Vajdahunyad Castle, although looking antique, dates from the end of thre 19th century and incorporates Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture.  It's a deliberate contribution to Hungary's millennium celebrations in 1896:

Vajdahunyad Castle
If in Bruges it's easy to imagine you are walking through streets in the 15th century, in Budapest one gets a feeling of the early 20th century, as the tram and buildings in this street illustrate:

A journey from the past

We stayed in Andrassy Avenue, a long wide boulevard reminiscent of Hausmann's 19th century Paris boulevards.  Wikipedia has a picture of the street in 1896, and it's scarcely different today:

Andrassy Street - 1896 or 2010?
But while the look of the street may hardly have changed (even today there is still a second inner road where horse and carriage once trotted), since 1896 Hungary has experienced Fascist and Communist regimes (both grimly comemorated at the Museum of Terror on Andrassy Avenue itself).   Andrassy Avenue itself was renamed Stalin Avenue in the early 1950s and then, on Stalin's death, Avenue of the People's Republic.  Only on the fall of Communism was Andrassy restored to his inheritance.

The layering of history in every aspect of the city makes a visit seem like a live archaeological dig, with elements of the past six hundred years present simultaneously.  It's the kind of feeling we might get when immersed in Jack Vance's Dying Earth: Therlatch perhaps, Old Romarth, or Ampridatvir:

I have known the Ampridatvir of old; I have seen the towers glowing with marvellous light, thrusting beams through the night to challenge the sun itself. Then Ampridatvir was beautiful—ah! My heart pains when I think of the olden city. Semir vines cascaded from a thousand hanging gardens, water ran blue as vaul-stone in the three canals. Metal cars rolled the streets, metal hulls swarmed the air as thick as bees around a hive—for marvel of marvels, we had devised wefts of spitting fire to spurn the weighty power of Earth... But even in my life I saw the leaching of spirit. A surfeit of honey cloys the tongue; a surfeit of wine addles the brain; so a surfeit of ease guts a man of strength. Light, warmth, food, water, were free to all men, and gained by a minimum of effort. So the people of Ampridatvir, released from toil, gave increasing attention to faddishness, perversity, and the occult.
For a writer of fantasy, Budapest gives almost too much to work with, and shows us that fantasy can draw inspiration from periods other than the Middle Ages.  And for the tourist--well, you just have to visit the thermal baths.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"Are the days of the full-time novelist numbered?"

... asks Canadian sf writer Robert J. Sawyer.  Unsurprisingly, if gloomily, he concludes the answer is "yes".

In this, at least, I am ahead of the game, never having been a full-time novelist to begin with.  Sawyer concludes:

Maybe we will all indeed still be smiling as writing sf shifts from a career to a hobby. Still, lengthy, ambitious, complex works — works that take years of full-time effort to produce — aren’t things that could have been produced in any kind of reasonable time by squeezing in an hour’s writing each day over one’s lunch break while working a nine-to-five job.
 I'm not sure that I'd go so far, but such a model suggests that publishers' appetites for the "one book each year" series may be on the wane.  Maybe it's not all bad news.

Monday, July 19, 2010

It's Love

We all, perhaps, have an ideal: a yearning for something which we never quite achieve.  We spend our live looking, and then, when our attention is elsewhere, we may find it.

I am no different; I have spent the past thirty years looking for perfection.  And at last, I think, I have found it:
Even though I don't write my novels longhand, I have never given up looking for the perfect pen.  You see it in the image above--the Pilot V Pen (known in the US as the Varsity Pen).  It's a disposable fountain pen which unites ideal inkflow (neither too fulsome nor too miserly) with a nib at once smooth and firm.  It is not particularly attractive to look at, but pens are about utility, not aesthetics.  It is also--a factor which should never be overlooked--cheap.  Call me parsimonious if you will, but I prefer to have a pen I'm not afraid to take out of the house in case I lose it.

The Pilot V Pen is the perfect pen.  Anyone who enjoys the tactility of quill on paper should have one, or several.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Macmillan New Writing Watch

Low Life, by Ryan David Jahn

One of the unexpected pleasures of being part of Macmillan New Writing is seeing other writers on the imprint go on to achieve critical and commercial success.  Recently Ann Weisgarber, LC Tyler and Brian McGilloway have all been nominated for major prizes.
Ryan David Jahn has now, with his second novel, Low Life, been assimilated into the mainstream Macmillan imprint.  I always look forward to MNWers' crime novels (my former editor Will Atkins is now head honcho for Macmillan crime acquisitions, such is his ability to pick winners), and Low Life does not disappoint.

When Simon Johnson is attacked in his crummy LA apartment, he knows he must defend himself or die. Turning on the lights after the scuffle, Simon realises two things: one, he has killed his attacker; two, the resemblance of the man to himself is uncanny.
Over the coming days, Simon’s lonely life will spiral out of control. With his pet goldfish Francine in tow, he embarks on a gripping existential investigation, into his own murky past, and that of Jeremy Shackleford, the (apparently) happily married math teacher whose body is now lying in Simon’s bathtub under forty gallons of ice.
But Simon has a plan. Gradually, he begins to assume the dead man’s identity, fooling Shackleford’s colleagues, and even his beautiful wife. However, when mysterious messages appear on the walls around Simon’s apartment, he realises that losing his old self will be more difficult than he’d imagined. Everything points to a long forgotten date the previous spring, when his life and Shackleford’s first collided. As the contradictions mount, and the ice begins to melt, the events of the past year will resolve themselves in the most catastrophic way.
Combining gritty noir, psychological drama and dazzling plotting, Low Life is a shocking novel that announces Jahn as a brilliant new voice of modern America.
So goes the blurb, of which I am automatically wary.  The phrase "gripping existential investigation" invites immediate scepticism, and yet this is exactly what the novel proves to be.  Jahn builds on his exceptional ability--showcased in his debut Acts of Violence--to nail urban American life in the accretion of telling detail by adding a plot of clockwork precision: few writers would have the audacity to combine hidden quantum physics with a seamy naturalism, and fewer still would be able to pull it off.  The crime field is a crowded one, but with Low Life, Ryan David Jahn proves he is working in its upper reaches.