Sunday, September 25, 2011

Yes, I'll Write About You - Just Put That Sword Away

“Eltava... was someone who spent most of her life with me, and I loved her very deeply... I first saw her when she was a few weeks old, and I didn’t stop loving her from that day till the day I laid a very old woman to rest.”

These were the first words I wrote about Eltava, wanderer, swordswoman and companion to the Traveller.  They’re from Chapter Fourteen of At An Uncertain Hour, when the Traveller tells Sharf the story of how he and Eltava had, long ago, fought and escaped from the mountain-ghouls of Purwe.

Eltava’s grandparents appear earlier in the novel, as children, and I already had the idea that I’d like a later member of their family to be a companion of the Traveller.  I chose this particular story for him to tell for two main reasons.  Firstly, he’s trying to illustrate to Sharf how listening to your fear, far from being cowardice, can be an essential survival skill.  Secondly, I’d realised that I’d tended to make the Traveller’s relationships in the novel rather negative – either they turned bad or they came to a bad end.  I wanted to show him in a relationship about which he has no regrets.

And that was supposed to be that.  Eltava was one of many characters in that novel who cameoed in one chapter and then were gone; but she had other ideas.  Eltava insisted that she had to have a series of her own, and you don’t argue with a girl wielding a sword and willing to use it.

The first Eltava story was The Golden Serpent (recently published in Icarus) which was initially written in response to a challenge to reverse a fantasy cliché – I wrote about an action heroine rescuing a beautiful prince from an enchanted tower.  This was followed by Just Deserts (published in Quantum Muse), Heirloom (Afterburn SF) and two stories in which Eltava and the Traveller shared centre stage – Ancestral Voices (nanobison) and The Singer and the Song (Aoife’s Kiss).

All of these stories featured Eltava in her prime, ranging from early twenties to early thirties.  With female action characters, even more than male, the stereotype is to portray them as young, vibrant and beautiful, but as the opening quote suggests, there’s more than that to Eltava.  The next story I wrote about her, which has just been published in Shelter of Daylight, was The Eternal Sorceress, featuring Eltava approaching fifty, at a time when she faces the knowledge that her strength was still undiminished, and her skill was greater than it had been in her youth, but she’d grow weaker in the end, till she could do nothing but sit around telling stories of the old times.

This story also, as had Ancestral Voices, features a brief flashback to Eltava as a young child, here in a scene with her Grandma Rivil – last seen in At An Uncertain Hour at the age of thirteen.  This made me interested in exploring her early life too, and the most recent story I completed, Witch, centres on a fourteen-year-old Eltava’s relationship with the Traveller.  Witch is still unpublished but under consideration (fingers crossed) and I have a beginning and a vague outline for a story where she’s in her sixties.  I’ve a feeling she’s going to be every bit as fun at that age as at every other.

Two things in particular make Eltava different from traditional fantasy heroes of either sex, though perhaps rather less unusual now: her ethnicity and her sexuality.  Her grandparents, Rivil and Jikralt, are most like Chinese in real-world terms, while her mother is of a race not unlike Native American.  I’ve always imagined Eltava as looking somewhat like a female version of the bandit chief from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Although by no means a persecuted minority, Eltava is something of an outsider everywhere she goes.

The Traveller is very much the love of Eltava’s life, but she’s by no means monogamous.  In Ancestral Voices, she reflects that she needed danger too, conquest and heartache, and the wonder of someone who could feel swept away by her strength and mystery.  How could she have that from a man who had cleaned her up as a baby and played with her as a child?

Like the Traveller, Eltava is bisexual, and most of the affairs she’s shown having are with women.  In the scene quoted at the beginning, the Traveller speculates that maybe she found them easier to distinguish from me.  Then again, her background and her experiences with the Traveller have left Eltava with scant regard for custom and an inexhaustible appetite for all that life has to offer.  Perhaps it’s easier for her to acknowledge her desires that it would be for many.

An issue that comes to the fore in The Eternal Sorceress is she’s a mortal who’s both companion and lover to a man who never ages and will never die unless he’s killed violently.  The Traveller learns to take the good as well as the bad from this, but it’s harder for Eltava.  As the story opens, she’s finally accepted that she’s now a middle-aged woman with a young man, and eventually she’ll be an old woman with a young man.  It’s as she’s struggling with this fact that a solution presents itself.  Or does it?

Eltava’s life is full of incident, and the seven stories I’ve written about her have only scratched the surface.  I love working with her.  Though far from immoral (or even amoral) she’s less concerned than the Traveller with doing the right thing and more concerned with having fun.  When Sharf comments that she sounds perfect, the Traveller responds, Perfect, no.  She had a vile temper at times, and she could be rather more predatory in her affairs than I’d have liked.  Still... She was glorious, and I’d have trusted her with my life. I did, quite often.

Yes, we’re both in love with her.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Eternal Soceress Published in Shelter of Daylight

The Eternal Sorceress, a story about Eltava, wanderer, swordswoman and companion of the Traveller, features in the new edition of Shelter of Daylight.  This tale concerns an older Eltava, struggling with the emotional problems of being an mortal companion to an immortal, and a young, enthusiastic girl with a possible solution.

Shelter of Daylight is a biannual print anthology from the same stable as the excellent Aoife's Kiss and is edited by Tyree Campbell and Herika Raymer.  This edition also features stories by Melissa Mead, Vonnie Winslow Crist, Jonathan S. Pembroke, Matthew Keville, Anne E. Johnson, Matthew Bey, Heather Kuehl, Adnane Rehane, G.O. Clark, Rone Wisten, Milo James Fowler and Erika Holt, as well as plenty of poetry.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Novels I Threw Away

There’s a saying among writers that you have to write and throw away ten novels before you get one that’s publishable.  Or is it twelve?  Or some say you have to write a million words.  Whatever, it’s a lot.

Looking back, I pretty much ticked those boxes before my novel At An Uncertain Hour was published in 2009, although I haven’t actually thrown all of them away, as will become clear.  I was writing stories from the age of four, but I didn’t complete a novel on paper till I was in my twenties.

Yes, on paper.  I went through a strange phase, between about ten and twelve, of composing around fifteen novels in my head.  And this was composing novels, not just making up stories – I did the narrative, description, dialogue, even named the chapters.  I just didn’t write any of it down.

Just as curiously, they were all about espionage, a subject I’ve rarely returned to since (my story The Treason of Memory is the only exception I can think of, and that isn’t a typical treatment of espionage).  A few had contemporary settings, but most were SF, set in the aftermath of a solar-system-wide war.  I only remember odd bits, and I regret I didn’t get them down, but the reality is I probably wouldn’t have finished them in writing.  They gave me experience in constructing novels, at least, for when I started properly. 

Travels With a Unicorn – My first complete written novel was what would now be classified as YA fantasy, although at the time it would have been described as “for older children”.  It was a tale of a contemporary boy who gets whisked away to another world, befriends a unicorn, rescues a princess and goes through a journey of self-discovery.

It wasn’t a bad tale and, ironically, it got further in the publishing process than anything till At An Uncertain Hour – I even had an agent with a good reputation trying to sell it, but with no luck.  I wonder what would have happened if it had succeeded.  I’d have taken the contract like a shot, naturally, but I’m not sure how good it would have been for my writing.  Then again, I’m sure I’d have learnt a lot from the editorial process, but I might have ended stuck up in the YA field.

The Flame of Kargor – This was my first complete attempt at what’s now my Winter Legend trilogy.  In my teens, I’d begun an attempt to write this in blank verse (don’t ask – it seemed like a good idea at the time) which I’d abandoned, but this was a finished version of part one.  There were a number of things here, too, that seemed like a good idea, especially the decision to write it with no point of view.  I’d fallen in love with the Icelandic sagas, which succeeded in portraying character and motivation superbly without once letting the reader into any character’s head, and I thought I could do the same.  Having attempted it, I now have even greater admiration for the saga-writers’ skill.

I eventually rewrote this from the bottom up, but this early version at least enabled me to get to story laid out on paper.

The Goddess of Assh-Bafrzah – This started as a short story, relating the meeting of three characters, one of them a young, naive goddess.  I wrote several sequels – essentially sword & sorcery, though perhaps owing more to Leiber than Howard – before deciding to expand the original into a novel, cannibalising some elements from the other stories.

This is, I still think, a good story, but the telling had a lot of faults, the main one being that I didn’t really develop the characters and relationships as well on paper as they were in my head.  In particular, I seriously skimped the relationship between the goddess and her high priest, which should be central.  I’m intending to radically rewrite this, although it’ll have to wait its turn in the queue.  With a different title, though.

In Dreams Begins Responsibility – The sequel to The Goddess of Assh-Bafrzah, and only a sort-of novel, this was made up of six short stories/novelettes that followed both a sequence and theme, linked by the kind of summaries de Camp used in the Conan books he edited.

This too is scheduled to be rewritten in its due turn, but as a proper novel this time.  My plan is to base it around the last, and longest, of the stories, bringing some of the others in as episodes.  And the title – it’s quoted from Yeats, and I like the phrase, but it’s pretty awful as a title.

The Undercity Masque – Now, this was something entirely different – a contemporary novel set in a surreal version of London.  Perhaps influenced by Moorcock’s Cornelius stories, though without the SF element, it featured a character who had a completely different physical form every time she appears, yet was instantly recognisable, and a “narrator” who revealed on the final page that he wasn’t the narrator – his name was the first-person pronoun.  It was that sort of book.

I wrote it in a haphazard way, just writing individual chapters and gradually getting an idea of how they might fit together.  The third chapter was labelled “A Slightly Belated Prologue”.  It’s definitely a chalk-it-up-to-experience project, though I wouldn’t rule out revisiting some of the characters.

Darkflight – A much better contemporary novel, this was closer to magic realism than the surreal style of the previous effort.  The early part told the story of the main character’s childhood and teens, resolving into a battle for his soul between two sinister groups representing collective mediocrity and selfish individualism – though with some suggestion they were ultimately the same.  The later part was set in a ruined castle on the edge of the Wasteland – an area that doesn’t appear on any map because not even the map-makers will look at it.

I haven’t entirely abandoned Darkflight, and I may try to rewrite it one day.  One serious problem would be that a fair amount of it is about computers – and it was written in the eighties, so it’s mostly obsolete.  Also, if I did rewrite it, I’d probably mix the two main sections together, rather than telling the story in strict chronological order.

The Tryst Flame – The rewritten version of The Flame of Kargor, this got the story much closer to being right.  Besides having actual POVs, the characters were considerably stronger, some of the more random sequences of events were cut, and the whole story flowed much more smoothly.  It still had many faults, though, one being that I hadn’t quite got out of the Tolkien-influenced assumption that an epic fantasy novel has to include regular poems and songs.  This had many and, although I was writing pretty good poetry elsewhere, the constraints of the context meant these weren’t up to standard.

This one certainly hasn’t been abandoned.  I’ve done two major rewrites since then, changing a number of details and characters (and cutting the poems), but essentially adapting rather than replacing.  I think it’s just about ready to go, now, and I’m working on the rest of the trilogy.

Children of Ice – I knew how the Winter Legend began and ended, but I’d always been hazy as to how the two would link up.  After I’d finished The Tryst Flame, I had an idea that made everything fit into place, and I wrote Children of Ice (a title I’d used for a poem nearly twenty years earlier) as the second part of the trilogy.  This, too, has been radically rewritten twice – or rather, I’m in the middle of the second rewrite at the moment – though I’ve only recently written most of part three.

The Unicorn Queen – Like my early, unwritten novels, the origin of this was an unwritten sequence of scenes that kept going through my mind.  I established an origin and began writing with very little idea of what was going to happen beyond what I'd already imagined.  What came out was a blend of alternative history and fantasy, set in a real-world but imaginary eleventh-century kingdom called Westria, that settled down into a quest for the Grail.

The main problem with The Unicorn Queen was its length.  At a word-count that’s unlikely to be accepted from a writer whose surname doesn’t happen to be Martin, Jordan, Rowling or a few others, there weren’t many openings to submit it.  I did half decide to try splitting it into a duology, but the growth of e-publishing may have made the market a little more flexible about length.  It needs some repolishing, especially in the opening chapter (there’s no point submitting a novel if the first chapter isn’t right) but I still hope to see this one published.

On a Darkling Plain – My vampire novel.  Well, you have to do one, don’t you?  This was very much urban fantasy, set in contemporary London, with my own personal take on vampirology, though with respect for the tradition and a few backward nods (a major character with the surname Harker, for instance).  I think there were a few specific things in this that made it a hard sell, which I may be able to tweak out of the problem zone and make this a possibility for future publication.

I actually started writing a sequel (loosely) called Ignorant Armies (both titles come from the same passage, at the end of Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach) but abandoned that after half a dozen chapters.  It’s still there, ready to rise from its grave, if On a Darkling Plain should ever be published.

And then, in 2003-2004, I wrote At An Uncertain Hour, which was accepted by StoneGarden in 2007 and published in 2009.  Since then, I’ve been working on the Winter Legend trilogy, after which I have five novels lined up to go.  By the time I’ve finished those, I’ll hopefully have twice as many new ideas, which will benefit from all my past novels, from the unwritten espionage ones to what I’m working on now.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Writers Who've Changed My (Writing) World

I thought it might be interesting to have a brief discussion about ten authors who’ve strongly influenced me in one way or another.  I want to emphasise that this isn’t a list of my favourite authors (though many would appear in that list) nor of authors I’d recommend all writers to be influenced by (ditto).  This is a fairly random list of my (sometimes slightly off-the-wall) influences, in the approximate order I first encountered them.

A.A. Milne

The reason I’m starting with Milne is that I gather my parents were reading me the Winnie the Pooh stories pretty much from the time I was brought home from the hospital, and I’m certain they had a profound influence on my early desire to tell stories.  I dimly remember making up stories before I could write, and I wrote my first “book” when I was four.  I’d both read and heard other authors by that time, but Milne was the ultimate.

The Pooh stories (the real ones, not the Disneyfied versions) are both well told and well written.  The characters and their relationships are drawn vividly and economically – my touchstone for characterisation in a phrase is still “Rabbit, who never let things come to him, but always went and fetched them.”  Although I’ve never written anything especially like Milne, he was there right at the start.

William Shakespeare

Well, duh, as Hamlet might have said.  I’ve both read and watched Shakespeare’s plays since childhood and loved pretty much everything.  Memorable productions I’ve seen on the stage include Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens in Much Ado About Nothing, Judi Dench and Donald Sinden in Twelfth Night, and two memorable productions of Hamlet starring Alan Bates and Ian McKellan.

Shakespeare’s so much part of the scenery that it can be easy to leave him out when assessing influences.  As with Milne, it’s difficult to quantify his influence on me, but the two areas where Shakespeare is peerless are his command of the English language and the quality of his characters.  If I can do either half as well as he did, I’ll be happy.

Ernest E. Tucker

Um, who?  Well, all I know about Tucker is that he published a children’s book in 1961 called The Story of Knights and Armor (suggesting he was American).  My local library had a copy, which spent about as much time in my hands as it did on their shelves, but neither my parents nor the librarian could track down a copy for me.  More than forty years later, the internet succeeded where they failed, and I now own a copy.

As a kid, I was mad about the Arthurian legends in particular and knights in general, and this book was perfect for me.  Alternating factual and fictional chapters, it tells of the development of the armoured soldier, through the Roman legions and up to the medieval knight, finishing with the advent of guns.  It’s simplified, naturally, but in forty-odd years of more serious medieval study, I’ve found nothing in it that was wrong.  Pretty much any battle scene I’ve ever written can be traced to this book.  I’ve no idea who Ernest E. Tucker was, but I raise a glass to him.

Rosemary Sutcliff

Before I got into fantasy, my big reading love was historical fiction.  The authors I particularly read ranged from Geoffrey Trease (good but slightly dumbed down for kids) to Mary Renault (heavy, adult and awesome), but I think Sutcliff was my favourite.  Although she wrote books both for younger children and for adults, her main body of work would nowadays be described as young adult – a classification that didn’t exist back then.

Her books were based on good, solid history – mostly ranging from Roman Britain to early medieval – her characters and their relationships were interesting, and she explored interesting historical and personal issues.  Her best known is The Eagle of the Ninth (recently filmed) which I loved, but my favourite was always Knight’s Fee, set a generation after the Norman Conquest.

There are obvious parallels between historical fiction and the type of epic fantasy I write, where great events unfold in a pseudo-historical settings, and the historical novels I’ve read have probably influenced me as much as any fantasy.  Rosemary Sutcliff is, in my opinion, the best of these.

J.R.R. Tolkien

I’d read a little fantasy, notably E. Nesbit, C.S. Lewis and the Arthurian legends, as well as loving traditional English and Scottish ballads like Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, but it wasn’t my main fare until, at the age of fifteen, I read Lord of the Rings for the first time.  It completely blew me away, as it has so many people.

It marked perhaps the biggest landmark in the life of my imagination, not only because of the book itself, but I’d recently had the idea for the story that essentially spawned most of what I’ve written since, and was struggling to develop it.  Tolkien showed me what it was like to have epic ambitions, and I’ve never looked back.

Tolkien isn’t an influence to be taken in lock, stock and barrel.  Much of what he did would be scornfully rejected by any publisher if it came from an unknown author, from the infodumps to the frequent songs to the wandering POV.  It works triumphantly in Tolkien’s case (in my opinion) because he does it all so well.  He remains to this day my absolute favourite author.

James Branch Cabell

I believe (though I’m not absolutely sure) that Cabell’s Jurgen was the first fantasy novel I read after my discovery of Tolkien and, quite apart from anything else, it showed me just how varied fantasy can be.  Cabell had the knack of mixing High Romance with High (and sometimes Low) Comedy, and showed me how serious fantasy can have an immense sense of fun.

Cabell tends not to be discussed much these days by fantasy readers, many of whom seem to think the genre started with Tolkien, but he’s influenced a great many fantasy authors.  Neil Gaiman makes a few references to him, and his portrayal of Hell in the Sandman series seems to be a direct nod to Jurgen.

He was very much of his time and culture – writing nearly a hundred years ago in the southern States – and his gender and racial stereotypes don’t always read easily these days.  Nevertheless, if you can look past that and accept the books for what they are, they’re immense fun.

Mervyn Peake

I first read Titus Groan around the same time as Jurgen, and the rest of the trilogy over the next few years.  Like Tolkien (though for very different reasons) I’d recommend Peake as someone to be influenced by judiciously, rather than necessarily trying to write like him.

Peake’s great strength lies in the awesomeness of his detail.  He built Gormenghast Castle, in words, stone by stone and person by person, with a level of description few authors come close to.  It could be argued that the plot of the entire trilogy could be written in a single moderate-length novel, but that’s not the point.  The trilogy’s a detailed painting of a place and its community, and Peake wouldn’t have been telling his story if he’d stuck to relating the plot as quickly as possible.

With the possible exception of one story of about 1000 words, I’ve never written anything that’s come close to Peake’s level of description, but I believe that any successful description I’ve written owes something to the architect of Gormenghast.

Michael Moorcock

I grew from a child to an aware teenager in the 1960s, and I make no apology for the effects that’s had on me.  Mike Moorcock, though he’s continued to produce fine works, is pre-eminently a fantasy writer of the 60s.  Perhaps one the most prolific writers of speculative fiction – he famously used to write novels (albeit slim ones) in three days – one of the things he showed me was that a broad palette was a good thing.  His books range from the high seriousness of the Eternal Champion fantasy to the weirdness of the Cornelius cycle to the exuberant fun of the End of Time, and many more.

I think, though, the main element I took from Moorcock is the interconnectedness.  Cabell’s works were also very interconnected, but Moorcock went several steps further, interleaving stories and characters that could surely have no link.  Though I haven’t taken this to anything like the same extent, using the multiverse theory to cross-fertilise separate worlds, I’ve always enjoyed having characters wander through many different stories, and elements from one story overlapping into another, despite vast differences of place and time.

Karl Edward Wagner

OK, I’m sure quite a few of you are asking “who?” again.  I’m not touting Wagner as a Great Author (though I think he’s a good one) but he had a specific and profound influence on me.  He wrote a series of S&S novels and short stories in the 70s about a character called Kane – supposedly the biblical Cain, wandering the prediluvian world.  What I found fascinating was that, because Kane is immortal, each story takes place against the backdrop of a different age, a different land and different customs, although historical references are sometimes made to places in other stories.  Anyone who’s read my Traveller stories can probably see at once how this has influenced me.

Actually, I think it’s a pity the Kane series isn’t better known.  While the actual plots are usually fairly standard S&S fare, Kane is a fascinating character, and Wagner’s great talent is to evoke haunting and intriguing backgrounds.  Perhaps my favourite example is a short story called Lynortis Reprise.  While the plot is a straightforward treasure hunt, much of the story takes place in the ruins of a sacked city, inhabited by those of both sides from the war who are too badly maimed to fit in.  Here, however, they’ve developed a society based on mutual aid which still haunts my memory thirty years after I read it.

Iain Banks

Also writing under the fiendishly subtle pseudonym of Iain M. Banks, he’s possibly my favourite living author.  He writes mainstream, SF and fantasy novels with an expansive exuberance, populating them with vivid, memorable characters.  Unusually for me, I probably marginally prefer his mainstream books to his speculative ones, but basically I love them all.

Banks, with or without his M, has many great qualities I’ve benefited from reading, but perhaps the most obvious one is his brilliant control of multiple time-streams.  Few, if any, of his novels keep the beginning, middle and end in the simple order – one, in fact, starts in the middle and proceeds alternately back to the beginning and forwards to the end, a trick I also tried less successfully some years before I read his version.  Perhaps my favourite, The Crow Road, has a “present” narrative, in which the main character is investigating an old family secret, interspersed with an out-of-order narrative of the events he’s investigating.

This might seem self-indulgent, but what it achieves is to give the information in the best order to unravel the secrets.  This is Banks’s preferred approach and has deeply influenced my own writing.  I was reading The Crow Road at the time I wrote At An Uncertain Hour, and his example helped me organise my narrative in a similar way – even though the flashbacks covered a few millennia, rather than a couple of generations.

Well, there are my ten authors – and now I’ve finished, I want to add Homer, S.T. Coleridge, Herman Hesse, Fritz Leiber, Mary Renault, Ursula LeGuin, Alan Garner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mary Gentle...  Maybe I should make it twenty writers, but I’d be thinking of more while I’m writing those. 

As someone else who’s influenced me profoundly – Bob Dylan – once said, Open up yer eyes an’ ears an’ yer influenced an’ there’s nothing you can do about it.