Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Promotion of the Shameless Variety

A short story of mine - The Dark Blessing - is due to appear in the very fine ezine Silver Blade at the end of this month, and, in addition Beneath Ceaseless Skies has chosen another of my short pieces - The Bone House - for an Audio Fiction Podcast. And... my short story What Dread Words has been chosen by Carol Hightshoe to appear in Arcane Whispers 2: The Best of Sorcerous Signals.

All of these things make me rather happy, so what better time to indulge in a little more shameless self promotion?

For all those who might find themselves interested, my various bits and pieces of fiction can be found at the following locations (some right now, some later in the year)

Emerald Eye, The Best Irish Imaginative Fiction

Yesterday Today Tomorrow: A Fable
Everyday Fiction

The Song The Soldiers Sang: A Fable
Everyday Fiction

Deepest Black
Jupiter SF

The Substance of A Dream
Mirror Dance

The Fearsome Knight and the Little Dragon: A Fairytale
Mirror Dance

The Season Without Sun

What Dread Words
Sorcerous Signals

The Iron Morning In The Metallic Sunrise
The Nautilus Engine

The Glass Cage
The Dark Blessing
Silver Blade

Coming Soon:

The Children of Badb Catha
The Phantom Queen Awakes, Morrigan Books

The Bone House
Beneath Ceaseless Skies (scheduled for July 2009)

All That Grows
The Absent Willow Review (June 2009 issue)
The Sins of the Land
Dark Fire (June 2009 issue)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Business of Murder: Writing and Rewriting

In the last few months I’ve had a fair few requests from editors for rewrites to various stories – in some ways it’s a good thing since it means that the editors in question are taking the submissions seriously enough to grub around in them and find those flaws which exists in virtually all my early drafts (and by early draft I mean anything and everything from the first to the final one where an editor goes ‘Yes, I’d like to buy it/ publish it now’).

Generally, I find that most rewrite requests seem to address the question of pacing in my stories. I’m a great believer in the long opening, in giving the reader a chance to settle into the story and the world it is set in, but these days I’m increasingly beginning to realise that perhaps the ‘medium opening’ is more efficient.

I’m also beginning to realise that not every word I put on paper necessarily deserves to be there.

A case in point is a story which I’m currently working on (superstition prevents me from naming either the story or the market, since I’ve always found that the best and surest way to put the hoodoo on something is to claim that something is a sure thing).

Briefly, it’s a sword and sorcery fantasy that deals with the nature of obsessive love (and also features some stirring battles, a bit of snappy dialogue, a scene set in a medieval coffee shop and a chess game!)

The first reaction from the market in question was ‘we liked it but can you trim the opening scene?’ My first reaction was ‘but I’ve made it as lean and efficient as I can, how can I possibly shorten it?’ Turns out that I could shorten it quite easily without losing either the sense or the build up.

Most of the cuts consisted of getting rid of superfluous words and rearranging the dialogue a bit so that, rather than three characters having a terse conversation, it became two characters having the same conversation without the third butting in all the time(!)

As a result of this and other rewrite requests, I’m beginning to realise that an awful lot of the business of writing consists of the business of rewriting, of paring things down or building them up so that the story can stand on its own. Very often writers tend to believe that the implicit is the explicit – that simply because they are fully aware of what is going on then the reader will also be fully aware. As a result, it’s often the case that readers and editors become confused or miss a vital point that’s staring them in the face (“but it was implied that the Jade Monkey was in the tower all the time”) when in fact it’s writer’s fault for not supplying the correct information.
It doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that readers need to be led by the hand through the intricacies of a story - readers are intelligent enough to pick up on the subtleties, red herrings and moments of misdirection which form part and parcel of any good fiction – it does, however, mean that everything needs to be present and correct for them to do so.

In plot terms it’s the old maxim of Chekhov’s Gun (if a gun is going to be fired in the third act then it needs to be seen in Act 1), a maxim that can apply to characters equally as well as props. A coward does not become a hero for no good reason, a hero does not simply run away from overwhelming odds simply because the plot demands it or, at a more basic level, if you tell the reader that Throd the Invincible is carrying an axe, it had better not change into a sword half-way through the narrative (unless, of course, Throd loses his axe and is forced to use a discarded sword despite the fact that he’s not a very good swordsman thus racking up the tension in the final battle with Vertorveen the Skull Eater. Of course, by calling the character Throd the Invincible in the first place you’ve already given the outcome away… but Throd the Rarely Beaten doesn’t have the same ring at all).

I always try to make my first drafts as polished as I possibly can – which is why I take such a long time over short fiction – but very often there is something (a line, a character, a lapse of internal logic) which causes the story to stumble anyway. Hence the business of rewriting.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that the story needs to be torn down and started from the beginning – I have enough confidence in my muse for that to happen very seldom – but it does mean that sometimes a character or concept or particular line of sparkling prose has to go. Yes, it’s time to ‘murder your darlings’ as the old saying goes, although I like to think of it as pruning rather than full scale slaughter. Sometimes the pruning comes from the author and sometimes it comes from the editor. Both are equally as valuable. After all, the business of any good editor is to publish good fiction and very often that outside eye, removed from the emotional attachment which most writers have to their work, can be invaluable.

Of course sometimes a problem can be fixed by a less abrupt method than the murder of darlings. Bringing a character, scene or event forward in the narrative means that both the story and the reader get to the crux of things that little bit more swiftly – and getting to the crux even half a page earlier can sometimes really increase the pace of a story (Throd meets Vertorveen on page three rather than page four, for instance, and it turns out that they are both questing for the Skull of Kalashtureen – Throd to grind it to powder so that he may heal his dying love and Vertorveen because he fancies a light snack before dinner).

This doesn’t mean that all fiction should hurtle towards its climax, rather that the sense of moving forward should always be there – the things that the characters say and do should always move the story towards the next scene, and the next, and the next. Often, those killable darlings are the things that prevent the story from moving forward, those moments where the writer has drawn overt attention to the fact that this is a story. In such cases it isn’t murder… it’s justifiable homicide.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Substance... or style?

In the early part of the twentieth century the French writer and critic Georges Polti published his Thirty Six Dramatic Situations, a descriptive list which was created by to categorize every dramatic situation that might occur in a story or performance.

The end result, arrived at by an intimate study of classical Greek texts, plus classical and contemporary French works, was a list of dramatic situations designed to aid writers in the construction of their work. By using the various situations either alone or in conjunction with one or several more, Polti sought to provide a solid analysis of fiction, rather than, say, a cast-in-stone check-list of exactly what needs to go into a story, novel or play.

Since then, there have been many, many books and articles written on the subject, some defining the basic number of dramatic situations still further (some claiming that there are only 20 basic plots, others lowering the number to 7, while Robert E. Heinlein famously declared that there are only 3: Boy Meets Girl/ The Little Tailor/ The Man Who Learns Better).

The general consensus of opinion over the years is that, regardless of which number you finally decide upon, the number of plots available to any writer are strictly limited. Add to this the constriction of genre and the number tends to drop even further.

Of course, all of this depends upon what exactly one regards plot as. In the classical detective novel or story the plot is generally thus: a crime has been committed and a detective is called in to solve the case. Taking this as an example, we can see that even such a limited plotline can encompass a wide range or writers and outcomes. The cerebral mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the two-fisted stories of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammet, the cutting satire of Ross McDonald, the gritty police procedurals of Ian Rankin or Ed McBain or the genteel country house mysteries of Agatha Christie or Niago Marsh. Stretch a point and you also encompass the work of Len Deighton, John le Carré, Ian Fleming or Eric Ambler.

With fantasy fiction the field might seem to be a little wider, but with much fantasy the plot boils down to: the world is being threatened by evil and it is up to the hero, either alone or with companions, to fight and destroy it: The Lord of the Rings, the Elric Saga, David Gemmell’s Drenai and Sipstrassi novels, and any God’s amount of doorstop tomes that have the words ‘Book One of…’ emblazoned on them.

So, given that the field for any genre storyteller is rather narrow, what is best… style or substance? Is it better to enthrall the reader with beautifully written prose and dazzling imagery (al a Clark Ashton Smith or Mervyn Peake or Michael Moorcock at his most outlandish) or is it better to craft stories that fit together as beautifully as a finely made antique chair, where the basic plot might not be outstanding but the characters and their struggles draw the reader in and keep him reading (David Gemmell, for instance, was a master at creating believable, all-too human characters, but rather often his plots boiled down to ‘siege of the week’ – a flaw which never stopped his stories being anything other than compelling).

In an ideal world the answer is ‘both’. Novels such as Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ manage to combine a literary aesthetic with a tightly focused series of events (take away the nadsat argot in the novel and it’s still a brilliantly told story). Whereas a novel such as Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’ loses sight of its original jumping off point (the death of the chauffeur) rather early on, without damaging either the story or the characters in any significant way.

Of course, all writers develop a style either consciously or unconsciously. The simple act of placing one word after another is unique to the individual and whereas the nuts-and-bolts of writing can be taught (there are, after all, literally hundreds if not thousands of books and articles on the subject) style is very much a matter of individual choice.

Style or substance? The choice is yours.