Thursday, February 23, 2012

How being a nerd turned me into a writer

I ran into Liz and Mark over at My Favourite Books blog over the summer, when they ran a special feature on Vikings. Somehow Shieldwall slipped under their radar, but they were kind enough to take a copy, and review it: you can read Mark's thought here

Looking through their blog I saw lots of the kind of books I like to read: Black Library for example, the publishing arm of Games Workshop, a company I've been a follower of since they started making lead figures I could use for Dungeons and Dragons, and then wargaming in general. And so we thought it would make an interesting blog to talk a little bit about something people don't usually admit to: being a nerd, and how it influences their writing.

I like these kind of pieces, because it forces a writer to analyse why and what they want to write. Check it out here

Monday, February 20, 2012

New Elizabethans: who will you vote for?! Tolkien, of course.

To mark the Diamond Jubilee, James Naughtie will be profiling the 60 public figures who have made the greatest impact in these islands during The Queen's reign - men and women who have defined the era and whose deeds will stand the test of time

So begins
the radio 4 website's attempt to define the age within which we live through the lives not of the queen, but of her subjects.

Who then were the 'old Elizabethans'? Well the obvious name would be William Shakespeare. Though if you asked people then, he's unlikely to have been on the list. He stands for the theater and English literature and literacy, which was starting to combine in the theaters and in the romantic art of poetry.

Sir Walter Raleigh sums up the privateers and also the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

There is something symbolic in a process such as this. Figures are nominated not only on behalf of their own achievements, but also for what they symbolise about the society they have lived within.

On Start the Week of Monday, 13th February, a couple of interesting names came up. Richard Branson, to stand for business, and the curious world of marketing within which we live.

Nick Leeson, the man who broke Bearings Bank, was also suggested, as he symbolised the financial crises that have rocked out world.

I'm going to nominate another writer who's not only had a profound effect on my life, but also on the world within which we live. In fact, I'd go so far as to say he's had a greater effect on the modern world than any other writer, except perhaps Dickens. Yes, it's JRR Tolkien.

Why Tolkien? It might seem an odd claim for a writer whose work was largely linguistic and personal, and based on a neglected area of interest: mainly medieval sources (Beowulf, Gawain, Sir Orfeo, Sir Launfal) or fairy tales, which have been thought of as suitable only for children.

Tolkien's work has reclaimed fantasy - or faerie - from the Tinkabelle and Flower Faries. He has brought magic back into the mainstream. Look at the modern world: it's dominated by stories that revolve around the fantastic: Avatar, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings films, computer games (the big business development of the last ten years), Game of Thrones. Much to the horror of established literary critics the passion people have for these kind of stories is not proving to be ephemeral and passing.

Tom Shippey goes into extensive and fascinating detail about Tolkien's affect 'Author of the Century' but this week I came across a few interesting facts about Tolkien, which show the depth and breadth of his affect on modern culture. Whole sections of bookshops are devoted to Fantasy writing, much of which owes it's inspiration to Tolkien.

Borges lamented the lack of 'epic' within English literature, but as Humphrey Carpenter, biographer of Tolkien, said: Tolkien brought saga and epic narratives back into English literature, from which they had been lacking.

There's surely no other author who has inspired such a vast creative response to his work: from art to literature, and music, with albums like Sally Oldfield's Water Bearers obviously based on Tolkien, but Led Zepplin's work less obviously so. The list doesn't stop there, however. The Beetles were so struck by Tolkien's work that even they considered doing a film based on Lord of the Rings, with George Harrison as Gandalf, Paul McCartney as Frodo, Ringo as Sam and John Lennon as Gollum.

The list could go on, but the fact is, Tolkien's work has had a greater effect on the modern world than any other author. Hardly surprising considering the Lord of the Rings is the second best selling book of the 20th Century, beaten only by the Bible.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Reading the World, Hong Kong Book Fair 2012

Of course, no one in Hong Kong is interested in reading. Or books. Or that's what people think. And then you turn up to the Hong Kong Book Fair and rub shoulders with the million or so other visitors, and then you begin to wonder.

China, is of course the place where the written word has a special status. And its a rewarding experience to see the enthusiasm and the excitment that books can provoke among all ages.

Last year, I felt a little anachronistic, being scheduled to speak about a novel on Dark Age England, in Hong Kong, the brightest neon of the modern, overlit age. But I had a very solid 100 or so writers, of whom a handful were ex pats and the rest a fascinated audience of Hong Kongers and Mainlanders.

I've just had a meeting with the people running the Book Fair this year. The theme is 'Reading the World.' I think it's going to be a great event, and I look forward to walking round and feeling the passion of the readers around us.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The How and Why of Self Publishing 1

Publishing is going through all kinds of changes, and as a practicing writer, I'm looking at the opportunities as much as the problems. Actually, I'm convinced the challenges are more for the publishers and the legacy bookshops. There are more benefits for writers. Benefit no 1: backlists.

It's an odd feature of the way the publishing industry has developed that it's not cost effective to keep backlist books in print. This extends to rather crazy examples. My first novel, a multi prize winning portrait of modern China, won international acclaim and was picked by the Washington Post as a Best Book of 2001 - but when my editor left Weidenfelt and Nicolson, I did too, and ended up at Little, Brown.

This book, The Drink and Dream Teahouse sold 11,000 hardbacks in the first year in the UK and Commonwealth markets - and whenever I go to readings people always ask me where can they buy it?

On the back of this interest I nagged my editor to get this novel back into print, but was distinctly unwilling. Ebook? meh. Paperback. Ugh.

Bugger the lost of them, I thought, I'll publish the thing myself.

I've been interested in the business model of new publishing houses who are going with a combination of print on demand and ebooks. But it's sobering looking at the finances.

Tips from self-published authors included 'get yourself a professional looking cover.'

So to start off I approached a top UK cover designer who told me that publishing houses pay £800+ for book covers. No wonder, then that it doesn't make sense for mainstream publishers to publish back lists. And this gets me thinking about the insanity of the publishing process, where average author's advances have been in steady decline over the last decade. Andrew Lownie reported in 2006 that of the 27 books he sold, with an average advance of £52,592. By 2006 the average had dropped to £31,070. Advances have been falling ever since, with most advances under £5,000.

And of course, skim off all these figures, the 10-15% that goes to author agents.

Obviously there is money in publishing, because there are profitable publishers and booksellers and agents throughout the industry. But precious little of it filters down to the authors. This will change. In fact, its probably changing already.

It's a fairly simple equation. Cut out the middle men. Middle men here equals agents, publishers, and bookshops. Never before has it been so easy and practical to get books to the audience. That's the principal I'm following this year as I set off on the self publishing journey.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Index Cards and the Art of Writing

You collect your notes and jottings, but how to get those into your novel?

I collect my notes and write them down onto index cards. This can be quite a time consuming process, but I find it's best to delay my initial enthusiasm for a story. To dam up the enthusiasm so that it starts to overflow. These notes can come from anywhere. I pick my reading pre-novel quite carefully. Poems I find are the best place, as they're quick and easy to skim through as I'm looking for phrases or sentences or descriptions that excite me. For Hastings, my forthcoming sequel to Shieldwall, I came across the Nobel Prize winning Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer, and found many details of a Scandinavian landscape that would have been familiar to many of my characters. At the same time I might be using details that I've picked up from Sagas, or something more left field, like one of the Tang Dynasty poets, whose laments for China during invasions from the steppes, were fertile ground for gleaning details for Shieldwall, which covers a similar time in English history.

And even though these Tang Dynasty poets are divided from Dark Age England by thousands of miles, in many ways they lived in similar worlds, divided by distance but not by time: so many of the basic details of common day life would be more familiar to an Anglo Saxon or a Viking than they are to the modern reader.

Often the story starts to develop as I'm thumbing through old notes. Sparks start to fly. Connections begin to form, and I learn things about my characters and about the challenges they face from the notes that I have gleaned. I think this is natural. The reason the phrases first excited me is because they spark something within my mind. And its from the same dark reaches of the sub conscious that the stories come back out again.

I keep these index cards in a drawer: and they're roughly divided between those that are only relevant to the modern world (advertising slogans, and DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS signs etc) and all the others. When I start a project, I sit down and go through them and pick out ones that speak to me and this particular story.

Then I pin them onto the wall, and surround myself with all these little bits of a story. They're like salvaged pieces from an enormous and mostly lost jigsaw puzzle, blutacked up all over my room. It's my job to find the right place for them within the 'picture'.

Eventually the day comes when you have to start writing. And here comes the practical bit. You remember the cards that sparked ideas - and look over all the overs. Some will speak to you, others will not. Some will claim a place within the scene you are about to write. I take all these and pin them up above my screen. And these are then the stepping stones for the scene ahead of me.

Because they are scraps that have come from so many places, they add a broad depth of detail or register to your writing. You can play around with them, by limiting yourself to only using notes from certain sources for various characters, which brings a subtle change of voice for each character. What you can do with this process is almost limitless. And you don't need to limit yourself to index cards and language. You can use pictures instead!