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Here Be No Dragons

When I was much younger, I loved dragons. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy¬† and of course The Hobbit were amongst my favourite books. As a teenager I devoured all of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books. When I got a job as an ecologist-cum-illustrator and had access to an art studio and free batik supplies, one of my first spare-time projects was a huge Chinese dragon that still hangs on my bedroom wall.

And yet somewhere between then and now, my love died. Maybe I just read too many fantasy novels with dragons in them and grew jaded, the way other readers do with elves and dwarves. All I know is, I now avoid books with dragons in them like the plague.

There are two downsides to this. Firstly, I have friends who write books about dragons; Stephen Deas, for example, whom I’ve known since he was a fellow struggling writer. I’d love to be able to say “I’ve read all your books, mate, and they’re brilliant!” — but that would mean reading about d– d– those big mythological reptiles. And there are, to be honest, far too many books in my TBR pile already.

Secondly, and worse, are the books that don’t even mention dragons on the cover but manage to sneak them in nonetheless, often as some kind of draco ex machina (which is maybe the source of my phobia in the first place). One may even be several dragon-free books into a series before the beasts raise their ugly, scaly heads.

To me it feels like the author has run out of cool ideas for the books, or is trying to prop up flagging sales by introducing a popular trope. Maybe that’s a mistaken assumption on my part and the dragons were being kept hidden to increase the impact of their revelation, but there’s often zero foreshadowing, which makes me think not.

I’m currently in two minds about reading the rest of A Song of Ice and Fire, since the “dragon eggs” given to Daenerys in the first book are looking suspiciously real and ripe to hatch. About the only “dragon book” I can still read is Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!, probably because anyone who can come up with a tiny fire-farting dragon named after the father of jet propulsion* deserves my admiration for sheer pun-tastic inventiveness.

So, whilst many of my own projects are still no more than vague glimmerings of inspiration, there is one thing I can guarantee: there will be no living dragons in them. If you find any, you have my permission to have me committed, as I will clearly have lost it.

* in the Discworld, “whittle” is the term for the runt of a dragon litter

When good news is no news

One of the hardest parts of being a professional writer is, well, being professional. Especially nowadays, when we all live our lives in the public glare of Google and Twitter. On the one hand you want to use your author name online to increase your profile; on the other, you have to be on your best behaviour at all times. Worst of all is when you have good news that you would love to share with the world, but can’t because it’s all still unofficial.

So, this post is necessarily short because I don’t have much I can say right now. I just wanted to record this date in my blog for posterity. And to assure my would-be readers out there that a certain roguish swordsman is getting ever closer to his print debut ūüėČ

Kicking off Book Two

I’m just in the process of doing Lesson 2 of “How to Write a Series”, and it’s proving very fruitful. This lesson is mostly about what needs to go into the first book, and thankfully I seem to be pretty much spot-on in terms of introducing the theme and conflict right at the beginning. The big “eureka” for me, however, was the bit about making sure each book in the series starts in a similar way.

For example, in a detective series, scene one usually features the discovery of the body or, in the case of a private eye, a new client knocking on the door. Book One of my series starts with a chase scene that ends up dragging my hero into the “mission” that will form the core of the book. So, it seems logical to start Book Two with another action scene that kickstarts the story.

I did have a first scene drafted that, until this lesson, I was going to use pretty much as-is. However that’s all out of the window now. Looking at it more closely, I realised it’s rather quiet in tone and has neither a connection to the main plot nor any fantasy content – not much of a set-up! So, I’ve brainstormed something that’s not only more interesting and dramatic in itself but is tied to the main plot and forces the hero to take an active role instead of waiting to be summoned by his masters.

I’m so excited about this new Chapter 1 that it’s hard not to tell everyone about all the cool things I’m having to research for it – but I’m going to bite my tongue and get on with writing it. The rest of the world will just have to wait to find out!

Free Short Story: Hopeful Monsters

Back in the summer of 2009 I started an online writing course, and one of the earliest exercises was to come up with story ideas. To kickstart my imagination I went over to and picked out some themed anthologies that looked interesting. One was “The Tangled Bank“, a project celebrating the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. I decided that if I, a biologist, couldn’t write a saleable short story for this semi-pro market, I might as well hang up my laptop! So, I set to work and soon came up with an idea. The first draft (about 400-odd words) was written on my iPhone, then I polished and expanded it to fit the anthology’s 1000-word minimum.

What I ended up with was a Kipling-esque fairytale that’s nothing like my usual writing, but I was pleased with the result and so I sent it off. To my delight the editor was on the lookout for short, light pieces to balance the long, serious SF he’d received, so he snapped it up! And so it was that I got my first ever fiction sale.

The anthology came out in February 2010, with exclusive electronic publishing rights for one year only, so I thought I’d celebrate the first anniversary by sharing this story for free:

Hopeful Monsters: A Darwinian Fairytale

For the record, the story gets its title (and its original inspiration) from an early and now-discredited theory of evolution whose name had stuck in my mind from my undergraduate days.

How To Write A Series

When I did Holly Lisle’s How To Revise Your Novel course last year, she offered to provide a free bonus course for graduates, and it was “writing a series” that got the most votes from students. Which is ironic, since the bonus from her other course was “How Not to Write a Series”. I think the problem was that, despite Holly’s protests that series are a recipe for the dreaded Three-Book Death Spiral, publishers and readers still ask for them, so we writers need to know how to deal with that demand.

I confess that I wrote my Elizabethan novel with a series in mind. The premise is just too big to fit into one book (well, maybe if it were a honking great quarter-million-word tome like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell). So, unsurprisingly, I’ve been asked about ideas for sequels. It’s been a godsend, therefore, for this course to come up just in time for me, when I’m planning Book Two.

So far I’ve done the exercises for Week One of the four-week course, and I’m relieved to say that I appear to have got it right so far. Or rather, the way the story and characters evolved during my earliest attempts at revisions were what put me on the right track. The first draft was OK but it really didn’t have the depth of character motivation needed to power a series, even a short one. I realise now that I had to go through that process of evolution, blindly following my instincts, even though it led to a train-wreck almost beyond my ability to fix. Otherwise I would have ended up with a lesser novel, entertaining but probably not all that compelling.

Next time, I won’t be stumbling in the dark, thank goodness. But no wonder so many writers take many years and many failed attempts to get published. There’s so much to learn, and whilst there are no shortcuts as such, there’s no shame in learning from the pros. The “How to Write a Series” course might only be confirming that I’ve done the right things in Book One – but if/when I design a new series from scratch, I’ll feel more confident of knowing what I’m doing. Like all Holly’s courses, I strongly recommend it to any writer who wants to get published. And don’t we all?

Find out more about the course at Holly Lisle’s Novel Writing School.

Classic movie: Scaramouche

One of the big influences on my imagination when I was growing up, and therefore on my writing as an adult, was the classic swashbuckling movies of the 1940s and 1950s. I thought it would be good to share some of my favourites on this blog – and of course it’s a great excuse to watch them again!

Scaramouche (1952)

Adapted from Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 novel of the same name, Scaramouche is set in late 18th century France. The hero, Andr√© Moreau (Stewart Granger), is the bastard son of a nobleman and best friend to Philippe de Valmorin, a hot-headed young revolutionary. Upon being told that his father, the Count de Gavrillac, has cut off his allowance, Moreau goes to visit him, and on the way meets the beautiful Aline (Janet Leigh) and falls in love with her. Unfortunately Aline turns out to be de Gavrillac’s daughter and therefore Moreau’s half-sister. Worse still, the count has just died, leaving his bastard son penniless.

When de Valmorin is killed in a duel by the arrogant Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), Moreau vows vengeance; but to have a chance of succeeding, he has to learn the art of the sword from the finest fencing masters in France. In the meantime he goes into hiding with a commedia dell’arte troupe, where he takes on the masked role of Scaramouche. This throws him back into the arms of his one-time lover, the fiery-tempered Lenore (Eleanor Parker), who plays Columbine in the same troupe. Meanwhile Aline, who is a ward of the crown, is introduced¬† to de Maynes by the queen and they become engaged, though Aline is still in love with Moreau.

Thanks to Moreau’s popularity as Scaramouche, the troupe is invited to play in Paris. Persuaded to join the new National Assembly, whose deputies are being systematically killed off in duels by the aristocratic members of the opposition, Moreau fights several duels and wins. Believing himself ready to take on de Maynes, he tries to call him out – but each time, de Maynes is absent on the queen’s business, thanks to Aline’s scheming.

Aline cannot keep the two men apart forever, however. Her plans go awry when she persuades de Maynes to attend the theatre where Moreau and the troupe are performing. Recognising his enemy, Moreau leaps up onto the balcony, and there follows one of the longest, and possibly best, swordfights in movie history, ranging through the theatre.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I think it will come as no surprise to find out that Moreau wins the fight and gets the girl in the end (which girl, I will leave you to find out!).

There’s so much to love about this film, I hardly know where to start, although the final swordfight, with Granger in a stunning black-and-white Renaissance costume (including, as Queenie from Blackadder II would say, “very tight tights”) is the highlight and most memorable scene by far. And whilst its female characters may be a little stereotypical by modern standards, Aline’s spirit and cunning make her rather more likable than the typical wilting heroine of pre-women’s-lib romance. One of my favourite scenes is the one in which she feigns a tantrum in order to divert de Maynes away from duelling, played by Leigh with such mischievous delight that I was cheering her on!

Watching it again, I was struck by how much this film influenced my first novel in particular, from the swordsman hero and travelling players, to the blend of action, politics and romance. It may be escapist nonsense, but it’s very much my kind of escapist nonsense!

Stumbling towards a sequel

So, now Book One has flown the nest, it’s time to turn my attention to Book Two. I’ve been asked for a 2-3 page synopsis to go with Book One so, being a wannabe pro, that’s what I’m working on.

I wrote what I intended to be a sequel way back in November 2007, for NaNoWriMo. Unfortunately that story, in addition to being incomplete, has practically no magic in it at all, so it really won’t do in its current state. On the other hand I love the setting (Venice) and a lot of nifty research went into it, so I wanted to salvage something from the ruins.

I’ve therefore spent the last week brainstorming ideas, writing out index cards, reading various books and articles on revising, musing in the bath, and writing out some more index cards. The result is a thousand-word synopsis which, whilst a bit thin and vague in places, has the makings of a decent book. Most of my best ideas happen in the white heat of creation, not in the logical, left-brain mode required for outlining, so I suspect the details will change. But the story? Right now I like it. A lot.

With any luck I’ll get to write it soon…

Book Giveaway – February

January winners

Well, I’ve run the random number generator, and the lucky winners of the January giveaway are Tanja (“The First Five Pages”) and Em (“Slights”). Congratulations, and if you don’t get a confirmation email from me, do let me know! Commiseration to the losers, but there are plenty more books up for grabs!

February giveaways

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

This month’s “how to write” book¬† is the inspirational classic by Dorothea Brande. With chapter titles such as “What Writers are Like”, “Harnessing the Unconscious” and “Writing on Schedule”, this slim but eloquent volume covers all the fundamental aspects of unleashing the writer within. Although written way back in 1934, the advice is just as relevant in the 21st century (well, apart from the bits about owning two typewriters!).

The Stormcaller (Book One of The Twilight Reign) by Tom Lloyd

Another convention freebie, this time from Gollancz, The Stormcaller is medieval epic fantasy. With dragons, apparently.

“Isak is a white-eye, born bigger, more charismatic and more powerful than normal men…but with that power comes an unpredictable temper and an inner rage. Feared and despised by those around him, he dreams of a place in the army and a chance to live his own life, but the Gods have other plans for the intemperate teenager. Isak has been Chosen as heir elect to the brooding Lord Bahl, the white-eye Lord of the Farlan.”

Same rules as last month – UK/EU only, owing to postage. Leave a comment below, saying which book you’d like (or either, if so inclined!), before the first Saturday of March. Please use a valid email address in the comment form so I can contact you to get your snail-mail address if you win (don’t put either in your comments, for security reasons!).

Good luck!

Researching Historical Fantasy

I had planned to do a classic movie review today, but I got so caught up in planning Book Two of my Elizabethan fantasy series yesterday, I didn’t get around to watching any. So instead I’m stealing a leaf out of Mark Chadbourn’s blog and talking about how I research my novels, since that’s a topic uppermost in my mind at the moment.

Non-fantasy readers tend to think that the genre has an “anything goes” attitude, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. All good fantasy writers set limitations on what’s possible in their made-up world. What can magic do, and what can’t it do? Which fantastical creatures (if any) are real, and what are their characteristics/powers? Without limits, anything is possible and thus tension and suspense are deflated.

Historical fantasy is even more constrained, in that we have to take the real events of history into account and decide how closely we are going to follow them. You can’t fudge the facts entirely, or your setting will come across as a cheap Hollywoodesque pastiche of the period. Indeed, a careful adherence to fact will set off your fantasy elements far better, by anchoring the strangeness in a reality as solid as our familiar 21st-century world. On the other hand, you could spend a lifetime researching a well-documented era, just as a creator of a secondary world could spend all their time world-building, and never get around to writing the book. So what do you do?

I approach research in layers. To begin with, I know an awful lot of basic information about sixteenth-century Europe, and Tudor/Elizabethan England in particular. We studied the period in primary school (aged about 11) and again in grammar school (aged about 14), and ever since then I’ve read countless non-fiction and fiction books on the subject, watched numerous films, TV series and documentaries, seen eight or nine of Shakespeare’s plays performed live, and visited a great many historic buildings, from Hever Castle in Kent to Plas Mawr in North Wales. None of this was research for a specific book, just a general interest in the period. And yet it all builds up into an almost instinctive feel for place and character that you can’t get by doing six months or even a year’s intensive research.

Still, you do need specific research on top of that base layer. There are bound to be real locations you want to use but are unfamiliar with; before revising my first novel, I hadn’t set foot in the Tower of London since I was ten years old, an omission that I was quick to remedy! I ended up doing an awful lot of additional reading in order to nail the details for that book, because I wanted it to feel real. The two pubs mentioned in the first scene of my book? Both real – and the one favoured by the actors was one of Edward Alleyn’s known haunts. Admittedly I had to make up the descriptions of each place, because the buildings no longer exist, but the writer’s aim should be to merge fact and fiction so that the reader is never aware of the seams.

A lot of writers seem to be unable to resist the temptation to put every last bit of their research on show. Look how hard I worked! their book shouts. I always remind myself that the story comes first. If a historical detail is relevant to the story, or helps to set a scene without bogging down the action, then fine. I needed names for the two pubs, and authentic ones are no more intrusive than made-up ones. But if one reader in a thousand really wants to know all the different types of wood that go into making a lute, they’re going to have to read about it somewhere else, because I’m not going to bore the other nine hundred and ninety-nine.

At the moment I’m embarking on a fresh draft of a novel set at least partially in Venice. I visited the city back in 2003, before I ever conceived of writing Elizabethan fantasy, and fell in love with the place, so I drew on those memories when planning the first draft, which I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2007. At that time I also did some general research into Venetian history and politics, to get a feel for the kind of story that would be plausible in that setting. To me, a plot should grow out of the unique characteristics of a culture, not be imposed from outside. Otherwise, why bother to set it there in the first place?

For this next phase, I’m going to be doing some more reading and googling, but again, not so much that I put off writing the actual story. After the next draft, then it will be time for detailed research: accurate descriptions of buildings, fashions and artifacts, authentic names and titles. In other words, the set-dressing that will bring the city¬† to life. Of course this is a great excuse to visit Venice again (and claim the expense against taxes this time!), but until I have the story sketched out, I won’t know which places I really need to visit when I get there, so I won’t make efficient use of my limited time.

You’re probably thinking this is a heck of a lot of work – and expense – for a fantasy novel. Perhaps it is. But I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.

Book One – Done and Dusted

On the last day of January 2011 I made my final edits to my manuscript, ran a spellcheck over the whole thing (teaching my computer some rude Elizabethan words in the process!), and exported it from Scrivener to create a final draft. After that it was simply a matter of composing a couple of emails and hitting the ‘Send’ button.

I’d be lying if I said that last step wasn’t scary. My finger hovered over the trackpad button for several seconds before I summoned the courage to do it. But I had to admit to myself that I was just delaying the inevitable, and that any changes I went back and made would be tinkering, not fixing.

So, my book is out there, waiting to be read by agent and publisher. I expect it will be a few weeks before I get a reply, so I’m throwing myself into my next project to take my mind off the wait. I’ve closed down the Scrivener project file and word-count spreadsheet for Book One, effectively shutting the door on that manuscript until I have a need to work on it further. I don’t quite have the post-partum blues that some writers report – after all, I’m about to embark on another set of adventurers with Mal, Coby and friends – but it does feel odd to put aside the work that’s obsessed me for the past four and a half years.

Time to move on…