It’s not often you achieve a lifetime goal – I think the last time I could say that, hand on heart, was when I graduated – but today is one of those days. The novel that I laboured over for more than four years has finally gone out into the world, or at least those parts of it that own Kindles or are within reach of my publishers’ North American distribution chain.
It’s been a funny old day so far. I was warned not to expect anything terribly exciting or life-changing, and to be honest it hasn’t been much different from any of the other days in the run-up to release. Some of my friends have congratulated me on Twitter; Lee Harris at Angry Robot showed off a photo of this month’s new titles, hot off the presses; and my guest post on John Scalzi’s The Big Idea went live. However both paperback and Kindle are now trending upwards on Amazon.com, which is nice (the UK version of Author Central isn’t showing any stats for the Kindle edition, so I have no idea how well that’s going).
I guess it won’t feel quite real until Saturday, when I attend my first signing in Waterstones in Manchester, and then of course there’s the official launch party at Heffer’s in Cambridge on April 5th (tickets still available if you can make it!). I’ll probably have to make a speech at the latter, but in case I have a fit of nerves and fluff my lines:
“A published novel is not the work of one person, even if it is less of a collaborative work than a movie. There’s all the editorial, production work and promotion work (handled by the lovely chaps at Angry Robot Books) and of course the beautiful cover art (by Larry Rostant), without which this novel would not be reaching you in such a desirable form. Anyway, thank you, guys, for all the hard work!”
Right, back to outlining The Prince of Lies. These books don’t write themselves, more’s the pity…
I’ve been awake since 4am this morning, because I made the mistake of checking my Twitter feed instead of going back to sleep. Not only was the Eastercon schedule announced late last night, but it seems they’ve put me on a panel with some bloke called George Martin…
Anyway, here’s my schedule for the weekend:
Saturday, 11am: How Pseudo Do You Like Your Medieval? with George R R Martin, Anne Perry, Kari Sperring and Jacey Bedford
Saturday, 1pm: reading, followed by book signing at the Angry Robot stall
Saturday, 7pm: Worldbuilding (when, how and how much?) with Suzanne Macleod, Robert VS Redick, Simon Spanton and Chris Wooding
Sunday, 11am: The Fantasy of William Shakespeare with Claire Brialey, Jennifer A McGowan, Erin Horakova and Grant Watson
I think after that lot I’ll be having a quiet Sunday afternoon in the bar
Sunday, 8pm: General signing session with other guest authors
I realised at the weekend that my reluctance to outline The Prince of Lies was based on my frustration with the standard “index card per scene” process. I don’t see scenes as isolated incidents that can easily be arranged in a new order – for me, the whole tenor and purpose of a scene alters fundamentally depending on what’s already happened. In my search for inspiration on how to get around this, I stumbled across a post called “How I Plot a Novel in 5 Steps” on Rachel Aaron’s blog. It’s a lot like the Snowflake Method, but simpler and more organic, more suited to a discovery writer’s approach to outlining.
The characters and setting for this book are already well-established, so I was able to burn through the first two steps in under an hour. Also, I didn’t worry too much about coming up with plot twists or mid-book scenes; instead I’ve pushed ahead to Step 3: Filling in the Holes – in other words, outlining the bulk of the book.
As Rachel suggests, I’ve simply started at the beginning of the story and keep asking myself “what happens next?” – or more accurately, “what’s the most fun thing that can happen next without violating plot logic?*”. I have a single document open in Scrivener which has one bullet point per scene (i.e. change of time/location/likely PoV), with an optional sublist of steps in that scene or plot points that need addressing. I like being able to see the whole thing at once and read it in sequence, but I can still move scenes using old-fashioned cut’n’paste. My plan is to work through the whole story like this, picking at plot knots as I go, until I have the whole thing mapped out, and then carve it into separate scene documents using Scrivener’s handy Cmd-K shortcut.
So far it’s proving pretty successful. I can outline a couple of chapters a day this way, fixing plot holes and impasses without all the labour of writing it out (two chapters is about 7k words for me, or maybe half that in rough draft – way more than I can write on a work day). It remains to be seen if I can really map out a whole novel this way, but it should only take me 2-3 weeks – a small enough chunk of time to try out a new writing method without endangering my whole schedule.
* Because, as she says in her equally awesome post on increasing your word count, planning scenes that you know are going to be fun to write will make the process so much easier!
One of the issues that keeps coming up in reviews of The Alchemist of Souls is my portrayal of the non-straight characters. Readers who know the period praise the authenticity, whilst those who know little about Elizabethan culture seem surprised by it. Rather than comment directly on individual reviews (which seldom reflects well on the writer), I decided to discuss it here.
Partly it was a deliberate choice to play down any homophobia – I didn’t set out to write an LGBTQ novel, so I didn’t want that aspect to overshadow the plot. However the more I researched the topic, the more convinced I became that it would not be a big issue for my characters, for several reasons.
Firstly, there’s the matter of differing social mores. Nowadays men and women are more-or-less equals, but they remain differentiated by expectations of how they conduct platonic relationships. Women’s friendships are expected to be affectionate, and it is acceptable for such feelings to be displayed in public with no assumption that the relationship in sexual in nature; in comparison, men are expected to be emotionally distant, and any physical contact is limited to horseplay.
Elizabethan men, by contrast, were legally superior to women and had very different expectations from women as to their role in society, but the social behaviour of the two sexes was less well differentiated; strong, emotionally deep friendships between men (based on ideals from both medieval chivalry and the Bible) were considered quite normal, and male friends could walk arm-in-arm or even kiss without any sexual connotation. Also, in this period a brief kiss on the mouth was a normal social greeting, no more sexual than a peck on the cheek. Hence I considered it entirely plausible for my gay male characters to express their affection for one another without social approbation, as long as they weren’t too blatant.
In this period, male and female dress was distinguished by cut, not by the fabrics used. Silk, lace, embroidery and jewels were markers of status, not gender, giving rich Elizabethan men a decidedly effeminate appearance to modern eyes. Portraits of young men and women can be hard to tell apart!
Perhaps under the influence of Greek literature, homosexuality in this period was conflated with pederasty. In both the poetry of the time and the legal cases that have come to light, the relationship under scrutiny was nearly always that of an adult male and an adolescent boy. The sexualisation of boys was further entrenched in English urban culture by the theatrical practice of having female roles played by boys and young men.
Until relatively recently homosexuality was not seen as a permanent orientation, equivalent to heterosexuality, but as a pattern of temporary behaviour and an indicator of moral degeneracy. Satirists described the fashionable bachelor as spending the afternoon with his mistress and the evening with his catamite; both relationships were considered equally unmanly and foppish, transgressing normal, respectable standards of behaviour.
An additional factor was surely that this was a highly segregated society where female virginity had both moral and monetary value, and where formal education and most professions were male-only. As in modern-day boarding schools and prisons, many men must have resorted to homosexual practices as a physical outlet. As a result, a Renaissance man who had sex with another man didn’t consider himself gay, any more than does the guy in prison who makes you his bitch.
Indeed the Venetian authorities were so worried about the proliferation of sodomy that they decreed that prostitutes should bare their breasts in an effort to persuade young men to part with their money! The bridge where the prostitutes displayed themselves is still known as the Ponte de le Tette (above).
Given all these factors, I imagined a culture where gay relationships between adults could slip under the radar, or even be tolerated in certain circles: amongst the more intellectual coteries at court, for example, and most likely amongst the theatre fraternity, which has always attracted outsiders. In other words, exactly the social circles that my characters move in.
I attempted to include some dissenting voices, through characters who openly disapprove of Ned and Gabriel’s relationship as well as through Mal’s ambivalence about his own dealings with Ned, but perhaps between subtlety on my part and lack of historical context on the readers’, I have perhaps not struck the perfect balance. This is always a problem for the writer of historical fiction – how to portray people from another era, whose attitudes were in many ways alien to ours, in a way that readers can relate to. But if the past was just like the present day, where would be the fun in writing about it?
Over the past four weeks I’ve been letting ideas for The Prince of Lies percolate. At first it went really slowly, as I was still uncertain what approach I wanted/needed to take, and what level of outlining would work for me. I even tried sketching out a first chapter to see if that helped, but all it confirmed was that I still don’t know how to start writing a new novel!
Eventually I had a light bulb moment and realised that what I need to know first and foremost was: what have the various parties been up to since The Merchant of Dreams, and what therefore are they going to do next? To an experienced writer with several books and sequels under their belt, this might seem obvious, but as a former serial project abandoner who is still learning the ropes, I found it a revelation.
So I’ve emptied my physical corkboard of scene cards and started adding plot cards instead. There’s one column for each faction (Mal & friends; skraylings; and so on), each headed by a card bearing their name and main motivation, and underneath that are one or more cards describing their strategies for achieving those goals.
Only once I have all the story threads in place can I start thinking about how these will translate into scenes in the book. It’s not how I’ve been taught to approach my outlining, but I think it makes sense for a complex character-driven novel.
I think the next step is to copy the notes from my physical corkboard into Index Card on my iPad, so I can have it handy when I’m writing the first draft.
A lot of people have complimented me on the cover art for The Alchemist of Souls; indeed I liked it so much myself that I made the draft artwork into a desktop wallpaper so that I would feel inspired whenever I sat down to write. It seemed a shame to keep it to myself, though, so I got permission from Angry Robot to create an official version for wider consumption.
So, now you too can have mean’n’moody Mal Catlyn on your desktop to drool over, ahem, I mean admire! I’ve created two versions, one widescreen (8:5) and one standard proportion (4:3), both in sizes large enough for all but the biggest monitors.
The White Road is the fifth installment in Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series, and concludes the story arc begun in Shadows Return. Having escaped the clutches of Plenimaran alchemist Charis Yakhobin, Alec and Seregil are faced with the problem of what to do about Sebrahn, the child-like alchemical being who can kill as well as heal. The paperback edition features another beautiful character illustration (right) by Michael Komarck, this time of Alec – appropriately enough, since this time he is the one making the difficult choices.
I have to admit that I found the first half of this book rather slow. It mostly consists of Alec and Seregil travelling back to Aurenan and encountering a mixed welcome from various ‘faie communities. The only real tension came from the occasional scenes from the bad guys’ point of view, revealing that Alec and Seregil will not be safe for long.
It didn’t help – and this is purely a pet peeve – that for a while the story revolved around dragons. I trust Flewelling to stick to the intrigue and action that I read this series for, and not to wander off into cheesy Pernesque territory, and she didn’t let me down this time – but it was touch and go there for a moment!
By the middle of the book, however, the pace picks up and accelerates towards an action-packed finale. Once or twice the suspense was punctured, rather than heightened, by the fact that we the readers can see what all sides are up to, but on the whole it worked well. There was one plot thread that wasn’t tied up, but maybe Flewelling is saving that for the next book?
Overall, a solid addition to the series that nonetheless for me fell a little short of the emotionally satisfying heights of Shadows Return. Still, I’m looking forward to Book 6, The Casket of Souls, due out this summer. It’s about time our boys got back to some serious nightrunning!