The books of 2015

It’s been an odd year for reading. I’ve never tried to write a review blog because my tastes are so eclectic – or even disordered – that I’ve no idea to whom such a page would appeal. And I’ve enough on my plate ensuring my own writing is kosher to worry about assessing other people’s.

But the year’s end is rapidly approaching and, in the absence of anything better to write about, here’s my five favourite novels published (in the UK) this year, chosen from the rather limited, biased and random selection on my book log. I hope you – or if not you then someone somewhere – will find it interesting.

Book of the Year:

Uprooted; Naomi Novik

Let’s begin at the top. Uprooted takes all the tropes of fairytales – the deep, dark wood; the sorcerer in the lonely tower; the rural, isolated community; the darkness in the forest – and spins them into something unique and special. Its heart lies in eastern European folk-tales but its perspective is – for a mediaeval world – refreshingly modern. Feminist, even. Novik shows she’s not a one-trick pony (her Temeraire novels have long been favourites) with a story that manages to feel both totally original and eternal.

Also in the mix:

Ancillary Mercy; Ann Leckie

The last in the Ancillary series, this is a book I admire intensely rather than really love. Put simply, it’s new. It’s different. In some ways it feels more like classic 60s sci-fi than modern space-opera (Andre Norton is the name that springs to mind); but it’s subject – multiple bodies, artificial intelligence, split personalities) are right up to date. Begin at the beginning – and hope for further entries in the series.

Haterz; James Goss

Dark, witty, and with a lot to say about the new internet world, this had a lot of buzz when first released and very much deserves its acclaim. A murderer is manipulated into eliminating internet trolls. Mischievously misanthropic without being over-cynical or devoid of hope; and with amusing caricatures of certain ‘popular’ figures who you secretly wish were treated as they are in this novel

The Annihilation Score; Charles Stross

Charles Stross’ Laundry files are the missing link between Cthulu, James Bond and PG Wodehouse. Arcane bureaucracy, technomancy, demons and violins – all delivered with wit and flair. Very British and very much fun

Unseemly Science; Rod Duncan

This world of semi-steampunk and half-suffrage is real and delightful and ominous and – yes – full of great characters. Elizabeth Barnabus, in her life masquerading as her fictional brother, is a great protagonist with a great deal to lose. I’m already looking forwards to the next entry in the series

Best Dr Who:

The Drosten’s Curse; AL Kennedy

Fizzing with energy and with a lightness of touch, this is simply a book to make you smile. I read criticism saying this lacked a real sense of peril: that maybe true. But that just allows the fourth Doctor more time to be himself – erratic, irreverent, larger than life. Simply a joy

Best Goodbye:

The Shepherd’s Crown; Terry Pratchett

Ah, Terry. Never shall we see your like again. And ah, Granny. And Tiffany. And the Nac Mac Feegle. This is glorious.

In truth, The Shepherd’s Crown is flawed and doesn’t stand up with the rest of PTerry’s books. It’s half-finished. There isn’t a real sense of danger; it doesn’t quite deliver an emotional hook (except that which the reader brings in themselves). It’s too simple and doesn’t quite fly.

But it’s Terry Pratchett’s last novel. The writing is, as ever, something to drown in. Another draft and this would have been perfect. As it is, this is more than just one last cash-in. It’s the truth of a truer world than the one in which we all live.

Best Graphic Novel:

Rat Queens; Wiebe, K et al

Joyous! Joyous, I tell you. It’s nice to read a work that has no intention other than to entertain. A great parody of po-faced fantasy tropes, and specifically the D&D world of warriors, mages, clerics and thieves: of halflings and orcs and ogres, with a side-order of Cthuluality. It also has a character who chugs magic mushrooms like sweeties. What more do you need?

Best Non-Fiction:

The Greatest Knight; Asbridge, T

Best non-fiction is tricky; I feel I’ve slipped a little on my reading, and there’s only a few that have been published this year. I’m still picking up random selections from the last decade – mostly about the writing craft – and the history and popular science sections of my local (rubbish) library have provided slim pickings. This, then, is simply the book I enjoyed most and remember best of that small pool. A biography of William Marshal, the 12th-13th century knight who served five kings from tournament glory to civil war. A fine read and a fascinating subject.

Discoveries of the Year:

In terms of the books that weren’t released this year – but that I’ve only just caught up with – my biggest discoveries were Hugh Howey’s Wool series and Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora. A special non-fiction nod goes out to Harari’s Sapiens, a book so good that I’ve also bought it for my wife and father (not the same person).

And that’s it. I know I’ve only scratched the surface here, but I must now crawl back to my Editorium before the clock strikes Holiday. I doubt we’ll be seeing any more bloggery from me until 2016, so let me just wish you all the happiest of happy times – whatever and wherever and with whomsoever – and I’ll catch you all in the new year.

Happy reading!

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The Editorium

Welcome to the Editorium. I shall be locked her from now until Oneiromancer is transformed into a beautiful nightmare, slaving beneath hellish lights and the whip-hand of dark dominatrices. Please – allow me to show you around…

Editorium 1d

1. The manuscript

The sacrificial lambuscript itself: ready to be carved open, torn apart and generally disrespected. Double-sided for the saving of paper (although the printer took its customary tithe) but double-spaced text for the insertion of scribbles

2. Scene-by-scene breakdown

My own guide to what happens in each scene, to whom, why, and with a note of anything I might otherwise forget. This is my big-picture guide, the context-setter; also to be scribbled on (to the max) as I contemplate whether even a single scene is worth putting in the final novel

3. Notes

The companion document to item 2, this is simply a spreadsheet-list of all the ideas and thoughts that I had whilst first-drafting. It’s a miscellany of consequences; things to foreshadow or forget. Good ideas, bad ideas; things that occurred to me in the white-hot moment of creation and then erased from memory. A list of questions to answer or obliterate

4. Pen

It should be red. It’s not. It should be proper ink – a fountain-pen for preference. It’s just a cheap black biro. But it writes well. The ink flows and doesn’t make me swear. That’s all I need. I had to throw out two others before I found this (I’m a compulsive pen-hoarder/thief)

5. Feedback

A few scenes have already been road-tested by the legion of doom – my writing group. These are my sample pages, lovingly scribbled upon and deconstructed by my colleagues. I’ll go through them as I get to each scene in question

6. Notelets

For the making of notes. I’m not quite sure why I need these, but I have them and I’m sure they’ll come in handy at some point

7. Character list

Every named character in the novel is in these pages. Some are simply a name; others have a history, a description, and even a personality. I’m keeping the notes on hand to aid in my consistency as I have a habit of recycling minor characters; sometimes they reappear hundreds of pages apart and I can never remember how I described them previously. It also helps me track changes I’ve made through their development

8. Light

The Editorium is not the dark and dingy lair it appears here. Light is important. No point squinting to read your own indecipherables. So I have the lamp that is half-visible in this photo as well as the main room-lamp and many windows. I just took this photo on a particularly dark and dingy morning

9. Mythos

Another list of notes. This one is on the world I’ve created; a little background on how it differs from the real world; aesthetics, structure, monsters real and imagined. Like all the other print-outs, this is a working document. I want a hard copy partly for ease of use but also so I can deface and add and grow the story. Although I don’t need to know every little detail of the world I’ve built I need it all to be consistent; I have to be able to create new details that work within the existing framework. Hence this. Another place to store ideas and to build coherence

10. Coffee

Because coffee

Not pictured:

11. Comfy chair

Because backache is not a writer’s friend

12. Accommodating (and most lovely) Wife

Vital for the retention of testicles when it’s realised that not only have you ‘appropriated’ the dining table for an unspecified period, but you’ve suddenly grown enormously possessive of it and will permit no foreign object to rest upon its surface. A good support network is crucial. So is having all your organs where they belong

Reflections on a first draft

That’s it. Done. Complete. Oneiromancer (or possibly Somnia; I’m considering a change), after nearly a year’s slog, is finished –

It’s not, of course. The work has barely even begun. But the first draft is through. 140k words of chunksomeness; a hefty doorstep of a novel. I am hoping this will be reduced through the redrafting, but more on that in a minute. For now, left me just bask in its completeness and take a moment to reflect on the first-draft experience.

I started the actual writing at the beginning of March, as soon as my last work went through its last edit and disappeared agentwards (ultimately for rejection). Nine months, then. That’s how long this has taken; the longest I’ve spent on a first draft since I stopped handwriting and went straight to the word processor. I’d like to say that this is because this draft is the beneficiary of my greater experience; the extra time is because of all the extra thought I’ve put into it throughout the process. Sadly, the truth is more prosaic: I’m simply doing more hours in my day job and have painfully little writing-space.

Which is not to say that I’ve not learnt. I’m not a big pre-draft planner am reluctant to become one; I find a starting point and an endpoint and simply write until I link the two. But I’ve accompanied my creative writing with an as-I-write plan: creating a spreadsheet of happenings and notes for me to think about/address in the future. I’m hoping that this is evidence of my growing awareness as an author. This is still to be proven.

What it means is that what flows from my fingers still has the power to surprise and thrill me. The two characters that I considered ‘main’ have been gradually sidelined; the two characters that I created solely to fill a need – and thus had no pre-draft role save for a vague ‘shape’ – have grown to dominate. Others have changed sex and age and status. This is an utter joy, although it’s also filled with dangers. Are these people real? Do they have depth and back-story (unwritten, perhaps, but present in my mind)?

Similarly, the story has mutated and drifted and become something other than that I originally envisioned. This, again, is both a delight and a danger and it’s why I’m breaking the rules and diving straight into draft two. The novel I’ve finished up with is not the same as the one I started. There are empty threads to be drawn out – to be either removed entirely or given a proper resolution. There are plot-points that arise suddenly towards the end: they need to be properly bedded and what now appear as coincidences must be foreshadowed.

Oh, and I forgot about a significant character’s existence for 100 pages, which is frankly just embarrassing.

Aside from the big plot points – which should be comparatively easy to weave in – my big concern is my flabby middle. I could stand to lose a few pounds. And I certainly want to cut a few thousand words. As I was drafting I was aware that, after the central crisis, I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going. I wrote a half-dozen scenes that I, as author, had to write to work out what I was trying to do. Does the reader need to see this? I’m not sure. I’ve seen it with other writers; scenes which don’t really advance the story but I can totally understand why the authors included them. I’m hoping cuts can be made here. My biggest worry is that these scenes actually turn out to be quite good; then I’ll have difficult decisions to make.

And then, once this draft is complete, it’ll be off to my team of readers – authors all, and a reciprocal arrangement where I read their stuff in return. It’s a great deal. They will, I’m sure, tell me where I’m going wrong and either assuage all my many (many) doubts or give a reader’s-eye view on how best to proceed with draft three.

It’s worth pointing out how little I’m concerned with the actual words at this stage. All I’ve said above is concerned with either character or story. Of course I want – always – to write good quality prose, to captivate and enthral my audience. And, in going through my draft, I’ll be sure to make improvements in the actual wordsmithery. I can’t not. I want to write well and I’ll be wincing and scribbling and crossing-out all the way through. But prose grows where my Rosemary goes with repeated passes. I don’t need to focus on that right now. It’ll come.

So there we are. Draft one complete, and a few notes on where I stand. At the moment I’ve got 541 pages of not-quite-crap: certainly not a work I want to share with the world. But before you can blast a rocket to the stars to have to build a platform from which to launch it. This is that platform. It’s rickety and unstable and prone to collapse, but it is there. Now I just have to build the real story around it.