On location

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The Carnac stones, Brittany

I have a problem. Actually I have many problems, but let’s keep the focus small, shall we? This particular problem is that I lack imagination. I struggle to write about places that I’ve never been.

I want to write a novel set in Brittany. I love its history, its myths and legends (which I don’t know enough about) and its position on the fringes. There’s just one problem: I’ve never been there.

I’m willing to bet that most novels are set either in a place that the writer knows well or a fantasy representation thereof. I hold as Exhibit A the writings of JRR Tolkien: what is the Shire but the idealised Black Country of his childhood? What is Mordor but the industrial ruin he saw it becoming? Donna Leon writes about Venice in a way that only a lover can.

Thus The Ballad of Lady Grace was set in an (unnamed) Norwich, where I was living at the time. Chivalry was set in Bradford, where I grew up. Oneiromancer was ostensibly set in London, but really it’s every inner city I’ve ever known, seen on television or read about. Only Night Shift was set in a place I’d never been – Antarctica – and even there the ‘location’ was the cold, not the landscape. I’ve been cold many times.

Maybe fantasy or sci-fi are easier because we can take our favourite elements, our favourite geographies, and build a world from the pieces. But I want to write about a real place, or at least a place based on a real land. I want it to taste right.

You might be saying ‘well, can’t Google give you location? Can’t Street View give you everything you need?’ And the internet is a wonderful, transformative tool. But location is a lot more than just geography and architecture. It’s about the way the air tastes. It’s the way the mist lingers in the valleys, and the way the sun finally burns it away. It’s the humidity, and the birdsong, and the berries in the hedgerow. It’s whether dogshit is picked up or left to rot in the long grass. It’s the buzz of insects, the looks of the villagers; it’s holloways or causeways. It’s claustrophobia or agoraphobia or hydrophobia or sunstroke.

It’s also how it changes in different conditions, in different seasons, in different streets.

This is why I’m considering moving my Brittanic adventures to Devon, where I can smell the tall hedges and the narrow lanes and feel the waves crashing against undercut stacks. Except that I’m sick of the southern-British bias in writing. I’m a northerner at heart; why not write about the Pennine hills?

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Because Plot. Because I’ve been shaping story around the politics of (real and imagined) Brittany. Crowbarring it into Devon might work, but a Yorkshire secessionist league – whilst obviously something for us all to dream of – is currently stretching suspension of disbelief a little far.

There is another possibility, and that’s that I’m subconsciously using all this uncertainty to allow me to delay the actual writing of the damn novel. Really what I need to do is get the hell on with it; make my decision and stick with it.

But location is more than a backdrop. It’s a character, an ever-present – an ever-presence, even. A change in location can mark a change in mood, in intensity. Location matters. Give it the respect it deserves and the whole novel will be the better for it.

Undone

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Copyright Charles Schultz, used without permission because I don’t understand how this works. Get in touch if you’re offended and we’ll see what is to be done

Too much rejection leaves a bitter aftertaste; lips covered in splinters from all the doors shut in the face. I don’t know what I have left. I’m beginning to feel like I’ve not got what it takes.

I’m not going to give up writing because I can’t. It’s the only thing I’m even halfway good at and it’s deep in me, now. It’s too late for me to do anything even halfway worthwhile with my life. I have nothing left. This is my last card.

I’m not going to give up, but sometimes it’s hard to see the point of struggling on.

I know that all authors get rejected, that I can always self-publish. Well I’m not sure if my temperament is right for self-publishing: I have an almost pathological aversion to spending money on uncertainties and I don’t know where to begin. And I know all authors get rejected, but over the course of four novels I’ve had several hundred ‘no’s. That’s cold comfort right there. The Stoics got nothin’ on me.

Maybe I should take consolation from Nietsche and look at all my failures as the building-blocks to future success – the ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’ approach. Well maybe. But how strong do we have to get? What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger but that which does will make us dead.

A little encouragement would go a long way. Sometimes you need to be told you’re on the right road; or be told of a shortcut, or even of a different destination with a better view. In this case it’d just be nice to hear that my work is worth something, worth sending out.

If all this sounds like a cry for help, for attention, that’s not the intention. This blog has always been half advice, half confessional: it’d be dishonest not to talk about the bad days as well as the good. All writers will feel like this at some point. I know that, you know that. Everyone has that ‘well what the hell’s the point of me?’ moment.

That doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

The depression doesn’t get any less deep.

The Road to Bedlam

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I’m currently enjoying a bad book. Needless words, repetition, lack of subtext: the writing is sometimes amateurish to the point of parody.

My sympathies go out to the author as I don’t feel it’s really his fault. But, as a writer, I can’t but laugh (or wince, or simply gape) when I come across professionally-produced writing that’s – well, that’s just bad.

A few examples:

“He offered his hand, and I shook it.”

Error one: it’s pointless. It adds nothing to the story. Error two: come on, now, we can all do better than this. “We shook hands” is better. “He offered his hand and, reluctantly, I shook” would give it context. But only if it mattered to the story – which, in this case, it doesn’t.

“No sinks on the walls, just pipes and screw-holes in the walls where mirrors had been mounted above them. There was a blank screen wall…”

I mean come on. We all know not to repeat word like this (and I could have expanded the section to find a lot more walls). This is so incredibly basic – and so terribly poor.

“…and then had to apologise to the young man who served me coffee while I paid for the drink and for a sandwich I’d picked up.”

Pointlessness again. We don’t need this detail. It’s also convoluted; at the very least the last three words can be cut without any loss of understanding.

“A breeze gusted.”

Breezes don’t gust. Breezes are breezes and gusts are gusts and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Such errors are scattered through the novel. But, as I said, I don’t blame the author. These are the mistakes that we all make as we do our thinking on the page. We experiment, we try out formations, and metaphors, and various shades of purple prose, whilst we hammer out the plot. But they should never reach print. No-one needs to see the author’s brain. And the author wants nobody to see it.

The work in question is The Road to Bedlam by Mike Shevdon. It’s the sequel to Sixty-One Nails and here, I think, we get to the root of the problem: it’s not his first work. The pressure to get a book to the publishers to schedule – with another on the horizon after that and a whole future to follow (the series stands at four) – means that pressures mount. Deadlines arrive.

Bedlam feels like a second draft. All the work has been put into plot and story. The actual words have been left for later.

So whose fault is it? Do we blame the publisher (the usually excellent Angry Robot)? Or the individual editor? Or the demands of an industry that requires work be squeezed out to schedule regardless of its quality? If anyone has an idea please do let me know.

The thing is: I opened this post by saying I was enjoying this book, and I am. There’s so much to recommend about it. The characters are good, the plotting promises a great final act and – poor writing notwithstanding – it’s carrying me with it. I will see this to the end. And if anything it’s all the goodness that shoves the poor writing into sharp relief. This isn’t some hack churning out amateurish self-pub level material*.

So how can a major publisher get away with releasing something that, in many ways, is so bad? And what can be done about it?

 


All quotes are from The Road to Bedlam, pub. Angry Robot 2012. I’ve been listening to the audio version, pub. 2014: as it’s audio I can’t give a page number, I’m afraid

*Not to imply that self-published works are inherently worse than trad-pubbed material. There’s a difference between ‘self-publishing’ and ‘amateurish self-publishing’

Better words

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Nothing says ‘British holiday’ like driving rain and 40mph winds

Last week I wrote about how poorly-chosen words can affect how people see the world; how we subconsciously shape gender-roles and the ease with which we can slip into bad habits. Words, as they say, matter.

My wife quite correctly called me up on this. She pointed out that I wasn’t at fault for calling my daughter pretty, or sweetheart, or anything I saw as gender-specific. The problem is that I saw it as gender-specific. Why should I think sweetheart, or honey, or beautiful, is a word that’s for women?

She’s right. Why shouldn’t I use these words for boys? There really isn’t any reason, and I am humbled. Subconscious biases surround us and they need to be acknowledged and challenged; shaken up to the light and seen as the transparent, gossamer things they are. For what is writing but a way of exploring the world around us?

Anyway, I’ve been on holiday for most of the week and so I have very little to talk about, writing-wise. Have instead a few pretty pictures to brighten up your day.

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If Stonehenge is the stern patriarch, Avebury is the louche uncle: mysterious, fun and just ever so slightly shady

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Dartmoor’s one of those places that’s as beautiful in wild weather as it is in glorious sunshine

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Not an evening for pleasure-boating. But check out those beautiful strata!

Bad words

 

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Stolen from here; I don’t know if they’re the original creators but it’s a good image, don’t you think?

I want my little girl to have the best possible world and the widest opportunities. I want her to receive the same pay as any equivalent man in whatever field she moves into and to be able to choose the sexual (or asexual) partner of her choosing. I want this for everyone because I think it’s right. Pink is (not actually) banned in our house until she can make her own fashion blunders.

And yet I call her ‘sweetheart’. I call her ‘honey’. I tell her she’s pretty and cute and… and all the things that I wouldn’t say to a boy. These words slip out and they feel natural and I worry, I worry, I worry that I’m perpetuating gender stereotypes that are at best outdated and at worst harmful. That I’m damaging my own child in my ham-fisted attempts at love.

Words have power. Words create and corrupt. They’re also insidious little buggers and can ruin even the best-laid plans, displace the best of intentions and undermine the sweetest plans.

Through these subtle ways we define the world. By these choices we shall be known, and held up to society’s mirror. And yes, these things change. All we can do is the best we can by today’s standards. And yes, we can reject society’s values but then we will be judged.

Writers are especially vulnerable because words are how we communicate. Anyone can slip up and say the wrong thing, but writers choose. We think about what we say and how we say it. So writing a book with minimal female characterisation is a choice. We can’t claim that it was an accident: the best we can do is justify our decisions.

These choices aren’t always so clear. Do we include non-Caucasian characters in our mediaeval epics? Is realism an impenetrable barrier? A book without swearing is unrealistic, and yet we have apps that remove all swearing from our novels.

Arguments begin on the boundaries – and arguments, generally speaking, are good. They make us think, expose our unconscious biases.

That doesn’t stop me worrying. Because everything is political. I believe in conversation, not censorship, but that doesn’t stop me worrying about the subtle ways I’m influencing my daughter in her most formative years.