Tag Archives: Joe Abercrombie

Processing

This was posted on Joe Abercrombie’s blog the other week. I know at times it seems like I must be working for the man, but genuinely, it came up in my Facebook news feed and I thought it was particularly interesting and inspiring.

Now, if somehow you still don’t know about his work even though I bang on about it a fair bit, it’s pretty gritty, angry stuff. It’s fantasy with its teeth bared. The characters are morally ambiguous, the world is tearing itself apart, and the “heroes” can’t really be trusted as far as you can throw ‘em. It’s not really a chivalry and princess with wimple fantasy story. Heck, there aren’t even any elves! There’s magic, of a sort, but mostly it’s blood-and-guts “you’re on your own, buddy, have fun with this oncoming army and your tiny, ineffectual sword!” kind of stuff. It’s cynical and world-weary and defeatist. But in a hopeful way!

The point is, he’s now Made It. He’s not a writer. He’s an Author. He has Published Books. Someone asked him about his first draft for The Blade Itself, his debut novel. He says a lot of things, and amongst it was this:

“I spent an awful lot of time in those early days revising, refining, reading over, experimenting with what worked and what didn’t, developing a style.  Or perhaps different styles with the different points of view.  So whenever I wrote a line, I’d look at it, re-write it, think about it.  Whenever I finished a paragraph I’d revise it.  Whenever I finished a scene I’d look over it again, add, take away, reorganise.  Every time I sat down to write I’d start by reading what I wrote the last time.  So working out what needed to be described and when, how to pace a scene, how to use dialogue, mostly working on instinct and trial and error.  That was very important to do, I think, not just in achieving a good result, but in working out how to achieve a good result.” – Joe Abercrombie

That is a lot more work than I put in. Got to be honest it sounds exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, I do edit as I go a fair bit; I type dialogue and then think ‘wow, that sounds so cheesy’ and rephrase, for example, but I don’t go that far. I just want to get the story out. Major editing is for after I actually know what’s meant to happen. I don’t think either way is a wrong way or a right way.

I mean, I like to think that when I write, I pick the words I want to use the first time around. Adjective choice might need refining, but on the whole I feel like if I’ve written it a particular way it’s because that’s the way it should be. If I’m trying to communicate that it is raining, why would I talk about the sun? Y’know? If it needs that much of a re-write then either what is in my head does not come out on the page, but I think it does, and I’ve just written 500 words about bananas even though I think it’s about my writing process, or whoever is reading/editing with/for me doesn’t get it.

I’m so modest.

“My own feeling is that the sense of effortlessness you strive for as a writer actually derives from an awful lot of effort.  But having said that, there was some spark in the book that became The Blade Itself right from my first efforts that I at least found fascinating.  Without that, I’m not sure I’d have got past the first page.” –Joe Abercrombie

Testify! I agree there. The ol’ swan metaphor. Obviously we need to put the effort in. I probably do a lot more revising than I think I do, because I do it without consciously thinking about it. I think the problem stems from the majority of my writing time coming from NaNoWriMo. Through November I have smoke coming from the keyboard as I Word Sprint and chase that 50k target. Quantity, not quality, perhaps. Although, even on a bad day I think my stuff is pretty schweet. So, anyway, since writing isn’t my job (yet… *shakes fist*) I guess I’m a bit haphazard about it. There are weeks when I’ll write every day even if it’s only a few sentences. Sometimes I go months without adding to anything existing. Not exactly the way forward if I want a career. So I know I need to be more proactive.

There’s a writing group near me. I don’t go. Maybe I should. I know someone who has been and apparently there are some scary practices going on. Like micro-planning everything before you begin: overall plot summary, chapter by chapter summary, lists and histories and bios and spider diagrams and everything neatly pinned to a board before the first creative word is written. I’m all for having a rough idea what the hell I’m doing but that’s going a bit too far. Isn’t it? I have a few major signposts and a rough idea of an ending, but how the characters get there is up for negotiation. But only with my own brain. I don’t negotiate with the characters.

I am sometimes a bit suspicious of people who treat their characters as though they’re real. A good example of this is from a NaNoWriMo write-in, in my first year of participating. My flatmates and I, all suckers together, were nervously listening to a seasoned NaNo vet. She was telling us things about her plot. She went into a little Word Sprint trance and rattled out another page or so, before exclaiming that she hadn’t realised that one of her characters had a cellar in their house. Um, what? There was an expositional scene in her book at that time, where two people are in a house. They end up in the cellar, much to the author’s surprise. She literally said, “Oh, I didn’t realise [character] had a cellar! It turns out that’s where they keep the [macguffin]!” like she was actually discovering a secret fact about a real person. Like she’d met this person and seen bits of their house and then found out, perhaps by a casual mention of the cellar in an un-related conversation, of its existence.

I know, when you’re writing, things come out that you didn’t plan. But it’s still a choice the author makes. Somewhere in her brain, she decided to have a character explain that the thing they were looking for was in the cellar, and take someone there to see it. She might not have expected to be writing about the cellar based on her original plan for the scene, but she did choose to make it part of the book. It’s slightly different from writing yourself into a corner with a character’s motivation or logical actions. That’s still a choice, but sort of a forced one. I mean those times when your writing is going as planned but due to the fallout for plot reasons, a character becomes derailed from your original idea and acts/speaks in a completely different way than you were expecting but it has to happen because ignoring it would make no sense.

For example, a spurned lover (who was a totally nice character and you thought they’d end up opening a pasty shop and they’d even filled in all the forms at the bank and everything) decides they can’t live in the same town as their ex/crush and moves to France because it’s high time they followed their dream, dammit!

What not to say: “Oh, I didn’t realise Tim was so keen on Impressionism!”

What to say: “It’ll mean a bit of a re-think but it made sense for the character, so I chose to put Tim in an art school on the continent while he sorts things out.”

I don’t care how invested in your work you are; please don’t become an idiot.

Slightly off-track. Writing process. I think I need to have one. Or is my lack of rigid process a process in itself?

Writing process isn’t enough in itself. Today, with amazingly good timing, Scott Lynch (another of my favourite authors) posted on his blog today about the magic shortcut formula of getting published. Or rather, the lack of one.

“Look, read this next bit very carefully: Famous useless idiots get book contracts all the time. Let us assume that we are not famous useless idiots, you and I. Therefore their situation is not germane to ours. Terrible, terrible writers also get book contracts all the time; this is because there’s no accounting for taste and because there is no accounting for taste and because, if you dig, there is no fucking accounting for taste. I can’t teach you how to get hit by a meteorite; I can only tell you about the “actively try to not be a terrible writer” approach, because it’s how me and most of my peers end up on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. This situation, which is my situation and, not to put too fine a point on it, YOUR situation if you’re unpublished and want to kill that ‘un-,’ is defined by the following equation:

Hard work + self-awareness + perseverance = MAYBE

“Maybe?” you say. “What the hell do you mean, maybe?”

What I mean is welcome to the universe, kid. No guarantees about anything, and the clock is already ticking. Try the potato salad. But that MAYBE is a golden result compared to the way the equation turns out if you subtract hard work, self-awareness, or perseverance. When you do that, MAYBE becomes NEVER. In fact, it becomes NEVER in bold followed by THIS MANY EXCLAMATION POINTS. !!!!!!!!!!!!” – Scott Lynch

You are my hero. Scott, if you ever read my books or even this blog, know that you are the first person this week apart from my friend J who is the person who sent me his own copy of Locke Lamora in the first place*, who has made me smile.

So, on top of the writing thing, I need to work on the perseverance thing. I feel like I’m already pretty self-aware. Amirite? I said the other day that I had a major motivator at the moment in pure and unadulterated rage and righteous indignation. I know that will wear off. I know I have to kick myself in the arse rather than wait for the next person to do it for me.

In the mean time, I’ll keep writing this blog, I’ll keep tweeting and writing short things and poems for online mags and fiction reviews, and I’ll keep bashing away at Quril and Murder Express, and maybe get around to making up better titles for them. I hope I do.

 

*I’m listening to the audiobook at the moment and Locke has just met the Grey King. I’m very excited by going through all this again but with character voices! The narrator is amazing.

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Judging by the cover

On my way to work last week, I saw a Goth. Alone! In the wild! Like a baby crow fallen from the nest… I nodded hello, and she vaguely nodded back, looking confused. I nod hello to the few other walkers I see in the mornings – dog walker lady (and dog), beardy hat man, pink coat girl… – in solidarity to all early morning pedestrians. Rain or shine, there we are, caught in our rat runs. Monday to Friday, at least.

Anyway, this Goth. It might seem like I’m poking fun. I suppose I am, mildly, but only in a very self-aware way. I had a Goth phase myself, once upon a time. Well, in my late teens. The girl I saw on my walk was dressed in black (obviously), baggy trousers and black turtleneck, and the obligatory long leather coat. But it was almost like dress-down day. No Bride of Dracula make up, no dyed hair, no spikes or studs. She was probably on her way to work.

My friend Rob once told me that being a Goth wasn’t about what you wore. He said one of the Gothiest people he knew wore nothing but bubblegum pink. Would you peg her for a Goth if you saw her in the street? Doubtful. Someone a bit odd, certainly, but there we are. That’s our problem, not hers.

My Goth phase didn’t last that long. Just like Loki, I lacked conviction. I had a few friends of the Goth persuasion and I assimilated for a while. It was easier to have a group identity than to strike out on my own. I bought a couple of Siouxsie and the Banshees albums, dyed my hair purple and bought a mesh top to wear over a black vest. And a pair of Crims. Big baggy black jeans with huge deep pockets (big enough for a pad of A4 paper or a bottle of Coke) and straps and zips. Very useful. I lasted pretty much into my second year of Uni.

By that time, the friends for whom I had reinvented myself were at their own universities, or jobs, and I had found a new crowd. It was easier to carry on. But then I realised that, just as Rob had told me, it didn’t really matter what I wore. My clothing had been the ID badge that got me into the friendship group, but it was my great personality and charm and amazing modesty that kept me there. I stopped wearing the Crims, but I still have them. Occasionally I find them in the back of the wardrobe and laugh at myself. Oh dear.

My later Uni years were taken up with the working-with-children part of my degree and so I had to start wearing grown up clothes anyway. Unsurprisingly my friends were unaffected. It’s almost like books should not be judged by their covers…

And segue…

Cover art on books is really important. You’d think after all I just said that it wouldn’t be. After all, the saying has to come from somewhere. But, my God, people… The differences in cover art in different countries can be astounding as well as that of different print editions. I like pretty books. I like good books that are also pretty. I like good books. I prefer them to be pretty. I want to show them off. I don’t want to get them all rebound in matching leather hardcovers. I just want them to be classy and capture the feel of the book. I have a few examples.

Fantasy books are great for cover art because of the range of character species, magic use, epic quests, weird settings and so on. But some do it better than others. One thing I do not like is the pseudo-CGI effect. This is evident on my bookshelf, alas, because of the versions of the Gemmell books I own. When I first read Echoes of the Great Song, for example, it was a lovely, well-thumbed old paperback that had this cover art:

Thanks, Amazon!  (Picture from Amazon)

Thanks, Amazon!
(Picture from Amazon)

I borrowed it from my friend. When I bought my copy, it looked like this: 

Oh dear.

Oh dear.
(Picture from Amazon)

and matches the other reprints all done in the same style with a Polar Express style figure on the front. I’ve seen a lot worse, and I’m not suggesting that cover art should be the same from the first edition and forever more, but it does make me a little sad. It jars with the old-fashioned fantasy content. Bloomin’ computers! Back to the Stone Age with all of us! Grr! *shakes pitchfork*

Joe Abercrombie is our next stop. When I bought my copies of the First Law trilogy’s three volumes, they all matched (hooray! Another bugbear –when the art/artist changes halfway through a series so they don’t match!) and were elegant and simple. Parchment and runes, and some bloodstains. Beautiful. Just enough gilt to give them some gravitas. Like this:

So classy! (Picture from Goodreads)

So classy!
(Picture from Goodreads)

For a while afterwards though, on one of my frequent Waterstone’s browsing missions, I found newer print runs had these covers: 

Oooh, sexy Ninefingers! (Photo from Amazon customer images)

Oooh, sexy Ninefingers!
(Photo from Amazon customer images)

by Chris McGrath who, I am reliably informed by the Internet, has done various artwork for the Dresden Files. Now, this isn’t a bad cover by any means. But the guy pictured here is a vicious barbarian called Logen Ninefingers aka The Bloody Nine. Say one thing about Logen Ninefingers, say he’s not a sexy dude. The guy on this cover looks scarred and like he handles himself in a fight, but he reminds me of Aragorn: gritty, but still with a full shelf of hair products. I know everyone imagines characters in different ways, but there are limits, and if anyone who has read these books imagines Logen Ninefingers that way, I urge them to seek professional help.

Interestingly, this cover art seems to have faded and been replaced with the original again, or at least, the parchment ones were visible where the portrait ones were not, last time I was in Ye Olde Book Shoppe.

Finally, a tale of differing cover art by language/country. I was working in Canada for a while, and I came across the French-language version of Greg Keyes’s Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series. They only had the French version in the shop, and it looked like this:

 

It makes me so happy. (Credit to Amazon.ca!)

It makes me so happy.
(Credit to Amazon.ca!)

Lovely, gentle, classic fantasy illustration that includes elements of the story (the broken tomb in the foreground, for one). It reminds me a bit of a Tarot card. Amazon reliably informs me that this is the English-language version available in Canada (and the US?):

 

Acceptable. (Guess where I got this picture? Yup, Amazon!)

Acceptable.
(Guess where I got this picture? Yup, Amazon!)

A bit less subtle, but those are at least two easily recognisable characters on the front: Aspar White the holter and Stephen Darige the novice/initiate. In my head Aspar will always be Sean Bean, but the guy on the cover will do. The versions I have all follow the same format:

 

I do like a nice vignette (Credit to.... Amazon)

I do like a nice vignette
(Credit to…. Amazon)

A block coloured cover with a cameo scene. Each book is a different colour, but the design is the same. I prefer this version to the middle one, but I really wanted the top one. I very nearly spent a lot of dollars on buying the whole series in French (which I would have been able to read, incidentally) just for the cover art. I still vaguely lament not doing so. I would have just looked at them. Like I do with all the pretty shoes I buy but can’t wear for risk of getting them dirty (Scotland is not disposed to delicate shoes).

Why does the cover art have to vary so much? From edition to edition the artist can change, I understand that, but on the same edition in different countries? Surely it’s cheaper and easier to have one design and pay one artist than to re-commission someone different for different language versions/countries. Is it to do with publishing rights?

I am coming to terms with my ability to see deep within a person’s soul and get to know them properly regardless of their outward appearance, but on my bookshelf I must have beauty. A shelf full of books is part of the décor of the room. It’s like a painting. To a bookshelf is where I will gravitate when in a new friend’s house. I want to feed my eyes before I feed my eyes!

Ebooks are on the rise, I know, and cover art (or dustjacket art) is becoming less important. But for me it’s part of the whole book experience. I savour the cover, knowing what lies within. Would you package a sirloin steak in a Mcdonald’s carton?

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Books and emotions

In the same way that there is a Meat Loaf song for every occasion, there is a book for every mood. I read to medicate my soul. Books are comforting and familiar, they don’t look at you in disgust if you haven’t showered, they don’t run away and they don’t talk back. Neither does a well-trained dog, but since I rent and I’m not allowed pets, books will have to do.

When I’m really feeling lost and out of touch with myself, I read Gemmell. Echoes of the Great Song or Winter Warriors usually. The stories are classic good-vs-evil, heroes-of-the-golden-age adventures and the derring-do of the main protagonists inspires me to take action in my own life. Gemmell anchors me to my late teens and a particular band of friends where I feel safe, and loved, and like people believe in me.

If I’m feeling sad, I find Pratchett. I need cheering up, but in a dry, dark way, and something like Jingo or Men at Arms does that. You know when you’re outside your own body, watching yourself lying on your bed listening to REM and feeling all Young Emo of the Year 2013, and you know how useless you’re being but you can’t snap yourself out of it? When you even sarcastically congratulate yourself on how productive you’re being in the hopes of angering your way out of a slump? That’s when I read Pratchett. Humour and satire that isn’t too silly, because in that mood silliness is contemptuous.

In an empowered mood, I read Valley of the Dolls. It’s glitz! It’s glamour! It’s actually quite bleak! But empowered-me pretends not to see the horrible parts. Valley is a guilty pleasure in some ways. It’s on my list of favourite books and I’ve read it many times. I sometimes feel like a hidden, fourth protagonist, if I’m really feeling puissant, observing the other three and carefully judging their actions. I sympathise, I cringe and cheer alongside them, but I secretly know I would have done it far better.

Anger makes me read angry books. Joe Abercrombie is my go-to for bitter rage. The First Law trilogy has a host of grotesques who are either as angry as me, or who give me a target for my unjust wrath. Barbarians, torturers, duellists, mages… all have their own grudges and agendas. All are out for what they can get and they don’t care who they tread into the dirt to get it. I do feel sorry for Major West, though. He’s always in the wrong place at the wrong time playing clean up for people who have royally messed up, or doing the difficult thing because someone has to. Major West makes me angry on his behalf.

On the seemingly rare occasion that I am in a happy mood, I read The Pyrates by George Macdonald Fraser. It’s a romp: an anachronistic, swash-buckling adventure with pirates and the Spanish Main, and natives and treasure and romance and sword fights and blackguards and the briny deep and silly accents. It takes historical figures and events, a bit of fluffing the actual year, the best of every pirate story you know, peppers them with awful jokes and modern references, and fires it at you from a cannon. My dad and I each own a copy – he got sick of me borrowing his and bought me an identical one.

When I get an attack of the romantic feels and I feel like wearing my ovaries on the outside for once, I have a few options. 1. Chocolat, which I will gush on and on about whether people want me to or not, 2. The Time Traveller’s Wife because oh, goodness, the feels, 3. Memoirs of a Geisha for its slow-burning love and lifetime of dedication. All three are guaranteed to be read snuggled in a blanket with chocolate to hand.

Of course, books can also evoke the whole gamut of emotions within me. I think the last book that really made me weep buckets was The Book Thief. It even tells you at the beginning how it’s going to end because most of the book is a “how we ended up here” thing, but somehow you manage to forget and then with a sense of impending doom you realise ohnonononononono… but it’s too late, you’re hooked, and the last few pages are blurry because of all the tears. Brilliant!

My friend Rivka is an author and her books have been known to provoke a strong reaction. She has an ongoing series called Masquerade which is at its most basic, a cautionary tale about vampires and sociopathy. The male protagonist of the first book, Tristan… my God, when I finished the book I wanted to hurl it across the room in unadulterated rage! Then I realised I was reading an ebook on my laptop and that probably wasn’t a good plan.
I see strong reaction – positive or negative – as a good sign. It means that I care one way or another. I have opinions about the characters or the story. I rarely these days read books which only garner a “meh”. Either I’m very easily-led or I’m extremely good at picking books that provoke a reaction. Reading a book is like signing a secret contract with my soul that states that the experience will teach me something. Whether I’m put through the wringer in a happy, sad, or ragequit way, it’s always a worthwhile experience. It shows me my limits. It pushes my limits. Reading is a way of navigating the dark forest of my insides where each book is a tiny fragment of the map.

…and now I’m feeling introspective. What’s my choice for that? A long stare at my nine shelves of maps before I give up and watch Avengers instead. Lovely.

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