Illustration and Early Book Planning: Rambling Thoughts

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My old banner! An example of the printing on to acetate thing

When I was at art college studying illustration (and the fine art of travelling everywhere with a portfolio and one of those big plastic shoulder tube things full of paper) I used to create a lot of my work on acetate. I would use a photocopier to print my rough sketches directly onto acetate, and then paint in the colour with acrylic paint, much like you would on an old fashioned animation cell. I used to love working like this, because you’d get a wonderful contrast between the smudgy pencil designs (magically turned an inky, smoky black by the photocopier) and the solid, vibrant colour of the paint. I wish I’d spent more time working this way, because you can do some much with it and it pleased my inner animation geek, but the photocopiers in art colleges are expensive and complicated – honestly, the one we had looked like you could use it to remotely control the International Space Station – and I never quite mastered it to the extent that I wanted to.

Anyway, at the moment I’m planning the third book in the Copper Promise sequence. As usual this involves a lot of frantic scribbling in notebooks, brewing of pots of tea, creation of sprawling pinterest boards, and gormless staring out of windows. And it occurred to me that planning a book is a bit like the illustrations I used to make on acetate. When I start trying to put a book together, I have a lot of separate elements swirling around in my head – character relationships, new characters, new locations, new mythology – all sorts of bits and pieces. At this stage it can even include strong visual images that have popped into my head that I want to include, even if I’m not sure what they mean just yet; for example, when I wrote Bird and Tower, my weird YA book that is still mouldering on a memory stick somewhere, I had an image of a small child sound asleep next to a sleeping griffin. I didn’t know what it meant when I started the book, but I knew it was part of it.

All these different pieces, unconnected as yet, are like lines on separate pieces of acetate. I need to bring them all together and then start moving them around until the lines meet up and start to make sense. Does this line go next to this one, or does it cross over this other smudge? Perhaps I need to turn them all over and see them reversed? Eventually, all these pieces will start to fall into place and the bigger picture will emerge, and often that is the most enjoyable part of writing; when the lines come together just so and there is the story, suddenly so obvious you can’t believe you didn’t see it before.

NaNoWriMo – A November of Novel Adventuring

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Yes, it’s that time of the year again.

 

And I do appear to have signed up, partly because I can’t bear not to, and partly because I do have a new book project waiting and raring to go. It’s exciting to browse the forums again, reading about everyone prepping for the long month of madcap novel writing to come. It may not work out this year – things are a touch up in the air for me, in several ways – but I think I’m going to be there at the start line at least, fingerless gloves and cheap Halloween sweets in hand.

 

I’ve participated in Nano for the last four years. In my first (2008, I think) I wrote a short children’s book called Bird and Tower. Next up came Ink for Thieves, a book I still love and hope to find a home for, followed by Dead Zoo Shuffle, a book I’m not that massively keen on these days but isn’t entirely hopeless. Last year I did the Beta month of Camp Nanowrimo, and followed that up by doing the official month too, managing to write the entirety of The Snake House in two months, which was something of a record for me.

 

And as everyone starts to get excited, there’s usually a wave of cynicism about Nano too, and I’ve seen the first trickles of this. All those amateurs, moan the weary cynics, thinking they can write. 50,000 words isn’t even really a book, and they’ve never even heard of editing…

 

Sod that, I say. Yes, a lot of young people take part in Nanowrimo, and yes, lots of them might be writing some rather familiar re-hashes of boy wizards, angsty vampires, and demon-hunting hotties, but so what? It’s very easy to sneer at these things (and at fanfiction, although perhaps that is unwise – fanfic led to the biggest publishing hoo-ha of this year, after all) but I’d much rather see people (particularly young people) getting excited and making things, than, say, the umpteenth wannabe farting Wannabe by the Spice Girls on Britain’s Got Talent. Or maybe that’s just me.

 

Besides which, Nano teaches you all sorts of important stuff if writing is where your soul rests. So the first book you harass into life via Nano might not be that great – it might even suck the big one – 50,000 words will still show you all sorts of wonders you’d never even have guessed at on November the 1st. Plus, Nano shows you (albeit in a slightly extreme way) that it is entirely possible to fit writing into your life, and that is often a wonderful and life changing thing to learn. It certainly changed mine.

 

So come, mighty Nano Vikings, with your cups of coffee and writing mascots, let’s go kick November up the plot bunny!

(and while you’re here, tell me how you prepare for Nano)

 

Writing: The Beginning of All That

I’ve been working very hard on The Copper Promise lately (no, really, stop laughing), typing away until my fingers are nothing more than shiny little nubbins, so consequently I haven’t come up with any interesting blog ideas lately. So in lieu of something good, I thought I would do one of those self indulgent posts about how I started writing.

 

I’ve always loved stories, of course. When I was very wee, I asked for a desk for Christmas, and the year after that I wanted a typewriter (gods, I have always loved having a desk). I wrote lots as a child and then tons at school, and then it tapered off somewhat and I got distracted by art college, with its poshery and paint and dodgy vodka in the union bar. I started writing seriously, I suppose you could say, on one random day in my early twenties.

 

I came home from work in a bad mood. This was back when I worked for a certain bookshop, and I know some people will say: “You worked in a bookshop! How could you possibly have had a bad day? You whinging numpty.” – believe me, it is possible to have a bad day, particularly when you’ve heard a lot of “Have you got that book? It was on that table last month and I can’t remember what it was called or who it was by. Don’t you know any of the books?” This happens more than you would believe… But, anyway, I was cheesed off, and I decided, in a desperate act of therapy, that I would sit down and write a scene that had been stuck in my head for some months. It involved a girl becoming a witch via a really rather nasty and brutal ritual, and once I’d written that I found that, a) I felt better, and b) I wanted to know how the girl came to be in that situation in the first place. Those were the seeds that became the book Bad Apple Bone (still the best title I’ve ever come up with, I think) and over the course of a couple of years, writing in fits and starts, I eventually finished it.

 

This was a big deal for me. I’d thought about writing books before, but I’d always considered it beyond my abilities – I wrote short stories, picture books, and essays, but not books. But I’d started one and finished it, which proved that actually, I did have the attention span for these things. After that I got involved in NaNoWriMo, where I wrote a short children’s book called Bird and Tower, and the next year I started writing a much longer book called Ink for Thieves… Somewhere along the way I realised two things; that writing books made me happy, and that I couldn’t stop. In fact, writing seemed to satisfy two very basic needs of my personality; the need to make things, and the need to control everything (Yes, writing is a control freak’s dream: “You will all do as I say! Dance my puppets, dance!).

 

And that’s how I came to be writing a sword and sorcery serial that’s getting longer and more complicated by the minute… I look back at the years when I wasn’t writing books and I worry that I lost time there, that I should have been working on it ever since I got my first typewriter and that little desk with all the stickers on it. But the important thing is, I got there in the end. And art college does get you access to some really cool libraries.

On Finishing The Snake House and the Nature of Evil

Snakesonna

With all the stuff that’s been happening lately I haven’t had much of a chance to talk about finishing The Snake House. It’s interesting for me (if no one else) to look back on a project afterwards, especially one as fast-paced as this one, and have a think about what I learned from the experience and what I’ll take with me into the next book.

            In terms of prep, this time round I wrote a big old plan over three pieces of A4 paper (I wrote most of it while on holiday in Conwy, scribbling away, huddled under a blanket- Wales is cold, yo), made some character notes, and then dived straight in at the beginning of July. In the end, I wrote the entire novel (around 100,000 words) in two months, which is definitely something of a record for me. The story wandered away from the set course a few times, and various nasty scenes I wasn’t expecting popped up here and there, which was nice (Snake House is a horror novel, after all) but mostly it went according to plan. I think what I will remember from this noveling experience – other than the faint squealing of my sanity as I raced to finish before the end of August – is how I was trying to consciously say something with this story.

Most of the time, themes and meanings grow with a book organically, and often I only notice them on the second read-through; Ink for Thieves is about change and responsibility, I realise now, and Bird and Tower is about growing up. These issues, for me, are usually bubbling under, to be brought out further in re-writes and edits, but this last book was slightly different.

            The Snake House is asking questions about the nature of evil- whether it is a real, malevolent presence in human lives, or an absence of something that leaves the human animal easy prey to horrendous appetites (blimey, that’s a bit much. It’s something like that, anyway). When doing my research for TSH I inevitably had to read a lot about serial killers, and aside from being generally depressing and wildly unpleasant, such reading leads you to a number of uncomfortable questions. What makes these people kill repeatedly? Is such behaviour always born of a childhood of abuse, or do they come in to the world that way? Where can you draw the line that divides the sane from the insane in cases like this? Jeffrey Dahmer was thought by some to be experiencing severe psychotic episodes when he was torturing his victims, and maybe it’s easier to think of Ted Bundy as a monster possessed by a demonic presence, yet this was a man willing to drive for hours in a calm and rational state to spend the night with the bodies of the women he murdered.

            Obviously I have no answers to these questions – perhaps no one does, or will – but when I started writing The Snake House those were the issues I wanted to explore; it is undoubtedly my darkest book, and in lots of ways it was the hardest to write. I grew up on Stephen King books, so you’d think I’d be fairly immune to the wibblies at this stage, yet there were times where I questioned whether I even wanted to carry on with the story. It seems that reading a book that deals with monsters, and inviting monsters to come and play in your head, are two very different things.

 

Space Bitch

Forgot to update yesterday- my blog sense appears to be slipping a bit. I’ll blame it on The Steel Walk nearing the end, and the Bird and Tower podcast project, both of which are nibbling away at my every spare thought.

I’m also trying to up my short story output, but this is a goal that continues to be frustrated. While ideas for novels tend to stew away for years and finally become ready gradually, short story ideas seem to pop up from nowhere when you least expect them; perhaps they brew in a deeper, darker part of the mind. And of course when you really could do with one popping up, all goes silent.

I’ve written two or three short stories that genuinely came to me fully formed and out of the blue, and they were scrawled into notebooks in a feverish state. A recent (and very short) short was partly given to me in a dream, which sounds like complete arse, I know, but it’s true. So the rest of the time I am left staring sulkily at half formed titles and snippets in notebooks, willing them to suddenly become gorgeous little storylets, and… absolutely…nothing…happens.

So that’s my writing update! In other news I’m contemplating playing Mass Effect all the way through from the start, on Hardcore level, and as Space Bitch: The Shepard Who Taketh No Shit, Especially Not from Annoying Reporters. I just have to work up the patience to go through all the Mako levels again.

Post-its and Planning

So I completely forgot to update last week. I can’t even remember why now, but let’s just pretend it was due to a flurry of productivity on my part, and not just huge laziness, which is more likely but less heroic.

The Steel Walk is edging towards 100,000 words now and alarmingly enough, shows no particular signs of being near the end. At least I am well into the third act and having fun with the story; Eri is angrily traipsing through the swamps of the Green Jenny Council while evil things are afoot in all corners of Ferrum, and Saul has some difficult choices to make. I may even have some clue as to how the whole thing ends.

Writing The Steel Walk has been an education in the process of how to put a book together, although I’m not sure I’m any closer to figuring out the best way of doing it. So far each book has been approached differently, and I have learnt different lessons.

Bad Apple Bone- Started writing it before I even knew it was a book, and consequently I only had a vague idea of the plot by around the 30,000 words mark. An exciting if agonising way to put a novel together, it did however all fall together with surprising neatness. I’m sure this was a fluke, and unlikely to ever be repeated.

Bird and Tower- When I started this one for NaNoWriMo, I was very clear on the beginning and the end, and had a vague structure for the middle (“Quint searches for other siblings, hijinks ensue”) but what with the fabulous by-the-seat-of-your-leg-hats* approach of NaNo, if I did any more planning than that I don’t remember it. A joy to write, quite honestly, even if I kept forgetting one of the characters existed.

A Boy of Blood and Clay- A lesson in how it is wise to have, you know, even the slightest clue of how the plot will develop and who your characters are. Not sure what I was thinking with this one (I still believe that when it’s finished, it might be the best thing I’ve written)

Ink for Thieves- This book was a return to a vague plot outline and detailed character notes, and thanks again to the backside-wallop of NaNo, largely quite fun to write. It had it’s moments of “I have shamed myself and my ancestors with this book” but the characters came to life for me and behaved in naughty ways, the plot headache of the Embers resolved itself and I got to the end of it. After A Boy of Blood and Clay, that was a big relief.

So, what have I learnt? Mostly, that no planning is bad, except when it works, and over planning is good, except where it doesn’t. Does that make sense? I had detailed character notes for Eri and Saul before I started The Steel Walk, but they still went merrily ahead and behaved in all sorts of unexpected ways anyway, and Alice, a character who barely existed at the planning stage, has come to impact on the plot in all sorts of drastic ways.

The next, as yet unnamed project, is a sort-of-science-fiction first person narrative with strong crime elements (and a girl called Zootsi) so I think I have no choice; planning will be done, notes will be made, and post-its will be wasted, until I can go into NaNoWriMo this year knowing that I just have to fill in the fun bits. I may restrain myself from drawing a map though.

*for an explanation of leg-hats, please go and listen to The Soldiers of Tangent, the fab new comedy podcast from those behemoths of audio genius, Danny “The Accent” Davies and Marty “Churlish” Perrett. http://thesoldiersoftangent.mevio.com/

By the pricking of my thumbs

I realised an odd thing today. I identify with the witch.

Or at least, I am drawn to witches more often than almost anything else (aside from possibly, uh, child sacrifice). I was reading a short story by George R.R Martin called In the Lost Lands, a lovely thing concerning werewolves and a woman who, although she is never named as such, is almost certainly a witch of a sort. It occurred to me that I liked it especially because Grey Alys was written with sympathy, and not entirely as a dirty ol’ monster.

When I think about it, I come back to witches again and again in all of my work. Bad Apple Bone is the most obvious example, as it concerns a great many witches, some of whom are bad, some of whom are good, and some, in the case of Noon, who are just tremendously lazy. Even if I don’t have a witch by name in my story, I will undoubtedly have a crazy old woman who is more than she appears to be, such as Moony Sue in A Boy of Blood and Clay, a woman who is possibly an elderly wise woman and just as possibly the River Thames. Bird and Tower, and Ink for Thieves both have examples, and in The Steel Walk I have returned to big ol’ groups of proper witches, with the Green Jenny Council- and there’s not a single good apple amongst that lot.

None of this was deliberate, so where has it come from? When I was a kid I was a big fan of the more gruesome fairytales, and most of those involved witches (Hansel and Gretel- when you really think about it, how deeply fucked up is that story? Love it). When it came to Disney films, I was always vaguely on the witchy side, and who can blame me? We had Marvellous Madam Mim, Ursula, Maleficent and the scary old bag from Snow White, all of whom were more interesting than the supposed heroes and heroines of the movies. And the Wicked Witch of the West had flying monkeys at her disposal! That’s pretty cool, if you ask me.

And when I went to college I spent a lot of time reading about folklore and fairy tales, even writing essays on it- I might have many issues with my time at art college, but I can’t complain about the freedom of the course; you could write about anything you wanted to, as long as you did it reasonably well. My dissertation was even about witches, in a way; I wrote about the evil mother figure that features as the enemy in so many stories, such as Coraline’s Other Mother, or Yubaba from Spirited away. That research was enormous fun.

But the biggest influence has to be, without a shadow of a doubt, the marvelous witches of the Discworld. I loved the witches novels the best I think, because it was always Pratchett writing at his best; about the conventions of folklore, and the strange and unfathomable ways of people. Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg were instantly deeply familiar to me, through my own Nan, through my aunts, various school teachers and even the dinner lady everyone was scared of- I knew these ladies, and they both scared me and made me laugh. They may seem like odd examples, given the dark nature of many of my own witches (Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg might have been fearsome, but they usually had your best interests at heart) but I believe that Pratchett’s witches showed me that witches were also people; capable of being good and bad, and therefore more realistic. And through that they became the characters I would be most excited to write about.

Go on, tell me. Which is your favourite witch?

It’s that time of year again…

Oh 2009, how shall we judge you?

Annoyingly, I am something of an optimist and normally reluctant to judge a year based on perhaps the last six months or so; if that were not the case, I would merrily tell 2009 to take a running jump off a prickly cliff. But I’m always looking for the silver lining in the dark clouds (or the smarties in the dog turd) so I shy away from condemning it completely. It’s time to look, perhaps, at what I hoped to do in 2009 and what I actually did, as awkward and slightly embarrassing as it may be:

By the end of this year I wanted to have finished Bad Apple Bone, written an entirely new novel, and a novella during November (which would also be finished).

What I actually did: Well, I did finish Bad Apple Bone (when was that? May? I think it may even have been on Star Wars day…), which was a major achievement I suppose, after two years writing the bugger. It was my first book, and my first real attempt at writing anything, and remains the truest thing I have written, I think.

I did start writing an entirely new book, A Boy of Blood and Clay, and even got 61,000 words into it, but made the rather silly error of mistaking research for planning, and found myself halfway through the book with only the slightest inkling of what was happening. Plus, I really loathed one of the main characters, and wanted to kill her off. Except she was already dead. Oh.
So that book remains at rest currently, “composting” as my favourite art tutor would put it. And the NaNoWriMo novella? Well that little bugger turned into an actual full length book, full of dirt and ooze and I’m-Not-Even-Sure-What-Happens-Next mystery, which made it brilliant fun to write, even as it grows in scope by the minute and I have no chance of finishing it this year.

In conclusion then, I have one finished novel, and two unfinished full length books; not exactly where I wanted to be, but, I have to look the bright side (or the Skittles in the dog plop); this year I have written, not including finishing Bad Apple Bone or any short stories that popped into existence, around 120,000 words. And I can’t really complain about that.

2010 will be the year I learn to give up my time properly to this fabulous craft, and start treating it like I really intend other people to read it some day. This year is The Year of Writing Dangerously.

Where I am now…

I am better than I was.

As some of you might know, I’ve had a shitty few months. Ongoing problems with a tooth, a chest infection that may or may not have been swine flu, an unusable bathroom for weeks, and very sadly my Nan passed away.

I suppose that sometimes strife doesn’t line up in an orderly queue, sometimes it just shouts “BUNDLE!” and lets rip. The good news is, I feel like I have, to some extent, come out of the other side now. Although my chest is still a little weak and I have a very sensitive gag reflex now, I’m over the mystery flu. We now have a bathroom with an actual door and sink (you don’t realise how important a toilet door is until you don’t have one for weeks). We’ve had my Nan’s funeral, which was as difficult and painful as you would expect, and there will be more pain to come as the house where I grew up in is emptied of all the things that made it home, and is sold; but you take the memories that you can and you soldier on, always the walking wounded.

The tooth that was lingering on has been removed. Hoo-fucking-ray! The horrible thing about that was the waiting for the appointment; even when I was feeling myself again, and relatively happy, always at the back of my mind was the tooth problem, sucking away any ability to relax. Now it’s sorted, it is genuinely like a black cloud has stopped hanging over my head, and has gone off to bother Charlie Brown or Calvin or someone.

So I am better than I was. :) A side effect of the crap of the last few months has been that my writing has taken a serious knock. I can’t concentrate when I’m anxious, and a number of problems with A Boy of Blood and Clay that I had been trying to write around suddenly became insurmountable, and I lost my way with the book. Shitsticks. I forced myself to write for a while, and stopped again when I realised I was hating it, hating the characters, and hating the story. The problem is longwinded, but the short version is this; with Bad Apple Bone, I had the main character in my head for some time, years even, before I started writing. I might not have known the plot, but I had a good idea of what Noon was like. With A Boy of Blood and Clay, I did the briefest of outlines and character sketches, and then threw myself into it, assuming I’d be able to make it up as I went; after all, it had worked with the last book.

It turns out, that was a slightly silly idea.

So I’ve put A Boy of Blood and Clay to one side for a while. I don’t know the characters well enough, and it needs a hell of a lot more research before I can get the story into the shape I wanted in the first place. I’ll come back to it (if only because I’ve written 63,000 words of the bugger already!) and Mike and Faye and Gushel and the terrible Eustace Cream will certainly get an end to their stories one day.

In other news, NaNoWriMo is two weeks away! I had a great time last year writing Bird and Tower, and I can’t wait to do it all again- this time with more planning and research, obviously. 😉 More about that on the next blog post.

Bird and Tower

A brief one, since I have remembered that I’ve yet to talk about the novella I wrote for last years NaNoWriMo.

Bird and Tower (I hate the title, and have yet to think of a better one) is almost a Young Adult book I think, in that the main characters are young people. I didn’t conceive of it as such, but writing about teenagers, and in particular, a naive, optimistic kid gave the book a lightness and mood that is very different to Bad Apple Bone. Having said that, it has it’s dark and bloody parts, and I would have to investigate how much violence you’re allowed in a YA novel before I really start calling it that…

Written in the frantic time frame of Nano, it has obvious pacing issues and a couple of moments where one character will drop off the page for a bit and reappear later on (not used to handling so many main characters at once!) but all in all I enjoyed writing it, and it surprised me by making me cry at the end. I would love, ideally, to write a sequel as I would dearly like to know what happens next to Quint, Aksu and Acolyte Jones, but that’s in the far future I think…

Anyway. Here’s a very brief and wonky synopsis I’ve knocked up to give you an idea of what it’s all about. :)

Quint has spent all sixteen years of his life inside the Tower and has never once ventured out into the sprawling city of Ternestrad. This has never worried him particularly; the man who acts as his father, Dr Phiestus, has always taken good care of him, and the many mechanical Croids that keep the Tower spick and span provide a company of sorts.
However, one night Dr Phiestus leaves the Tower and does not come back, and when Quint accidently hatches an egg in the doctor’s storeroom, he realises that it’s time for him to leave the Tower and head out into the world. With the help of a thief, a runaway monk and a creature from another age, Quint must solve the mystery of his own birth and discover the legacy that waits for him beneath the city of Ternestrad.