The more work I do on The Machinery trilogy, the more I come to appreciate the weaker characters.
I don’t mean ‘weak’ in terms of physical strength or lack of courage. I mean it in terms of the writing process, or more specifically the planning process. There are certain characters in the book who have developed as the writing went along – I didn’t have a clear view on them beforehand.
In general, I’m not a great planner when it comes to writing: more of a gardener than an architect, to use George RR Martin’s definition. I tend to write out a rough outline of the general twists and turns of the story, and then just get stuck in. In terms of characters, I don’t write potted biographies of them or anything like that; it’s more a case of thinking about them and forming a clear mental picture of what they’re like.
But I don’t even always do that: for some of the characters I might have two or three adjectives I could use to describe them at the beginning of the writing process, and a general idea of what they look like. And that’s it. But they often develop into the characters that interest me the most.
There’s one in particular who has grown on me as I’ve written. This character – Canning – is middle-aged, overweight, and just generally a bit of a mess (and no, it isn’t a self-portrait!). He’s come far in life, though he hates himself: he was Selected by the Machinery, and is convinced that this was somehow a terrible mistake.
When I first started working on The Machinery, he was kind of a bit player. But I grew to like him as time went on. I thought he was interesting: what happens in this society to those who are thrust to the top of the tree, despite having zero confidence in their own abilities? How do they react to that?
I didn’t have as clear a picture of Canning at the beginning of the writing process as I did some of the other characters. But that was a good thing – he was able to evolve naturally, to react to situations as they developed (which can also be a bit chaotic with me!). He is now a major character, and will be a viewpoint character in The Strategist.
One of the things that can be intimidating about fantasy is the sheer effort that goes into developing a whole new world, with its own characters following their own rules etc. I certainly thought this at the beginning. However, I’ve learned that for me at least, it can often be useful to NOT plan out everything, and to just let things develop as they go along.
Sometimes weakness can be a strength. Besides, there’s always the good old delete key if you make a mess.
UPDATE: A quick update on where I am with everything. Book 2 is now set for an August publication. In the meantime, I’m deep into the writing of Book 3, so that should definitely be out next year sometime. This will mean that the writing/publication of the trilogy took place over ten years, pretty much exactly. It doesn’t feel like it took that long!
It will be a strange day when I send in the final copy edits of Book Three, and say goodbye to the whole thing!
When you write a book, you take a certain view of it. You know what broad genre it slots into, and maybe even the kind of reader you have in mind. What they don’t tell you, however, is that other people will take a view of the book when it’s published, and decide on their own labels for it.
I don’t mean they will decide whether they like it or not (which happens too – imagine, not liking my book!). But they will actually peg a certain box to drop it into, which may not be one you had in mind.
This has probably always been the case, but I think it must be particularly obvious for writers today. These days, people can describe a book online in their own words with great ease. What’s more, they can also tick certain boxes to show what sub-category they see the book belonging to: horror, steampunk, whatever. And what’s more, the sites themselves make their own decisions on where to plonk the book, perhaps using algorithmic hocus-pocus (which is the technical term).
And so it is that you might see certain keywords attached to your book that take you a bit by surprise. Obviously I expected The Machineryto fall under the broad fantasy category, which it has by and large (despite having a bit of a sci-fi element with the Machinery itself). But when I drill down a bit through the categories, I don’t think I ever really saw it as a ‘dystopia’, a word that has been applied to it a few times now in different contexts.
Now, I should firstly say that I can absolutely see where this comes from, and I’m not offended by it. The Machinery and its soon-to-be-published sequels certainly have dark aspects: there’s a lot of political skulduggery, murders, a sense of paranoia that is heightened by the Watchers, a kind of weird police force with magical masks that can see into a person’s soul (plenty of merchandising opportunities there!). But I think I see it as more of a kind of weird fantasy with almost supernatural undertones, rather than a dystopia per se.
The definition of dystopia is “an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one”. In my novels, the leaders of society are chosen by a machine, which they never see. However, the vast majority of people see this as a positive: the Machinery has throughout history chosen people who contributed to the success of their country, in terms that mean something to the citizens. That’s not to say they’re all happy: there is a significant body of people called Doubters, who for various reasons don’t support or believe in the Machinery. On balance, though, the Machinery and its selections are seen as being a good thing, and the people are largely happy with their lot.
That’s not to say I see it as a good thing. Maybe the difference is that I know where the books are heading: I hope the theme is ultimately positive, emphasising the ability of people to help themselves.
All that being said, I can see why the name is being used: the Machinery is breaking, after all, and there is no doubt the book is on the dark side. The point is not that I disagree with people who call it a dystopia: it’s more that I see it as another example of how an author’s relationship changes with their book when it is published, and people can stick it in whatever box they please. It’s a strange feeling, and one we all have to get used to.
But still – if people are reading it, they can call it what they want!
Hero: I cannot fight the evil lord! I am but a humble peasant!
Mysterious Stranger: Ah, but you wield the ancient secret power!
Hero: What is this ancient secret power?
Mysterious Stranger: The ancient secret power stems from ten million years ago, when it was dropped to the world by the old-and-most-likely-gone-forever ones. There are four different aspects of the ancient secret power, which I will now explain to you. The first aspect was discovered …
This is an extreme example of something I’ve been trying to avoid. I’m not sure if it affects other fantasy writers, but it has definitely reared its ugly head in my direction: the temptation to create a massive exposition dump, in order to explain the magic system underpinning your world.
This kind of thing can be difficult to avoid. You do need to explain things, after all, and short of incorporating a pull-out-and-keep guide, it has to be worked into the text. Usually one of the characters is learning about the magic system, too, along with the reader, and acting as the reader’s eye on the world. It therefore makes sense that they’re told about it by another, more knowledgeable character. Or perhaps they read about it in a book. At any rate, how do you tell people what’s going on without making it like a textbook? And how much detail is too much?
This is something I grappled with in writing The Strategist. Without giving too much away, it’s fair to say that Book One did not explore in great detail the magic at the heart of The Machinery. This was deliberate – I’ve written before a few times about how I wanted to keep a certain level of mystery in the first book. Still, it means that Book Two (and Book Three) have a lot of explaining to do.
The challenge stems from the fact that the writer knows more about the magic system than anyone else. How much can you leave to the reader to figure out? How much explanation is too much? It’s a tricky balance to strike.
Much of it comes down to the magic system itself. There needs to be rules, of course. While it is a magic system, and therefore the opposite of reality in many ways, it also needs to have an internal consistency. If you create a character who is so powerful that he or she can literally conjure anything from their fingertips, then there is a danger of undermining the whole narrative – how could they ever be defeated? It’s important to consider points like these, because the reader will.
On the other hand, it’s also important to avoid getting bogged down in rules, and keeping them to a minimum. You could end up confusing yourself, and the reader. It is magic, after all, so it’s good to have a little bit of the unknown at work.
I’m not sure what my conclusion is. Maybe I won’t know till the end of Book Three. I think that ultimately, magic is something that does need to be explained, but that the explanation should also be shown through the narrative, the actions of the characters, etc. It’s just a matter of striking the right balance, so the reader has some idea of what’s going on, without feeling like they’re reading a car manual. What does everyone else think? Any thoughts are very welcome!
Morning all! Once again I look at my last blog post and see it’s been almost three months since I posted anything, which is an absolute disgrace, very ashamed of myself, etc etc …
If it’s any excuse, it’s been a busy three months on the writing front. The Strategist has gone through several revisions, which I think have made it much stronger. The essential story has always been the same, but the challenge has been describing more of the magic system without giving away too much of book three. On top of that, it had an annoying amount of loose threads that needed tightening (or hacked away with scissors). I hope I’ve succeeded at both now; it’s difficult to know!
I’m now working through copy edits from the great people at HarperVoyager, meaning the book is all set for a May publication on ebook, with a print edition coming in November. I’m hoping to turn around the as-yet-untitled-but-probably-set-to-be-titled-very-soon book three much quicker than book two, with a (fingers crossed) aim to have it published in 2018. I think it shouldn’t take as long as the previous book, but then again I said that about book two as well!
I plan to be much more active on the blogging front from now on – coming soon will be a blog on building a magic system (gotta love fantasy!!). Until then, back to copy edits I go …
I have some bad news. Or some might say good news. There has been another delay to The Strategist, which will now be published on ebook in May, instead of January.
This means it will be released about a year after the initial planned publication date. That’s not so bad in the grand scheme of things – it’s less than two years after book one, which isn’t the end of the world.
Still, I’m a bit annoyed about it, especially as I know my legions of readers (both of them – hi mum and dad!) are receiving emails from Amazon etc telling them it’s been delayed. However, I definitely think the delays have been worthwhile, and everyone involved has been very patient and supportive.
The Strategist is the second book in the trilogy, and that has thrown up unique challenges. In book one, you are laying the foundations of the story, introducing most of the major characters, etc, so it evolves in quite a natural way. Plus, if you don’t have a book deal, you can really take as long as you like on it (I could anyway).
In book 3, you’re winding everything up, so again, all those big climactic events you’ve been thinking of start to click into place and help steer the narrative. (I think – I haven’t written a book 3 yet. I’ll probably be delayed with that too!)
But Book 2 is (obviously) somewhere in between. You know what’s supposed to happen in the story, but there are all sorts of other considerations beyond the major building blocks. You’re taking the story further, so can show more of the world. This is quite liberating, but it also presents challenges, especially in books like mine where I want to keep a high level of mystery. Similarly, I want to show more of the history of the world, and more of what makes the characters tick, while still keeping some of that hidden away. It’s tricky hitting that balance.
I think the point is that these things take as long as they take, and there’s no sense in rushing them. I am definitely much happier with the way it’s shaping up, so hopefully it will be worth the wait!
The second in the ‘Setting Out’ series is a guest post from my friend Bishop O’Connell, author of the ‘American Faerie Tale’ series. Here, Bishop shares a very funny and informative post on what he’s learned about attending conventions over his years as an author (and before).
Extroverts in their Natural Environment
My first comic convention was in San Diego; I was an attendee. Don’t get jealous – this was long before San Diego Comic Con became the pop culture behemoth it is now. I recall it being fun, though quite heavy on Star Trek—The Next Generation was at its height at the time—but I was too young and broke to really appreciate it. The second convention I attended was a gaming convention which I found much more fun and I think actually had a larger attendance; like I said, a long time ago. This was also a time when geek culture was still much maligned, and the term itself was still a pejorative.
When my first book, The Stolen, was published (many years later), I was invited to attend the New York Comic Con (NYCC) by my publisher and attend a panel. Let’s just say I was a bit excited (read: out of my geeky mind in delight). Not only had I not been to a con in a couple of decades, I was going to be a guest speaker! I’d be on the other side of the table! I had no illusions about my status, but I’d be lying if it didn’t feel a bit like I’d been invited to a celebrity party and was, by association, a minor celebrity myself. I knew there’d be no adoring crowds of people eager to meet me, no long lines at my book signing, but I really felt like I’d made it, in a small way at least. It was incredibly exciting and I couldn’t wait.
Now to briefly digress, I am and have always been an extrovert. I like to think it’s less the “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! I NEED EXTERNAL VALIDATION!” kind and more the “I just like people” kind, and I’ve paid my friends well to agree with me. I was never the little kid who put on shows for my family or anything, but in my early elementary school days, I did write short stories which the teacher would read at story time. Even as a little kid I’ve never been uncomfortable speaking in front of groups or to strangers (much to my parent’s dismay). When I got older I discovered theater and actually had a respectable resume for a starting actor. I briefly majored in theater, was part of a professional acting troupe, and even a professional improvisation group. Don’t look at me like that, it was the 90s. I soon discovered I was doomed to fill a particular role, namely the funny fat guy. At that point I shifted my focus to writing and changed my major to philosophy. Yeah, I know it’s ironic that I chose writing; an extrovert in a job that is, for the most part, quite solitary. But then I’ve always enjoyed irony. I of course knew shy people, but didn’t really understand the concept of an introvert. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy getting laughs or applause? Turns out, in the literary world, I’m the oddball. That’s a very strange realization to come to, and I think it’s helped me to empathize and understand others all the better. However, that oddity served me well at NYCC and all other conventions.
Back to New York: it was 2014 and the attendance that year was 133,000 people. It beat out San Diego for the largest con in North America (due entirely to the fact that I was attending, I’m sure). Until you see it, it’s hard to conceive of that many people all in one place. That’s more than the population of many cities. When I arrived, I was stunned. Even on Friday (Saturday is usually the biggest day) it was so crowded there was barely room to walk for an average size person. I had to squeeze between people almost the entire time. I know many authors who find that kind of crowd overwhelming, but for me, it was all the more exciting. See above regarding oddball.
I’ve heard people say, and I agree, that when you attend a convention you feel part of something, a sense of community. When you’re a guest—even an unknown—it’s even more so. You’re part of what all the people are there to experience. My panel was sort of a dream panel. My fellow panelists included Naomi Novik (who has remembered me each time I’ve seen her since), Nicole Peeler (whom I consider a friend now), Harry Heckel (a fellow Harper author and I’m convinced we were somehow separated at birth), as well as Brian and Wendy Froud. I sat next to Wendy, who along with her husband, are not only the co-authors of many faerie books, but longtime designers at Jim Henson’s Creature shop. In fact, they designed Yoda. YODA! I sat next to Yoda’s mom! I was a little star struck. But I felt at ease on the panel (Not your Mother’s Fairytales). I was a new and unknown author, but I was, in a very real sense, on stage once more. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I think I did well. I got several laughs, and even generated some interest. I sold a few books at my signing, including one young lady who was incredibly excited to meet me. She turned out to be the younger sister of Lexie Dunne (another Harper author) and I enjoy giving her grief about it to this day.
I walked the floor for a bit but spent much of my time at the Harper booth. This is where I found being an extrovert really came in handy (see above about talking to strangers). How did it go? Well I sold out of all the stock Harper had brought, on the first day. Luckily this was New York and their offices were a short drive away so they were able to bring more in. I met a ton of people who wanted to be authors, and so I told them how I’d gotten my publishing deal and encouraged them to never give up. In one case, I clearly remember one young lady literally shaking when I signed a copy of my book and handed it to her, she was so excited. That’s an odd feeling. I’m just me, Bishop. The idea anyone is excited to meet me or have talked to me was quite surreal, in the best way imaginable, but surreal nonetheless.
The first day was exhausting. Aside from being “on” I was also on my feet almost the entire day. That night when Harry and I ventured out to get some dinner, we were both recognized by a trio of cosplayers heading home. That was also a delightful surprise. I’m not exactly someone who blends in (6’3” and over 300 lbs) and while I often hear how I look just like someone everyone knows, I don’t have much experience being recognized as myself. To say it was very cool is an understatement bordering on criminal. The rest of the convention went much the same, and while I was exhausted every night, I was energized all day.
It wasn’t until much later, while attending another convention, that I heard from other authors about how hard conventions were for them. The concept mystified me until I brought it into a context I could understand. I don’t like heights (another understatement). So I imagined what it would be like to spend an entire day standing on a narrow bridge. Over a massive chasm. In high winds. Being under that kind of stress for extended periods is tough on the human body, and I realized just how lucky I am. I also imagine it’s terribly annoying to my introvert author friends; me being the guy who walks the steel girders of a sky scraper without shoes or a safety belt.
Since then I’ve attended conventions of all sizes. In each, I tend to follow a similar path. When I’m not on a panel or at a signing, I’m probably at the bookseller offering up my books to strangers. I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting those who are likely to find them interesting, and I’ve developed a decent elevator pitch. I don’t sell to everyone, but I meet a lot of interesting people, make some new fans, and meet lots of other authors. It’s exciting, but the downside is that cons have lost their luster in a way. I’m not a fan attending anymore, I’m a professional and it’s a basically work. Work I enjoy, but work all the same. I still love attending conventions and all it entails: people watching, turning strangers into fans or friends or both, meeting authors I respect and admire, and discovering all kinds of cool new stuff. I have no idea what it’s like attending as an introvert, I can try and imagine but I’ll never really know, so I just do my best to be understanding and accommodating. Sure, sometimes that means I soak up all the spotlight and attention to give them a break, but isn’t that what friends are for?
This is the first in a new series of posts aimed at writers setting out on the path to publication. I call it ‘Setting Out’. I didn’t say I was good at blog post titles.
The series will cover themes and experiences that might be useful to new writers. However, a range of topics will be discussed – from editing to agents to conventions – which could be of interest to writers of all stages. Others I’ve met in different parts of the industry will chip in, too, including writers, agents, reviewers, editors, etc, so there will be a good depth of knowledge.
There will be a natural SFF tint to the posts, as that’s the genre I’m in, but I think there will be something here for authors in different areas, too.
Routine Beats Talent
When people hear I have a book deal, they tend to ask a number of questions. These can be anything from ‘how on earth did that happen?!?’ to ‘were no other novels written that year?’ However, the main focus is often on the nuts and bolts of writing – along the lines of, ‘where did you find the time?’
I think this is the most important and difficult issue for any would-be writer. Most of us live very busy lives, filled with work commitments, family responsibilities, and finding time to eat and sleep. It can be extremely hard to simply find the time to sit in front of the computer and work on a book, particularly when you don’t know if it will be successful, and are aware of how hard it is to crack into the industry. You wonder if you are sacrificing time that could be better spent elsewhere.
When I started writing The Machinery, I really struggled with this problem. I had the idea for the book in the summer of 2008, but I definitely didn’t get cracking on it right away. I would sit in front of my computer, write a short amount, and then give up. I would decide I didn’t like this one paragraph I had written, and lose heart, which would have a knock-on effect, dissuading me from returning to the computer the next day.
It took about a year and a half before I got into the flow of it. I remember sitting down one day, typing a short amount, and agreeing with myself that I would return the next day and do a bit more. I don’t think any of the text from those early days and months made it into the final manuscript. However, it was a very important period for me – I discovered a routine that worked.
That is the important thing. You should not worry too much about the habits of other writers. You need to find a schedule that is suited to you, which could depend on all sorts of things: whether you’re an early morning person, whether you’re a night owl, etc. I did a little bit every day before I went to work – we’re talking twenty-thirty minutes tops, and none on weekends. However, for others, it may make more sense to spend all day Saturday hammering away on the keyboard, or doing a little bit after dinner every night. It doesn’t matter, so long as you keep to your routine. Even then you should cut yourself some slack – if you miss a day or two, don’t beat yourself up about it.
I’ve written about this before in other blogs, because I really think it is important. I can’t see how anyone could write a book – or indeed embark on any project – without some kind of discipline, no matter how haphazard their routine might look to others. In fact, I would put it above talent in terms of importance. Of course the ideas and the skill etc are necessary. But if they are completely unused, what’s the point? On the flipside, you can pick up skills as you go along, if you apply yourself. I think that the moderately talented, disciplined person will beat out the undisciplined genius every time (if you can break talent down into different categories like this).
I think the key is to take it easy on yourself. If you only have fifteen minutes a day, then do fifteen minutes a day. It’s a bit like saving money (not that I can claim to be an expert on that) – an amount that seems small on a weekly or monthly basis can really add up over a year or two. As I said, I spent a year and a half floundering without a routine. If I had written just 100 words a day on weekdays, that would have worked out at anywhere from 35,000 – 40,000 words, allowing some wiggle room for holidays or days being skipped. Even at the lower end, that’s a decent chunk of text – getting on for half a novel or so.
The last thing I’d say is that getting into the routine itself can be useful, in and of itself, even if you’re not published. You may decide to take on another extracurricular project in the future, for example, whether writing-related or not. So even if it’s no more than five minutes or two sentences a day, doing something regularly is better than doing nothing.