The WIP

Carol McGrathHistorical Novelist Carol McGrath kindly tagged me in her blog last week, and asked me what I’m working on. Carol, by way of reciprocal introduction, writes wonderful novels about the royal women of King Harold’s court in the years before and after the Norman conquest. Her book ‘The Handfasted Wife’ was a finalist for this year’s Romance Novelist Association’s historical award. Click the icon for more details.

Carol asked me several questions:

What am I working on?

I’m at the final draft and editing phase of a thriller with a supernatural twist. When newly affluent businessman Paul Devlin and his girlfriend Fiona buy a barn conversion near Halstead Hall, they think they’re buying a rural idyll. They are met by a wall of resentment, and are drawn into a conflict that has its roots in Dark Age, pagan times. There’s a fuller overview under ‘Current Projects’. I’ve also posted the first two chapters here and here.

What inspired you to write this?

Two years ago my wife and I visited the lovely Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, which dates from the 12th to the 17th centuries. In the valley below there are traces of the ‘lost village’ of Nether Haddon, visible now only in ridge-and-furrow field patterns, tracks that are just patterns in pasture, and some exquisite wall paintings in Haddon Hall’s chapel. No-one knows for sure why the village disappeared, some time around the 14th century.

Wall Painting2Those wall paintings made the lost village seem more human. History is always written about the great families, the Vernons and the Manners of Haddon, but what about the peasant kneeling in the grass? What story might he tell?

So I had the idea of a rural dynasty that was born, over six hundred years ago, with a terrible oath that bound the Bonnevaux family to the soil and people of Halgestede, the ‘Holy Place’. In the present day, the Halstead estate is crumbling and the oath has been forgotten by the Bonnevaux but not, it seems, by the families that have served them for centuries. Families that might, perhaps, have inspired Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Land:

His dead are in the churchyard – thirty generations laid.

Their names were old in history when Domesday Book was made.

And the passion and the piety and prowess of his line

Have seeded, rooted, fruited in some land the Law calls mine.

What’s your writing process?

I’m not sure I’ve defined it yet. It involves a lot of staring into space, inhabiting the world I’m trying to create. In the summer I write in an arbour I built in the garden, where I’m most productive. In the winter I replicate that as much as possible in my study by playing background ‘music’ of birdsong. As I come close to finishing a book I become very focused and tend to ignore all other tasks. Bills, jobs, even friends. At the beginning of a project it’s like wading out into a river, slow and sticky. Then the current takes you and nothing else matters.

Carol: Who would you like to introduce?

dave new pic mono copyDave Weaver‘s writing ranges from YA fantasy to literary fiction. He is married to a Japanese lady, and his fascination with Japan has produced some stunning work. He describes his love for the ‘beautiful colours of its landscapes and the subtlety of its culture, for its contradictions and certainties, intelligence and passion, spirit and diversity. Yet beneath all these things lies another Japan; one of ghosts and shadows, unspoken secrets, demons from the past and uncertain visions of the future. It’s what makes this intriguing country ultimately unknowable, unique, Nippon…

Dave will blog next week at http://daveweaver-unreal.blogspot.co.uk/

photo for WIP blogLibby McGugan and I share the same publisher, Solaris. Her fast-paced, intelligent novel ‘The Eidolon’ came out just after Saxon’s Bane. Libby grew up with an ambition to join the Rebel Alliance in a Galaxy Far, Far away, or get a job in film production (it was a tough choice). Instead she studied medicine and worked as an emergency physician. A travel junkie, she’s been trekking in the Himalaya of Bhutan, inter-railing round Europe and backpacking in Chile, USA and Borneo. She plays the fiddle and loves TED talks. Her biggest influence was probably Yoda. Libby will blog next week at http://libbymcgugan.com

toby_frostToby Frost always wanted to be an astronaut, but somehow reality got in the way. He trained to be a barrister, but decided to follow a career writing about spaceships instead. He is the author of four comedy novels, published by Myrmidon books, about the misadventures of British space captain Isambard Smith and his somewhat dysfunctional crew as they travel the galaxy conquering space and making tea. In 2013, his science fiction novel Straken was published by Black Library. The fifth Space Captain Smith novel, End of Empires, is due out in August 2014. Toby’s website, which contains details about the books along with other content, is at: www.toby.frost.com.”

Literature, Genre, and Geeks

In the last week, there have been a lot of threads on Facebook and writers’ sites about genre, and the challenges of classifying books. Back in August, the Hugo Award-winning SF & Fantasy site, SF Signal, asked me to write a guest blog on the subject. Here are my thoughts; click the image for the original article.

SFS

Literature, Genre, and Geeks

Tag me with a genre label and I’ll probably wince. They’re like that childhood game of pinning the tail on the donkey, blindfold, except I’m the donkey. Every now and then there’s a pinprick and I find another useless appendage dangling from my ear or nostril. HF, UF, Fantasy, Dark Fantasy…I’ve been stuck with them all.

My irritation with labels began with the slight sneer of superiority about genre; that sense, on my journey to publication, that I was on the wrong side of the tracks. I had this bizarre vision of being greeted by a marketing executive at a great but imaginary literary establishment. “Literary Fiction? Over there, sir, the smart chaps in suits and cufflinks. Historical? Down the passage, mate, look for the swords, sandals, and bodices. Fantasy? Downstairs, guv. We don’t let no geeks up ‘ere.”

Literary snobbishness aside, the real problem with genre labels is that this convenient, box-ticking marketing machine has little room for grey areas. It seems to be designed for publishers’, distributors’, and retailers’ convenience. By superimposing structure onto a craft that is inherently qualitative, it primarily benefits the publishing machine, not the author or the reader. It thinks in lists; the SF list, the HF list, the Chic Lit list (and I couldn’t say that after a glass of wine), whereas writers create word pictures that should be art rather than paint-by-numbers. We need the freedom to stray across boundaries.

I like ambiguity, you see. I inhabit the hinterland where history becomes fantasy, and both cross the border into literature. I enjoy ghost stories where a plausible explanation still lingers in the background, or the kind of fantasy where the real world is touched by magic the way sunlight glints on water. Blink and the light may have gone, but the scent of an otherness remains.

I suppose I should blame the world I live in. The real one, that is, not the caverns of half-constructed mental space called ‘Works In Progress’. My real world has history written across its landscape; place names that tell of Saxon settlements, winding lanes that an English drunkard made as he lurched home from the mead hall. The past lives around us in the present, but what if those distant ancestors could speak to us? What stories would come alive?

So much of writing, I find, starts with that question “what if…” Take the village of Allingley, for example, a dreamy place on the banks of the Swanbourne. Allingley would have been Aegl-ingas-leah in Anglo-Saxon, the clearing of the folk of Aegl. What if this was the Aegl of Saxon legend, the mighty archer whose love was Olrun, the Swan Maiden?

I like joining the dots, even if the dots sit in different boxes of the marketing machine. When Saxon’s Bane was still a vague idea, I saw an article about the millennia-old bodies that are occasionally found in peat bogs, with their features sometimes so well preserved that they seem simply to be sleeping. Many of them were ritually slaughtered. Now, what if a peat-preserved Saxon grave was discovered on the outskirts of Allingley? What if an archaeologist developed a preternatural understanding of her project? What if the present day started to mirror the ancient, bloody past?

I’m back with the marketing exec. “Bit historical, are we?” he asks in a tone of voice that suggests ‘historical’ is a nervous condition. “But set in the present day? That won’t do, then…” Much sucking of teeth as he looks down his lists. “And a ghost, you say? That’ll be fantasy, then. Mind the steps; it’s a bit dark down there.”

I know, I know; genre labels help to point readers towards books they might like. Labels become banners under which people of similar interests can congregate, for example in forums like this one. But sticking a genre label on a book is not an indicator of quality. A bad book doesn’t become an Iain M Banks classic just by labeling it ‘SF’. A good publisher, on the other hand, is highly selective, invests in its authors, and won’t touch cr@p. First division authors such as the late and much loved Iain B are sufficiently established to have a brand of their own, but for the rest of us, being associated with a publisher’s brand helps us towards stardom. Maybe there’s a case for publishers to promote their brand values a little more? More branding, less tagging?

And in the mean time, I’m writing fantasy. With more than a dash of history. It’s quite literary, I’m told, but reads like a thriller. Oh, and there’s a dash of romance thrown in.

Hell, it’s a ghost story.

 

When I were a lad…

After Niall Alexander kindly reviewed Saxon’s Bane on his brilliant site ‘The Speculative Scotsman’, (click the image to read it) he kindly invited me to write a guest post. He even gave me the subject of ‘History in Fiction’ to link in to previous posts.

scotspec

The subject started me thinking. Here, with Niall’s permission, are the results:

“Ee, when I were a lad…”

Elderly relatives used to start their reminiscences like that when, er, I was a lad. I remember folding my face into an attitude of dutiful attention as I wondered how long I’d have to endure some fragment of ‘ancient’ history. After a while, I’d squirm and find an excuse to slip away. After all, I was force-fed enough history at school, fact by repetitive fact.

“Kings of England, William the Conqueror onwards!” a master would bark. The Norman Conquest was, after all, the date when all history started, as every English schoolboy knows. “Who can tell me?”

“Sir, sir, me sir! William, William, Henry, Stephen, Henry, Richard, John…”

I don’t think I differentiated between taught history and living history, as a boy. History was all about facts to be regurgitated, not experiences to be felt. What could those relatives tell me? First hand accounts of battles would have been interesting. In my childhood, there were still old folks alive who’d fought in the First World War. One relative had even survived both Flanders trenches and the Russian Revolution. My father fought with the Eighth Army in North Africa. Frustratingly, none of them wanted to talk about their battles, at least not in the heroic language a schoolboy craves. They’d flinch away from a direct question, but as I grew older, fragments of their memories sometimes fell in softly spoken words, and the mood would go still, tightening into itself. In that silence I glimpsed the stuttering terror of close-range tracer fire in the night, or felt the anguish of a survivor of atrocity. But by the time I was mature enough to listen, many of the stories would never be told again.

I think those fragments roused my interest not in ‘what happened’, but in what it felt like to be there while it happened. The perspective of the peasant, not the lord, the common soldier rather than the general. I also came to understand the impact on people, who seem with hindsight rather like trees that have survived the crushing weight of a boulder; take away the stone and the tree may thrive again, but not always in the pure shape that nature intended.

When I were a lad… we were taught the sequence of history. It might only have started in 1066, but that rote learning gave us a framework on which to hang deeper study. It might have been an overwhelmingly English framework, but I feel no need to apologise for my schoolmasters of old. They in turn had grown up in a place and an era of Imperial hubris, a time when God was an Englishman and had commissioned the British to civilise the world in their image. My offspring react with understandable horror to the mores of Empire, since in today’s era of the educational project or module, they have little understanding of trajectory or context. If I try to explain the attitudes of British society in my childhood, during that brief era between the end of Empire and the advent of mass immigration, they react as if I’d tried to deny the holocaust. They can describe immensely important subjects like the slave trade, but have no knowledge of the origins of their own people.

So what has all this to do with writing fiction?

At the risk of sounding grandiose, history is the backstory we all share. Villages in my part of England can often be traced to a Saxon warlord who chose the spot to ground his spear and plant his generations. That winding country lane has probably been there since an ox cart found the easiest route through the woods. Those invaders, settlers, and opportunists were storytellers, not writers, and they told their stories in the West Saxon tongue that would become the first global language, Ænglisc. They kept their own history alive in legends, some of which yet survive. Beowulf, Weyland the Smith, and Weyland’s brother Egil or Ægl who married the swan-maiden Olrun. Historical fiction was a dominant cultural force millennia before publishers called it ‘genre’ and eased it into the literary sidelines.

Personally, I like to write stories that have an echo of the past; not so much historical fiction as history in fiction. So I set Saxon’s Bane in a village called Allingley, which would have been Ægl-ingas-leah or ‘the clearing of Ægl’s folk’ in Anglo Saxon, a sleepy village on the banks of the Swanbourne. It was fun to reach back to the origins of the Ænglisc and to bring a legend to life in the present day. They’d have been just like us, those distant ancestors. Their fear would have been the same, even though the aggressor carried an axe rather than a machine pistol. All it takes to go back there and to make history come alive is a framework of facts and a little imagination. The imagination that sees an old veteran, perhaps, who sits by a fire and stares dewy-eyed into his mead, and says to the youth in the rushes at his feet, ‘now, when I were a lad…’

“Nú, hwonne ic waes cnap…”

Interview posted on YouTube

Today is the UK release date for Saxon’s Bane. To mark the occasion, Jonathan Oliver of Solaris sat me in front of a video camera and asked me loads of questions, ranging from my thoughts on genre, to the background to key characters in the book, and my writing journey. We even touched on the healing power of horses! The interview has been posted on YouTube at:

Saxon’s Bane cover released

saxons bane mockupLet me share the excitement of the cover for Saxon’s Bane, from the very talented artist Clint Langley and the team at Solaris.

Rather than enthuse about it myself, (well I would, wouldn’t I?) I’ll also share the observations from an online community of writers and agents, some of whom have been part of my own writing journey ever since Saxon’s Bane started to take shape.

Quotes:

‘Perfect! … dramatic and classy. There’s a sinister feel to it and an impression of today (from the road) and history.

Stirring, evocative, all the things a cover should be. I’d grab it if I saw it on the table!

It has a darkly beautiful feel … this absolutely would make me pick up and buy Saxon’s Bane.  It says to me that it’s both historical and contemporary. Anglo-Saxon. Pagan. Powerful.

That’s fabulous I can’t wait to get my paws on a copy!

Very dramatic, and promises an intriguing combination of ancient and contemporary (just as the book delivers.)

I’d definitely pick it up. The cover puts a shiver down my spine and says modern/historical/edgy/scary mix.

Oh I like it. It says hardship and violence and a good story.

It’s very strong. It makes me think dark, dark things are afoot.’

Saxon’s Bane will be released in the UK and USA, in print and ebook formats, in September 2013.

Saxon’s Bane selected for debut author challenge

I’m delighted to hear that Saxon’s Bane has been selected by The Qwillery for their 2013 Debut Author Challenge.  Watch this space for guest blogs and interview.  Further details at http://qwillery.blogspot.co.uk/p/2013-dac.html

Genre Matters. It really matters.

I’m discovering the significance of how books are categorised, tick-box fashion, into ‘genre’.

With the naivety of the unpublished author, I crafted Saxon’s Bane from an idea that was fighting to land on the page.  It was that passion that drove the story, not a need to fit a label defined by a publishing industry I knew nothing about.  It wasn’t until the book was finished and agented that I began to learn the reality of book marketing.

Saxon’s Bane started with the catalytic linking of two characters.  There’s a man emerging from the trauma of a car crash in which he almost died; his character grows on his journey to mental and physical healing.  And then there’s a woman, an archaeologist whose obsession with her excavation of a Saxon grave develops into a preternatural understanding. Her character slides into turmoil as she struggles to reconcile professionalism and intuition, evidence and belief.  The crisis builds around them as present-day events begin to mirror the ancient, bloody past.

Then came the question of pitching the finished manuscript to the market.  My pride knew no bounds when my agent (Ian Drury at Sheil Land) described it as ‘an astonishingly accomplished debut novel that blurs the line between genres’, but that’s when my genre lessons began.

“Loved the book,” said one editor of a major publishing house when I met him at a conference, “absolutely loved it.  But I’d never get it through an acquisition meeting.  Too cross-genre.  Got anything else for me?”

“Whaddya mean, ‘too cross-genre’?”  I struggled to contain my frustration.

“Well”, he explained, “it has flashbacks to the Dark Ages, but not enough to put it into a Historical list.  And although Saxon’s Bane has supernatural threads, they’re too ambiguous for us to put it on our fantasy list.  Super book, though.”

“But that ambiguity is important.  I wanted to write a book with a plausible plot, with characters that face real-world pressures and threats.  I didn’t want readers to have to suspend their disbelief.”

That started a master-class in publishing reality.  The big publishers, it seems, are having a tough time and are intensely risk-averse.  They in turn are selling into a retail distribution chain that is having an equally bad time, and which also works on ‘lists’.  If you’re writing about spooks, I gather you need to write about full-on spooks, complete with woo-woo noises and rattling chains.  If you’re writing history, that means at least 30% of the plot must be set at least 50 years before the present day.  Publishers want material that is new and fresh and exciting, provided it is not significantly different to what’s already out there.

Huh?

Watching the book being pitched into genre was fascinating.  Imagine turning up at a country fair with an animal for sale.  There are buyers for sheep.  There are buyers for goats. Kids stuff too – just follow the bleats.  Romance?  Rabbits are very popular this year, sir, we’ve had fifty shades of fur already.  What’s that you’ve got?  Haven’t seen one of those before.  A horse, you say?  Never heard of it.  Lovely looking beast, but I’d never get it on the van.  There’s a good market for sheep, though.  Got one of those for me?

My agent consoled me with the anecdote that Tolkein had a tough job selling ‘Lord of the Rings’ because until LOTR there wasn’t a fantasy market.  Tolkein created it, but he might well be rejected today.  How my ego loved him for that analogy, even if no parallel was intended.  What we need, he said, is one of the smaller, entrepreneurial publishers, the sort that want to eat the big guys’ lunch.

Bingo.  Saxon’s Bane acquired a publisher (Solaris) and, within the contract, the genre label ‘fantasy’.  Here my ignorance showed again.  I’d always thought ‘fantasy’ meant other worlds, with dragons or hobbits or dark magic, not books about how this world can be touched by an ‘otherness’.  My main character, for example, has fought his way back from a hinterland mapped more by faiths than by science, and who is to say that a man’s experiences at the edge of death are ‘real’ or the product of his own mind?  But don’t misunderstand me; I’ll settle for whatever label sells the book.

I was lucky, and the euphoria of that oh-so-elusive debut publishing deal is still coursing through my veins.  But there are legions of other writers producing work of publishable quality who are not blessed with an agent, particularly one who believes in a genre-bending book enough to land a deal in a risk-averse market.  I fear that in the major houses’ retreat to the perceived safety of strict list criteria, the reading public is being denied the chance to try a mass of fresh and exciting work.

Views and comments welcome!