The Naked Desk

Writing a book, I’ve found, is like wading out into a river. At first, you can’t even see open water through the reeds, let alone the far bank, but you have a vision of what might be there as you struggle through waist-deep mud. There are times when you scramble back to firm ground to find a better way in, and even when you can see your way clear ahead, the silt slows you down. Eventually, you can swim. Finally the current takes you, and then the ride is spectacular. Nothing is going to stop you until your feet touch that far, glorious bank. And as you climb out, there comes a moment when you can sit, take a breath, and look back at how far you’ve swum.

That, for me, is the moment when the Work In Progress is finally worthy of being shared with beta readers. It isn’t finished, and it won’t be finished until it is sold into publication, edited, re-edited, and polished to a publisher’s satisfaction. But it has reached a milestone. It has moved from screen to paper for a last ‘red pen’ edit. It is as good as I can make it on my own. The criticisms will come, need to come, along with those ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ suggestions, but for a moment the WIP is a fine and beautiful thing. I haven’t landed in the place I saw in my early dream, but then my dreams evolved each time the current took me in a new direction. The trick is to ride the currents and avoid the eddies.

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Today I’m sitting on that far, metaphorical bank, but in the real world I’m staring at a strange sight. Beneath the never-vanishing stack of bills, correspondence, and reading material, my desk is naked. The WIP has been sent out into the world. But on the shelf above are three books that I’ve bought to research the next project. They include ‘The Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry’, written by Geoffroi de Charny, who was to die as the standard-bearer of the French oriflamme at the battle of Poitiers in 1356.

It’s a good time to think about the next river. 14th Century and the chivalric ideal.

Total immersion.

“I never knew you were like that…”

Draumr KopaCindy Callens, on the Belgian book review site Draumr Kopa, kindly asked me to do a guest blog. I shared some of the more amusing comments people have made since Saxon’s Bane was launched. Click here for Draumr Kopa.

Here’s what I had to say:

People have said some strange things to me since Saxon’s Bane was published.

“I never knew you were like that,” an elderly lady from my local church said one Sunday.

“Like what?” I asked. The question made me stop in my tracks, and the departing congregation flowed around us.

She shuffled, making that eyes-lowered squirm with which Christian ladies of a certain age simultaneously mention and avoid mentioning delicate subjects. “Well, you know…”

“No, I don’t know. What’s the matter?” I sensed that the subject causing her such embarrassment was of a reprehensible and possibly sexual nature, and my mind raced in a frantic ‘Oh-God-what-have-I-got-to-be-guilty-about’ way. I drew a blank, but the worry remained.

“I read your book.”

Ah. Huge sigh of relief. Saxon’s Bane includes pagan practices and probably isn’t a book that the vicar would read from the pulpit.

“And?”

“Your character, he, err, notices women.”

Oh, that. Perhaps she had an innocent understanding of the male psyche. I explained that the main character was a single, heterosexual man in his thirties who has been cooped up in hospital for four months, when his only female company had arrived carrying a hypodermic needle. He may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress, and is certainly a little insecure. He’s courageous but stubborn, emotionally incontinent, and flawed. Yes, he notices women. Is that a problem?

The elderly lady made a slight flutter with her hands, vaguely indicative of an area below the waist, before she repeated herself. “I never knew you were like that.”

It was an early lesson for me in being a published author. The autobiographical element is assumed, but assumed selectively. Female characters may be “well drawn” but the male protagonist can only be me. His strengths are my aspirations, and his weaknesses are mine. I wonder what reaction Sebastian Faulks had after writing his brilliant novel Engleby in the ‘voice’ of a man you’d want to scrape off the bottom of your shoe. Perhaps after you’ve written Birdsong and Charlotte Gray your readers take a more balanced view. For those of us still establishing our literary credibility, it’s worth remembering that although good stories match flawed good against complex evil, the trick is to make the flaws appealing.

The reality, of course, is that there is inevitably some autobiographical content. As I wrote Saxon’s Bane the characters became so well known to me that I was able to become the individual I had created, even the female ones, and as I set them loose they’d tell me how each scene must develop. The boundary between self and artifice became so blurry that I sometimes had to stand back and unpick myself from this world of my own creation.

I’ve found I can also write from a female point of view, with a little help and critiquing from my wife and from women at my writers’ group. Over half of my next book is written in a female ‘voice’, and I’m told it sounds totally authentic. I shall be fascinated to hear readers’ feedback, if and when it is published. Will the few, lyrically-crafted moments of female sexuality be dismissed as ‘pure male fantasy’? Will someone again say “I never knew…”?

It is a strange and delightful thing, this ability and willingness to craft a female persona from within a male brain. I think that by the time I finished Saxon’s Bane I may even have been a little in love with one of the female protagonists.

“Great character, that Eadlin,” a man said about her after Saxon’s Bane was book of the month at his book club. “Wonderfully fleshed out.”

“Excuse me?” I looked in vain for signs that the double-entendre was intentional. Eadlin’s character, I should explain, has an earthy, girl-next-door sexuality. She has curves.

“No, I mean she’s well rounded.”

It’s great to watch someone else dig themselves into a pit of their own making. I wish, eight months after the book was released, that I’d made notes of the best remarks that have come my way. Some have been amusing, like the ones I’ve shared. Some have been gloriously, ego-boostingly flattering, while some have been crushing, like the local independent bookseller who declined to stock because she was “inundated with local authors”.

But the prize for the funniest has to go to my wife’s mother, who held on for some time to the view that her son-in-law should be out earning a salary rather than indulging in all this writing stuff. My wife rang her up when Solaris bought the English language rights to Saxon’s Bane.

“Wonderful news, Mummy! Geoffrey’s got a publishing contract!”

“Oh.” A pause. “But has he got work?”

 

 

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.

 

The (equine) inspiration

Since Saxon’s Bane was released the question I’ve been asked most frequently has been “what was your inspiration?” The literary answer has been covered elsewhere in several guest blogs, but I have to admit that one character in the book was drawn from life, in the shape of a four-legged, 700 kilo friend who is exceptionally fond of Polo Mints.

Bally & helmetSeveral reviewers and bloggers have commented on the way Saxon’s Bane touches on the healing power of horses. It isn’t the primary theme of the book, but much of the plot is set in a stables, and the main character Fergus’s growing bond with a horse is a factor in his journey towards wellbeing. In his first encounter with a horse, he finds the touch ‘unexpectedly comforting, like a distant echo of childhood, as if he was once again a hurt infant who had found a soothing presence that was large and gentle and warm. […] the horse lifted its head and touched its muzzle into the angle of Fergus’s neck, holding it there so that the warmth of its breath brushed over his skin. A strange sense of harmony started to fill Fergus’s mind at this unquestioning animal contact. It made him feel naked, with the essence of his being visible to the animal. Not judged, simply known, and accepted.’

I have not, in the years that I’ve been riding, been in the same need of healing as Fergus, but I have seen the transformative power that horses can have on damaged people, at both an emotional and physical level. What better excuse to write a friend into the story?

Bally ODESo let me introduce Bally, or Ballycormac Boy to give him his full name, who’s a 17.1 hands Irish Hunter that I bought in Ireland in 2005. He now belongs to a very good friend and his wife, who are kind enough to let me ride him regularly. We even compete from time to time, at a very local, amateur level.

Bally now lives on the edge of Hodgemoor Woods in Buckinghamshire. The Hodgemoor Riding Association (HRA) works in partnership with the Forestry Commission, raising funds from members to maintain the woodland tracks for all users. A local retailer is co-operating with HRA to offer signed copies of Saxon’s Bane at £6.99, including UK postage, of which £1.00 will be donated to Hodgemoor Riding Association.

If you’d like to take advantage of this offer, click on the small horse’s head image below (yes, that’s Bally!) and you’ll be redirected to the relevant page on the HRA site.

Bally
HRA

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!