Abercrombie and action

I’ve been on a bit of a Joe Abercrombie kick recently. Having previously enjoyed his First Law trilogy, I ploughed through all 600 blood-soaked pages of The Heroes in December, finished Red Country last week, and have a borrowed copy of Best Served Cold next to my laptop as I write this.

If you haven’t read Abercrombie, and you enjoy action packed fantasy, then I really recommend all these books. He’s been growing as an author, and to my mind The Heroes and Red Country have shown him becoming more interesting and adventurous. But the reason he’s able to get away with these experiments – epic fantasy as war movie and western, respectively – is a good grounding in action and character.

People sometimes talk about plot or action as if they were antithetical to good character and idea writing, distractions from the art of depicting the depths of personality or exploring the possibilities the intellect provides. This seems to be a given of much highbrow literary study. Personally, I think that’s rubbish. Bad action and bad plot get in the way, but so does bad character writing. Good action, like Abercrombie’s, is both exhilarating and enlightening. It exposes the characters involved, their weaknesses as well as their strengths, and makes you care more about them for the perils they face. In Red Country, he uses action sequences to reflect upon the features of the western genre, and the nature of heroism, calling many assumptions into question. This doesn’t mean that the action slows while he writes a paragraph on the meaning of each blow, but rather that the meaning is coded into the action, for you to find if it interests you.

Clever writing doesn’t have to mean dull writing, thank goodness. And once again, I’ve found someone whose stories inspire me to go write.

In praise of the mediocre

The more time I spend writing, and thinking about writing, the more I get out of reading. Because I’m more aware of the craft of writing, of the techniques being used, of the structures in place, I gain a deeper appreciation of the skill and hard work that’s gone into a piece of writing, or the mistakes that have been made. It’s the reason why you need to read if you want to be a writer – seeing what others do is part of the learning experience.

Recently, I’ve found that I’m learning most from mediocre stories, things that are put together in a competent way, and that find themselves a reasonable audience, but that don’t dazzle, that don’t make me gasp or cry or yearn for the next instalment. The sort of stuff that I normally avoid, but that I’ve started dipping into to rest my brain.

I think I’m learning from these stories because I’m not fully absorbed. An excellent writer, something I barely dream of one day becoming, will pull you into the story so deeply that you don’t notice how it’s being told. You’re dragged along by the words and never stop to notice how they’ve been put together. The techniques may even be hidden, structures rendered so skillfully that they become invisible, character ticks delivered so subtly that, while you know who’s talking from their every sentence, you never feel like they’re repeating.

If something’s more mediocre, competently but unimpressively put together, then those ticks and techniques will show. I’ll enjoy the story enough to keep going, but not so much that I don’t spot the plot turns, the contrasting highs and lows, the obviously recurring dialogue ticks. I notice them when they’re successful, drawing me into an otherwise unimpressive story, and when they aren’t, pulling me out of an otherwise engaging scene.

I’m not sure what the moral of this is. I don’t want to encourage anyone to seek out mediocrity. Perhaps it’s that we learn from more than the outstanding and the abysmal, and looking at what’s done passably is important because it’s a step on the road to excellence.

Readers And Writers – The Black Dossier

This weekend, I finally read Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s Black Dossier, their third League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book. I’m a huge fan of the first two books, but had a much more mixed response to this, a response that relates to the different reasons writers write and readers read.

The Black Dossier is an incredible piece of work. Smartly written and structured, cleverly playful in its use of formats and references. The writing is good no matter what genre Moore is pastiching on any given page. The art is detailed, fascinating and varied. This is a comic book as contemporary art, culture reflecting on culture and using it to experiment with story structure and reader experience. Even when I didn’t recognise the references or forms at play, I could sense their presence, a breadth and depth of meaning that burst from every page.

However, what this lacked for me, and what the previous League books were so good at, was engagement. The first two volumes of the League’s adventures were just that, adventures. They were tightly plotted and focussed, with the emphasis as much on the story as the cleverness. They drew me in, made me care about the characters and events. Recognising when the creators were being extra smart was an added bonus. And the Black Dossier didn’t draw me in in that way.

Writers write for the satisfaction of their craft, for the thrill of flexing their creative muscles. And writing something like the Black Dossier, where you’re packing every moment with so much cleverness and meaning, must be extremely rewarding. But while, as readers, we can enjoy and admire that craft, most of us want to be sucked in, to be dragged along by story and character, to feel the thrill of their lives. What makes a piece amazing to write won’t necessarily make it amazing to read.

None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy The Black Dossier. I did. But I think Alan Moore enjoyed it a whole lot more.


Working at inspiration

There’s a tendency to talk about inspiration as something mystical, some flash-from-nowhere power. I think that’s nonsense. Inspiration is like any act of imagination, it’s something you work at.

Partly, this is a long term project. The more time you spend thinking about how you can apply your experiences to stories the more effortless that will become. When I first started writing I’d occassionally notice something interesting. The way light streamed from a porch on a spring evening. The curve of a statue in a gallery. A concept from sociology that explained why people listen to others. I’d note that thing down, I’d think about its ramifications or how it could be used to add colour to a story. I’d mould it into a shape that I could use.

As time went by that got easier. I’d see that fall of light and I’d know straight away how to use it in my current scene. Or I’d hear that sociological concept and see immediately how it could motivate a character. And that was when those moments of inspiration really started to fly. Those flashing insights, the realisation that, hey, that bird would be a good model for monster A, a great metaphor for Lord B’s character, or maybe a hobby for character C, like ornithology or taxidermy, and that’s why her and B don’t get on, and…

Those moments were coming because I’d worked at building a better creative engine, a set of thought processes that were better than ever at creating the ideas I wanted.

But working at it is a short term thing too. This week I’ve been reading Eileen Power’s Medieval Women, because I’m planning a story that involves several medieval women*. For the first few pages I didn’t get much from the book. It was interesting enough, but nothing was really sparking. Then I took one concept, about the deeply divided attitudes to women in medieval Christianity (praise the Virgin Mary, bemoan Eve’s part in the fall, compare all women to both, develop feelings of confusion normally restricted to teenagers). I thought about the ramifications of that for my story and wrote it down. Half a page later, with that idea already in my head, I read something else that fitted with it, so I noted that down. And again. And again. Ten minutes later I was spending more time making notes than actually reading. That engine I mentioned earlier had got warmed up, and now it was really rolling. One of the most important fuels for creativity is more creativity.

So, messy engine metaphors aside, what’s the point of this? It’s that ideas and creativity don’t just happen, and realising that, working on mine over time and in each moment, has really helped me. Inspiration doesn’t just happen. You make it happen.

*And also because I’m something of a history nerd – there’s a reason I studied it solidly for six years.

The future is cardboard

The debate’s been going for some years now on whether e-readers are the future of reading. Early adopters evangelise on behalf of the gadgetry. Traditionalists talk about how you can’t replace the smell and feel of paper. We’ve even had this debate within my not-terribly-techy team at work, so it must be getting old by now. And yet I recently had an experience that shed new light on it for me.

I love my e-reader. The elegance of its design, the convenience of being able to carry hundreds, thousands of books in something the size of a slim paperback. If you’d told fourteen-year-old me that, two decades down the line, he’d be able to fit his whole library in his school bag he’d have been overjoyed. Never mind hoverboards and moon bases, that was the future I wanted. Looking at books through the eyes of an adult, or even the memories of a bibliophilic teenager, I’m sure this is the way to go.

But the other day I got an insight into a younger sort of reader, and why there’ll always be a place for paper. I don’t mean junior school kids, with their illustrated reference books and their well worn copies of Harry Potter. Not even the infants, with their wonderfully illustrated picture books. No, I’m thinking about the children who can’t even read yet, the wobbling toddlers first learning the joy of books.

The source of my insight was my niece, lets call her Ever-ready. Ever-ready is one and a bit years old. She’s seen her sister, the previously-mentioned Princess, reading books. She’s seen mummy reading them, and daddy, and that funny-looking Uncle Andy. And in the past few months she’s started to appreciate them for herself. At first, the words and pictures meant little to her. She knew that other people made noises at them, but I don’t think she’d connected the noises with the things on the page. What she got a kick out of, what first got her handling books for herself, was turning the thick cardboard pages of baby books. I could see satisfaction in her smile as she worked her way through from beginning to end. She wasn’t worried about the details. She didn’t, to the Princess’s shock, stop to take in every page. She just turned, and turned, and turned those pages, and suddenly books were within her grasp. They weren’t just something that was read to her. They were something she controlled.

Ever-ready has moved on already. She’s started recognising that certain pictures have certain noises, saying ‘moo’ when shown the cow, ‘baa’ for the sheep. She loves that too. But the thing that first drew her in was turning those pages, feeling ownership over the experience. It’s too long ago to remember, but I’m sure I must have felt that too, the thrill of page-turning leading to a life-long love of words.

When we talk about paper versus e-readers we do so through the lense of our adult lives. But if we pause to think about younger perspectives we’ll see that the future isn’t just micro-chips, or thin leaves between paper covers. The real future of reading is in those thick, cardboard pages, and in learning to make them turn.