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Friday, February 27, 2009

 

Two good things

One: anyone with some free time around lunch on Thursday 5 March and lives in London, I will be signing copies of In Great Waters at Goldsboro Books at 2pm. As this is publication day, they'll be totally new and shiny, and anybody who wants to come in and say hello will be most welcome.

Two: Despite my laptop being in hospital, reducing me to pen and paper (which might well have been good for me), I have just finished a first draft of my third novel. Ta-da!

I'm still feeling a bit shaky and surreal, which is the feeling I always get when I finish: it's hard to believe that suddenly, bam, a whole era of your life is finished and you're into a new one which looks exactly the same but isn't... But it's now definitely finished, at least in draft form. Whether it'll get published remains to be seen - I was on a two-book contract with Random House, and In Great Waters is book number two - so I'll simply have to hope for the best on that score. But hey, I've finished another novel. Doesn't seem that long ago I was finishing the last one, but then I've been around me the whole time and you've all probably been having marvellous adventures that made the time seem full.

In the meantime, I'm feeling a bit shaken and not quite sure what to do with myself. I'm weighing up various alternatives, such as going for a walk in the par, calling a friend or taking a long bath. What do you think I should do?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

 

Annnnd ... countdown!

Though I have yet to update my website (sorry, I'm just not very good at technical stuff, but I'm working on it), it is now only a week until Book 2, In Great Waters, hits the UK shops!

What did I learn from writing it?

To begin with, I learned that what they say about second books is true: they are harder than first. The main reason for this is nerves: you've now got something to lose, and a limited time frame in which to maintain in, which does not make for a calm environment - and whatever they say about the myth of the tortured artist, it's a darn sight easier to create art when you're feeling all right.

So some of it was to do with secondbookitis. But some of it was to do with this particular book as well. It was a difficult one to write. Let me revise that: it was a bloody difficult book to write. The phrase I use to my nearest and dearest is 'It nearly killed me', and they actually know what I mean.

After Bareback, I decided to challenge myself. I'd written a single-perspective thriller set in more or less the modern world, with a heroine the same sex as myself. Nothing wrong with that, and you could say something similar about the book I'm currently finishing, but for In Great Waters I wanted to break the pattern, if for no other reason than to prove to myself that I was capable of writing more than one kind of book. So In Great Waters had two central characters, both narrated in the third person, and followed them from birth up until the ages of fourteen and seventeen in an era where that's considered old enough to take on adult responsibilities. And that's another thing: the era. In Great Waters is an alternative history, set around the early Rennaissance. Technology is different. Travel times are different. Language is different: in dialogue, I had to strike a balance between speech modern enough to be comprehensible but not so modern as to sound weird, which is a post in itself. One of the protagonists is male. Oh, and incidentally both are mixed-race, involving a race that doesn't exist and is drawn largely from nature documentaries and dollops of imaginative logic.

It was, in short, an ambitious project.

Ambition is a great thing. Stagnation can be a curse: you do the same thing too many times, your brain gets bored and your quality falls off. Sometimes it's good to set yourself a challenge and see how high you rise. But there's the essential corollary: set the bar too high, and you start worrying if you'll ever get over it.

I began In Great Waters with some ideas, but no roadmap. Characters' personalities became incredibly important: at least one of my protagonists, if not both, was drawn as furiously stubborn and unlikely to cooperate with anything, no matter how convenient to the plot. To create a sense of crisis, I'd installed both of them in situations of great danger with no visible escape hatches. The stakes were high, and the outs were few. The more I wrote, the bigger the themes seemed to become; I was talking about the fate of an entire country through the perspective of two people whose viewpoints and experience were both extremely narrow. Most of all, there was the question of passion. In Great Waters was a passionate book to write: the foundation of it is a quality of lived experience that only took place in my imagination - the life under the sea, the alien understanding that casts humanity into question. I had to live up to that. Cheap plot devices were out.

Appropriately enough, given its theme, In Great Waters was a wild book. Some books are docile and obliging, following your needs compliantly and only occasionally balking, but In Great Waters was like wrestling a snake. It felt beyond my control from the very beginning. This might sound like a book that 'writes itself', but that was the problem: I had to write it, and there were times when it simply felt stronger than me and I collapsed in exhaustion. It was like swimming a rapid: it might sweep you along, but you have to keep fighting to stay up.

I finished it in a final, terrified rush just three days before the deadline; to accomplish this, I'd had to spend weeks working through weekends, minimising social contact and generally giving myself up, doing my best to keep my head above the current. On the final day, I walked down the stairs disoriented to find my fiance in the living room still in his dressing gown (as was I), and said confusedly, 'I think I've finished my book.' He leaped up in delight, but I was simply stunned: the whole process had been so intense that it was almost impossible to believe it was at an end.

When I handed it over to my agent, I decided to be honest. I sent it with an e-mail saying, I quote, 'As to whether or not it's any good, I frankly can't tell you ... I suspect it may need some polishing but right now I'm too cross-eyed to tell good writing from bad on my own.' I clicked 'Send', then I went and lay down, still unsure as to whether I'd produced a book or a babble. It was only when first my agent and then my publisher wrote back to me enthusing that I began to wonder whether I might actually have written something good. Perhaps even really good.

Editing and rewrites took me through it again, and I was surprised how much I liked it. Maybe even more than I liked my first novel. It was a crazy ride, but sometimes your conscious brain can't get a grip on what your imagination is turning out and you just have to run with it and trust that, however hard to see at times, your subconscious does have a sense of structure that will create an order underpinning the chaos. Shortly the book will be subject to the vagaries of the review system (though my publicist tells me that there's already been some positive feedback), but in a way I'm not holding my breath. I held my breath while I was writing, and now I'm breathing again. I'm proud of the book, and I hope people enjoy it, but I'm most proud of myself for surviving writing it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

 

My safe place is dysfunctional!


I am in computer crisis!

Here's what happened: my two-year-old laptop went very suddenly from perfectly okay to mildly eccentric to totally broken. Now, I have it under warranty, but the next thing I'm supposed to do is reboot it with the startup disk, and here's the thing: I bought it the same month I moved house. Hence my filing system was ... well, I won't go into it. Suffice to say, I probably filed the startup disk somewhere that seemed like a good idea at the time.

So until I can take it into a Mac shop for repairs, I'm stuck using my fiance's computer. Now, you'd think that would be fine; I'd mercifully acquired the habit of backing stuff up on a flashdrive, so I do actually have the manuscript I was working on. (If I didn't, I'm not sure you'd ever hear from me again; I don't even want to think about it.) But the problem is this: it's not in my study.

That sounds utterly pathetic, but I can't help it. My study is small and cosy, with pictures of animals on the walls and little paper dollies and a colourful tablecloth. It's nice in there; it's safe in there. (Picture of my desk included out of sheer sorrowful nostalgia.) My fiance's computer is a big unwieldy thing, and it belongs to the desk in the open-plan, much-too-big-for-writing-comfort living room. The walls are too far away; predators could be sneaking up on me from any side. I don't want to write down here.

So I'm reduced to bringing a pen and paper upstairs. Now, writing by hand may actually do me some good; it's an earthy method and it's been a while since I've done it, so long-term this is no bad thing. But I'm still all upset about it. My consistent space has been disrupted, and I really rather mind. This is the kind of thing that makes hardier writers sneer, there being a prevailing idea that you ought to be able to write under gunfire while trapped in a safe being carried along on a float during the Notting Hill Carnival, but the truth is you're still allowed to be a writer if that kind of thing freaks you out, just as long as you get the book finished some time.

The main lesson for today, I think, is try not to order new technology in the same month you move house. Or if you do, get some kind of tattoo reminding you of where you put the extras.

Monday, February 16, 2009

 

Writing villains

The excellent hapax has asked the following: Kit, how do you go about writing villains?

It's a really good question, to which I'm not sure I have an answer. Let me think about it.

To begin with, the stories I've written so far have tended to involve mysteries of one sort or another, which makes villains a slightly different proposition. If you're having a plot based on struggle between antagonists, you need a villain - or at least, one antagonist you'd rather see lose is common, though there are good works where you're really torn about what outcome you want. The first season of The Wire and Martin Scorsese's The Departed come to mind; in both of those, you know who ought to win - the guys on the side of the law - but you can see it from the criminal's side as well, so watching them be destroyed is not something you look forward to. Both of those, though, are basically procedural thrillers, in which the audience knows who's guilty at the outset; the tension lies in who will win rather than in whodunnit.

Mysteries depend for their tension on concealing things from the reader. There is a villain, sort of, but we don't know who he or she is, which makes it difficult for us to feel personal about taking them down. In essence, mysteries don't have a villain; they have a culprit. We see their malevolence entirely through the effect of their actions, and very little of them until the end - or at least, we see them, but don't realise they're the culprit if the writer has succeeded in their aims, so it's only at the end that the character is connected with all their bad actions. Till then, the villain is hiding in plain sight, and has to come off as a reasonable normal person. They can be unlikeable - it has to be plausible that such a person would do an awful thing - but if they cackle and rub their hands, you've given the game away.

As a result, villainy is something I use sparingly. My culprits tend to be people who've done something very bad, but I try to keep their scale of badness plausible. (Examples would involve spoilers, so I'll make this general.) Usually they think they're justified, or else want something enough to cut corners for it; the thing they want is generally desirable, so I can understand why they want it, but they're too willing to sacrifice other people to get it. Lashing out in panic is a plausible behaviour as well; in general, my idea of a villain is someone who makes a bad call for selfish reasons and then rationalises it to themselves rather than making amends. The reason for this is fairly simple: based on my experience and observations, that's generally the kind of person who causes a lot of harm in real life.

But then, I can have unlikeable or reprehensible people who aren't the villains as well. The heroine of my first book, Lola, stands by while people are beaten for information, picks fights out of touchiness, bends the law and generally speaking acts rather badly quite a lot of the time. The heroes of my second book have some very odd standards of behaviour; the entire plot of my third book, which I haven't finished yet and am just going to have to hope I can sell, revolves around the heroine making a decision many people would condemn. Morally flawed people are interesting to write about; so interesting, really, that I tend to spend more time on the faults of my heroes than my villains.

Beyond that, I don't really know. I come up with characters that seem appropriate to the situations and vice versa, but I don't have a particular plan...

Friday, February 13, 2009

 

Really good villains

Here's a thought: it's surprisingly rare to find a really good fictional villain that doesn't fall into one of various possible categories.

1. Grudging admiration. A lot of fictional villains are definitely bad people, but it's hard not to admire their style. Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber, for instance, villain of Die Hard, cold-bloodedly murders a decent family man early on in the script, so we're clear that he's not supposed to be a loveable rogue - but his skill in planning, his dry sense of humour, his charming sophistication, his great charisma, tend to overwhelm such considerations and we end up liking him. Of course, people can be like that in real life and we generally end up regretting having liked them; The Last King of Scotland is a superb depiction of how dangerous it is to be seduced by the charm of a wicked man. In real life, someone who's villainous to others is probably going to be villainous to you in the end, but in fiction, the characters can't screw us over while we're enjoying their antics, so enjoyable bastards remain a common feature in fiction.

2. Fascinating grotesquerie. The Last King of Scotland is a case in point: Forest Whitaker's performance humanises Idi Amin to a great degree, but he remains such a bizarrely frightening man that it's hard to actually dislike him. He's more like a force of nature: terrifying, but so extreme that it overturns the usual standards you'd judge somebody by. Such villains cease to be villains and become character studies. This can produce some outstanding works, of course, so there's nothing wrong with that - in fact, it often produces a more sophisticated film than one with a straight-up villain - but if we're looking for a villain, fascinating grotesques are probably not the place.

3. Pity. Tim Roth's slithery crook Archibald Cunningham in Rob Roy comes to mind: the guy's a thief, a rapist and a ruiner of lives, but at the same time he's rather a sad specimen, ashamed of his illegitimacy and burdened by the fact that his mother is unable to tell him who his father is - there are three candidates, and his mother appears to be a good-time girl who isn't very clear on such matters. Archibald clearly loves his mother but finds it difficult to feel any pride in himself for being the son of such a woman, and many of his worst acts appear to be attemps to cover up his insecurity. No excuse, of course, but it's hard not to feel sorry for him. Pitiable villains can actually make things very interesting - a drama where you can see everybody's point of view is a thing to be treasured - but the sorrier we feel for such a character, the harder it is to peg them as a straight-up villain. The edge closer and closer to being an ensemble player, which is a slightly different thing.

4. Vagueness. A Dark Lord we never see much of isn't really a character, they're a plot device. We may know them by their fruits, but it's hard to get much sense of someone's personality if they're continually off-stage and have no quirks, except in a generic 'they're bad' way. In terms of story it has its uses, but in terms of character development it's rather dull.

The classic villain, one that we simply hate and really, really want to see lose, is a surprisingly rare bird. Two examples occur to me: Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting, played by the great Robert Shaw, and Marlo Stanfield in The Wire, chillingly portrayed by Jamie Hector. These are men we cannot admire, even as we recognise their power, intelligence and success; they remain normal enough that we cannot suspend the usual laws of morality - in fact, their horribleness demands that we apply those laws as they violate them left and right. We do not feel sorry for them: they outrage us. We just want to see them go down. How is this done?

The main distinction, I would say, is this: these are men who do not love. They only want. By this I don't just mean that they seem to feel no love for people; they don't love anything.

Stringer Bell in The Wire, for example, is an intimidating and ruthless figure, but it's hard not to feel some sympathy for him: his ambition to build a financial empire that will lift him out of the world he was born in, his genuine interest and enjoyment in the workings of the business world and his entertaining attempts to impose a board-meeting style on his volatile corner boys are all rather appealing. Stringer loves a few people - not many, but maybe one or two, even though he's prepared to put his own interest ahead of them - but he also loves business, and that gives us a point of identification: most of us love something.

Marlo, on the other hand, is a detroyer who tears down what Stringer has built, but he doesn't seem to have anything in mind while doing this except total dominance. He keeps homing pigeons, but he doesn't seem especially fond of them; he has trusted lieutenants, but he doesn't seem fond of them either: he seems to keep them around more because they're dependable than because he cares for them. When Stringer plans, we can see he has a vision of a better future in mind; Marlo's plans are all about destroying his rivals just for the sake of being on top. An older man warns him that the prisons and graveyards are 'full of boys who wore the crown', to which Marlo simply replies that the point is, 'they wore it.' It's the crown for its own sake that he wants. Not what the crown can get him, be it a better life, the admiration of those around him, or anything warming, but just the crown, so he can be king. It's a cold and deathly ambition, hard to like.

Doyle Lonnegan is a similar beast. Like Stringer, he's socially aspirant, but unlike Stringer his pretensions of gentility seem to give him no pleasure. Rather, he wears them like armour, as signs of his success, furiously angry when someone acts loutish but taking no joy in elegance. His behaviour towards others is aggressively controlling while cold, and, like Marlo, he's prepared to destroy anything and anyone if he feels his pride has been in any way compromised. Marlo will have a shop security guard killed for asking him not to shoplift; Lonnegan will have a man killed for stealing money that 'wouldn't keep him for two days'. Our friends in The Sting's analysis of Lonnegan could equally be applied to both villians: 'He's vindictive as hell ... He kills for pride.'

It's this quality that makes them particularly hateful. Idi Amin as portrayed by Whitaker is somewhat lost in a fantasy world, driven by impulse and only intermittently aware of reality, but our cold villains are deeply engaged with other people. It's just that their engagement is entirely vicious. When they're aware of people they want to dominate them, and they're always aware of them. There's a kind of mean relentlessness that's particularly easy to dislike in these characters.

It's interesting to note that both characters are also gamblers. Lonnegan is drawn into a trap by tempting his instinct to cheat at gambling; Marlo is something of an enigma because he's so unresponsive, but his main idea of recreation is gambling and his drive to succeed no matter what it costs, including the risk to his own life, is the drive of a man for whom the main aim is to win, rather than what he wins.

And this is a big part of it. Nobody likes a bad sport; as any mother could tell a child, 'If you want to win all the time, nobody will want to play with you.' Gambling is a good expression of this character trait: a desire to interact with other people not just because they've got something you want but because it's important to you to triumph over them. Ultimately, what these villains want from other people is not their money or their flattery: they want the satisfaction of beating them.

Which is to say, their happiness isn't just indifferent to the suffering of others, it depends on it.

For a villian you really want to lose, it helps a great deal if the villain really wants to win - not just to get the money or to capture the princess, but to win. I read a study somewhere that I can't cite (anyone who can, please weigh in) that looked at competitive and cooperative dispositions. The gist was that if you put two cooperators in a situation, they'll cooperate; if you put two competitors together, they'll compete - but if you put in one of each, the cooperator will quickly begin competing because they realise they're playing with a bad sport and there's no point trying to cooperate. (This is the likely reason why competitive people believe that deep down is as competitive as they are: they never give anyone the chance to act otherwise.) I can remember a demonstration of this principle I encountered at a party: we were outside, and there was some badminton equipment lying around, so two of us started knocking around the shuttlecock. We weren't particularly keeping score or trying to knock it where the other couldn't reach; we were just batting back and forth for our own amusement. A couple more people joined the game, and it quickly became clear that they were determined to win. They played hard, they kept score, they crowed when they gained a point. The other girl left the game because it wasn't fun any more, but I got annoyed with them for turning a pleasant knock-about into a pointless challenge, and started playing to win. My reaction was basically punitive: 'You want to make me lose? Fine, let's make you lose and see how you like it.' I won, too. It was very satisfying, but frankly I'd had more fun when it was just an amiable rally; it was being competed with that got me emotionally engaged in the outcome.

Now, the audience to a work of fiction may be cooperative or not, depending on their natures - but given a character who simply competes out of aggression and self-aggrandisment, and even the sympathetic audience members will switch quickly into competitive mode. A villain who's playing for something is easier to identify with: there's a reason why he wants to win, even if it doesn't excuse his methods. But a villain who wants nothing more than winning for its own sake isn't just being selfish in placing his desires ahead of other people's rights, he's being selfish in his entire attitude towards the world: it exists only for him to crow over, and nobody likes someone like that.

We like people who like people, and we like people who like things. People who like nothing but winning for the sake of winning, dominance for the sake of dominance, are far harder to feel for. And that's a thought that can make for some really good villains.

Anyone got other thoughts on good villainy?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

 

Mikalogue: landscape gardening



Kit: Ugh, there's grit in the bed!

Mika: 'Sright! You like?

Kit: You did this?

Mika: Course. No need to thank.

Kit: Mika, we don't want grit in our bed.

Mika: But has to do it! Is vocation now.

Kit: How on earth do you figure that?

Mika: Is on earth and linen both. And fine figure of a cat.

Kit: Okay, let's try this again, sweetie: why do you think you have to put earth in the bed?

Mika: Mika is landscape architect, of course. Is relandscaping our home, deconstructing indoor-outdoor dichotomy. Is avant-garde.

Kit: Hang on - you're a landscape architect? What made you think that?

Mika: Daddy works for landscape architects, yes?

Kit: Yes, he does work at an enviromental consultancy firm, but I don't see how that translates to needing earth in our bed.

Mika: You is slow. Is simple syllogism. Daddy's boss is landscape architects. Mika is Daddy's boss. Ergo, Mika is landscape architect.

Kit: That's not a proper syllogism, baby. It would only work if the first premise was 'All Daddy's bosses are landscape architects.' Actually it's just some of Daddy's bosses. You're a separate category. If you used more articles in your sentences you might have spotted that.

Mika: Fie upon your verbal pedantries. Is not grammarian. Is landscape architect and must express creative self. Have decided to begin by moving some earth from garden to bed.

Kit: Mika, we don't want earth in our bed!

Mika: Shh. Is havin creative moment and you is interruptin the Mews. Go away.

Monday, February 02, 2009

 

Unsuggester my eye

Have you heard of the Unsuggester? It works like this: you enter the name of a book you've read or own, and it comes up with a list of books you're least likely to have on your shelves alongside it.

Out of curiosity, I tried my own first novel, breaking the spirit of my 'don't Google for yourself' rule. And I'm a bit fed up.

This is why. The books purportedly least likely to be next to mine are largely books I admire, and include quite a few that I actually do own - and I probably own more copies of Bareback than anyone. (Most of them are in a box under the stairs rather than on my shelves, but I think that should count.)

Let's take the top twenty, and you'll see what I mean.

1. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Don't own a copy, but my fiance does, and I've read it. More than once.

2. Love in The Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Don't own it, but have read about half of it.

3. Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

Own it. Read it at least twice. Like it a lot.

4. Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

First fair cop: I haven't read that, nor would I care to. I've read a few of his essays here and there, though.

5. Atonement by Ian McEwan

Don't own it, but have read it.

6. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

Own it. Read it. Love it. I've got almost all David Sedaris's books, including one I queued for him to sign.

7. The Trial by Franz Kafka

I haven't read it, but I've read some of his short stories.

8. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter

Second totally fair cop: I haven't heard of this.

9. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Okay, I haven't read this, but on the other hand I reject this as a fair cop: I've actually been anthologised alongside Zadie Smith, in a published collection of Oxbridge student short stories. Never mind being on the same shelf, I've been in the same volume.

10. Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom

Fair cop number three.

11. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Own it. Own more than one copy, in fact.

12. She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb

Fair cop four.

13. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Now that really hurts my feelings, as it's one of my favourite books. There are two copies in the house, one pristine copy my fiance owns and one beat-up one that I'm too sentimentally attached to part with. I've got a copy of The Little Friend, too, and I've read that three times.

14. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson

I used to own a copy of this, though I admit I didn't get round to reading it; it finally fell prey to my 'If you haven't read it within a year of buying it, it goes to a charity shop' rule. But it's been in my library. And I've read Hell's Angels.

15. About a Boy by Nick Hornby

Haven't read it, but I have read other Nick Hornbys, and I own a copy of Fever Pitch.

16. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Fair cop five. I keep meaning to read it, though.

17. Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger

Well, no, but I've read Catcher in the Rye.

18. Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

Fairish cop; I've tried Palahniuk and he wasn't my cup of tea, no disrespect to the man. I'll give that half a point.

19. White Noise by Don DeLillo

Fair cop six and a half.

20. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

Don't own it, but have read it.


I'm stretching a point in cases where I've read other books by the same author, and if I didn't do that my list of fair cops would be longer than six and a half out of twenty - but considering that these are supposed to be the least likely books in the world you'd find me near, even with my flexible cop-system I'd expect a higher success rate on their part. I've read at least something by fifteen of the authors on the list.

By way of comparison, take a look at my Suggester list. Its cop-rate is much more like what my Unsuggester list would aspire to. Of the books on Suggester, I haven't heard of most of them; the only one I own is Bitten by Kelley Armstrong, and that's because somebody gave me a copy which I can't give to charity because its first chapter's missing. Given that the main thing in common with the Suggester books Bareback has is that it features werewolves, I rather suspect we're being judged by our covers here.

I don't know how they're calculating this thing, but either I'm being read entirely by people who like my books but don't like any of the books I like, or else there's a kink in the system somewhere. Given my experiences with the Gender Genie, I am growing suspicious of technology. I'm prepared to have a computer program tell me I'm a man, but if it tells me you'll never see my books alongside Donna Tartt or David Sedaris I take exception.

The program, incidentally, is one I heard about in this article from this weekend's Guardian, talking about the concept of 'homophily', or the ignorance-inducing tendency people have to seek out and remain in the company of those who agree with them. Based on the evidence of LibraryThing, frankly I'm not that worried.

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