Feb 22

Where Next for Mike’s Writing?

I've been in a writing slump lately.

Health issues starting in November have put me out of the habit of regular writing, and I've not made much progress on the books I was working on. Auckland Allies 4 still needs a polish-up before it's ready to be published, and although I'm 20,000 words into the first book in my new Arcanists setting, it's tough going, and I'm not really feeling it. I think I've taken the wrong direction with it somewhere.

I've been questioning where my writing is going in general, in fact. I celebrated a million words of published long-form fiction last year, and just as we often reassess our lives around milestone birthdays, I feel that a milestone like that calls for some reflection.

I recently read a book on Roger Zelazny (link is to my review on Goodreads; it won't be published until May) that got me thinking. Zelazny is one of my favourite authors, and a direct inspiration for some of my own fiction, including several short stories that are among my most successful and that I'm most proud of. The book outlines how he had a brilliant, award-winning early career and was hailed (rightly) as an exciting and surprising new author with great potential, and then, once he became a full-time writer, was accused of having become "too commercial" and knocking out books with not enough development to explore his ideas to the full.

That's not how he saw it, by the way. One reason, I think, that his books are so compact is that he decided early on that he wouldn't overwrite or overexplain, that once he'd shown the reader something he wouldn't go on talking about it but would move on to the next thing. To me, that makes his books concentrated, rich despite their typically short length. He also talks, in an interview included in the book, about how each book he wrote experimented with something that he considered a weakness, but that he tried to put in enough of what he knew he did well that even if the experiment failed, the book itself should still be able to succeed.

Anyway, all of this got me thinking about what I want to achieve with my writing. I've always wanted to produce something - whether books or otherwise - that will be of lasting value. A lot of the work I do in my day job is with technology that will be replaced within a few years; it's likely, if I live a decent length of time after I retire, that none of the work I did in IT will survive me. I've come to terms with that recently, and decided that it can still be the case that things are worth doing even if they don't last and aren't remembered; they had worth at the time. (The fact that I've got into cooking, which is inherently short-term in its usefulness but is definitely useful while it lasts, has a lot to do with this shift in philosophy.) Nevertheless, I would like to write books that aren't just things of the moment, that people will still be reading after I'm gone.

Now, there are a couple of different kinds of books that are "of the moment" but don't last. One is purely commercial, what I sometimes refer to as "extruded fiction product"; produced to meet a market demand, just like thousands of other books, with nothing about it that distinguishes it or gives it longevity. The other is the kind of book that wins acclaim and awards at the time it's published, because it captures the zeitgeist so well; but because it captures the zeitgeist so well, if it doesn't have anything else going for it, it dates rapidly and falls out of fashion.

You only have to look at old bestseller lists and awards lists to encounter dozens of both types. I personally feel that a lot of books that are winning awards at the moment are of the second type. People are tremendously excited about them because they fit so absolutely perfectly into this moment's (particularly US) political landscape, but when that landscape inevitably shifts, there won't be much else to keep them in favour. It's like what I often say about books that are marketed as humourous: if the joke falls flat, you still need to be telling a good story with well-rounded characters, not just ringmastering a trope parade with a bunch of silly names. So, for example, I think Ann Leckie's work will endure, because even though it does mesh so strongly into current politics, it also tells a powerful story and tells it in excellent prose. Other books, which I'll refrain from calling out by name, will be forgotten as quickly as they became celebrated, because really the only thing they have going for them is that people see themselves in them who are not used to seeing themselves in books. And, I sincerely hope, they will go on to see themselves in plenty more books that also have a lot more than that going for them, and then they'll look back on these ones with a nostalgic pang but see, in retrospect, that they were hollow chocolate bunnies.

I'm self-published. I'm not selling a lot of books, because honestly I'm terrible at marketing and I don't enjoy it (plus what I write is in neither the current commercial mainstream nor the current critical mainstream); but that means that I can do anything I like, pretty much. I don't have a publishing house to tell me I can't, and I don't have a big, vocal fanbase demanding that I produce a specific type of book or be lambasted. That kind of freedom is dangerous - I could easily fall into self-indulgent tripe that only I like - but it's also powerful. I can experiment. I can try new things that I might fail at. If I realize that I've failed, I don't need to release it; it's not under contract, and I won't drop off the Amazon charts and lose a huge income if I don't constantly release books. I don't make my living from writing.

So I can write something I care about, something that's difficult for me, something that resonates with universals of humanity, something that is like the books I most like myself: a propulsive plot, characters with depth who are doing the right thing against the odds, some reflection to provoke thought (without preaching), a fresh and fascinating setting.

That's inherently hard to do. I know that not only because I'm a writer and know how hard different writing things are, but also because I'm a reviewer, and of the many books I see, only a few of them manage it. I think it's a goal worth reaching for, though.

What I need is to figure out exactly how to do it and then execute it.

I've done project work of various kinds for nearly 30 years; I'm used to figuring out how to do hard things and then executing them. The trick will be to find something that draws me in enough that I'll stick with it through the difficult parts, because, as already noted, I don't have to do this. Nobody's making me.

So, concretely: I'm very close to finished with Auckland Allies 4, and I feel like it's sound. I plan to polish that up and release it during the first half of this year.

Next after that could well be Auckland Allies 5, which will finish the series. I think I can keep up the momentum and do that; I have an ending in mind, and it's a heist story, which I love. The characters are already full of useful complications and have clear, distinctive voices.

After that? I don't know. I may take a different tack and tell small, intimate, psychological stories for a while. I still feel that Hope and the Patient Man is one of my best books, if not the best, even though I wrote it years ago; it's primarily a love story, with engineering and politics going on mostly in the background. Despite my love of ensemble casts, it may be time to focus on one or two protagonists striving for something they really care about.

It's time, in fact, for me to be a protagonist, striving against the odds for something I care about: writing good books that mean something.

I hope I can.

Nov 23

Sensawunda!

So, since my last post, I've started on the first book of the Institute Arcane series. Working title is Novices.

And my thinking on the setting has developed. I said in the previous post that when I came up with the idea of the magical Great Work being a network of canals, I felt like it maybe should be something with more sensawunda. Well, Fred (Damon Knight's name for the subconscious assistant that all writers have) has done good work, and sensawunda is now all over it.

There's still a network of canals, inspired by the British canal system that helped launch the Industrial Revolution. But now it's a network of air canals, with constant winds, contained within invisible force fields, propelling levitating air-barges and rapid courier boats. A kind of magical hyperloop, if you will.

The original dull stone cube of the Institute Arcane itself has become a thing that I love: a magical castle with bizarre, even whimsical architecture, making full use of the magic system's ability to play with gravity and set up constant movement in air and water. I'm sure it will get even more strange and fun as I develop it (while remaining carefully distinct from Hogwarts, which has a high proportion of whimsy for its own sake).

I often read fantasy novels - mainly ones set in a version of our world, rather than a secondary world like this one is, but sometimes secondary-world too - where I feel like the magic that's described doesn't make enough difference to the world at large. It's as if it's only been worked out just enough to cover the central plot, and not all of the things that are off-camera or in the background. I don't want to make that mistake here.

We see the Institute through the eyes of Gwin, a student who's dreamed of going there most of her life, and who is all about the sensawunda of it. She thinks the Institute is just terrific, and even though I plan to have her become a little bit disillusioned with some aspects of it, the place itself is still cool.

So far I'm almost 10k in. I'd toyed with the idea of doing NaNoWriMo with it (since I'm in a NaNo Storybundle at the moment with my nonfiction book The Well-Presented Manuscript), but I've had some issues with my old shoulder injury which are limiting how much I can type, so I'll probably not get much further than that in November. That's fine; hopefully I can rehab my shoulder and do a bit more when I'm on my Christmas-New Year break.

Because the sensawunda is strong with this one, I'm taking my time getting to the inciting incident, but it will come soon. And it's not coincidence or luck that brings the characters together - they've been selected for a project; nor is it a battle against any kind of Dark Lord, but (as per my earlier post) the creation of a Great Work of magical wonder, the abovementioned air canal network. While I'm at it, I'm undermining some romance tropes, as well. I know exactly what readers will be thinking by this point, and I am going to gleefully subvert their expectations, in a way that I hope will not be a disappointment but a thought-provoking twist.

Most importantly, I'm enjoying this new world and what I'm doing with it. The characters are emerging, are distinct from one another, and will mesh well together. I'm still a touch concerned that I don't have quite enough plot for later on; but I'm sure Fred will come through for me again when it counts.

Oct 13

New projected series: The Institute Arcane

So I've decided to do a series set in a magic school: the Institute Arcane.

No, it won't be another sub-par Harry Potter ripoff, such as the market is currently awash in. Honestly, it's more Brandon Sanderson than J.K. Rowling, in the sense that there are very specific limitations built into the magic system, and those are both creative constraints for me and also key drivers and shapers of the story. (Rowling's magic system, like her worldbuilding generally, is loose, inconsistent, whimsical, and not always fully worked out.)

This is a university, too, not a high school; it has more kinship with the school at Roke in A Wizard of Earthsea, or for that matter with Pratchett's Unseen University, than with Hogwarts. But you can't escape the shadow of HP whenever you write about a magical school.

Part of the overarching story for the series is that the characters are setting out to create a Great Work. Creating a magical wonder is not a thing you see too often in fantasy; usually, you're seeing the characters questing for (occasionally, destroying or witnessing the destruction of) a wonder from earlier, mightier times.

Western fantasy has its roots in medieval and Renaissance literature, and medieval Europe was looking back on the days of Rome, when great construction projects like the aqueducts were created. To the medieval mind, these were the works of giants, inconceivable in scope; they were able to create awe-inspiring cathedrals, true, but it sometimes took generations. I assume that's where fantasy gets the whole "works of the ancients" trope from.

I've worked on projects pretty much throughout my working life. When I was a book editor back in the early-to-mid 90s, each book was a project, and it took multiple people to bring it to fruition. Since then, I've worked on many IT projects, large and small, usually for big manufacturing businesses or public infrastructure organisations, which (like the projects themselves) are an example of many people coming together to achieve things that nobody could achieve alone. So doing a series in which a big project is the overarching plot is something I've wanted to do for a while.

The Great Work itself is probably going to be a system of canals, with magical currents to push the boats along. It was canals, not railways, that initially made Britain the world's first industrial nation, creating wealth, lowering the price of goods, and accelerating the gradual shift in the balance of power in society away from people who owned land to people who owned businesses, as well as being one of the preconditions for urbanisation and everything that went with that. There were, of course, bitter fights over most of the individual canals and over the canal system in general, nor did the building of the canals go smoothly in many cases. And, as always, unprincipled people saw the opportunity to make some easy money by selling stock for something that might or might not ever exist, and if it did exist, might not make any money. So there's plenty of conflict baked right in.

Shropshire Union Canal near Norbury Junction

When I was initially considering canals as the Great Work, I wondered if I should do something with more sensawunda, something less pragmatic and more exciting. But a canal system that revolutionises the economy is very on-brand for me.

The kind of work I do, and the kind of work done by the people I do that work for, is not spectacular. We're not going to get prizes for it. Wikipedia would say that we, and our work, are of "questionable notability".

But you would notice if we stopped.

I read a book a little while back by an (I assume) callow youth who portrayed, more or less incidentally to his plot, a society completely composed of elite geniuses. Missing from his conception of the world was the fact, known to us who have been around a bit longer and toured the concrete corridors behind the scenes, that no society can function just with an elite. The world works even as well as it does because millions of ordinary people turn up every day and do their unspectacular jobs, often with considerable devotion.

And my fiction sets out to celebrate that, in the Gryphon Clerks (not only civil servants, but engineers, doing what they do each day to make people's lives better), and in the Auckland Allies books (underpowered magic users stepping up to defend the city because there's nobody else).

I've never been poor. I've been short of money, but that's different from being poor. I always had my solidly middle-class parents (both schoolteachers, plus my father made an extra income from writing sports books) to fall back on if I really needed to. My ancestors were not so prosperous; my mother's family were all skilled tradespeople with their own small businesses in the male line, and farmers on her mother's side, while my father's ancestors worked as sailors, fishermen, and the like. His father drove a train, and his mother's mother kept a boarding house near the end of the railway line (which is how they met).

So I don't have much direct knowledge of what it's like to be really struggling, though I do have a family background that's relatively humble just a couple of generations back. My world is, and always has been, composed of what used to be called the "middling sort": not wealthy, not poor. The big layer of folks in the middle of the sandwich that keep the wheels turning. And so that's who I like to celebrate in my fiction, though I'm also planning to toss in a noblewoman in reduced circumstances and a street thief, just to mix it up.

But I'll put them in a school for wizards, because why wouldn't I?