On Writing and On Teaching

I did two weeks full time supply cover before the Xmas holidays. All writing projects had to be put on hold. It is very hard to do a full day’s teaching, plus the work you take home, and then have the creative energy to do anything else.

It reminded me of a reference to this by Stephen King in his book On Writing. If you haven’t come across it, this book is a great read on the writing process by one of the modern masters of fiction. There’s a lot of autobiography in there as well. King was an English teacher for two years before he hit the big time with his first bestseller, Carrie. He already had a family by this time as well. In this passage he captures the sense of self-doubt you can get in this situation. It’s certainly something I can relate to:

 

‘The bigger deal was that, for the first time, writing was hard. The problem was the teaching…by most Friday afternoons I felt as if I’d spent the week with jumper cables clamped to my brain. If I ever came close to despairing about my future as a writer, it was then. I could see myself thirty years on, wearing the same shabby tweed coats with patches on the elbows, potbelly rolling over my Gap khakis from too much beer…And of course I’d lie to myself, telling myself there was still time, it wasn’t too late, there were novelists who didn’t get started until they were fifty, hell, even sixty.’

 

In the end, King got his book deal and never looked back. He went on to write The Shining, The Stand, It, The Green Mile, Misery, The Dark Tower series…and more and more. If you want to know how he did it, On Writing is a good place to look.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Saw this at the pictures this weekend with the family. It is the first of what will be a series of films written by JK Rowling and set in the Harry Potter universe. In the UK the film was rated 12A. It was perfectly fine for my 10 & 9 year olds, who love the Harry Potter films. A younger girl behind us didn’t like it so much and got scared, asking to go home, so parents need to do some research first before they go.

Newt Scamander is the main character, played as a wide eyed innocent by Eddie Redmayne. An ex Hogwarts student, he arrives in 1920s New York with a case full of exotic creatures on a vague mission to release one of them into the wild. He finds himself involved in the US wizarding world, partly because a number of his beasts escape his case and cause trouble. He befriends a female wizarding detective and demoted Auror, Tina Goldstein; and a muggle, or no-maj, aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski. Scamander likes magical creatures but beyond this there’s not a whole lot going on character wise, either with Newt or his friends: the acting is average, so it’s a bit of a shrug of the shoulders character wise.

This is the same for the plot. Parents and kids alike found it hard to follow at times, not helped by the mumbling delivery. There are essentially three plot lines that weave together a bit awkwardly: Newt’s aforementioned missing beasts; a much darker story about a dangerous Obscurus roaming New York; the mysterious dark wizard Grindelwald is also on the loose. It sags in the middle and is a bit too long. The plotlines are resolved in a rather perfunctory way. The parents struggled to maintain their interest in all of this and one of them fell asleep – but the kids enjoyed it.

So, what else is going on? Lots of CGI monsters, of course – this was well done, I suppose, without being memorable. The kids liked the fantastic beasts the most. The 1920s setting, with the addition of magic, was perhaps the highlight for me. There was the usual Rowling humour, enough for the kids to enjoy, but few laugh out loud moments. There is also some love interest thrown in for those who require it.

All in all, it’s a little messy, but does enough to entertain as a family film. Rowling fans won’t be disappointed. My kids felt that it was on a par, in most respects, with the Potter films, which is high praise from them. It’s not, for me, a film for adults alone. One of those films where the kids will want to get the DVD next year and the parents might leave them to it.

Beta Readers and Editors

So, becoming a self-published author is turning into an interesting journey. I am learning about the industry all the time at the moment, largely thanks to the websites of other writers who have been kind enough to share their experiences and give a newbie like myself a leg up.

The ‘traditional’ way of publishing would involve landing a deal with a big publisher, who sees enough in your work to think they might make a profit with it. They would then use their in-house experts, such as editors, cover designers, publicists etc to get your manuscript up to scratch and your book marketed to potential readers. If you are self-publishing, you have to do all this yourself. This can seem quite daunting. Some of it you may need to pay someone else to do. This can be expensive. DIY can be empowering and, of course, cheaper. But if you DIY and produce something crap, you’re not doing yourself or your book any favours.

I am currently embarking on phase one of outside help, which involves improving my novel. To simplify more than a little, there are two ways in which you can do this. One is to ask people to read your manuscript and give you their feedback. The idea here is that you use said feedback to improve what you have written (rather than ignoring it all because actually what you have written is brilliant and perfect and they are idiots, which is my initial response). You can get family and friends to do this: if they are prepared to be honest – if they have the skill set to give helpful feedback – & if they understand the genre you are writing in. If you are not blessed with such people in your life, you can get strangers to do it. These people are often referred to as beta readers – willing to read your work and give constructive feedback. One option is for two writers to read each other’s material and swap critiques.

Method two is to pay a professional editor to look at and improve your work. With the growth of the self-publishing industry, there are plenty of professional editors about. There are a number of things they can do to what you have written, from a proofread correcting your written errors to an analysis of your story elements, such as plot and character. If you are going to spend any money on this, you should carefully research the options before committing to anything.

I am about to try both options and hope that the result will be a better first novel when I come to publish next year. Anyone interested in beta reading my manuscript, please let me know!

 

If you are interested in self-publishing, here is a list of some of those writer websites I mentioned who discuss the ins and outs of the industry.

 

PublishedtoDeath

ADStarrling

JaneFriedman

Creativindie

The Creative Penn

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

So, finally got round to reading this debut by one of the big names in modern fantasy. The Name of the Wind regularly tops the lists of the best fantasy books of the 21st century. That’s a blessing and a curse. When I got round to reading it, I was expecting something pretty exceptional.

 

Characters

My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me

 

Kvothe is the main character of this book, of that there is no doubt. Many fans have fallen in love with him and it’s easy to see why. We are introduced to the red haired Kote as a simple innkeeper. It soon emerges, however, that he has been much more than that. A Chronicler arrives, looking for the famous Kvothe. Kote begins to tell his story to a small audience and we are transported back in time to when he was called Kvothe, as a young boy. Kvothe’s early years, up to 15 or 16, are the centre of the story. He is very young, but extremely talented: a musician; magician, of sorts; brave; attractive to the ladies; intelligent, since he goes to university at a remarkably young age. Well hey, this is fantasy. Many people would like to be Kvothe. At times, however, I found his perfection to be a little annoying. Nonetheless, his trials and tribulations make you root for him to succeed.

The book features a host of supporting characters: his parents; his first teacher, Abenthy; various other masters at the University; friends; his love interest, Denna; Ambrose, his antagonist at the University; Bast, his assistant in the frame story. And many more I could name. But all of these characters are kept at arm’s length, to an extent, to allow Kvothe to be centre stage. Many, such as Denna and Bast, are deliberately mysterious. Overall they are interesting, with hints as to their future role in the story, but after 660 odd pages we still don’t know them that well.

 

Worldbuilding

As with the characters, the world that Rothfuss gives us hints of much more to come in later books. In this novel there is still a sense of mystery about what kind of world we are dealing with. We are introduced to a pseudo-scientific magic system, called Sympathy, which explains how people can perform ‘magic’. This makes it something that can be studied, in a multi-disciplinary kind of way, at the University. Thus, you can have natural ability and develop it through your studies. There are restrictions on students using this magic outside the University. All of this is easy for the reader to grasp and accept, being not so different from Hogwarts after all. We are only given tantalising glimpses of other aspects, however. We know that there are non-human creatures about, but this is left vague.

The world Kvothe inhabits is lovingly created at the micro level. There are two key settings: first the city of Tarbean; second the University with the associated cultural hub of Imre. These locations are so well described that you get immersed in the environment in which Kvothe is trying to make his way. Details such as the currency, the buildings and inhabitants are rich and believable. At the more macro level, there is less. Most of the story is set in the Commonwealth, but this is a vague entity. The towns and cities seem to be, to all intents and purposes, self-governing, but even here there are no discernible political leaders. Ambrose is a member of the nobility, who we are told are rich and powerful, but there is little sign of their influence. Again, this may be fleshed out more in later books, but I was left with little understanding of how this world ‘works’.

 

Style

Rothfuss is a great writer and this is surely key to his popularity. He deals with a long and complex story effortlessly and his descriptive writing is lush without being heavy. He has produced a coming-of-age story that can be enjoyed by any reader, not just fantasy fans.

 

Plot

This is a story that takes its sweet time. Kvothe is given pages and pages in which to grow. Not so much has happened by the time we get to the end, it has to be said. The evil Chandrian, whom Kvothe is trying to uncover, remain as mysterious as they are at the beginning; as does the girl he wants. Kvothe’s spell at the University is not yet at an end. That’s not to say that we haven’t been taken on a journey. But it seems there is a lot of work left for the second book to do.

 

Conclusion

This is a great read by an author with a mature and light touch, dealing with familiar themes. As I say, it rises above the genre, in a similar way to the Harry Potter series. It seems ideal for fans of Hogwarts who are ready to move on to a more adult fantasy setting. Finally, it promises much for the rest of the series. The second book in the series, The Wise Man’s Fear, is already out and, so I’ve heard, even longer!

Fantasy and Politics

I set my website up on the day of the 2016 US election results. Being a Brit, I found the process fascinating, while perhaps enjoying a bit more detachment from the events than American voters themselves. Perhaps naturally, it got me to thinking about the links between politics and fantasy. Fantasy writing certainly doesn’t have to be overtly political, but there must be few fantasy novels out there with no politics in them whatsoever. Whether their characters are kings, queens, farmers or slaves, fantasy writers have to construct a political environment in which they interact. Political decline or disintegration, for example, can be seen as a central theme throughout the post WW2 era of fantasy writing.

Whatever your viewpoint, the politics of 2016 provide food for thought, if not inspiration, for writers of any genre. Fantasy has been accused of being pure escapism, offering nothing of value or relevance to the reader. I certainly disagree with this. Most readers of fantasy probably don’t want the political ideas of the author shoved down their throats. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing there. One of the interesting stats that came out of the US elections was that readers of Harry Potter were significantly more likely to dislike Trump than the average American. Of course, there could be a number of reasons for this, least likely of which is that JK Rowling set out to brainwash her young readers. But it’s evidence to refute the ‘pure escapism’ charge that gets levelled at the fantasy genre.

The world of fantasy and the world of real life politics overlap. As writers and readers of fantasy, let’s be conscious of that.