Thursday, April 30, 2020

On collaboration, and writing in mammoths – with Toby Bennett

Toby and I didn't quite have our book launch in Cape Town like we planned, due to The Thing I Don't Really Want to Mention, and neither of us were up to setting up webinar or something equally sophisticated. So we had a chat via Google Docs, in which we discuss how we've been collaborating on our new novel together. 

Nerine Dorman: Wow, so I believe the world wasn’t quite ready for us this year, was it, eh? Just when things were starting to get interesting, we end up in virtual house arrest. But silver linings, eh? We finished writing a novel together. And in about six months as well.

Toby Bennett: The world has never been ready, and when the device is finally finished they shall all quake before… oh… oh right, you’re talking about the book… Yes, the one solace I have is that I am able to use this time in lock down to polish The Serpent’s Quest… Before turning it over to your red pen for a final pruning – it may have bloomed a bit during my audio review, but I am having a whale of a time which is preferable to wailing all the time I suppose…

So yeah book one all but in the bag and two more to go – the dreaded obligation of a trilogy – still it is nice to be able to share the responsibility with someone… A bit like having a gym partner to spot you I guess. Yes we can have war mammoths AND terror birds! Feel that burn!

ND: Creating this world together feels almost like having part of the benefits of running a roleplaying game without having to roll any dice. To a large degree I think what’s helped us with this story is that we were able to merge our crazy ideas seamlessly. I mean, the novel sounds kinda crazy when summed up as 'ancient Egyptian elves meet Vikings on horseback with a side order of ancient Chthonic beings'.

Despite the initial plans, the writing didn’t quite pan out quite the way I expected, and it’s different with every writing partnership I’ve encountered. Back when I wrote with Carrie Clevenger, we used to swap chapter points of view. And what we’ve got going here is closer to what I know that Alex Latimer and Diane Awerbuck have when they wrote South and i as Frank Owen.

You and I have worked closely on laying down the foundations, but you’ve been an absolute machine knocking out the words while I’ve kinda gone in afterwards pruning, snipping, adding a bit here and there, writing a few key scenes. In a way I feel kinda guilty, but we’ve each played to our strengths in this – so it’s a win-win.

TB: Well that’s the thing, no writer is flawless at every aspect of the craft, and it’s very easy to get bogged down in a single perspective. Collaboration frees us from an individual viewpoint and allows us to offer an amalgamation of the very best each of us has to offer. Though on a side note this does require the skill of unfettering one's ego and asking “what would be best for the story?” It’s not something I would ever recommend any writer do until they are relatively comfortable with their own voice and have developed enough professional objectivity to let go while still caring.

Of course when there is synergy one can never be sure if it is a question of great minds think alike or fools never differ but there has to be a shared vision and an understanding that the work is paramount. Which I think we’ve managed.

For all the potential pitfalls, collaboration is a rare treat. I’ve done it twice now and found it to be professionally and personally rewarding. Writing is often a solitary activity and I think that writing with someone is as close as we come to the enjoyment of musicians jamming together. There’s a bit of extra effort in being mindful of the other person, but the joy of being able to share the process is thoroughly exhilarating. You often find yourself going to some unexpected places and stretching further than you might have on your own.

ND: What I’ve appreciated this far is having someone else to bounce ideas off of – someone who’s as invested in the story as I am. There are moments when I’m writing solo that I encounter tangles that often take weeks if not months to figure out, like how I hit a brick wall with my novel The Company of Birds. My editor at the time could tell me that something wasn’t working, but it wasn’t her place to tell me what I had to do to fix it.

A friend of mine who was co-writing a novel with her daughter would often go on long walks with her, and by the time they got home, would have hashed out the sticky plot points that had been bugging them. Likewise, how our video calls end up spawning mammoths and weird curve balls that I’d never have considered.

It’s like a game of tag, with each writer picking up where the other left off and running with the idea until it blooms monstrous fruit. But as you point out, it’s also about being mindful, and knowing when to step back or step in.

One of the big concerns that I do think a lot of authors have is unevenness in tone, especially if each writer has a particular style. I’d say that you and I are not that vastly different from each other. I also feel that you have a particular knack of looking into a scene and digging just that little bit deeper in terms of motivations, as well as the to-ing and fro-ing of dialogue.

TB: You are far too kind, but I’m a writer so I will take ANY validation! Tone is certainly an issue, but one that I think can be resolved by having each writer review the work. Right now, I am doing an audio read through The Serpent’s Quest and you’d be amazed how many things I am catching – little inconsistencies in tone and story from both of us that seem more stark now that the first book is real and the shape of things better set (We recently started focusing on the northern continent of our world and those changes are having little effect on details in The Serpent’s Quest).

Once I have finished the audio review you’ll get the chance to go through it, which means the tone and language in each scene should be nicely sanded down so no one can see the seams…

I don’t think I can overstate the usefulness of having another brain helping you spark on a story. The big bad in book two got a whole lot nastier and more credible to me when you mentioned a parallel with Alexander the Great – I’d always know there was a schism between our main character, Kelbrin, and his traitorous protege, Dugan, but I suddenly saw how the cracks in their relationship might have developed as Dugan took on the ways of the Abrassian necromancers that Kelbrin had helped him overthrow (many Greeks murmured that Alexander was changed after his conquest of Persia).

It’s the little details that fill out a story and add richness – so two heads really are better than one. I guess what anyone contemplating this kind of project would be interested in is process. The first and most obvious requirement is good communication (stay in touch and share those documents!). I’m typically more comfortable with letting a story unravel as it occurs to me, but in this case the work requires us to be quite specific about where the story will go.

With collaboration one needs a well established framework, preferably with set scenes and events that can be assigned to each writer. Naturally nothing is carved in stone, and the narrative can evolve, but I’d say it’s worth taking the time to get the scaffolding in place.

As I mentioned, new details are already coming up as book two starts to solidify, but we basically know the entire arc of our story and have mapped out the big events already. I’m thinking that will pay off and let us work together better. Know who handles what, and of course the double review process allows each of us to shape every scene to the shared vision we laid out. Oh, also, in case anyone doesn’t know this one, always have a shared map and glossary for reference.

ND: Having that bigger-picture view most certainly helps. I don’t know why the Alexander the Great thing only occurred to me much later. So many villains are hampered by the ‘let’s be evil for evil’s sake’ so I feel it’s absolutely vital that we give Dugan sufficient motivation for doing what it is he’s doing. If we look at all the great empires of the past, in many cases each emperor had their motivations.

For some it was simply a need to expand borders to reclaim previously lost territory – an act within itself that can lead to further expansion once the machinery goes into action. In other cases, for instance the Scramble for Africa, we can see it as a sort of arms race and a quest for raw materials. For instance, the British Empire annexing the Cape Colony from the Dutch to also keep it out of the hands of the French. Dugan starts out, I believe, with the earnest desire to rid his world of the corruption posed by a powerful, corrupt city-state, but good intentions are not necessary enough to keep one from being corrupted in turn.

As authors, we can take lessons from historical events. In terms of collaborating, I’m really appreciating the fact that we can hammer out these details together. It also helps that as individuals, we share a lot of common ground in terms of our personal philosophical world views – so we riff off each other quite a bit. And the best part is that now when I dive in for formal edits, so much of the structural work has been done. We’re playing off of each other’s strengths, which I think will give us a massive advantage by the time we start querying.

TB: Ah, querying, when we find out if the gatekeepers see what we see… joy! Win or lose at that particular game I’m proud of the work we’re doing. I’m not sure what the literary world is going to look like post Covid-19. It wasn’t exactly going gangbusters to start with, but I think that just about the most exciting thing that any of us can do is share our dreams – it’s the reason any writer puts ink on paper (or pixel on screen). Surely the natural progression of that need to reach others must be mingling visions with someone who can dream with you.

I don’t mean to wax too poetic, but there are times when I think the ivory walls of the skull may be the true prison for all of us, the impulses we get from the outside, the only antidote to crippling solipsism… but that may just be a moth of lockdown talking. In either case I look forward to continuing Hetephes and Kelbrin’s journey and I hope that others are keen to come along for the ride. I mean come on, war, betrayal, intrigue and mad gods who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Certainly it’s a good idea for anyone who wants to take the plunge with us to take a deep breath now because I have every intention of letting up till we reach a gasping, bloody conclusion! WAR MAMMOTHS, HO!

ND: Don’t forget the dragons.

* * *

Pick up Toby Bennett’s fantasy novel The Music Box, or Nerine Dorman’s science fiction novel Sing down the Stars.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Ingenious by Darius Hinks

Okay, so wow, hats off to Darius Hinks for world building. In The Ingenious, he's created a city that immediately grabbed my attention in a way that I won't forget in a hurry. Run by a group of enigmatic alchemists known as the Curious Men, the city of Athanor is not bound by location. Fuelled by alchemy, the city travels from world to world, where it siphons off resources until its rulers deem it time for them to move again. Consequently, the city is a true melting pot of cultures, a sprawling grotesquery of races and architectural styles steeped in squalor for those who don't have power or wealth. I loved this dark, baroque setting hard, and Hinks does a good job of gradually revealing the city's nature.

Enter Isten and her people, a small group of exiles who want to go home. Except they have no say in where Athanor will next settle, and they're hard pressed on all sides by gangs. We stagger into the story just as Isten reappears from a year of drunken indulgence. She's a rogue and a drug addict who has lost her way, and scoffs at her group's idealism. She's also not above using them to get what she wants, and she can't think beyond the next hit.

I get it. She's not a nice person. And she ends up getting mixed up in events that are way beyond her ken when she tangles with one of the Curious Men. Alchemy is involved, as well as dubious moral codes, and just when you think things can't get worse, they do. Isten has no morals, no scruples, until suddenly she does, except after her dark teatime, she's so deep in the dreck that she has to do some fancy footwork to get both herself and the people she's close to out.

This novel has most of the hallmarks I adore in fantasy, but it falls just ever so slightly short of the mark, and I believe it's developmental in the sense that we don't dig deep enough into Isten, in terms of her motivations and her sudden about-face near the end when she has to turn from rogue to hero. We have hints of a wonderful interplay between her and her polar opposite, but I feel as if the story wasn't quite driven far enough for this to feel satisfying. After a promising start, the novel flounders and eventually rushes to tie up loose ends in what feels like a slightly haphazard fashion that left me needing a stronger resolution. Kinda like me sitting back at the end, saying, "Is this it?" There was a particular thread involving the Exiles and a secondary character that could have been foregrounded more to help create a greater sense of upping the stakes and lending more of a sense of urgency.

If you're in the mood for a slice of GrimDark with serious Gothic flavouring, then yeah, this will be your jam. There were some great ideas here, and a simply fabulous setting that's begging a deeper plunge, but I would have loved to have seen more in terms of better realised structure and deeper character development.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

I'm a little on the fence with All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. It's a sweet little book that I feel doesn't easily rest in an exact genre. It's contemporary fantasy but feels more like magic realism with a slight surreal twist. There's also a fair amount of gentle mockery aimed at the whole East Coast hipster vibe that may also see this book not ageing well.

For the most, I couldn't really immerse in the story; it felt like there was a degree of separation between me and the characters, so it came across like the author narrator was at the wheel telling me the story rather than me having my preferred deep point of view. This in itself is not a major sin, and some authors do it really well, like Neil Gaiman, for instance, but it didn't really work for me here. I kept getting jerked out of the story, and I felt as if the tone, although charming, lacked sincerity.

The heart of this story centres around the age-old trope of magic vs. science, with two main characters who are polar opposites of each other, and you can see from a mile away that they're going to get romantically entangled no matter how much they have a prickly friendship as children. The novel follows them from awkward childhood to equally awkward adulthood, as they each become masters of their particular professions: Laurence is some sort of hotshot computer whizz while Patricia is a witch.

Anders' writing has a lot of whimsy, and some of the imagery is quite lovely, but in the end what salted it for me was the fact that I felt that distance from the meat and bones of the story. I also felt that there was a lot of build-up to the cataclysmic conclusion, which then sort of fizzled out near the end. I don't know if it was a case of the author being unsure of where they were headed or if they were rushed to finish. I also didn't feel strongly about either Patricia or Laurence – perhaps I liked Patricia more than I did Laurence, but the lack of immersion in either's point of view didn't help. All in all, I wasn't sold, even if I generally found this an enjoyable ride that I'll appreciate discussing with others who've also read the book.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Last Wish (The Witcher #0.5) by Andrzej Sapkowski

I'm hopping on the fandom bandwagon a bit with this, but hey, YOLO. I've meant to read The Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski for a while now, and while my reading speed is seriously slow, I felt it would be an interesting exercise to tackle the books the series and the games are based on, and see where they differ. The Last Wish, which is where one needs to start, chronologically speaking, is more a selection of short stories from Geralt of Rivia's world, that are are more a nod towards our perennially popular fairy tales than a cohesive saga. Backstory, if you will. My favourite out of the whole bunch was the retelling of Beauty and the Beast, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Nivellen will be adapted for screen.

While the fandom is not quite as toxic as that of other IPs (like Star Wars, for instance), it will forever be divided between the gamer fanbois, book-thumpers and thirsty Henry-gasping females. Okay, that was possibly a bit disingenuous for me to describe it as such, but I've dabbled in the games and only really came on board after watching the series, and I can well imagine the scorn heaped upon me by the One True Fans who see me as a Jenny-comes-lately. Whatever. I don't care. And in any case, my opinion doesn't count for much in the bigger scheme of things. I believe there is room in a fandom for the source material and its adaptions to exist cheek by jowl, with the adaptions allowed to be exactly what the word 'adaption' means: a riff on the original, so expect there to be differences. And no, I don't give a flying fig whether you think game Triss or Yen are better than the series versions. 

I'm here to discuss the book, and it's clear that the show plays fast and loose with the source material, but in a way that I do feel stays true to the spirit of what I've read so far. It took me a few chapters to get used to Sapkowski's writing, as I'm sure much of the nuance was lost in a clunky translation from the original Polish. Little quirks with the dialogue tags bugged the hell out of me at first – smiling, nodding, grimacing etc of words – but I decided to shut my eyes and just go along with the ride. Highbrow literature this is not.

What is clear to me is the slyness of Sapkowski's humour. And Geralt is dry – very dry. In a way that makes me smile. This dude, he's seen pretty much everything, and yet here he is. Still putting up with people's nonsense. So in that sense, he makes a great narrator, and there's a fair deal of social commentary that flows in the undercurrent to make this more than just a bunch of action-riddled, monster-bashing quest.

What matters is that I'm invested. Thanks to the series and the games, I'm invested enough to go pick up the rest of the books. They have a charm all of their own. The Witcher is fun, surprisingly quirky, and should satisfy fans of the genre. Oh, and I'm here for the elves. Because I'm unashamedly shallow like that.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I'll admit, the thing that made this novel easier for me to figure out was that I'd watched Pride and Prejudice (2005) starring Keira Knightley. I'd put off reading the actual Jane Austen novel for most of my life. This is not my usual fare, at all, but because a good friend of mine, Helen Moffett, is seeing the release of her P&P sequel Charlotte, I figured I'd better get reading so that I could have the background.

Historical fiction written during contemporary times is one thing, but actual fiction from more than hundred years ago is quite another. Austen writes for an audience that would take conventions in clothing and the environment for granted, focusing instead of dialogue and mannerisms. So we're left with a kind of shallow, limited third person that doesn't feed readers who're used to a deeper point of view. So it helps immensely for folks like me, who honestly don't have a clue, to have watched that film. It gave me useful context. Don't be ashamed to watch the film before reading the novel.

I believe it does the book a disservice to evaluate it using contemporary standards. Authors these days have a deep well of literary conventions to draw from, so applying those to Austen will rob the book of much of its character. For me, P&P exists as a time capsule, offering a glimpse into particular cultural and social mores prevalent within English society at the time. We step into a world where characters are trapped by their status within society, and while it can be argued that many of Austen's characters are shallow (um, hello, Mr Collins much), I feel that Austen is taking stabs at society. And it makes me also realise how much society has changed, and what we, as women, take for granted in terms of our liberties and empowerment in contemporary times.

While I didn't gain the same sort of enjoyment from Pride and Prejudice as I would from the usual titles I'll slide onto my Kindle, I nonetheless walked away from this novel feeling as if I'd gained a better understanding as to why Regency-era stories have carved themselves such a beloved niche among readers. It's easy to loathe some of the characters, and at a glance, people like Mrs Bennett seem facile and annoying, but if you dig a little deeper, the social commentary becomes crystal clear. Sure, Mrs Bennett's obsession with marrying off her daughters seems exhausting, but if you understand her very real fears that she would not be able to care for them if they never got married – for there were no prospects for a woman in those days to have a career – then it's possible to be more sympathetic towards her. Despite each character having perceived privileges, they themselves are trapped by their social standing. And don't get me started on Mr Collins, and especially his appalling commentary when one of Elizabeth's sisters elopes.

It took me some time to get used to Austen's style, and now that I'm done with the novel, I also realise it's a story that begs being reread at some point. The beauty of the telling lies in what the characters have to say to each other, and how they respond to circumstances, and I feel on the first read through there were many subtleties that I may have missed.