There are some books that stay with you throughout your life, books you first read as a child that shape your interests, even your worldview. For me, one of those books is Watership Down by Richard Adams. With the upcoming BBC / Netflix adaptation, Watership Down is hopefully set to be discovered by a whole new generation.
My introduction to Watership Down was through Martin Rosen’s 1978 film version – my dad took me see it at the (long-closed) ABC cinema in Ipswich and although too young to fully understand the story, the visuals left an indelible mark. I didn’t find the (now much-discussed) violence of the film unsettling; I just thought it was magical and extremely exciting.
When a little older I finally read the book and it was one of the reading experiences that one only seems to have in childhood – long hours reading, no distractions, no sense of the world outside. I soon discovered that as thrilling as the film had been, the novel contained a far deeper, darker and even more satisfying story. Although the story takes place across just a few miles of English countryside, it is an epic adventure, and I found myself lost in the saga, fascinated by characters such as Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and the terrible General Woundwort.
When I first started writing short stories and novels, Watership Down remained one of those touchstones I returned to for inspiration, for encouragement. Indeed, the Isle of Ictis scene in my first novel, The Map of the Known World, was heavily influenced (in atmosphere and – in many ways – narrative function) by the creepy, disturbing sequence in Cowslip’s warren. I have longed admired the richness of Adams’s descriptive writing – the landscape of Watership Down, described of course from a rabbit’s eye view, is beautifully evoked, from the colours and scents of flowers, to the sinister buildings and machines built by humans. This sense of the landscape being intrinsic to a story is something I have carried through all my work, and in my novels such as This Sacred Isle, I have consciously tried to evoke the land as almost a character in itself, a character that influences and responds to the events of the story.
Watership Down is not a direct allegory such as Animal Farm (another favourite book of mine) but through its themes, it offers strong comments on our world. For example, when I re-read the book as an adult, Adams’s interest in justice, specifically just leadership became clear through is treatment of the four warrens we visit during the story. Sandleford Warren is hierarchical, entrenched in its own rules; its chief, although wise and experienced, has largely withdrawn from contact with the world around him, and thus ultimately fails to understand or appreciate the seriousness of the threat facing the warren. He fails to act, condemning all, with the exception of Hazel and his friends, to extermination.
As we move through the story, we come to Cowslip’s warren, where the inhabitants have effectively been tamed, and depend on the food supplied by the farmer, though with the knowledge that their life or relative ease means that regularly one or more of their kind will be caught within the snares. They are strictly not a community – they live almost individual lives, resigned to their fate, caring little for others. General Woundwort’s warren, the dreaded Efrafa is even worse – a tyrannical warren, where fear rules and any disobedience is punished by wounding or death. Only when the final warren is established on Watership Down is a just leadership achieved; the community is led by one who has earned the right to lead, not through power or fear or deviousness, but by intelligence, compassion and selfless actions. Perhaps Adams is reminding us to choose our leaders carefully – a lesson we would do well to heed…
Adams clearly also had a profound understanding and knowledge of mythology and folklore. He makes references to classical mythology and literature in the novel, and was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces. The tales of trickster El-ahrairah have an authenticity, a heft, as though they are truly stories passed down and shaped by countless generations, as powerful guides to society, to life and death. And these stories are not just added to Watership Down to add colour and texture; although entertaining tales in their own right, they are not just entertainment. The adventures of El-ahrairah inspire and influence decisions and actions taken by characters in the book. In many ways, I believe Watership Down is a story about the power of story, the necessity of story in our lives – El-ahrairah gives meaning to the rabbits, an identity, connecting them to their past and encapsulating shared experiences across their species. One of the elements that separates Hazel and his companions from Cowslip’s warren is the latter’s rejection of the tales of El-ahrairah, a rejection of what unites their kind, a rejection of the lessons and hardships of the past, and a focus solely on the present:
‘Well, we don’t tell the old stories very much,’ said Cowslip. ‘Our stories and poems are mostly about our own lives here…’
Adams asserts that we all need stories – religious or otherwise – to make sense of our existence and to understand and connect with others. The power of story gives strength, energy and hope to Hazel and his companions, even in the darkest times; this contrasts to the stasis and imprisonment of Cowslip’s warren, where they have cast aside their freedom for a life of relative ease, and care little for each other, as Cowslip says:
‘Rabbits need dignity and above all, the will to accept their fate.’
Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and the other rabbits escaping from Sandleford Warren refuse to accept their fate – they know their journey places them in danger, appalling danger, and that their chances of success are slim, but they have learned, partly through the tales of El-ahrairah, that to have any chance of survival, they need to act, to use their wits and to work with each other as a community.
The impact of humanity on the natural world forms one of the most powerful themes in the novel. Throughout the book, we see the damage caused by humans, often through sheer indifference:
‘It comes from men. All other elil do what they have to do and Frith moves them as he moves us. They live on the earth and they need food. Men will never rest till they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals.’
The location of Sandleford Warren is starkly described as ‘SIX ACRES OF EXCELLENT BUILDING LAND’, nature reduced to a commodity, a resource. The warren is not destroyed deliberately or even out of malice – the rabbits’ existence is simply an irrelevance, their lives deemed worthless against the needs of humans. This was something that clearly troubled Richard Adams, who valued the natural world and the rights of non-human species. And it is not difficult to see how the creeping danger and damage of urbanisation Adams attacked are being realised in the real world. The fields and meadows around the English village in which I live are gradually disappearing beneath concrete and brick, any ecological concerns brushed away – what has been lost can never be recovered.
Our ecology is irrevocably damaged by such relentless ‘development’, and as I believe Adams felt, our society is damaged too. Watership Down asks us to notice the world around us, the world around our feet, to see the beauty, the complexity, the richness of animal and plant life – only by seeing, only by understanding, will we value the natural world enough to take steps to protect it. I am sure Watership Down inspired many people to draw, to compose music, to write (I count myself in the latter) but I wonder how many people it inspired – and still inspires – to become environmental campaigners, or work to support animal rights?
Watership Down is a book that can help us view the world in a more balanced, compassionate way - it is testament to the strange, sheer power of story that a tale of a small group of rabbits travelling through the English countryside can teach us valuable lessons about our lives too.
Writing a novel is a long-term undertaking, measured by months and years. To keep your creativity fresh during that time is one of the toughest challenges writers face. I am deep in the process of revising my latest novel, Second Sun – I’m enjoying it, the book is taking shape, the characters and setting are beginning to gel but I cannot lie, it’s been tough going at times. That initial blast of writing the first draft, where everything seems new and the possibilities are endless, is replaced by the often repetitious slog of working and reworking the text, made harder of course by the other demands and responsibilities we all have in life.
I guess this is common to all writers. Books are not written in sudden explosive bursts of creativity, but in the steady, plodding effort of writing, revising and editing (not to mention planning and research). The progress can feel slow, painfully slow, almost as though you are not making progress at all. It is a different feeling from writer’s block (something I have blogged about previously), where it seems hard to form any new ideas, when even putting down a sentence becomes a monumental struggle. No, this is about keeping going, maintaining momentum, however much you feel like giving up.
I’ve always believed it is not the writing you do when you feel energised and inspired that counts – much more important is the work you do when you don’t feel like writing, the work you do when you’re tired or stressed, the work you do because you’re passionately committed to getting your book finished. Writing a novel is a tough task and there will be bumps in the road, however, this doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to make the process a little more comfortable and ultimately, more rewarding. Here are a few ways you can stay on track:
When the going gets really tough, take a break, take a metaphorical step back from your work in progress. It’s not about giving up, but about giving yourself a chance to remember why you are writing, to remember what you are trying to say through your book. It’s ok to fall out of love with your book at times – it will happen, and you’ll forgive it eventually! Putting some distance between you and your book will allow you to see above the day-to-day slog of writing and rewriting.
No doubt you have done lots of research for your book but even though you are heavily into the process of writing it, it doesn’t mean you should stop learning and exploring. Stay curious - get out and about if you can; for example, I always find a trip to a museum or an art gallery inspires fresh ideas – failing that, reading reference books on related subjects, such as mythology, art and history can provide new insights and angles, which bring new life to your writing.
Break your routine
We all have writing routines and habits, and these are often very helpful. However, when progress slows and the process feels stale, it is worth trying to do things differently. Just try some simple changes: if you can, work from a different room, or write longhand for a while rather than using a computer – anything to disrupt your normal routine and help you look at your work with a different perspective. If you’re feeling more daring, perhaps even try one of Brian Eno’s oblique strategies, which are posted daily to his twitter account (https://twitter.com/dark_shark)
When you’re deep in the process of writing a novel – tired, anxious and frustrated - the idea of reading a book for pleasure can sometimes feel like adding insult to injury! But if you want to write, you must keep reading, even if it’s just for a few minutes each day. As well as the sheer enjoyment of reading, if you read a good variety of books it can only improve your writing – you will pick up, consciously or unconsciously, new ideas and techniques that will permeate your writing.
I hope these are some useful pointers for when the going gets tough. Writing a book is a long journey, but word by word, sentence by sentence, you will get there!
If you’re interested in my writing, you can get the ebook version of my first novel - The Map of the Known World – for FREE. Please see the Kindle preview below:
Research is a key part of writing any novel and has always been something of a passion of mine. Whether it is researching the Anglo-Saxon world of 6th century England for my novel This Sacred Isle, or building an entire secondary world for my Tree of Life trilogy, I love digging down to establish key facts. Sometimes, this research takes the place of visiting actual historical sites or museums / galleries – often, though, my research is through non-fiction works (I am a regular customer at my local library!).
Often, I will use non-fiction books to confirm important details about the world in which my story takes place – for example, for This Sacred Isle, although it contains elements of fantasy, I very much wanted the setting to have a strong historical basis, such as the food people eat, their clothes, their weapons etc.
However, good non-fiction can also provide inspiration for elements I would never have thought of otherwise, taking the story in different directions. In this post, I am going to talk about four non-fiction books that I have found inspiring when writing my novels, non-fiction books to which I’m sure I’ll continue to return.
The Book of English Magic - Richard Heygate & Philip Carr-Gomm
This is a wonderful survey of England’s magical past, covering druids, Anglo-Saxon runes, Merlin, Alchemy, Freemasonry, and much, much more. Erudite but accessible, this hugely entertaining, enrichening book is a primer for occult history, and has opened for me many rich seams of research and inspiration. I returned to this book a number of times whilst writing This Sacred Isle, both for the sections on Anglo Saxon magic and the Matter of Britain, and also for the section on Alchemy and Tarot, which in their way influenced the shape of the story.
The book contains short biographies of leading figures within magical history, such as Aleister Crowley, as well as focuses on writers inspired by England’s magical tradition such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Susanna Clarke, J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman. There are suggestions for places to visit, and articles written by modern day magical practitioners, which I found fascinating and in places, very moving.
Even if you don’t believe in magic, read The Book of English Magic with an open mind, and it will take you on a trip to the Otherworld…
Wonderbook – Jeff VanderMeer
Wonderbook has proven to be a valuable addition to my non-fiction collection. It is an illustrated creative writing book, aimed mainly (though not exclusively) at writers of the fantastical (all SF, Horror and Fantasy authors will find reams of good material to explore here). It is jam-packed with advice on plotting, structure, characterisation, world-building and many more aspects of fiction writing.
I used this book during the edit of This Sacred Isle, and it helped me to see some different perspectives on my work, especially in terms of narrative design and testing my characters. The exercises and advice contained within Wonderbook made me challenge my work even more, to question my assumptions, to keep trying new techniques.
The heavily visual, often playful and irreverent, approach is bold and innovative, and the book also contains articles / interviews with writers such as George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman and Ursula Le Guin.
And it is not just the practical advice that makes Wonderbook such a valuable book for writers – it gives plenty of inspiration just to keep going, especially when the going gets tough.
Encyclopaedia of things that never were - Michael F. Page and Robert Ingpen
I picked up this book many years ago, and it’s been a faithful companion for my writing since then. It might be tricky to get a hold of a copy now, but it’s worth it if you can.
Drawing on examples from myth, legend and fantastical literature from around the world, you’ll discover all manner of mystical places, people and creatures. Richly illustrated, it is an entertaining, witty read, and I used the book to spark ideas for my Tree of Life trilogy - the saga takes place in an invented secondary world, and the Encyclopaedia of things that never were sparked many ideas for the creatures that inhabited that world and lands in which they lived.
For any lover of fantasy, I would recommend this book – leave logic at the door, and enter a world of dreams…
The illustrated Signs and Symbols Sourcebook - Adele Nozedar
This is a comprehensive and well-illustrated guide to the secret knowledge of signs and symbols, which I found both useful as a source for research and an entertaining read in its own right.
The book is divided into themed sections, covering a vast array of subjects such as magic, flora and fauna, deities, geometry, numbers and landscape.
I love using symbolism in my novels, and found this book extremely helpful as a guide and a source of fresh ideas – the structure makes it easy to dip into, and although in some areas it might be necessary to carry out more detailed research, there is a lot of depth to certain sections, for example the pages for tarot and astrology.
I’ve continued to use The illustrated Signs and Symbols Sourcebook for the research and planning of my latest novel, Second Sun, and I’m sure this will remain a well-thumbed tome for many more years and books to come!
I have long loved reading fantasy novels, and many of them have significantly influenced my own writing. I enjoy books in this genre for their exciting plots, their memorable characters, the sense of escapism and their bold, challenging ideas - and I have tried to achieve these in my own work.
I have too many favourite fantasy books to possibly discuss in one blog post (honourable mentions for books just missing out from my list include the staggering Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and Elidor by Alan Garner) and I have blogged previously about the massive influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on my writing (you can read the post here) but I thought I would discuss some of the fantasy novels that have most influenced and inspired me.
Memory, Sorrow and Thorn - Tad Williams
I have read and enjoyed many epic fantasy series, and although often enjoyable, many appear to be reheated versions of The Lord of the Rings, recycling many of the same elements. With an epic secondary world (Osten Ard), complex plotting, a cast of hundreds, battles and fantastical monsters, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn could, on the surface, be yet another fantasy saga descended from the Tolkien tradition, but in many ways it reverses key elements and tropes of The Lord of the Rings.
For example, yes, there is a Dark Lord – the Sithi Storm King – but for all his evil, his actions are largely in response to appalling suffering inflicted upon his people. Good and evil within Osten Ard cannot be identified solely by race or country – there are few easy answers in this land and there are troubling, nightmarish secrets to be uncovered…
I read each volume of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn over several weeks and found the whole saga utterly absorbing. It is so intelligently and boldly constructed, and challenges many of the assumptions of the genre – but please do not think it is a dry read; far from it, there are many thrilling moments and the characters are three dimensional and memorable. Rather than reheating Tolkien’s masterpiece, Tad Williams’s series builds upon the foundations of the genre to create something original and truly special.
Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling
The joy of reading as a child is a different, perhaps more intense, experience than that of reading as an adult. I can remember spending many happy hours reading books such as Watership Down and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the frustration when I had to put the book down for a meal or for sleep!
I was (obviously!) too old to read the Harry Potter books as a child, but the story still engrossed me. The sheer quality of the storytelling – the superb plotting and rich characterisation – cannot be denied. J.K. Rowling’s magical universe is beautifully realised, drawing cleverly upon her knowledge of mythology, folklore and alchemy. Rowling’s books should serve as an inspiration to any writer – they are written with love, with passion and a fierce determination to explore important themes about life, death, power and the importance of love and friendship.
I wonder how many children have had a lifelong love of reading sparked by the Harry Potter books? I feel certain that J.K. Rowling's books will love a wonderful legacy. And for me, it is now a great joy to see my daughter fall in love the stories and the vivid characters within – she has so many exciting things to discover in the world of Harry Potter!
The Royal Changeling – John Whitbourn
This is a hugely enjoyable tale set in an alternate seventeenth century England. Charles II, the Duke of Monmouth and even King Arthur appear, along with a host of supernatural characters – laced with witty, black humour, the story is briskly told and the period is wonderfully evoked. This mix of history and fantasy has been a great influence on my writing: for example, for The Tree of Life trilogy, reading The Royal Changeling encouraged me to set the series outside of the traditional fantasy medieval setting - mixing muskets and monsters felt, for me, a delicious combination!
I cannot recommend The Royal Changeling enough, and I would love to see the book, and Whitbourn’s other work, better known.
Gormenghast trilogy – Mervyn Peake
The visionary artist and writer Mervyn Peake’s majestic creation is often compared to The Lord of the Rings, but it is a very different beast. A work of staggering originality, dreamlike, layered and gothic, and full of memorable imagery, the Gormenghast trilogy is truly a book to lose yourself in. It contains some of the best descriptive writing I have read, with the massive crumbling edifice of Gormenghast castle brought vividly to life, as is the madness of the ritual-ridden society dwelling within.
The characters – Lord Sepulchrave, Flay, Swelter, Steerpike and Fuchsia, to name just a few – stayed with me long after reading the books. Yes, they are larger than life, but their foibles and failings are only too human, and all the more troubling for this.
I continue to be awed by the scale and ambition of Peake’s achievement, and I feel sure the Gormenghast trilogy will continue to be discovered and enjoyed by generations to come.
What is your favourite fantasy novel? Leave a comment and join the conversation.
If you’re interested in my writing, you can get the ebook version of my first novel - The Map of the Known World – for FREE, from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, iBooks or Smashwords.
I have also previously blogged about the reasons why I write fantasy fiction - check out the blog post here.
I was recently lucky enough to visit the Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
The exhibition displays an array of drafts, illustrations and maps for The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, as well as some of J.R.R. Tolkien’s early paintings and other objects such as fan mail and private letters. I gained a real sense of the depth and scale of Tolkien’s creation, and how his formidable imagination poured out prose, poetry and art.
And the exhibition reminded me how important Tolkien, and in particular The Lord of the Rings, has been to my own creativity – although there are many wonderful authors whose books fascinate and inspire me, I have little doubt Tolkien is the author who first sparked within me the desire to write fiction.
My first encounter with Tolkien was watching Ralph Bakshi’s animated The Lord of the Rings on VHS as a child. At the time, I didn’t fully understand the film (and it is fair to say it divides fans of the book - I’m very fond of it though) but the imagery, especially the Black Riders and the scenes in the Mines of Moria, stayed with me and when a little older, about fourteen, I decided to read The Fellowship of the Ring.
Although familiar with some elements of the story from the film, I soon realized that there was more, so much more, to discover in the book, and not just the main narrative, but the many other details and subplots: such as the Barrow Wights, old Tom Bombadil, the wolves pursuing the fellowship to the gates of Moria. Somehow, the experience of reading is more intense as a child or young person – for example, I can well remember the first time I read books such as Watership Down and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Fellowship of the Ring surpassed even these, and I still have the same paperback – it has been with me through university and several house moves since; it is battered, torn and the spine is held together (more or less) by sellotape, but I treasure no book more.
And of course, once I’d finished The Fellowship of the Ring, I was hungry for more! My brother kindly picked up The Two Towers from the library close to where he worked and I can still remember my excitement at first seeing the cover, which showed the Eye of Sauron. From the excitement and heroism of Helm’s Deep to the horror of Shelob, the story engrossed me, and for a few days I resented interruptions such as sleep and meals! And then from The Two Towers to the climatic Return of the King, where the word epic hardly suffices, with the mighty struggles at Minas Tirith and the last stand in front of the Gates of Mordor, and of course Frodo and Sam’s painful journey to Mount Doom. I remember being struck, and moved, by the sense of melancholy at the end of the story. Sauron and Saruman had been defeated, but at great cost, from the light of the Elves departing Middle Earth, to the pain and sadness of Frodo.
No book had had such an impact on me before, and I don't think one has had such an impact since. After finishing The Lord of the Rings, I launched into The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, and then read many other books by and about Tolkien - he became my writer, the writer who seemed to capture the things I was fascinated by, moved by, and I'm sure thousands more have felt the same!
Tolkien’s detractors frequently dismiss his books as quaint, juvenile, somehow out-of-step with modern concerns and styles, but I think this underestimates his work. Although Tolkien famously disliked and dismissed allegory, The Lord of the Rings holds relevance for today’s world, from the ecological damage wrought by rapid industrialization, to the misuse of power, and the elimination of indigenous people. Tolkien had a respect for the simple pleasures of life, for the beauty of the natural world, and the importance of playing our part in preserving rather than exploiting.
To use a personal example, the village in which I live is being progressively bloated by new housing, new developments, with acres of meadows and fields disappearing under concrete, hedges and trees – each home to a delicate ecology – ripped up to make way for new roads, the songs of birds and the hum of insects replaced by the remorseless and deadening drone of traffic. The malevolent spirit of Saruman endures – his Voice lives on, potent and cunning, cloaked in fine words such as ‘innovative planning solutions’ and ‘sustainable locations for development’.
Tolkien had witnessed such ‘progress’ in his beloved Midlands, and his fears and anger about this helped fueled the creation of The Lord of the Rings. We would do well to heed his dire warnings.
And even putting aside the powerful themes of The Lord of the Rings, it is still a story that gives immense pleasure to readers – the joy of a good story well-told is surely a primal human trait, because we are, I believe, profoundly storytelling beings. Steeped in Beowulf, the Kalevala, and countless other tales, Tolkien built his stories on strong foundations, which is one of the reasons why Middle Earth feels simultaneously magical and familiar.
Tolkien’s work has influenced my writing, most directly The Tree of Life trilogy, and not just in the sense that it is an epic fantasy story across a ‘secondary world’ with hundreds of characters and different cultures, but I wanted to capture similar themes to those present in The Lord of the Rings – for example, the sense of a threatened environment, even a dying world, pervades the whole series from the first book (The Map of the Known World) onwards.
My most recent novel, This Sacred Isle, echoed Tolkien not only in its mythological roots and elements, but also, being set in Anglo-Saxon England, the influence of Beowulf, one of Tolkien’s literary and imaginative touchstones, is strong.
And above all, I strive to create books for readers to get lost in, to capture something of the sense of escapism and wonder I discovered reading The Lord of the Rings. I would never claim to be in Tolkien’s class as a writer, but he inspires me to write, inspires me to push my creativity as far as possible.
Reading tastes and habits change and broaden over the years, but I will always hold Tolkien’s work, and especially The Lord of the Rings, in the highest regard. Tolkien has been a key part of my imaginative life since childhood and I am certain that will never change.
Which author has most influenced and inspired you? Add a comment and join the conversation.
Completing a first draft is a key milestone in the long process of writing a novel. Although it is most definitely not the end of the process, it certainly is the culmination of a considerable amount of research, planning and writing. In a slow literary alchemy, dozens, hundreds of scribbled notes, fragments of descriptions and segments of dialogue have been transformed into a (more or less) coherent narrative. The journey is not yet complete, but I think it is important to take a moment to reflect that reaching the end of a first draft is an achievement in itself, and a crucial staging post on the road to the final destination – a completed and published novel.
I have discussed in a previous blog post my process for writing a first draft and have recently finished the first draft of my latest novel, a dystopian SF story called Second Sun. It has been an enjoyable, if testing, draft to write – the research / planning took longer than expected, and the setting proved to be more complex than I had initially expected. However, this is, for me, one of the chief joys of writing a novel – the opportunity to learn new things; for example, as part of the research I have delved into subjects as diverse as the poetry and art of William Blake, the history of the Avebury stone circle, and 1970s space rock. I was also lucky enough to visit the sublime Living with Gods exhibition at the British Museum, which both helped to inspire my writing and shape some of the themes of the book. I believe learning derived through research is valuable not only for writing, but for life in general, and I welcome the chance to explore subjects I otherwise would perhaps miss.
So, once the first draft is completed, what is the next step? Well, lots of reflection and lots of revision. At this point, you need to step back and look at your first draft with a fresh pair of eyes to understand the weaknesses and (hopefully!) strengths of your work. It can be a dispiriting experience – I always find the quality of my writing and storytelling is much lower than I expected; I stumble across glaring inconsistencies, there are pacing issues, needless repetition, and a myriad of other problems. It is easy, and understandable, to feel at this point like giving up, or starting again from scratch. The important thing I always try to remember is that it is a first draft – no one else needs to read it, there is a lot more work to do and the final published version will be much, much stronger.
Even putting aside the quality of the writing, I always find my first draft is different, sometimes very different, from the idea of the book I had in my mind’s eye. Unexpected themes emerge, and characters who I originally perceived as relatively minor players develop into leading roles; this is certainly true as I begin to read back the first draft of Second Sun. For example, one character, a former soldier named Jael, was, in my original plan, only in the story for a short time – however, the more I wrote about Jael, the more I found her an interesting, challenging character with strong potential for a rich and resonant back story, and a good counterpoint to the main character. I like writing Jael, I think I found her voice quite quickly, and the more deeply she is involved with the narrative, the better the story becomes.
In this way, reading back and revising your first draft becomes something of a journey of discovery, both revising familiar, expected components of the story, and finding new, unexpected elements. As I begin to work on the next draft of Second Sun, I know I will add new ideas, and remove and reshape existing ones – this will continue both throughout all future drafts too. There is lots more work to come, but in the months ahead I look forward to gradually developing my somewhat messy first draft into a final book that I hope readers enjoy.
How do you feel when you've just completed a first draft of a story? Leave a comment and join the conversation.
If you’re interested in my writing, you can get the ebook version of my first novel - The Map of the Known World – for free, from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, iBooks or Smashwords.
Writing the first draft of a book is tough, exciting as well, but definitely tough. I’ve blogged previously about the first draft of my last novel, This Sacred Isle, and some of the challenges faced, and now I back in the same place, writing the first draft of my new SF novel, Second Sun.
So what is Second Sun about? Well, in very high-level terms, Second Sun is set in a present day but alternate Earth roughly thirty years (the timescale is important, for reasons I won’t reveal here) after a successful alien invasion, an invasion that was welcomed and supported by much of humanity. Despite their conquest, which has become known as the Redemption, the aliens largely allow humans to continue their lives as they see fit, although the conquerors proudly claim to have reduced the threat of war, especially nuclear conflict, in an effort to herald in a new era of peace. The aliens work through the human proxies and encouraged a society which places the highest value on personal enrichment and self-actualisation. For many, it is a utopia, but there are whispered rumours of discontent, rumours that challenge the aliens’ claim of benevolence…
The main character of the story finds himself, unwittingly at first, drawn into the schemes of the Union, a revolutionary movement sworn to overthrow the rule of the aliens. As the story develops, and he is drawn into ever greater danger, he slowly begins to discover the true nature of the alien rule, and of the depths of human cruelty.
Inspired by SF greats such as Philip K Dick and John Christopher, and dystopian books such as 1984, Brave New World and We, I have long wanted to write a SF novel and although I do not consider myself in the same league as those inspirational works and their creators, I feel that I have developed enough as a writer where I can strive to create the kind of SF book I would want to read and others would enjoy. In the development of this story, I have drawn together a range of inspirations and themes, such as ancient mythology, Outsider Art, fear of the survelliance state and the effects of materialism. I have researched extensively and made copious notes – most of them ending up in the notebook below, along with other ideas and thoughts scribbled down on whatever piece of paper I had to hand!
Following my research, I developed a ‘treatment’ for Second Sun, which in essence is my plan for the novel, and this took some months of work. And from this treatment I am now working on the first draft – however, although I plan extensively, I certainly allow myself considerable bandwidth to amend the story as I go along. Just because I have planned a certain character or plot point does not mean I consider it cast in stone – my planning gives me some structure, confidence that I will be able to get to the end of the story without getting too lost or succummbing to the worst ravages of writer’s block, but it is not the final product, I am still open to new insights, and I hold the belief that a writer has to always scrutinise and challenge his or her ideas and be ready to amend any detail to better serve the story.
For Second Sun, I have completed the first (of six planned) chapters and am working through the second. I do find those first few pages challenging, a bit like exercise if you have been resting for a long time, but I am definitely starting to get into the rhythm. To maintain motivation and focus, I set myself a monthly word count target of 15,000 words (approximately an average of 500 words a day), which is a testing but realistic objective. I am expecting Second Sun to be a relatively short novel, probably in the region of 60,000 words, so I hope to have a complete first draft by the end of January 2018.
I try to write every day (I am very conscious of the maxim of ‘never a day without a line’) to help build and maintain momentum. At the moment, Second Sun is progressing well, the characters are taking shape and I have plenty of ideas, but I’m not fooled into thinking that there aren’t tricky times ahead! From my experiences of writing This Sacred Isle and the Tree of Life trilogy, I am acutely aware that although starting and finishing a first draft can be difficult, perhaps the hardest part is the midway of the book, where tiredness starts to kick in and a little of the optimistic excitement you feel at the first page is ebbing away. There is no easy answer to this – I just know I have to keep going and not panic if the pace slows and the ideas stop flowing. Word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, the book will take shape and the end will come into view. And of course, when the first draft is completed, the next task is months of editing – well, no-one said writing a book is easy!
What do you find most difficult, and rewarding, about writing a first draft? Add your comments below and join the conversation.
It is now one year since This Sacred Isle was first published, and how those twelve months have flown by! To celebrate this first year, I am holding an exclusive Smashwords offer - where you can pay what you like for the ebook version of the book! Yes, that's right, pay what you like - even nothing! Offer ends on 1st November 2017, so if you fancy reading an epic fantasy adventure set in Dark Age Britain, featuring warriors, dragons and the return of Merlin, then go straight to the link below and begin the quest. . .
All authors draw on a wide range of inspirations for their stories – they use real-life experiences, their concerns about their world, books they have read. For me, and I suspect many other writers too, visual art is hugely important for inspiring and shaping my novels.
In the early stages of planning and writing a new novel, I always try to visit art galleries, and as well as being enjoyable experiences, I always come out fizzing with ideas – paintings and sculptures suggest to me scenes, characters and ideas. I am fortunate to live relatively close to London and Cambridge, and so have access to the incredible art galleries there, many of which are free to enter!
I believe art allows us to see the world from different perspectives, to challenge our assumptions and beliefs. Art can make us all feel a little less alone in this world – it can provide a safe space for us to consider and explore feelings and fears we might otherwise feel uncomfortable in confronting. Although I could never claim to come close to matching the insights and skill of the artists who are important to me, I hope their work can unlock new dimensions in my own work. I also try to remember that the masterpieces hanging on the gallery wall are the product of years of dedication, of learning, of mistakes and experiments – they did not come easily to the artist, their high level of achievement had to be earned. And when I am battling through the writing and editing of a book, I find that an encouraging thought!
I see each book I write as an opportunity to learn new things, especially about art. I am certainly not an expert in art or art history, but I find it an endlessly absorbing subject, as there are always new artists and works to discover.
When writing The Tree of Life trilogy, a number of artists were important to me in developing the landscapes and inhabitants of my invented fantasy world, for example the nightmarish creations of Hieronymus Bosch, the dark visions of Francisco Goya and the mysterious paintings of Arnold Bocklin (whose The Island of the Dead painting was a key image for The Last Days, the final book in the trilogy). I also found great inspiration in Assyrian sculpture, and enjoyed many happy visits to the Assyrian palace relief rooms in the British Museum, absorbing this intricate, undeniably powerful work.
I hoped that, in some small way, absorbing the work of such artists not only broadened my own knowledge, but provided extra depth to my writing, and made my fictional worlds a little more convincing.
When I wrote This Sacred Isle, I continued this fascination with art and there were several specific paintings that heavily influenced imagery within the book, for example Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion by Francis Bacon, Apollo and Python by JMW Turner, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, Mammon by George Frederic Watts and The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake.
But for This Sacred Isle, two artists were particularly important to the book’s development and symbolism, although both are painters from a far more modern era than the novel depicts. In the work of symbolist painter Odilon Redon, I discovered enigmatic images that chimed with the dreamlike atmosphere I was searching for in certain scenes of the book.
And I never failed to be inspired by the paintings of Paul Nash, possibly my favourite painter. It was crucial to me to establish the landscape of This Sacred Isle as a character in its own right, and to hint at traces of history it had witnessed and sustained. Paul Nash had an intense and deeply personal relationship with certain landscapes such as the Wittenham Clumps and Avebury, landscapes he claimed possessed a quality he named the genius loci.
I have written before about the influence of Paul Nash on my work (see my earlier blog post), and I am sure this influence will endure through all my future stories.
Art is certainly central to Second Sun, the SF book I am currently writing, in particular the concept of ‘Outsider’ or ‘Naive’ Art. I am fascinated by art produced by untutored artists working outside of the normal conventions of the art world. For example, the primitive quality of Alfred Wallis’s paintings has inspired one of the key characters in the novel, ‘The Captain’, who produces art not to sell, not to achieve fame, but to preserve memories of things now lost. I loved the sense of an artist expressing a profound, unorthodox view of the world, totally at odds with the norms of society. I was fortunate enough to view a small display of Wallis’s paintings at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and seeing them close up demonstrated the raw power of his approach to scale and perspective, and the muted colours seemed to heighten their drama. The work of Alfred Wallis, and discovering more about his life, unlocked for me the character of ‘The Captain’, who although is absolutely not Wallis, does share some of the same motivations and obsessions.
Away from ‘Outsider art’, a number of other painters and sculptures continue to influence the imagery and atmosphere of the novel. The paintings of Australian artist Jeffrey Smart also resonated strongly with me as I began to plan Second Sun. I have kept his empty, somehow dislocated urban landscapes very much in mind when creating the setting of my novel. The narrative paintings of Paula Rego (definitely one of my favourite artists) also fascinate me, both for the challenging, often violent themes she explores and for the way she weaves fairy tales and legends in her paintings as powerful symbols, something I am attempting to do (though with much less skill than Rego, I’m sure!) with Second Sun. And finally, the sculpture is a vital influence for this book: for example, the enigmatic figures produced by Antony Gormley (especially installations such as Event Horizon), and the smooth, rounded forms of Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures, will in different ways shape elements of the story.
I hope this post gives a sense of the importance of art to me as a person and specifically as a writer. I look forward to discovering new artists, exploring their unique perspectives and letting their work encourage me to push myself further with my writing.
Who are the artists who influence your life and work? Leave a comment and join the conversation.
We all love a memorable villain – they can elevate a story and challenge a hero to the utmost of their limits. Think about the unforgettable impact of characters such as Voldemort and Darth Vader; their deeds repel us, but we find them fascinating. The very best villains allow us to thrillingly explore those aspects of our personality we normally hide!
So, if you are writing fantasy fiction, how can you create a villain that will excite and grip your readers? I know from writing The Tree of Life trilogy and This Sacred Isle, it can be a fun and demanding challenge.
In this post I’ll look at three ways you can develop a worthy adversary for your hero.
Make your villain three-dimensional.
Never forget that your antagonist is a character, not just a convenient plot device. You must understand their motives and perspective. Everybody is the hero of their own story – however cruel and selfish our behaviour, we are all capable of holding an internal narrative that depicts our actions as noble and justified. If you make your villain evil for evil’s sake, they can come across as flat, one-note characters. Instead, strive to show what motivates their actions, what quirks of personality and experiences have driven their behaviour.
A fine example of this is from Tad Williams’s majestic series Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. The chief protagonist is the Storm King, who although in many ways represents the typical ‘Dark Lord’ actually transcends this trope. The Storm King does not act out of simple-minded evil, for his dark sorcery is a reaction to the suffering and near annihilation of his people (the Sithi) at the hands of the humans.
In my novel, This Sacred Isle, the main antagonist is Merlin – he is far removed from the wise, benevolent mentor of King Arthur. The slaughter of the Dark Ages and the suffering endured by his people has left him bitter and vengeful. Worn down by the cruelty of Man, he seeks to cleanse Britain of those he sees as usurpers. Yes, Merlin’s plan is merciless, but he believes, truly believes, he has no choice.
A well-written villain should explore the darker sides of our nature, sides we all possess; they should ask an implicit question of the reader: “If I had their power, how would I act?”
Make your villain a worthy foe
You must make sure your antagonist is as least as strong as your hero. They should possess the very real ability and intent to ruin the hero’s life, for it is through meeting this challenge that the hero will prove worthy. If your hero can easily overwhelm the villain, where is the tension? In the traditional story arc, the hero should through the course of the story develop the skills, allies and strength required to face and defeat the villain.
And villainy might not just be a simple test of physical strength or magical power. One of the ways an antagonist can threaten a hero is to try to exploit their weaknesses by tempting them to follow an evil path and betray their cause – the idea of a hero being corrupted is in some ways more chilling than any threat to their life. Think how close Luke Skywalker strayed towards the dark side. Consider how the One Ring all but consumed Frodo Baggins. The fact that such heroes were tempted by evil does not diminish their heroism – it humanises them, makes them relatable and actually elevates the bravery of their defiance. A villain should push the hero to the extreme, to the point where they question everything they have learned, everything they have believed. And it is at this moment, that true heroism is revealed.
Keep your hero and villain in contact
For the purposes of your story, your hero and villain need each other, are often defined by each other. If they are in close proximity during the tale, then it is obviously easier for them to interact. However, do not despair if your story dictates they should rarely meet. This is where you can make use of proxies. The best way to do this is to employ effective proxies, not just mindless henchmen or henchwomen – use characters who have been twisted by the antagonist. A strong example of this comes in the Lord of the Rings; Sauron never meets Frodo, but he exerts his power through, among others, the Ringwraiths and Saruman, who have all been corrupted by the Dark Lord and thus demonstrate his strength and evil intent. Such proxies test a hero’s strength, resolve and abilities, and help to develop a sense of escalating danger as the story moves to the climatic moments.
Who are your favourite villains? What makes them some memorable? Add a comment and join the conversation!
If you are interested in my fiction, you can download the first novel in the Tree of Life series, The Map of the Known World, for FREE from Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.