Writing a novel is a demanding exercise: it requires imagination, focus, and the stamina and enthusiasm to keep working over a long period. Moments of frustration, drudgery and disappointment are, unfortunately, all part of the process, but there is an even more difficult challenge to overcome – self-doubt.
Self-doubt is the voice that whispers: ‘your writing is not good enough – you’re not good enough.’
It can slow your progress, even sinking you towards writer’s block (which I’ve posted about previously).
To date, I’ve written four novels (and am drawing close to completion of a fifth) and numerous short stories; I’ve attended writing courses and have read many books on the subject; I’ve also advised and supported other writers on their writing and publication journeys. Despite this, I regularly feel a weighty amount of self-doubt when it comes to writing. The following is a selection of the doubts I often feel…
These characters are flat.
The story makes no sense.
Nobody is ever going to want to read this.
I’ve run out of ideas.
And there are many, many more…
At its worst, self-doubt stifles my creativity, making me hesitate rather than taking positive steps forward.
So, how can you overcome self-doubt? I’m not sure you can completely overcome it, but you can deal with it, and make sure it doesn’t stop you writing. Here are three tips:
Manage your expectations:
One advantage of self-doubt is that it challenges complacency: as a writer, it is healthy to have the ambition to keep improving your skills. However, there is a difference between ambition and expectation; the former is a positive, vital approach, the latter is a burden. An expectation can say ‘my writing must always be great’ - this sounds fair enough at face value, but dig a little deeper: is it reasonable to expect your writing to always be great? Of course it isn’t, but if you somehow believe this, then what is the inevitable outcome if your writing falls below par? You’ll feel like you are wasting your time, and that your work is worthless. This will only add further fuel to your inner self-critic, and this critic will do everything to convince you to stop writing.
Cut yourself free from expectations – instead, just focus on trying to get better, trying to improve.
Yes, it is tempting to compare yourself to other authors and when you read their books, their work will seem so polished, so impressive. But remember: their books have been fully developed, edited, proof-read – don’t compare them to your work in progress. So, keep reading as many books as possible – keep reading for inspiration and to learn more about different writing styles.
Just keep going:
When you’re hit by self-doubt, when your inner critic is at its most vocal, it is easy – and understandable – just to stop writing. But the best way to fight your self-doubt is to keep writing. Even if you’re writing badly, it is much better than not writing at all – if you stop writing, then your inner critic has won, and that can’t be right! Just write something, anything and see what happens. Don’t overthink your writing and never look for perfection. Just write for the joy of writing and you’ll create something, however small, that is worthwhile and this increase both your confidence and enjoyment.
And if you keep going, I promise you the self-doubt will pass - it will come back, of course, but take advantage of the times when you’re feeling more confident, and use these to help keep going through the tougher moments.
How do you try to overcome self-doubt as a writer? Add a comment and join the conversation.
I’ve always loved monsters. Scary or friendly, gigantic or tiny, ugly or beautiful, it doesn't matter - somehow monsters help make sense of the world. As a child, books such as The World of the Unknown: Monsters (a great primer for any child interested in monsters) and Mysteries, Monsters and Untold Secrets fed my fascination with supernatural and mythological creatures, a fascination that has stayed with me into adulthood. Monsters are a consistent element in my novels: the Tree of Life trilogy is peopled by a cast of monstrous beasts such as the giant Carnifex, the winged Kongamato and the dreaded Malign Sleeper, not to mention the Redeemers who haunt Elowen from the very start of the story. Likewise, dragons, the ogre-like Thyrs and the demon-dog Barghests threaten the heroes of my novel This Sacred Isle.
Monsters appear in the stories of every culture on Earth – we have been plagued by werewolves, centaurs, trolls, ogres, sea monsters and many more. They can manifest our deepest fears –or our deepest wishes; who has not longed to see a fiery dragon racing across the sky? In many mythologies monsters symbolised functions and aspects of humanity or the natural world. Monsters filled unexplored lands – as humans looked at blank spaces on their maps, of the lands beyond their borders, their imaginations created a fantastical menagerie. For example, in medieval times travellers’ tales spoke of dog-headed men and creatures with neither neck nor head, but with a face set into the middle of their chests. There were Amazons, satyrs, mermaids, Manticores – all portrayed in medieval art and literature.
The tradition portraying monsters in art continued – some powerful examples include Apollo and Python by J.M.W Turner, The Colossus by Francisco de Goya and the myriad of beings in The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. And this has continued into our own times, with monsters regular features of our books, films, television and games. Monsters might frighten, amuse or entertain, but they remain a constant feature of our imaginations.
In this post, I want to discuss three of my favourite monsters. Of course, choosing just three is very difficult but if I tried to write about all my favourite monsters, this post would be endless! Some honourable mentions must go to Dracula, Medusa, the Minotaur and of course Talos (the giant bronze automaton so brilliantly created for the film Jason and the Argonauts).
Balrog - from The Lord of the Rings
I’ve posted before about the influence J.R.R Tolkien has had upon my writing and how reading the Lord of the Rings for the first time had an enormous impact on me. Many strange beings – good and evil – populate Middle-earth, and one that always intrigued me most was the Balrog, who attacks the fellowship in the Mines of Moria in one of the most memorable scenes in the whole book.
In the complex mythology of Middle-earth, Balrog were once Maia spirits who were corrupted by Melkor / Morgoth into his evil service. The Balrog who appears in The Fellowship of the Ring was buried deep underground, unearthed accidentally by the dwarves to haunt the dark halls of Khazad-dûm.
Tolkien does not rush to reveal this terrible being – its presence is hinted long before its appearance. First the fellowship hears troubling sounds"
‘That was the sound of a hammer, or I have never heard one,’ said Gimli.
‘Yes,’ said Gandalf, ‘and I do not like it. It may have nothing to do with Peregrin’s foolish stone; but probably something has been disturbed that would have been better left quiet.’
And after their initial struggle with the Moria Orcs, Gandalf says:
‘Something dark as a cloud was blocking out all the light inside.’
All this tension would be wasted if the monster failed to match our fears, but here Tolkien succeeds. When the Balrog is finally seen, we truly see its strength, its horror.
‘Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it. In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left it held a whip of many thongs.’
Tolkien tells us enough to inspire fear and awe, but leaves space for the reader to imagine the gruesome details of the Balrog – everyone who reads the Lord of the Rings is left with their own impression of this monster of fire and darkness. I feel it was telling that in the run-up of the release of Peter Jackson’s superb film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, the appearance of the Balrog was one of the most discussed elements – fortunately, Jackson’s version did not disappoint (the heat haze when the Balrog roared was a stroke of genius), and was an undoubted highlight of the film, adding yet more awe and horror to Tolkien’s monstrous creation.
Grendel from Beowulf
Grendel appears in the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf. Composed sometime between 680 and 800AD, it tells of the adventures of the Scandinavian hero Beowulf as he battles three terrifying supernatural enemies: the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a mighty dragon.
Beowulf comes to the aid of Hrothgar, King of the Skyldings in Denmark. Hrothgar’s great hall Heorot has been abandoned for twelve years, following attacks by the monster Grendel, who strikes at night, crushing warriors to pieces and dragging their corpses back to the marshy wilderness. Grendel is provoked by the sounds of feasting from Heorot:
“Then the brutish demon who lived in darkness
impatiently endured a time of frustration:
day after day he heard the din of merry-making
inside the hall, and the sound of the harp
and the bard’s clear song.”
Beowulf confronts Grendel, tearing off the monster’s right arm in a furious struggle – the mortally wounded Grendel flees, returning to his marshy home to die. After Beowulf faces and slays Grendel's avenging mother, he becomes King of the Geats and reigns for fifty years, until he dies defeating a dragon that ravages his kingdom.
My first awareness of Grendel came as a child when reading The World of the Unknown: Monsters and I saw a vivid depiction of him – his anger, his rage, his madness.
I first read Beowulf at school and have read different versions since – including Seamus Heaney’s wonderful translation – and always find new pleasure and meaning in the story. My novel This Sacred Isle was in no small part inspired by Beowulf and the hero’s battles with the three monsters, and I am sure there are countless interpretations of what the character of Grendel means, but for me, Grendel symbolises fear of the unknown, of the wild, one of the most primal of all human fears. We live in an increasingly urbanised and connected world, but the fear lingers that in the remaining wild spaces, monstrous horrors still lurk…
The Pale Man from Pan's Labyrinth
The Pale Man is a haunting, unsettling presence in Guillermo del Toro's masterpiece of fantasy cinema: Pan’s Labyrinth.
The story takes place in Spain during the early Francoist period, five years after the bloody Spanish Civil War. Ofelia travels with her pregnant mother to live with her stepfather, Captain Vidal, who mercilessly hunts the Spanish Maquis who fight against the Francoist regime in the region. The narrative intertwines the brutal reality with a mythical underworld - Ofelia meets a faun who tells her she is the reincarnation of a lost princess of the underworld realm; the faun gives Ofelia a book and tells her she must complete three tasks to acquire immortality and return to her kingdom.
During her second task, Ofelia encounters the Pale Man: a child-eating monster, he is a hideous, cadaverous figure with eyeballs in the palms of his hands. He sits alone and motionless at a lavish banquet, though the plates and bowls of food are untouched. Although Ofelia is warned not to eat anything there, she takes grapes, awakening the Pale Man. He chases Ofelia, but she manages – just - to escape his murderous clutches.
The cruelty of fascist Captain Vidal, the Francoist state and a complicit Catholic Church are all embodied within the Pale Man: like these oppressive powers, the Pale Man devours the young, endlessly, piteously, a nightmarish vision of madness and lust. Monsters often reflect our worst human excesses, and in doing so form a warning we would do well to heed. I believe the Pale Man is fascism stripped of all pretence and illusion, stripped of all the flags, the uniforms, the speeches, the propaganda – all that remains is cruelty and monstrosity.
Which are your favourite monsters? Please leave a comment and join the conversation.
One of the joys of reading fantasy fiction is the opportunity to dive into and explore imaginary worlds. Well-crafted secondary worlds are not mere background – they enhance and enrich the story, and help shape the characters and themes. These worlds feel like living and breathing places, as if the author is using a real setting, describing lands and places they have actually visited. Such worlds seem to exist beyond the immediate narrative of the story; as a reader you can easily imagine other stories happening simultaneously, with other characters experiencing adventures and challenges of their own.
In this post I am going to discuss three of my favourite imaginary worlds – Middle-earth, Osten Ard and Gormenghast.
I have posted previously about how the work of J.R.R Tolkien inspires my writing, and of all the secondary worlds in fantasy fiction, Middle-earth is the most famous and the most imitated, inspiring settings across the genre of epic fantasy. Tolkien described his world:
“The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary. The action of the story takes place in the North-west of Middle-earth, equivalent in latitude to the coastline of Europe and the north shore of the Mediterranean.”
Middle-earth is complex and coherent, drawn from deep pools of mythology, language, history and geography. Tolkien’s academic grounding in Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Norse mythology helped shaped the landscape. The scale and depth of Tolkien’s creation is almost overwhelming: the characters, races, lands and legends. Readers have long pored over maps of Middle-earth, exploring places such as the peaceful, bucolic Shire, Rivendell, Gondor, Mirkwood and the bleak, desolate Mordor.
This is an ancient landscape, with a real sense of history; Middle-earth shows the effects of time, with the remnants of lost civilisations such as the Tower of Amon Sûl, the Barrow-downs and the Argonath. The natural world is always present – flora and fauna, the passing of the seasons, the night-sky, the sun and the moon. Despite the fantasy elements – the creatures, the sorcery – Middle-earth feels real and the characters endure real physical ordeals (hunger, thirst and exhaustion); the rules of nature are not ignored, and indeed serve to underpin and strengthen the fantastical parts of the story.
The story is deeply rooted in the landscape: Middle-earth is alive, an active character in Tolkien’s work. For example, when the Fellowship attempts the pass of Caradhras, they describe the mountain as though it was a character:
Gimli looked up and shook his head. ‘Caradhras has not forgiven us,’ he said. ‘He has more snow yet to fling at us, if we go on. The sooner we go back and down the better.’
And think of the forests of Middle-earth, such as Fangorn, Mirkwood and the Old Forest – these are not generic woodlands but places with unique characteristics, and perils, of their own, and each serves to challenge the characters in Tolkien’s stories. This is not an inert landscape, just a passive resource to be plundered – Middle-earth reflects Tolkien’s profound ecological concerns and his respect, even reverence, for the natural world. And Middle-earth is a threatened world, whether through the malice of Sauron or from Saruman’s uncontrollable lust for technology and power. The words of Saruman retain a chilling resonance to our own world’s problems:
"We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means."
Saruman ruins his environment to serve his own purpose – he is indifferent to the damage he creates, he sees only his own needs and desires. In our world of growing man-made environmental catastrophe, this is something we can easily recognise. Tolkien’s work may have a reputation at times for being cosy and inward-looking, but he warns against the folly of unfettered greed and ambition, and shows that exploitation of our natural world can lead only to our own suffering, even destruction.
Middle–earth forms part of the imaginative landscape of millions of readers, and continues to be an inspiration for writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians and environmentalists.
“Welcome stranger. The paths are treacherous today.”
I first encountered the world of Osten Ard in Tad Williams’s landmark epic fantasy series Memory, Sorrow and Thorn – an influential work described by Locus magazine as ‘The fantasy equivalent of War and Peace.’
Superficially, Osten Ard resembles many Tolkien-inspired secondary worlds, with its medieval milieu, mountains, forests and swamps, but the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series both uses and challenges many tropes and assumptions of the genre. There are few easy answers in Osten Ard, and do not expect simple separation into good and evil.
Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is a long read but never dry; written with wit, wisdom and intelligence, it is filled with excitement and memorable three-dimensional characters (Isgrimnur and Binabik are two of my favourites). And the world of Osten Ard – from the Wran to the Nornfells – plays an enormous role in the success of the story.
The depth and coherence of Osten Ard gives a strong foundation to the fantastical parts of the story, and in many cases reflects the psychology of the races and characters within. For me, the most fascinating part of Osten Ard is the fortress of the Hayholt. Doctor Morgenes describes it thus:
“The Hayholt and its predecessors – the older citadels that lie buried beneath us – have stood here since the memories of mankind.”
The Hayholt was formerly known as Asu'a, and was a city of the Sithi, the elf-like former rulers of Osten Ard, before it was besieged and captured by human invaders. The Hayholt is a haunted place, a place of secrets, with tunnels and caves beneath – it is not just a striking location, it symbolises suppressed human guilt over their genocidal war against the Sithi. This is typical of the complexity and ambiguity that lifts Osten Ard far above most secondary worlds in the genre.
If you are yet to discover Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, then I recommend you make it your next fantasy read – the paths might be treacherous, but once you start exploring Osten Ard, you’ll find it a rewarding and absorbing journey.
“Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumstances of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.”
Sometimes lazily compared to the Lord of the Rings, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books (consisting of Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone) resist easy description and classification: a fantasy, a scathing allegory of British life and society, a dystopian vision - whether the books are perhaps all these things or none, there can be no doubt they form a highly original work, dreamlike, layered and gothic.
Central to the story is the monstrous edifice of Gormenghast itself; the ancient towers and mighty walls create a dense oppressive atmosphere, and an ideal setting for the madness of the ritual-ridden society trapped within. In less skilful hands, the dark architecture – the Stone Lanes, the Tower of Flints, the Great Kitchen – could have submerged the story, but instead through Peake’s witty prose, the setting adds elements both surreal and darkly comic.
The story is peopled by a carnival of eccentrics, such as the demonic cook Swelter, the cadaverous Mr Flay, Lord Sepulchrave (76th Earl of Groan), morose, exhausted, depressed by the endless demands of his role, and of course the murderous kitchen-boy Steerpike, the main driver of the narrative who schemes and slaughters his way to power. With life orchestrated by each day’s instructions from the Book of Ritual, many of the characters inhabit the dank, damp corridors and rooms of Gormenghast like ghosts. Yet, although the inhabitants of Gormenghast are larger than life, they have only too human foibles and failings such as greed, vanity and ambition. It is a fantasy but one uncomfortably close to our own lives; if we choose to look we can see our own weaknesses reflected.
Despite the eccentricities (though this is not a fantasy world of magic and dragons), Gormenghast feels so real, so tangible. When reading these books, I can almost smell the damp and mould, shiver in the cold rooms and passages, cower under the crumbling walls and towers of stone. Gormenghast itself, huge and malevolent, seems to be rotting, sinking, reflecting the corruption and empty ritual of its society.
But while there is doubtless darkness in the Gormenghast books, a deep, suffocating darkness at times, one can also find kindness, humour, beauty and tragedy, all held together by Peake’s wit, psychological insight and vision.
Which are your favourite fantasy worlds? Please 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. Please see the following Kindle preview:
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!
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.
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.
In this second part of my three part blog series, I will be looking at what I learned about worldbuilding from writing my epic fantasy series - The Tree of Life.
In common with many epic fantasy trilogies, The Tree of Life is set within a secondary world. ‘Worldbuilding’ is often a key element of fantasy literature and a daunting challenge when about to embark upon a trilogy. Some authors create their secondary world in great detail (Tolkien obviously being the most famous example), inventing languages and histories, devising complex genealogies and drawing maps. There are stories where this is absolutely a valid approach, provided this background information does not swamp the actual book; it should only be added in small amounts to support the story.
And the other great danger is this: world-building is fun, great fun – you are playing god – but it should not be done at the expense of actually writing your book. It is easy to fall into this trap; when I began work on my trilogy I turned immediately to worldbuilding. This did not extend to the creation of new languages etc. though I certainly did compile maps to help orientate myself within the story, plotted the main cultures (with information on their worldview, customs, beliefs and technology) and I worked out an historical timeline listing major events and turning points. I enjoyed this process immensely and it is easy to absorb oneself within the joy of what Tolkien memorably called sub-creation. However, as I filled notebooks with ideas and notes, the realisation dawned that I had done little to actually progress the story – I was staying within the gilded cage of world-building, and although this work was necessary, I could not delay writing the book. I needed to get on with planning and writing my trilogy.
Building a consistent setting
Your fantastical setting can be as bold, imaginative and wild as you can possibly make it but it must possess an internal logic, it must be consistent. You are free to set whatever internal rules you like within your secondary world, but you must then adhere to them, otherwise your creation will seem random, fragmented. And the settings you create must impact on your characters (and on occasions, vice versa) – we are influenced by our environments and this must be reflected by your fictional cast in their attitudes and behaviour.
So, how to achieve this? Well, there are as many techniques as there writers, but for me, I always wanted my fictional world to echo our world, and decided early on that all the lands within the book should resonant with certain times and places in our history. As I think there are links and shared symbols between cultures in our world – however distant – I felt that drawing on real time periods and civilisations would give my setting stronger foundations, hinting at connections between the different realms and peoples. This helps create the sense that there is consistency in the world, that the various cultures have been shaped, for both good and ill, by contact with others.
For example, Helagan, where the hero of the trilogy, Elowen Aubyn, lives and much of the action of The Map of the Known World takes place, is heavily influenced by early 17th century England, with a comparable level of technology and social structure. Why did I choose this period? I wanted the story to take place in a world on the cusp of modernity, with the first shoots of industrialisation appearing and the power of magic, of the Eldar races, beginning to fade – this would underpin much of the conflict and tension within the story.
And one last point in achieving a consistent setting: I would leave areas of your invented world unvisited and unexplored. However big and sprawling your trilogy, is it really plausible that your narrative will venture into every corner of the world? Much better to leave whole regions to the imagination of the reader – make reference to those unexplored lands (for example, in The Map of the Known World I made mentioned to the Firelands, a mining, proto-industrial part of Helagan, but did not bring the characters there), but consider them as the sort of references we make every day of our lives to places we know about but are highly unlikely to visit. This somehow feels more real, suggesting that the world you have created exists beyond the limits of your specific story.
Know your world - research
If you want your world-building to be convincing, then you have to know your world, and in my case, to know my world meant I had to research.
To use again the example of Elowen’s homeland of Helagan, I researched early modern England in great detail and used this information to establish features such as clothes, food and weapons – I believe this gives the world a more authentic feel. Where possible, I visited locations analogous to those I was creating in the book, such as St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall and Wastwater in Cumbria, and this allowed me to bring a greater sense of place to my descriptions of the settings. I continued this approach when I wrote my latest novel, This Sacred Isle, a book in which a sense of place was of fundamental importance.
I developed other cultures within the trilogy in a similar manner, using, for example, researching in detail elements of medieval Russian, Mongol, Japanese, Ancient Greek and Assyrian history. I read books on these and other subjects, and visited many museums and galleries to immerse myself in the art and artefacts of these people and time periods. Adding specific details gives more authenticity to the secondary world and strengthens the credibility of the cultures being described, as it hints at their history in artistic, religious and technological terms.
Of course, I was writing a fantasy novel, not an historical novel, so I allowed myself significant latitude to twist my invented cultures into different directions, but I always used my research as the sound bedrock on which to build. And as much as I enjoyed researching the books (I love visiting museums and reading interesting non-fiction!), I was careful not allow research to eat all of my available writing time. For all the research in the world means nothing if the story itself remains unwritten…
Make the setting personal
One last thing to remember: the world you create is your world. Of course, you should bring into that world a host of factual information drawn from your research, but for your creation to really resonant, it has to be meaningful to you. Think about the great secondary worlds created in fantasy literature - such as J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, Stephen Donaldson's The Land and J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World; these worlds reflect the passions and concerns of their authors in profound ways.
For my Tree of Life trilogy, I wanted to explore issues relating to prejudice, abuse of power and the destruction of the natural world – these issues shaped my secondary world as well as the plot and the characters. Think about the themes and issues that inspire you, and allow these to drive how you design your world.
Takeaway tip: Worldbuilding is important but do not concentrate on this at the expense of getting your books written. And make sure your invented world is consistent and feels authentic – where possible research real world cultures etc. that echo your creation.
The first part of this blog series can be read here.
Look out for the third part of the series, coming soon.
The Tree of Life trilogy is now available as an ebook boxset for just £1.99 / $2.40 (each of the volumes is also available individually in both paperback and ebook format). See links and a preview below:
Are you working on a trilogy or series? How are you building your secondary world? Add a comment and join the conversation.
It is easy for authors to feel isolated - all those long lonely hours spent at the keyboard are not conducive to an active social life! But contact with, and support from, other authors is important, so how can we achieve this? One of the best ways is to join an online community, where you can share ideas, writing experience and motivate each other to keep going when the writing gets tough.
The best online community I have come across is SFF Chronicles, which is a Science Fiction and Fantasy Community. Through the forum I have been able to connect with other authors and readers, and as well as finding support and encouragement, there are also a host of topics covering books, films, games, politics etc. If you are an indie author writing SF / Fantasy books, (or just a fan of the genre), I strongly recommend joining this community - from my own personal experience, when I published my most recent book, This Sacred Isle, the SFF Chronicles community were very supportive; a nice morale boost at a tricky time!
So, I am very pleased that author Brian G. Turner, the founder of SFF Chronicles, has kindly agreed to an interview discussing the community and his own writing.
What motivated you to start SFF Chronicles?
It was originally a support forum for my writing. However, by 2003 I realised that I wasn't going to be published any time soon, so decided to broaden the forums remit - and also host it separately.
There's been a huge amount of work behind the scenes over the years. Trying to make a success of a forum is not for the faint-hearted. I've seen plenty die-off because the owners couldn't retain an interest, allow for the time needed for maintenance, or handle technical problems.
How can communities such as SFF Chronicles help indie authors?
The most surprising way is the professional contacts that can be made - for examples, editors, artists, and beta-readers.
There's also the ability to get critical feedback on your writing - I've had so many useful and insightful comments over the years. By that I'm not talking about plot, character, and spelling / grammar, but more serious technical points of POV use, emotional development arcs, and structure, for example.
Then there's the ability to connect with readers once finally published. Frankly, without the forums, I would struggle to reach readers when the marketplace is so flooded with new books.
What have you found to be the most rewarding aspect of running SFF Chronicles?
Probably the social aspect in meeting people with similar interests. Writing is a solitary and often lonely job. I don't mind that, but the chrons forums helps provide a social outlet I would not easily have.
I also don't know many people in real life who read regularly - let alone in the genres I'm interested in. So it's great to be able to connect with other people in the forums to talk books, whether it's favourites, ones that I'm reading, or others that I've read.
I also enjoy seeing links to interesting stories, features, or articles. I have a big interest in history, and so do some of our members. It means I find information I wouldn't easily come across.
You’ve recently published Gathering, the first book in your Chronicles of Empire series – what can readers expect from the novel?
The basic premise is that it's an epic fantasy - but it has far more of an historical feel than most. There's also a major science-fiction element to the plot, which is revealed in the opening chapter.
After that, the story develops with what appears to be a fairly familiar and traditional band of adventurers.
However, not long after that, I start work on challenging the tropes, stereotypes, and expectations that a reader might normally expect of such a book.
By the end of the story, the reader should be left feeling that they've read an original and entertaining story, that defies easy comparison with other novels.
You've developed a whole fantasy world for Gathering – what kind of research did you carry out?
I came up with the idea for the series in the 1990's, but I wanted a sense of historical detail to make it feel more authentic. So I began researching as much as I could about ancient and mediaeval history. I haven't stopped.
So anyone who picks up Gathering can easily find all sorts of references to Ancient Rome, Byzantium, and Mediaeval Northern Europe. However, the details are in the living history rather than political history.
So when the reader enters the city of Corianth with the characters - the setting for most of the book - they will be experiencing something analogous to what a Mediterranean city might have felt like in Mediaeval times.
When will the next book in the Chronicles of Empire series be published?
I'm aiming for a Dec 2018 publishing date. However, it's very difficult to write a true multi-character story.
Most novels feature a single protagonist, perhaps with a love interest and best friend and a couple of supporting points of view. The result is that the main character goes from point A to point B, then C, etc. It's a simple and linear progression.
With multiple characters, while one is going from A to B, another is going from A to C, another from B to D, etc., and all the time their stories are intersecting and impacting each other. It makes it much more challenging to write. I can totally appreciate why George R R Martin takes so long with his epic series - then again, he has a lot more characters!
Thank you, Brian.
To find out more about Chronicles of Empire, go to: http://www.chroniclesofempire.com/
And there is a Chronicles of Empire discussion page at: https://www.sffchronicles.com/forum/brian-g-turner/