Novel Update

I haven’t posted much about my writing recently but I have a little good news to share about my novel for those following my progress: I finally finished the novel’s outline last week and as I couldn’t sleep last night as it was so hot in Sydney, at about 5:30 am I sat down and officially started on the first full draft of my novel. So it’s finally getting there.

To be honest I was so tired that I only managed a few lines but after more than two years planning it and all the backstory, it feels great to have finally started on it properly and I’m very excited with how it’s turning out. Can’t wait to get stuck into it later tonight.

As you can see in the photo I’ve given it the working title of Hallowden; at this stage I think it will probably be the final title as well, although that might change with time. Hallowden is the name of an ancient city where the majority of the novel is set and while I considered some other titles as well, in the end I thought it was the most suitable title as the city defines much of the novel. It also adds a bit of mystery to it that I like as well.

So what’s the novel about? Well, without giving too much away, the novel is about a man who returns to his home in Hallowden after fighting in a distant war, only to find that during his absence the ancient city has been taken over by extremists and is being torn apart by civil war. In the midst of the civil war, his lover has disappeared, feared killed in a brutal terrorist attack, and he must descend into Hallowden’s underworld to find the truth of what’s happened to her, to Hallowden, and to find her if she’s still alive.

The novel is set on an alternate Earth where magic and science are the same and it’s essentially a modern fable about religious extremism and the cost of war. It’s a bit of an adventure and a bittersweet love story as well… I guess I’m just trying to write the kind of novel I’d like to read and hopefully it will turn out well.

I hope to have this first draft (basically a rough draft without any dialogue or exposition) finished in about a month, then will start on the second (main) draft which will probably take about three or four months to write. There’ll probably be some revisions after that as well but with luck, hopefully I’ll have the whole thing finished in about six months.

Now that I’ve started I’ll be posting an update on my progress about once a fortnight and I’m also currently writing a short story set in the same world which I will post sometime in the next few weeks. If I have time I might also write a few other stories to help explore the novel’s backstory as well but I’ll see how I go first.

As far as my other writing goes, I’ve also almost finished a new poem which I’ve been working on for some time now and hope to post shortly. It’s a bit different to my normal poetry and I’m quite happy with it so far.

I’ve also been thinking about putting together an ebook collection of some of my previous works as a few people have suggested it to me now. The main reason I haven’t before is that I don’t think I own the copyrights to some of my published stories, so I’ll have to sort through my other stories and see if they’re of a high enough standard. The full novella version of The Life Artist might be an option… we’ll see.

I’m also still working on restoring my great-great grandfather Isaac’s memoir. I have a version of it scanned but the quality isn’t very good, so I need to type it by hand, which is a little time-consuming at the moment. I’m not sure when it will be finished but if anyone wants to read it in the meantime, I can send them the scanned copy. Just let me know.

In any case that’s where I’m up to with my writing at the moment. The novel’s coming along well and it feels great to finally be working on the first draft. I’ll have a bit more to reveal about the story once the draft’s finished as well.

Thank you to everyone who’s left comments or sent me emails recently as well. I haven’t had time to reply yet but I’ll be answering them properly tonight. ~ CJ.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I stumbled across The Magicians by accident a couple of weeks ago. I’d not read any of Lev Grossman’s work before but there was something about The Magicians that grabbed my attention. It was partly the cover, a haunting image of a tree surrounded by fog, its leaves scattered like tears across a small lake, that caught my interest. Likewise, something about the description reminded me of a grown-up version of Narnia, an adult fantasy mixing the beloved worlds of Lewis with the sex, angst and conflict of real, everyday life. With The Magicians Grossman tries to reinvent modern fantasy for adults and it’s a novel unlike any I’ve read.

The Magicians begins with Quentin Coldwater, a teenager who’s just finished high school with his friends James and Julia. Unsure of what he wants to do with his life and pining for Julia, his unrequited love, Quentin lives in a near-constant melancholy; the only relief he finds is in a series of novels from his childhood about the magical world of Fillory. He dreams of living in Fillory and longs for it to be real, believing it would give purpose and meaning to his otherwise unremarkable life.

When Quentin discovers and is admitted to Brakebills, a college in upstate New York that teaches its students how to use and control magic, it seems that his dream is about to come true. But studying magic is nothing like he imagined. It’s tedious, arduous work and his fellow students are competitive and hostile. Suddenly Quentin is no longer the smartest in his class and finds himself struggling to understand his full potential. His depression returns even as he begins to fall in love with Alice, one of his few friends at Brakebills.

Eventually, after five long years, Quentin and Alice graduate from Brakebills. They move in with a few other graduates from Brakebills and Quentin soon falls into a familiar pattern, losing himself in a world of drugs, parties and alcohol. It begins to drive a wedge between them, with Quentin seemingly content to live a life of mediocrity, while Alice continues to learn about magic.

When another graduate of Brakebills reveals that he has found Fillory — a real place connected to a whole nexus of other worlds — Quentin’s listlessness lifts again. This is what he’s been waiting for; what he’s always wanted. Together the magicians journey to Fillory but soon find that everything is different. The real Fillory is nothing like the world they know from the stories, more nightmare than dream. Together they pledge to set things right in Fillory… but as their relationships begin to fall apart around them, they realise their quest will not only reveal the truth about Fillory but about themselves as well.

I’ve been thinking about The Magicians since I finished it last week and I’m still not completely sure how I feel about it. On the one hand there’s no doubt that it’s a brilliant, literate reimagining of modern fantasy. But on the other, there’s nothing about the novel that feels particularly magical or wondrous. That’s because, when you get to the heart of it, The Magicians isn’t a fantasy novel at all, not really, and it’s hard to know how to judge it.

Rather, The Magicians is a novel about fantasy. It’s an examination of the genre; it takes classic themes — like magic, strange creatures, fantastical worlds — and in dissecting them and putting them back together asks the question, what if magic were real? How would we use it? Would we value the gift or take it for granted? It’s a serious, adult novel that uses magic to explore the darker side of human nature and particularly the danger of apathy.

As such, what really stands out about the novel for me is the characters. It’s not a particularly long novel but all of the characters feel detailed and real. They’re real people, complete with hopes, dreams, flaws, jealousies… they’re magicians capable of great feats, yes, but they’re ordinary and imperfect and that’s what makes them compelling. Alice in particular fascinated me; brilliant yet shy, she seemed almost autistic at times, capable of great power but never really understanding it.

Quentin on the other hand is a study in contrasts. He is both a dreamer and a pessimist, a young man who finds himself with a gift he has always wanted, only to squander it when he realises it’s not what he thought it would be. His moods range wildly from joy to despair and he keeps making all of the wrong decisions again and again, so much so that as a reader you just want to grab him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. But Quentin can’t help it. He’s our eyes into this world and represents our own expectations of magic; in a way we are Quentin and it’s hard to imagine that we’d react any differently.

Quentin is the main protagonist but it’s wrong to call him the hero of the story; there are no real heroes in The Magicians, just people. Everything Quentin does is because he longs to escape from his life but each time he just makes things worse and in the end that’s what The Magicians is really about — learning to accept reality, to make the most of what you have. It’s a lesson Quentin just can’t seem to learn and it costs him everything.

If there’s one problem I have with The Magicians, though, it’s that while all of the characters feel well developed, none of them are particularly likeable. With the possible exception of Alice they’re all bitter, competitive, narcissistic brats; Quentin in particular whines through most of the novel and it becomes tiring. None of the characters seem aware of the destruction they cause around them and while that’s the point, it makes it difficult to care what happens to them or to really relate to them.

Likewise, one of the other problems with The Magicians is that while it is a reinvention of modern fantasy, none of the ideas in the novel themselves are particularly original. Of course, they’re not meant to be; the story is meant to be reminiscent of classic fantasy motifs, making us look at them with new, adult eyes. For the most part that works and Grossman’s world succeeds in feeling familiar but different, but the setting still feels a little clichéd at times, particularly with some of the similarities between Narnia and Fillory.

At times I also felt that Grossman went a little too far in trying to make magic seem so ordinary in the story. Some of the scenes, particularly at Brakebills, feel like they’re included for no other reason than to show how hard it is to use magic in Grossman’s world (more like learning a science than a skill). I know that’s the point, to make it more realistic, but sometimes it just seems to take the magic out of, well, magic. On the other hand, some of the other magical scenes are captivating. There’s one scene in particular where Quentin watches the statue of a bird that a student had tried to bring to life; the spell had failed halfway through and the statue, thinking it’s alive, keeps trying to fly. But it’s too heavy and falls, only to get up and try again and again. It was little more than a paragraph but it’s haunting and stayed with me for the rest of the novel.

My only other real gripe with the novel is that while it’s well written, some of the dialogue feels a little stilted and unrealistic. Secondary characters like Eliot, meant to sound arrogant and supercilious, instead sound overly dramatic and some of the interaction between characters doesn’t ring true, particularly when they’re in larger groups. It’s a stark contrast to Grossman’s prose, which for the most part is excellent; there’s a subtle, rhythmic flow to much of his writing and some of his passages and descriptions are breathtaking.

Overall I’m still not really sure how I feel about The Magicians. I enjoyed it a great deal but at the same time I find it a difficult book to judge. As an idea and a reimagining of modern fantasy, it’s fascinating, but as a novel it’s not perfect by any means and is held back (ironically) by some rather mundane flaws.

Perhaps in the end The Magicians is a little too ambitious for its own good but in a market flooded with Lord of the Rings, Twilight and Harry Potter rip-offs, it still feels refreshingly different. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent novel and as a novel that makes you think about the nature of fantasy and reality in our own lives as well, it’s a resounding success.

Fantasy fans and general readers wanting something a little different will love it. Highly recommended.

Score:

Reading (black and white photo)

August Reading List

I realised something this week: I’m so not a winter person. This has been one of the coldest winters in Sydney for years and I’m sitting here with a tea and four blankets as I’m writing this, trying to nurse a nasty cold. I don’t want to whine but I’m really looking forward to spring next month.

One of the things I like about winter, though, is that it’s perfect reading weather. It’s absolutely freezing at the moment but there’s nothing better than curling up in bed with a good book on a cold day and letting the story carry you somewhere far, far away. I think I’ve read more in the last two months than during the rest of the year combined.

Lately I’ve been working my way through the nominees for this year’s Hugo Awards. The awards are being held in Melbourne this year, which means I was able to vote for the first time. It’s a good list this year too. I voted for Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock in the end; I loved how fun and inventive it was but any of the nominees could win really. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl was the only one I couldn’t get to before the deadline; I’ll be reading that next.

I’m reading Nam Le’s The Boat at the moment and these are some of the other books I plan to read soon as well. The one I’m looking forward to the most is The Girl Who Played With Fire. I loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and I finally managed to get the first sequel the other day. Can’t wait to get stuck into it. It seems like everyone’s reading Larsson’s trilogy at the moment; it’s like The Da Vinci Code all over again. Except Larsson’s books are well written. And, you know, good.

I’ll post some reviews once I’ve finished them. I’ve been wanting to try out my new camera as well, so who knows, I might even do a couple of video reviews.

So what are you reading at the moment?

The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi

First Impressions: Bacigalupi’s short fiction has taken the SF world by storm in recent years. This is his first novel, about genetic engineering and a post-oil future where global corporations vie for the world’s remaining resources. Looks very promising.

The Girl Who Played with Fire
Stieg Larsson

First Impressions: Lisbeth Salander finds herself accused of murder and goes on the run while Mikael Blomkvist tries to clear her of the crime. Dragon Tattoo was the best thriller I’ve read in years; if this one’s even half as good as the first, I’ll be very happy.

The Forgotten Garden
Kate Morton

First Impressions: A young woman’s journey to find the truth about her grandmother’s life. It seems a little too reminiscent of The Secret Garden at times for me, at least in tone. I loved Morton’s The Shifting Fog, though, so maybe it’ll surprise me.

The Book of Illusions
Paul Auster

First Impressions: I’m not that familiar with Paul Auster, although he seems to really divide readers. Illusions is about a man who investigates the life of a silent movie star who disappeared in the 1920s, only to find similarities with his own life. Sounds interesting.

The Art of Travel
Alain de Botton

First Impressions: I’ve not read de Botton before but a friend recommended this to me recently. de Botton explores the nature of travel (why we travel, what we get out of it, etc.) through philosophy, art and other musings. Sounds like just my cup of tea.

The Copper Bracelet
Jeffrey Deaver (et al)

First Impressions: A sequel to The Chopin Manuscript, this is a collaborative audionovel written by 16 writers including Jeffrey Deaver, Lisa Scottoline and Lee Child. The Chopin Manuscript didn’t quite work but I like the idea of a collaborative novel. Hopefully this is more successful.

Pen

Sleepless: A Micronovel

“If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
– Toni Morrison.

I’ve always loved that quote. It’s so typical of Toni Morrison; so simple, and yet it captures the process perfectly. Every time I read it, it reminds me of why I wanted to write in the first place.

I don’t think I’ve ever really talked about the first story I wrote. It was a thriller called School Terror and I was fourteen when I wrote it. Actually, it wasn’t quite my first story; I’d written a few other things when I was younger, including my very first story when I was seven. But School Terror was the first time I really tried to write something original, and I was quite proud of it.

Basically the story was about a prestigious school which was overrun by terrorists trying to take the students hostage; a girl, Mara, and her teacher escape and take on the terrorists one by one. If you think of 24 mixed with teenage angst, you’ll probably get an idea of what it was supposed to be like. The story was probably fuelled by my frustrations about school at the time but I thought it was kind of a cool idea just the same. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read about a sassy sixteen year old and her curmudgeonly history teacher, taking on a band of vicious terrorists?

To be honest, looking back, it was pretty bad. My spelling and grammar were atrocious and it was 1998; I was fourteen – I knew nothing about writing, let alone terrorism! But I’m still quite fond of that story. I think writing it was the moment I knew I really wanted to be a writer. It was the first time I’d tried to tell my own story, something original and uniquely my own, and it was the kind of story I’d want to read myself. Even now, twelve years later, that’s still why I write: to tell stories I’d want to read. I think if you ever start writing for any other reason, it’s time to put down your pen.

I haven’t posted an update on my writing in a while but it’s been going well over the last couple of months. I’ve got a lot further with my novel; most of the storyline is plotted now and I’m starting to flesh out the back-story before I start on a first draft. In the meantime I’m writing a couple of short stories which should be finished in the next month or so (but don’t hold me to it!). One of them is a modern fable about beauty and ageing, a slightly different take on an old theme.

I’m also starting a new project tomorrow which I’m very excited about. I’m announcing it now but it’s actually been something of an open secret for the last few weeks, so you might already know about it if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

So what is the project? Basically I want to try something a little different. From tomorrow I’m going to be publishing a micronovel via Twitter and Facebook. It’s called Sleepless, a story I’ve been developing for a couple of years now and it’s really an experiment as much as a novel.

The idea is that I want to try to write a story specifically for social media like Twitter and Facebook. A lot of writers have published works on Twitter and Facebook before so the idea is nothing new, but personally I think they’ve been going about it the wrong way. Twitter and Facebook are excellent tools for writers but they weren’t meant to be used like that; publishing a short story – let alone a full novel – takes thousands of updates. It’s just not practical and it becomes confusing and hard to follow.

The idea of building a community is also something that is essential to social media but many writers seem to misuse it. They don’t engage their community; they have a one-way dialogue with their readers, rather than an ongoing conversation. But the feedback and interaction that a social community provides is one of its biggest strengths and I think that should be embraced.

What I’m getting at is that I think social media should be treated as a new format entirely, with different rules. Writers shouldn’t be treating Twitter and Facebook as another publishing platform; rather they should be writing stories for Twitter and Facebook and posting them live, so readers can follow and share in the experience of creating a work.

Likewise the way writers approach stories should be different. Many people access Twitter and Facebook on their phones and they’re only online for a few minutes at a time. Expecting them to sit and read through large chunks of text is unrealistic. Instead I think writers need to find a new way of telling stories for that format by condensing their work.

That’s what I want to do with the micronovel. The idea of a micronovel is to tell the same story as an ordinary novel but in a condensed fashion. It doesn’t mean turning a novel into a short story or losing the structure of a novel. Rather it’s an exercise in brevity, where you find new ways to tell the story and explore the characters in fewer words. The finished product is about the length of a novella but in the end should still feel like you’ve read a whole novel.

Micronovels are something that more and more writers are experimenting with, particularly as Twitter and internet-capable phones have grown in popularity. They’re designed to be easy to read on mobiles and in many ways they’re inspired by Japanese mobile novels (keitai shousetsu), which are incredibly popular in Japan. Some people think it’s the future of storytelling, particularly for a generation used to so many distractions.

Personally I see micronovels and microfiction as more of an interesting experiment, something which could help to push the boundaries of fiction, particularly online. Certain kinds of stories could suit the format well, particularly minimalist fiction and stream of consciousness, and that’s kind of what I want to do with Sleepless.

I’ve talked about the story itself a little before. It’s about Jake Morgan, a man who wakes from a coma after almost twelve years. But the world he finds himself in is very different, a post-9/11 world, and his wife Rachel has remarried – and he has a son. As he begins to adapt to his new environment, Jake begins to form a relationship with his son. But he keeps wondering if he’s still the same man he was before.

At its heart the story is about the relationship between Jake and his son but it’s also a sad love story as Jake remembers his relationship with Rachel in flashbacks. It’s also a way of looking at how much the world has changed in the last ten years by seeing it through Jake’s eyes.

I’d always planned to write Sleepless as a short novel and I still do, but I think this is a good way of telling a version of the story now while it’s still fresh in my mind. The story should lend itself quite well to the format, particularly as a lot of it is told in flashbacks.

I’ll be starting it tomorrow and I’ll try to update it when I have a free moment; when I’m out on my phone or at home, etc. I imagine some errors will get through and it’ll probably go in new directions I hadn’t planned (as all stories do), but it should feel very organic and I think it’s a great opportunity for readers to see how a story evolves as its written.

If you’d like to read the story you can follow it on Facebook and on Twitter. I’ll also post it on my blog once it’s finished. What I’d like is to build up a small community as that interaction is part of the experiment as well, to see how it helps to shape the novel. So I hope you can follow along. And if you know anyone else who might be interested, it’d be great if you could let them know as well.

But to be honest, it’s an experiment and I have no idea how it’s going to go. If it works then it could be great… or it could just all fall apart! Either way it should be interesting. And I think that’s kind of the attraction for me as well, the idea of trying something new and different… it’s exciting.

It reminds me again of Toni Morrison’s quote and when I was writing my first story. I had no idea what I was doing but I knew I had a story I wanted to tell, and so I found my way. It was exciting; it made me want to write every spare moment I had, and that’s how I feel about this story too.

As a writer that’s what it’s all about for me… that feeling is the reason I write. So I think that’s a good sign. Anything else that comes from it is just a bonus.

I’ll be starting Sleepless tomorrow. I hope you enjoy it. Wish me luck. ;-)