A first draft, at last

Pictish symbols - originals from pictishstones.org.uk

A couple of days ago, I completed the first draft of my latest book, The Dragon on the Tower. It’s been a long process – I started the book on the 19th of October last year, so it’s taken me about five and a half months, which is quite a long time for a short 32,500-word book – and a lot has happened in those five months.

For a start, I finished the book in a different home to the one in which I started it. Moving after nearly 20 years in the same place, with all its accumulation of mountains of stuff, has been extremely hard work, work that hasn’t finished yet, and has left little time for writing. The reason we were able to put down a deposit on this flat was that my Dad left me some money – he passed away at the end of October, and that wasn’t easy to deal with either. I was only a few thousand words into the book when I got the phone call from my Mum that both came as a complete surprise and at the same time I’d been expecting for years, and I don’t think I managed to sit myself down at my laptop and open the manuscript for nearly a month after that.

But I did eventually carry on, even incorporating a fairy story about a magic tree that my Dad wrote about 40 years ago, and now the first draft is complete. It’s a story of ancient Scotland, set on the Tarbat Ness peninsula at the end of the eighth century AD. I based a lot of the historical detail on the archaeological dig carried out by Martin Carver and documented in his (excellent and readable) book Portmahomack: Monastery of the Picts.

Portmahomack: Monastery of the Picts

We used to live at Tarbat Ness, where my dad was a lightkeeper at Tarbat Ness Lighthouse. Writing the book brought back a lot of memories of the place, and made me want to go back and visit it sometime.

I don’t remember any dragons being there, but maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough.

Up to my neck in books

We’ve just moved into a new flat, after nearly twenty years in our previous home. It turns out that you can acquire an awful lot of books in twenty years, so for the past month I’ve been trying to thin out the herd – I’ve taken loads of books into the office to let people pick through them, and the unwanted ones are going to charity shops.

It’s hard, though. I found a box of my scifi books from my teens – Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, and oh so many Robert Silverbergs – and it was a difficult decision to get rid of most of them. Realistically, though, I’d never read them ever again, so they’d just be taking up space.

It was great to find my favourite John Brunner books, though – Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, The Shockwave Rider, The Traveller in Black – I’m definitely hanging onto those. Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness – there’s no way I’m getting rid of that. I’ve found three or four copies of Frank Herbert’s Dune so I’m keeping one and getting rid of the others – don’t think I’ll bother holding onto the sequels, though. I won’t get rid of Herbert’s The Dosadi Experiment, either.

So while I’m getting rid of a huge number of books, I’m looking at it this way – I’m boiling down my collection to a thick glossy reduction of rich literary goodness.

There are some authors who don’t go anywhere near the charity shop pile. Iain Banks. Haruki Murakami. John Crowley. Alasdair Gray. (Although actually I did give away one book of Gray’s short stories to a friend – only because I had all the stories in a collected volume. And we do have some duplicates of Iain Banks books where my girlfriend had her own copies – unless they’ve been signed, we’re giving those away too.)

But lately I’ve spend more time unpacking and sorting and carrying books than reading. I managed to finish David Barnett’s Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, which I thoroughly enjoyed – if you like steampunk, airships, vampires or just good old-fashioned adventure, I highly recommend it. If I had time I’d write a review, but time is something in very short supply at the moment. Since then I’ve been reading Nic Pizzolatto’s Galveston – the novel by the man who wrote and produced the recent stunning TV show True Detective.

As for writing, though, I’ve had very little opportunity. I don’t have anywhere set up in the new flat where I can sit and work on my laptop for any length of time, so the last bit of work I did on The Dragon on the Tower was a few hundred words on March 6th, World Book Day. I’ve still got most of the last act to write before I have a first draft complete, but I hope to get onto it again in the next month or so.

In the meantime, I’ve got more books to unpack and sort through.

Everything is amazing

The comedian Louis CK has a routine about how everything is amazing, and no-one is happy. It’s a rant about how quickly we become used to the technological marvels that permeate our society, and how quickly we take them for granted. When the high-speed internet on our long-distance flight goes wrong, our sense of entitlement to something that we didn’t even know existed 10 minutes before kicks in.

Everything is amazing, and no-one’s happy.

Since hearing that routine, I’ve tried to keep an eye out for these amazing moments that we take for granted. When we flew to Australia to watch the Ashes in December 2010, and it took a gruelling 24 hours, I thought about the sea voyages that the cricket teams of the 1900s took between Australia and England – voyages that took well over a month. When I was struggling with the 3G signal on my phone in Melbourne, I thought about how I was using a pocket-sized computer to access a world-wide information network that was reaching out to the other side of the planet to programme in a recording on my satellite TV box of the highlights of the match that I’d just watched in Melbourne. If it took a couple of attempts, so be it!

Today’s “everything’s amazing” moment came when I was on the bus coming back from doing a bit of shopping in the centre of Leicester. The bus got stuck in traffic just outside the Highcross shopping centre for about 20 minutes, so I pulled out my phone, fired up the Kindle app, downloaded the book I’m currently reading (The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes) and carried on reading from where I’d left off the previous evening – my Kindle had uploaded my latest page read to Amazon’s servers, so I didn’t even have to flick through to find my place: the book automatically opened right where I’d left it.

It was a good reminder for me of the benefits of ebooks at a time when I’m having to give away dozens upon dozens of my old paper books. It’s been a bit of a wrench at times, made slightly more bearable when people in the office have taken them off my hands – it feels less like I’m abandoning my books if I’ve found them a new home.

But as amazing as ebooks are, my book giveaway has highlighted one way in which they’re completely lacking – when I’ve finished with a paper book, when I need to make some space, I can give it to someone else, and that person can enjoy it, and perhaps pass it on to someone else. You can’t do that with an ebook. You can’t say “this ebook is amazing, here, read it” to a friend.

That’s right. Ebooks are amazing, and I’m still not happy. Sorry, Louis.

Priorities

The last couple of weeks have been very busy. After twenty years of living in rented accommodation, we’ve put down a deposit on a new flat and are currently going through all the admin and paperwork required to apply for a mortgage. Most people of my generation went through this decades ago, but for a variety of reasons we never took the plunge into buying our own place until now – reasons mostly revolving around a series of jobs I had that teetered on the edge of redundancy for years. Thinking that I might have to move away if I got another job, I’d prioritised mobility over security.

Now, though, I’ve got a stable job in a company that’s doing fine, and I’m not getting any younger. We were going to have to move at some point anyway, as our current rented flat is in need of a serious amount of renovation and modernisation that the landlord doesn’t seem very interested in, so when the opportunity arose to look at buying a new-build flat, we took it.

If we’d bought a flat when I first started work, we could have had the mortgage almost paid off by now…

But now the real work begins. The new flat is a similar size to our current one, but lacks any storage space. In addition, we want to make use of the second bedroom as a study/library, rather than a store-room filled with stacks of boxes of books like we have now. This means we have to have a clear-out.

Step one is thinning out the herd of DVDs. I don’t have the emotional attachment to films that I do to books, so I thought this would be the easier job. So far I’ve got rid of a couple of hundred DVDs – some to online “send us your stuff and we’ll give you £0.14 a disc” companies, and some to colleagues in the office. I used to have a huge anime collection – whole seasons of Ghost in the Shell, Fullmetal Alchemist, Neon Genesis Evangelion and so on – and I decided I’d feel better about giving them up if they went to a good home.

Even trying to be completely ruthless, there are some DVDs that I just can’t bring myself to part with. Cowboy Bebop. Haruhi Suzumiya. Air. I consider Haibane Renmei to be one of the finest pieces of art I’ve ever seen. I could no more part with my Studio Ghibli films than lop off a finger: give up Totoro? No chance!

It’s all a balancing act. It’s all about prioritisation. I need to get rid of as much as possible to save space, but I don’t want to give up films and series that mean a lot to me.

Books are going to be more difficult, and there are a lot more of them to sort through.

In the spare room are boxes of books that my parents packaged up and sent down to me when they moved house and didn’t have space for them any more. I’ve got a sci-fi collection that dates back to the early 80s, when I first started buying adult fiction: Heinlein, Asimov, Silverberg, Herbert. Going through those is going to be hard. Logically, if they’ve been hidden in boxes for the best part of 20 years, I’m not going to miss them if I get rid of them – but emotionally, it doesn’t work like that.

My Iain Banks collection is mostly in hardback, several of which are signed – I can’t get rid of those. Will I ever read my Haruki Murakami books again? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But it’s a hard thing to consider leaving them in a carrier bag in a charity shop. I’ve got the whole series of David Feintuch’s Seafort saga – Midshipman’s Hope and its sequels – and they are, objectively, a bit rubbish, but they’ve been my comfort re-read for 15 years, so how do I part with them? (Although I’ve just noticed that they’ve finally been released on Kindle – perhaps that’s an option. Kindle books don’t take up any shelf space…)

Prioritising my book collection is going to be very difficult.

A year of failures

On 13th January, 2013, I sent a sample of my first completed novel, The Chimney Rabbit, to an agent for the first time. Today, just over a year later, my third novel, Tales of the Ancient Rabbits, failed to make the longlist for the Chicken House competition.

I’ve sent my work out 34 times – almost all to agents, apart from one publisher and one competition – and to date I’ve been rejected 28 times and received no response 6 times. If you add those up, you’ll see that over the course of a year I’ve had a 100% failure rate.

I almost had… well, not a foot in the door, or even a toe, but maybe a toenail in the door when one of the agents to whom I sent a sample of The Chimney Rabbit actually asked to see the full manuscript. That’s right – I’ve had only one request for a full manuscript. She ended up rejecting me, but did provide some useful feedback. What’s perhaps most disappointing was when I sent Tales of the Ancient Rabbits to this agent, having listened to the reasons that she gave for not taking on my first book (length and pacing), she didn’t even want to see the full manuscript, but rejected me on the basis of the first two chapters. So that seems to suggest that after a year of hammering out draft after draft and revision after revision and book after book and submission after submission, instead of improving (as you might expect) I’ve actually got worse.

It’s very dispiriting, to say the least.

It’s all taking the shine off actually writing. I think the problem is that I’ve used the prospect of getting published as an incentive for sitting down, hammering out the words even when I didn’t feel like it, and doing the less fun parts like editing and revising. If I hadn’t made the decision that I wanted to get my books published, I might never have completed The Chimney Rabbit, and it would have joined all my other uncompleted novels from several decades of just mucking about pretending to be a writer.

It’s distinctly possible that I don’t have any talent. That my writing is no more than anyone with a decent grasp of spelling and grammar could produce. That I’m literate but not literary. I hope not. But the more I get rejected, the more I fear that this might be the case. Every time I get a rejection my motivation suffers.

I think it’s time I found another source of motivation, because it’s quite clear that getting an agent, never mind getting published, is highly unlikely any time soon. I think it’s time I forgot about the grind of submissions and drafts and just concentrated on the writing.

So, good-bye, then, Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. Time to unfollow all the literary agents on Twitter. Time to archive my submissions spreadsheet.

Time to slink back into the shadows and write for myself.

New Year status report

It’s been almost exactly a year since I first sent The Chimney Rabbit to an agent for the first time. In that time, a lot has happened, but unfortunately not much in the way of progress towards getting published. In this article I’m going to provide a quick summary of my projects and their statuses.

The Chimney Rabbit

The Chimney Rabbit was my first completed novel. After an early career in short stories, some of which were even accepted for publication in the speculative fiction magazines of the early 1990s, I’d spent decades in abortive attempts at writing novels. Perhaps it just took the right novel – I wanted to complete The Chimney Rabbit because I wanted to see how it ended. I wrote it because I wanted to read it.

Unfortunately, it now looks like the book has run its course in terms of my attempts to get it published. I sent out my last batch of submissions to agents back in June. At the end of 2013, there were a handful of agents who still hadn’t responded after over six months, so as a matter of housekeeping I sent them quick (but polite!) emails saying that I had assumed that they’d reviewed my work and decided not to proceed, so I was withdrawing it from their consideration. Not all agents respond to all submissions, for a variety of reasons, but it offends my sense of tidiness to have submissions eternally open, and I’d never know whether to inform them in the event that I got interest from elsewhere, hence my emails – a pure formality.

So, farewell, The Chimney Rabbit. I still love it as a book, but I will no longer attempt to get it published. Perhaps sometime in the future I might rewrite it, bearing in mind all that I’ve learned since I completed it – I’ve got an idea for a restructure that might just work. But that’s a long way off.

The Chimney Rabbit and the Underground Mice

The Chimney Rabbit and the Underground Mice was my second completed novel, a direct sequel to The Chimney Rabbit. No-one but my partner has ever read it, and probably no-one else ever will. That’s the problem with writing a sequel to an unpublished book.

I’m glad I wrote it, and I learned a lot doing so, but in terms of getting published it was a waste of time. Its future is entirely dependent on The Chimney Rabbit, and that’s not going anywhere at the moment.

Tales of the Ancient Rabbits

Tales of the Ancient Rabbits was suggested to me by my partner after she’d read The Chimney Rabbit. “There’s a story behind how the rabbits came to the Great City,” she said, and she was right.

Tales of the Ancient Rabbits has been entered in the Chicken House competition, and is concurrently making the rounds of a small number of agencies. With The Chimney Rabbit, I sent out submissions in waves, and I made several changes to the text over the course of six months, including a major rewrite of the first three chapters. With Tales, I’m not doing that. I made sure that it was as polished as I could make it before I sent it off, bearing in mind all the lessons I learned while writing the first two books and going through countless submissions for The Chimney Rabbit, so I’m being much more selective about who I sent it to.

If none of the current batch of submissions comes to anything, I’ll send out one more small batch. If nothing comes of those, I’ll put Tales away in a digital drawer, and start concentrating on my next book. Which brings me to:

The Dragon on the Tower

The Dragon on the Tower is the working title of my current project. So called because in the first chapter there is a dragon on a tower (hence why it’s a working title and may gain a better title if I can think of one), it’s a story of Dark Age Scotland in the time of the Picts. I’m trying to make it historically accurate, based on the archaeological study of a Pictish monastery in the Dornoch Firth area. The tower is a broch – an Iron Age fortification that by the time of the Picts would already have been an abandoned ruin. Ideal for a dragon to nest in, don’t you think? What do you mean, you don’t think dragons are historically accurate?

This is my first book to feature a human rather than a talking anthropomorphic rabbit as the protagonist, so it’s unknown territory for me. Three books starring rabbits might have left me in a bit of a rut (and almost certainly out of fashion) so I think it was the right decision to make a bit of a change.

The first draft is currently around the mid-point, so there’s still a lot of work to do. I’ll try to complete the first draft in the next month or so, then give it a rest for a while, before getting onto the second and third drafts. I might be ready to start submitting it to agents by summer.

Future projects

I’ve got a few notes for my next book (possibly also featuring dragons), and a vague idea for a book after that, which is more science fiction than fantasy. So even if 2014 isn’t a breakthrough year for my writing, I’ve got plenty to keep me busy.

Best of 2013 part three: Children’s books

For the third and final part of the Chimney Rabbit Best of 2013, I’m covering children’s books. This was the most difficult category for me to come up with a top five, as I’ve read so many utterly fantastic children’s books this year. In the end I’ve had to cheat and include two books in one slot, so this is actually a top six.

Bubbling just under were some wonderful books like Oliver and the Seawigs, How to Train Your Dragon, The Snow Merchant, Goblins, The Great Galloon… Many of these were published very recently – it’s a great time to be a reader of children’s books.

No. 5 – Wolf Brother, by Michelle Paver

Wolf Brother

Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother is a story of the neolithic age, about 6000 years ago, and features the young orphan Torak and his rescued wolf cub, unimaginatively named “Wolf”. I wrote about it back in August on this blog, where I said:

The highest accolade I can give a children’s book is this – I wish it had been published in the 70s so I could have read it as a child. Wolf Brother is so good that I resent having to view it through the jaded eyes of a 40-something.

No. 4 – The Hill of the Red Fox, by Allan Campbell McLean

The Hill of the Red Fox

I wrote about Allan Campbell McLean’s The Hill of the Red Fox in my post about my haul of books from Hay-on-Wye. It’s a book that I first read when I lived on the Isle of Skye, where it’s set, and it was pure pleasure to come back to it 30 years later and discover it was still just as good.

No. 3 – Skellig, by David Almond

Skellig

Skellig is the story of a strange, bird-like vagrant who appears in the life of Michael and Mina. It’s not so much an adventure as a lyrical exploration of magic and mystery. For me, its attraction lies in the quality of the writing. This one passage in particular struck me as being particularly fine:

An endless night. In and out of dreams. In and out of sleep. Dad snoring and snuffling in the room next door. No moon in the sky. Endless darkness. The clock at my bedside was surely stuck. All it showed were the dead hours. One o’clock. Two o’clock. Three o’clock. Endless minutes between them. No hooting of owls, no calling from Skellig or Mina. Like the whole world was stuck, all of time was stuck. Then I must have slept properly at last, and I woke to daylight with stinging eyes and sunken heart.

No. 2 – The Toymaker, by Jeremy de Quidt

The Toymaker

Jeremy de Quidt writes dark, dark stories. The Toymaker is his first novel, and like some modern-day Grimm’s fairytale it subjects its young protagonists, Mathias and Katta, to horror and injury and nightmarish cruelty. The backdrop is a cold Germanic landscape, bitter and hostile, filled with unstoppable, fiendish foes.

It’s not for younger readers, that’s for sure.

But then, it’s not really a Young Adult book, either. Mathias and Katta are too young as protagonists for your average YA, and don’t have enough control over their own fates, despite their bravery. On the other hand, as someone who enjoys children’s books, but also has a taste for the horrific, it appealed to me immensely. Which all goes to show that the rigid categorisation of books doesn’t make much sense. Books should be allowed to find their own audiences.

No. 1 – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts in Battersea, by Joan Aiken

The Wolves of Willoughby ChaseBlack Hearts in Battersea

Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, of which The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts in Battersea are the first two instalments, are set in an alternative history in which James II was never deposed, and vicious wolves roam the English countryside.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is the story of Bonnie and Sylvia, and their efforts to thwart the nefarious plans of their evil governess Miss Slighcarp. They’re aided by their friend Simon the goose boy, and when they’re sent off to a horrible orphanage they escape and flee to London.

Black Hearts in Battersea takes up the story of Simon, newly arrived in London to learn art with his old friend Dr. Field, who finds that his mentor has disappeared and is caught up in a wicked Hanoverian plot to assassinate the King. Only the help of his Hanoverian landlord’s neglected and troublesome daughter Dido Twite saves him from disaster.

The characters are superb. The contrasting and complementary personalities of Bonnie and Sylvia in Wolves, and the irrepressible force of nature that is Dido in Battersea make the books a delight to read. The plots are convoluted but not too complex, and good hearts and honesty win out over deviousness and wickedness in the end.

I’ve no idea how I missed these books when I was growing up. Both were written before I was born, and I was aware of Joan Aiken from the Arabel and Mortimer series (shown on Jackanory, and with Quentin Blake illustrations – that’s about as high-profile as books got in the 1970s in the UK), but for some reason these books managed to evade me. What a pity. I’d have loved them when I was 10 – perhaps even more than I love them now.

Best of 2013 part two: Adult books

For the second part of the Chimney Rabbit Best of 2013, I’m covering adult books – which is to say, any fiction I read this year that wasn’t a comic and wasn’t a children’s book.

A note on eligibility – I’m including only those books I read this year for the first time. Any re-reads (for example, the long list of Iain M. Banks’ Culture books I read this year) aren’t covered – otherwise the list would be dominated by The Player of Games, Use of Weapons and Excession. For other reasons, I’m excluding Banks’ last novel, The Quarry – the circumstances of its publication make it impossible for me to evaluate it on its own merits.

The year of publication has no bearing on this list, though – whether it was published in 2013 or 1813, if I read it for the first time this year, it’s eligible for inclusion.

No. 5 – The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt

The Little Friend

Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend isn’t her latest book – but when The Goldfinch came out after a ten-year gap and I realised I hadn’t got around to reading the previous book, I thought it was about time. I read her debut, The Secret History, when it came out about 20 years ago – well, it was about a bunch of Classics students, and it came out right after I’d finished my own Classics degree, so it was pretty much mandatory reading. A lot of people were disappointed in The Little Friend – difficult second album syndrome I presume – which is probably one of the reasons I put it off for so long.

Which was, of course, silly of me. It’s a fantastic book. It tells of Harriet, a young girl living in Mississippi in the 1970s with her extended family of eccentric Southern ladies, and her amateur sleuthing in trying to find the killer of her brother, who was murdered when she was just a baby. It’s full of the discoveries and misconceptions of childhood, of the arrogant confidence of the clever child who can’t understand why no-one else sees the world the way she does.

It’s a long, meandering story, and Tartt goes off on entertaining diversions amongst the other inhabitants of the town, but it always comes back to Harriet, and the book succeeds or fails on whether you take to her.

No. 4 – Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch

Rivers of London

Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch, is a police procedural wedded to urban fantasy. Peter Grant is a relatively new officer in the Metropolitan Police who gets caught up with, then recruited into, a branch of the Met that deals with the supernatural.

So far so conventional.

But where this book really catches your attention is in the depiction of London and its layers of history and mythology. The rivers of the title are personifications of the Thames and its tributaries – genii loci who form a part of a London supernatural underworld. The book is at its best when it deals with the mythology, and at its weakest when it comes down to the chase-the-bad-guy denouement, but overall it’s a cracking read that should appeal if you have any affinity for London and its mythic past.

No. 3 – Natural Causes, by James Oswald

Natural Causes

James Oswald’s crime debut, Natural Causes, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The cover of his forthcoming book The Hangman’s Song includes the quote “The new Ian Rankin”, but to be honest he’s got more in common with Aaronovitch than Rankin.

There’s no indication from the cover that this is anything other than a conventional detective novel, that Inspector McLean is particularly different from Inspector Rebus, but by the end of the book the irrational aspects of the case have taken on a completely different light. Some reviewers have complained about the bait-and-switch of genre, but I loved it – it’s like an episode of Scooby Doo where the monster isn’t Old Man Smithers in a mask, but an actual monster.

No. 2 – Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

Throne of the Crescent Moon

Saladin Ahmed’s debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, is a fantasy with a distinct Arabian Nights, Middle-Eastern flavour. Adoulla Makhslood is old, and fat, and tired, but he’s the last of the ghul hunters in the city of Dhamsawaat, so when the monsters threaten, he has to take up the mantle of hunter once more with his young, aggressive and zealous sword-fighting companion Raseed.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is a breath of fresh air compared to the identikit “Western Europe in the Middle Ages” settings of much contemporary fantasy. The story of Adoulla, Raseed and the orphaned shape-shifter girl Zamia provides all you could want – adventure, intrigue, and conflict – with a real moral complexity where Raseed’s intolerant zealotry comes up against Adoulla’s tempered, experienced realism.

The second volume is coming – sometime – and I can’t wait to read more about the Crescent Moon Kingdoms.

No. 1 – Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie is a space opera with a brain and a heart. Sometimes unfairly compared to Iain M. Banks because the book features an AI-based starship (as if AI starships were an invention of Banks), nevertheless it certainly does push all the buttons for the fan of the Culture’s Minds who might be looking for their fix elsewhere.

The starships of the Radch are controlled by artificial intelligences, distributed throughout the ship and through the ancillaries – former human bodies, now inhabited by a portion of the ship’s consciousness in a tightly-bound network.

When the unthinkable happens, and the ship Justice of Toren is destroyed, leaving only a single body, One Esk Nineteen, there is no other choice for the last ancillary but to seek vengeance on the person who had them killed.

One interesting quirk of the book is that the Radch language has no gendered pronouns, so everyone is referred to as “she” or “her”, which takes a little time to adjust to. It’s not quite on the same level as the exploration of gender in The Left Hand of Darkness, but it’s an intriguing extra element to the society. It also provides a little humour when One Esk becomes frustrated when she can’t tell the gender of people when the markers – clothing, hair, make-up, speech – differ so much from society to society, and she struggles with the concept that people get offended if you guess incorrectly.

Possibly the finest bit of writing occurs in a flashback when the Justice of Toren is still in command of her complement of ancillaries, and the point of view flicks from body to body seamlessly without even scene breaks – it provides a glimpse (but only a glimpse) into what it must be like to inhabit so many points of view simultaneously.

If you like space opera to have a bit of intelligence and to challenge some of your preconceptions, this is the book for you. The best news is that a sequel is in the works – Ancillary Sword – with a third volume to come called Ancillary Mercy.

Best of 2013 part one: Comics

For a variety of personal reasons that I won’t go into here, 2013 has been a horrible year that I’ll be glad to put behind me. Even the things that, objectively, have been positive, have been tainted to a greater or lesser extent by the negatives, so this is not a year I’m going to look back on fondly.

On the other hand, I’ve read a lot of good books.

So in the great tradition of end-of-year lists, here’s part one of the Chimney Rabbit Best of 2013. I’m splitting the list into three categories – children’s books, adult books, and comics. Part one is comics – and by comics I mean web comics, printed comics, graphic novels, and manga.

No. 5 – The Tomorrow Girl, by Aaron Diaz

The Tomorrow Girl

Aaron Diaz’s Dresden Codak is one of the most inventive and visually stunning web comics being produced today. Even with a production schedule that makes Donna Tartt look like a workaholic, the comic manages to retain a dedicated audience through its sheer high quality.

The Tomorrow Girl is the first printed volume of the web comic, and was funded through a Kickstarter that asked for $30,000 and raised an extra half million dollars on top of that. The gold edition – the one I plumped for – is a huge, glossy, hardback, slipcased edition that I have no idea how to store. It’s propped up against a wall in its cardboard packaging – there is no bookcase in existence that can hold it. Reading the volume is an experience, even when you’ve read all the individual pages before on the website.

A cheaper edition is available, but the way I see it, if you’re going to get a book like this, you might as well go all the way.

No. 4 – Hawkeye, by Matt Fraction and David Aja

Hawkeye

OK, this looks bad. It’s a superhero comic. Except it’s not. Hawkeye (story: Matt Fraction, art: David Aja) is the chronicle of the monthly adventures of what Hawkeye, the archer from The Avengers, otherwise known as Clint Barton, gets up to when he’s not saving the world with Earth’s mightiest heroes.

More of a comedy adventure than an adventure, it relies on comic timing, slick dialogue, and neat characterisation for its appeal. Issue 11 is the high spot – an entire issue told through the eyes (and nose) of Clint Barton’s dog.

If you only read one superhero title this year, make it Hawkeye.

No. 3 – The Terrible Tales Of The Teenytinysaurs! by Gary Northfield

Teenytinysaurs

Gary Northfield’s Terrible Tales of the Teenytinysaurs! is a comic romp for younger children that appeals enormously to 40-somethings who’ve managed not to grow up. A group of young dinosaurs get into trouble in the way that only young dinosaurs can, all depicted through Gary Northfield’s utterly exuberant drawings.

There are dinosaur poo jokes and crazy adventures, with a highlight being the delight of the huge double-page spreads that are just packed full of detail. The beach scene is like Where’s Wally with dinosaurs, and the undersea scene is just jaw-dropping – almost literally. How often do you turn a page in a book and just say “wow”?

No. 2 – Porcelain, by Benjamin Read & Chris Wildgoose

Porcelain

Porcelain is a stand-alone graphic novel that, in its 96 pages, tells a rich, moving, inventive, and fascinating story with utterly beautiful artwork. There’s a certain steampunk aesthetic to the book, with porcelain automata roaming the grounds of the mysterious mansion. There’s forbidden knowledge and deep secrets and a touching relationship between the old automaton maker and the street child who breaks into his home.

Beautiful art, and a wonderful story. A delight.

No. 1 – Bad Machinery volume 1 – The Case of the Team Spirit, by John Allison

Bad Machinery

In my opinion, John Allison is the finest writer of comics in Britain today. His work at Scary Go Round goes back to 2002, and his first comic, Bobbins, dates from 1998. It’s still a mystery to me why he’s not been made our Comics Laureate yet. I loved Scary Go Round, with its mad devil bears and crazy goblins and slapstick demonic forces at work in a West Yorkshire town, but it’s Bad Machinery, the story of two loosely-affiliated groups of boy and girl detectives, that’s his masterwork.

In The Case of the Team Spirit, the first printed collection, there are strange goings-on at Tackleford City FC, with Shauna, Charlotte, and Mildred taking the side of Mrs Biscuits, the old Russian woman whose home is being threatened with demolition to make way for the new stadium, while Jack, Linton, and Sonny investigate the mysterious curse that threatens their beloved football club and its Russian owner Mr Kropotkin. Are these two cases related?

Of course they are! But not in the way you think.

The dialogue sparkles. I’ve no idea if kids talk like John Allison thinks they do, but by heck I wish they did. The humour arises partly from the ridiculous situations, but mostly out of the interaction between the characters – they bounce off each other brilliantly, sometimes gently taking the piss in the way that kids do so well, sometimes tipping over the edge into active feuds. The complex web of friendships of schoolkids has never been so well depicted.

Volume 2 is out next year. There’s a good chance it’s going to top my list for 2014.

Why NaNoWriMo is not for me

In principle, I like the idea of NaNoWriMo – the National Novel Writing Month, where aspiring writers are encouraged to spend the entire month of November writing a 50,000-word novel. The achievement you feel when you complete a novel is a wondrous thing, and anything that helps people achieve this goal can’t really be praised enough.

I’ve tried it two or three times, but for a variety of reasons I’ve never managed to get much off the ground. Since giving up on NaNoWriMo and trying to find my own way, I’ve completed three novels and have started my fourth. So with everyone and his dog beavering away on their NaNoWriMo novels, I’ve been thinking about what makes my own process work for me where NaNoWriMo doesn’t.

I think the key element is the pace. To write 50,000 words in 30 days, you have to average 1,667 words a day – and that’s a lot, especially if you have a job that takes up 50 hours a week including the commute. Write a thousand words on your first day, and you’re 667 behind the pace. Miss a day, and you’re another 1,667 behind the pace. Spend a weekend with your family, and suddenly the mountain you’ve got to climb looks impossible.

My normal writing pace is 1,000 words a session. Monday to Thursday I’ll manage one session in the evening, while at weekends I can often manage two sessions a day. Fridays, however, I take a break from writing, just to recharge my batteries, and try to write a blog post instead. My thousand-word sessions sometimes turn into 1,500-word sessions, and I always feel a warm glow of achievement if I hit that 1,500-word mark. That’s still 167 words short of NaNoWriMo pace, though. If I’m writing 1,500 words when my target was 1,000 (and I set that as my target in Scrivener) I’m exceeding my goals and it’s like an extra boost of encouragement – if I write 1,500 words when I’m supposed to be doing NaNoWriMo, I’m failing and falling behind, which is very discouraging. I think that’s why I gave up on NaNoWriMo in previous years – I missed a day, or fell short a couple of times, and it was looking like a long, hard slog to catch up.

Interruptions are another reason. I know they say you have to be selfish to be a writer, and to be honest I’m pretty good at being selfish, but there’s a limit, and sometimes the demands of family get in the way of hitting the artificial NaNoWriMo word-count. I’ve failed some years because of trips or outings we had planned – trips and outings I really didn’t want to miss. If you’re setting your own schedule, these aren’t a problem – but if you’re trying to hit 50,000 words by 30th November, spending a weekend in London in the middle of the month just cost you several thousand words that realistically you’re never going to catch up.

Sometimes you need to take a break from the writing to plan out exactly what’s going to happen next. In each of my three novels, I’ve taken breaks (sometimes as short as a day, sometimes longer) to work around problems I’d written myself into. It’s hard enough coming up with solutions without the tick-tick-tick of the NaNoWriMo deadline approaching to stress you out even further.

Then there’s the length. They chose 50,000 words for a reason – it’s long enough to be classed as a novel, while short enough to be just about achievable in 30 days if you really work at it. But very few novels are 50,000 words long. My first two novels were over 70,000 words each, as that was what was needed to tell the stories I wanted to tell, but my third novel was kept to under 40,000 words to make sure it conformed to the standard for Middle Grade children’s books. I’m extremely proud of Tales of the Ancient Rabbits, but even if I’d written it in 30 days (I didn’t – it took about 40 days in all) it wouldn’t have counted as “winning” NaNoWriMo – it fell about 13,000 words short.

I still think NaNoWriMo is an excellent initiative. But it’s just not for me – and I’m glad I’ve found a process that does work for me.