Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Fool's Gambit

Over the last few weeks I've been systematically putting all my writing into folders on my iCloud. After downloading Pages for my iPhone it made sense; I may as well have all of my writing available on the go. I could do some work on a lunchtime, or on the train, or when I'm waiting for someone or something. As I've been going through the process I've been having a brief look at that work, seeing what I could revive at a future date and what I should dispatch to a shallow, unmarked grave right now with the minimum of ceremony. Most of that work isn't great. There's no way the last completed draft of Empire Rising (from circa 2006) would be accepted by any professional publisher, for instance. Even the work I've produced over the last two years isn't up to the standards of the magazine market I want to be published by. I doubt Interzone's editors would think twice before sending me rejection after rejection for work of my current standard.

It's a spur to improve, not least because to impress the professionals improvement is a necessity, not an option. If I want to become a writer who has some form of income from his writings, I have no option but to analyse my work and see where I'm going wrong. Is it my ideas, or is my writing style flawed? Is it just a sub-standard story? The end result of this is that the quality of my writing increases, with my chances of publication rising with each improvement I make. The rigmarole of submitting and rejecting acts as quality control, meaning the readerbase of those magazines will only ever have the very finest work presented to them.

By and large, this is true at the big publishers. Although the ultimate aim is to generate a big profit on any investment made in a writer's work, the quality will be high. A book isn't generally marketable if it lacks in quality. Something riddled with mistakes will more often than not find itself filtered out of the editing process and rejected. It's not to say low-grade material won't find its way to the shelves and sell millions (like a couple of well-known recent examples), but it is safe to say that if someone can't construct a sentence properly they won't sell their book.

Just writing something of novel length is an achievement in itself. I've managed it three times in seven years, most recently clocking in with a 51,000-word Nanowrimo novel in November last year. Anyone who has the patience to manage to reach the end of what could be a two- or three-year process - especially if they have a full-time job or the kids to keep an eye on all the time - deserves respect and no small amount of admiration. Some people write purely for the sense of accomplishment the end of a lengthy project brings. But often at the end of a project the writer will decide to take the next step and look to publishing their work.

Without taking away that initial accomplishment, the big target is publication. Publication brings with it a seal of quality. Someone else thinks the writer's work is worth reading - or marketable, with functional sentences, in the case of paranormal romance - and will get it out there. But there's still a long way to go between completion of a first draft and the shelves of Waterstone's. There's the editing process to complete, hard work in itself, then a potential second draft, and then the next edit. I seriously doubt many writers are so gifted that they could write a 70,000-word novel and have it published without some degree of editing taking place.

Yet the platform exists that means a writer can now do just that. Self-publishing has always been an easy way out, but in years gone by it was frowned upon as a refuge for the desperate and the vain. Thanks to Amazon - and in particular the Kindle - it seems that this is no longer the case. The Kindle marketplace is flooded with self-published books published through Amazon's own service, most of which should never have seen the light of day.

Remember what I said above. The traditional model for publishing has the quality control checks in place. Whilst an editor's second job may be concerned with a book's marketability, their first job remains to edit. A story I heard some time back concerned high fantasy author and teenagers' favourite Terry Brooks and surrounded the time he submitted his second novel's manuscript to noted publisher Lester Del Rey. Del Rey insisted Brooks re-structure and re-write the entire middle third of the novel that went on to become The Elfstones of Shannara. Brooks himself accepts that this made him go back and consider where he'd gone wrong, and credits Del Rey's decision with making him a better writer. Although this is an extreme example (Brooks may have had to re-write 60-70,000 words in total), it demonstrates what editors do. If your work isn't up to scratch, and they consider you to have the talent, they'll throw it back at you and force you to write to the required standard. Even if you personally don't agree with changes they make, they'll make you think about your writing. Where in self-publishing does this quality control exist? The answer is simple: nowhere.

It may be the popular option, but it encourages mediocrity. Having read 20% of one self-published book available on the Kindle, I gave up. This isn't because the fantasy story grated on me (even though it did - an editor wouldn't let so many clich├ęs past him, if nothing else), but because the author had clearly not edited properly, and nor had they thought about what they were writing. Use of 'arctic' and 'Baltic' to describe the weather conditions makes sense in our world, but in a fantasy world where neither the Arctic nor the Baltic regions actually exist using them to describe the weather makes no sense. Give an editor ten minutes with the original manuscript and they could improve it to the point where such stupid errors weren't made.

On a forum I moderate I consistently see people talking about the benefits of self-publishing. Yes, it's easy. Yes, it may mean more money in your pocket in a shorter period of time. But I have to rebut any argument someone makes on those grounds as being rubbish. No one ever celebrated easy achievements. And because of the dirge of self-published works we're seeing at the moment, the argument that it's more money in your pocket is only relevant if you're incredibly lucky and sell thousands - unlike the hundreds of thousands of other novels that end up going for free as people try to encourage reviews that will get people to buy their work.

I don't want to read low quality fiction. It does nothing for me. I want something where I don't notice horrible use of language every ten sentences, and I want to read something with structure and poise and elegance. I want to read fiction of high quality, and for that reason I will only read material that comes through the traditional model. And I will continue to aspire to write something that gets published through that model. At least that way I will have a real sense of accomplishment at the end of one day in the future.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The Dark Tower

I can't claim to be a graphic novels expert. I've read Watchmen, the leading light of the field, made a start on The Sandman, devoured Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, and dabbled with a handful of others including Mark Millar's Kick-Ass (yes, that one) and V For Vendetta, but compared to most I'm still a complete newcomer. I've never read any standalone Superman or Spiderman, for goodness' sake!

Which is why anything I say in this review of Marvel's adaptation of the backstory of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series should be taken with a handful of sodium chloride. What I found to be odd may be standard practice in the field, and may be the best way of doing it. Because there were a few things to criticise, but first I need to give some background.

For anyone unaware, The Dark Tower is Stephen King's magnum opus. It is the tale of Roland Deschain, last gunslinger of Gilead, and his quest for the eponymous Tower, which stands at the heart of time and space and threatens to topple under the duress of the Crimson King and his minions, thus plunging the multiverse back into the chaos from which it was birthed. Starting with The Gunslinger, it took King 33 years to write the seven volumes, and millions of readers (including myself) have devoted hours to the quest down the years. Its strength lies in no small part in the character of Roland himself, the cold-hearted gunslinger with a turbulent past, whom the reader comes to love through the eyes of others. His backstory is gradually revealed, culminating in a 500-page flashback in Wizard and Glass which reveals the tragic origins of the quest for the Tower.

It's from this that Marvel have reaped the basic source material for their prequel graphic novels. The first volume, The Gunslinger Born, is, in essence, a retelling of Wizard and Glass. It's an impressive work, but it lacks the depth and complexity of the original novel. Perhaps this is a necessity - there's a scarcity of words that's required in graphic storytelling - but I felt slightly disappointed by the storytelling, much as I enjoyed the adaptation as a whole.

Volume two, The Long Road Home, also lacks depth, with it basically being a story of how the Ka-tet got home from Hambry to Gilead. It isn't until Treachery when things begin to break into Dark Tower virgin territory. All of a sudden, we're seeing things that we haven't seen before, that we've only heard about. This is where the depth of Wizard and Glass really feels like it's missing. There are plots and intrigues that never quite feel as they should - everything feels superficial and lacking in substance. Which isn't to say that it's bad. No one will struggle to enjoy the new chapters in Roland's tale. However what could have been essential reading for all Tower junkies is instead relegated to being an interesting sideshow.

The Fall of Gilead and Battle of Jericho Hill are riddled by the same problems. Things seem superficial. Characters don't feel adequately fleshed out, being cardboard cut-outs of the people whom we grew to love in the novels. But one character stands ahead of all others - Roland's development from duty-bound boy to lovestruck teenager to cold-hearted man is most noticeable. With each casualty of the Affiliation's war with John Farson and the agents of the Crimson King he becomes noticeably more withdrawn emotionally until we recognise the gunslinger who followed the Man in Black across the desert.

This is, to a point, as it should be. This is Roland's tale, after all. Everyone else is incidental, no matter how much of a part they play in his tale. But it would have been nice to see the depth given to Roland also given to Alain, Cuthbert or Aileen in the later stages of the series.

One thing I haven't mentioned is the artwork. And if one thing has to be mentioned, it's just that. Of all the graphic novels I've read, I've never read one with such a bold style as these. It's gothic and dark and detailed in the foreground. It draws the eye to what is meant to be seen. Every character's motivations can be read on their face. Every action seems dynamic. Art buffs would go mad for the style. I'm not an art buff, but I couldn't help but fall in love with it.

The question has to be answered: Did I enjoy the series? Yes, I did. I spent a day working my way through almost 1,000 pages of it, and didn't put it down until I was finished with all five. There's something to be said for something that keeps me reading like that. But is it worth a newbie reading without knowledge of The Dark Tower? I'd say not. It's a series for fans of the novels, which will add to their enjoyment of King's series, rather than something for everyone.