Saturday, 28 July 2012

The little acorns from which novels grow

Apologies yet again for my prolonged absence from the blog, but the reason will become clear. I've been working on the final chapters of Sword of Rome, proofreading Avenger of Rome and The Isis Covenant, and preparing for their launches on August 14th in Edinburgh and August 2nd in Stirling respectively.

I was keen to complete SoR before taking my summer break, but the epic battle turned out to be even more epic than I realised and I still have a couple of key scenes to write before I can lay it down for a while and let it percolate. Not that I'll be resting. With the tight deadlines I set myself it's important that I get the ball rolling pretty soon on The Excalibur Codex, which is the next Jamie Saintclair novel. At the moment I have a wham-bam start and a satisfying ending, but a relatively vague idea of what happens in between.

One of the questions a writer is most frequently asked is: Where do you get your inspiration?

With some people it takes hours and maybe weeks of deep thought to come up with an idea, but mine tend to appear in lightning flashes set off by fairly insignificant sparks.

Caligula and Claudius were spawned by a single line read by Timothy West on a CD of Simon Schama's History of Britain that went 'And the Emperor Claudius rode in triumph on an elephant and took the surrender of Britain'.

The six books that will eventually make up the Valerius series have their roots in one sentence from the Roman historian Tacitus that I read while I was researching Claudius.

The Doomsday Testament came to me as I read a journal my dad had written about his early life.

I'd planned at least four Jamie Saintclair books, but the other day I stumbled on what will be a fifth: The Ionian Odyssey. I was in the area looking for a way into a new Roman novel, but stumbled on something completely different. Walking up a rocky path on a tiny Greek island we'd only found by mistake, with cicadas rattling off my hat, tiny lizards scuttling underfoot and thorns ripping my legs, I breasted a rise to be confronted by row after row of marbles crosses. The island was a lazaretto and was once populated by lepers, so of course people died there, but this was different. There were no lepers in 1948 and 1949 when these people - almost all young men in their twenties - died, often on the same day. Gradually it dawned that something even more terrible had happened on this scrubby, sun-scorched knoll. And round another corner was the incontrovertible evidence. A stretch of crumbling wall with dozens of holes punched deep into the stone and mortar: an execution site. That's when it came to me. A country torn by civil war. A man awaits his fate and vows to take his secret to the grave. A treasure hidden through an earlier conflict that contains the roots of a new one ... 

A chilling sight and the germ of a new novel

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Finding a state of grace

One of my all too infrequent blogs on the craft of writing. I don't really feel it's my place to lecture other writers on what's right and wrong about crafting a novel. If someone wants to write a book it's a given that they have a reasonable grasp of English and an imagination, and that's really all you need, apart from stamina. Still, this came to mind through the week and I thought it was worth sharing.

Many years ago a lovely little sprite of a man called Jock Hume tried to teach me the rudiments of the bagpipes. I'd go up to the wee room he used at the top of his tenement townhouse opposite the grammar school and spend fruitless hours working on the scales on the chanter (the bit of the pipes that has the holes in it). It wasn't long before we both knew that he was working with someone who had not the slightest semblance of musical ear, but Jock was a trier, so we persevered.

Sometimes he would try to enthuse me by talking about the great pipers who turned what is a relatively simple musical instrument into a thing of mystical power. One of the ways they did it was with grace notes.

A grace note (and my mate Jimi the Piper will wreak terrible vengeance on me if I've got this wrong) is the musical embellishment, the twirl or the skirl, that an experienced piper uses to enhance a tune. A great piper can transform a reel or a jig to something wonderful that is only vaguely recognisable as the original, with the help of self-made notes he's slipped into the music.

It was when I was writing the other day that I realised that grace notes are just as important to an author.

For a writer, a grace note is the little piece of poetry at the end of a chapter that draws you in to the next one; it is the beautiful sentence that makes the author proud and the reader gasp; the wonderful piece of description that makes a character become a real, living breathing human being.

The grace notes can be the difference between an ordinary book and a great book.

But the important thing about grace notes is that they are embellishments. A lot of wonderful books probably don't get written because the writers agonise over every word, every sentence and every paragraph in the search for perfection, and never finish the first draft. But for me the first draft is purely and simply the foundation of the book, and as long as the building blocks of plot, narrative and character are in there, all that matters is to push on so that the story becomes a book. The important thing is that those foundations are solid and complete.

A first draft can only be improved and it's how often you're prepared to improve it that makes the difference between the book it is and the book it has the potential to be. Every time I read a manuscript I see little gaps where a tiny grace note can make a huge difference. When the gaps are filled - and that can be after the sixth or seventh rewrite - it's time to move on.

So the message is get that book written. The genius can come later.