Aug 11 2014

Incentivisation, I haz it

New books receivedToday brought me a modest haul of new books, these being the only ones I could remember from my missing-presumed-lost/recycled/eaten by dust-bunnies “Books to Buy” list. I have made myself a promise that I will not so much as crack the covers until THE DRAGON HOUSE is packed off to my editor.

Since I like reading about as much as I like breathing, I’d better crack on, eh?

I tweeted a picture of this lot as soon as I unpacked them, but for reasons known only to themselves HTC have seen fit to pair their phone’s pre-loaded Twitter client with bloody Yfrog, which has an unspeakably ill-formed splash page and does horrible things to image sizes, hence this post.

I really need to get my arse in gear and sign up with Tumblr or summat for those social-media-on-the-go moments. I am *such* a technophobe. Also too busy Actually Doing Stuff That Keeps The Lights On Around Here, which is likewise responsible for my lack of:

  • blogging regularly
  • self-promotion
  • updating the website
  • learning Scrivener
  • redrawing the map for the Wild Hunt Universe
  • getting a haircut

I don’t know how my fellow writers manage to do all this and hold down a day job.

 

 

Jul 30 2014

Where in the world . . . ?

Excerpt from original map. . . or why The Wild Hunt doesn’t have a map.

Pick up a fantasy book and you’re almost guaranteed to find a map somewhere upon its person: tucked in behind the flyleaf, gorgeously painted on the endpapers (Wheel of Time hardbacks, anyone?) or even as the outer jacket itself, like those splendid Joe Abercrombie ones.

The map seems to be an accepted – indeed expected – part of the fantasy furniture. Secondary world = must have a map (con-lang pronunciation guide, glossary and cast of characters optional). Some readers even feel faintly cheated if there isn’t one: a dimension to their immersion is missing.

I can completely understand this. Beyond being a visual treat, the map can be useful. In a military fantasy, where battlefield positions and objectives are fundamental to the drama unfolding on the page, it helps to see them laid out. Likewise in books that involve lots of travelling or a desperate race to reach Point X before the bad guys do, it’s fun to follow along on the map. Or maybe the plot revolves around small, peaceful Country Y which shares a border with the vast, acquisitive Evil Empire Z, and the map provides a graphic reminder of the stakes at play. There’s a reason the internet loves infographics so much: a picture really does paint a thousand words.

As for me, I love maps, especially old ones. Topographical maps, ancient place names and the roads that connect them, all these pieces of history under our feet – they have a thousand stories in them. Maps are like a seed catalogue for a storyteller and a worldbuilder like me, who’s a ‘gardener’ writer. I found out the other day that the Ordnance Survey people actually make a Map of Roman Britain, and I want a copy just because Maps! Romans! Awesome!

So it should be fairly obvious that I also love a good fantasy map. These days I’m not so fussed on the ones that appear geologically unlikely, or have only a few scattered settlements separated by large amounts of empty space in which nothing apparently exists but some plot-significant ruins. I prefer maps that show me a living world, one with navigable rivers and sea-ports for trade, a decent highway system, mixed population densities and variable terrain. A world that looks as though it ought to function reasonably well as a place in its own right, utterly independently of the story.

Another extract from the original mapBut what if the action in our fantasy story happens largely in one place, or the travelogue parts of the story are covered in summary rather than exhaustive detail? What if, at that point, the rest of the landscape is just *there*, in the background, doing nothing but keeping two oceans apart and stopping the mountains falling on your head? Does the book really need a map then?

When Songs of the Earth was about to be published, my editor at the time, Jo Fletcher, asked me if there was a map to accompany it. I explained that I’d drawn one mumblety years ago, before the Great Rewrite of 2004 destroyed the geography of the southern and eastern parts of the Empire [note, not Evil Empire Z above] thus rendering the map horribly inaccurate. Besides, it was a whimsical sketch, not to scale, and unrealistically constrained to fit a sheet of A4 paper as that was all I had at the time.

“Anyway, I’m not sure it really needs a map,” I said. “The story starts in the Holy City then fairly briskly moves to the Western Isles, and I’ve skipped over the dull travelling parts.”

Jo was cool with that, and then she left my publisher to start her own imprint. By the time me and my new editor all got in the groove and the question of maps came up again, it was too late to get one drawn up and in place whilst still keeping to the publishing schedule. Never mind, I thought, we can always do one later.

youarehere2Now here we are, three books down, and there’s still no map. Over the last couple of years, I’ve had to field an increasing number of questions in email, on forums and in interviews why this is so. This post is an attempt to answer them. Short version: it’s my fault.

After I decided that the first book didn’t need a map, it wasn’t until much, much later that it dawned on me that the *series as a whole* kinda did. I’d got tunnel vision with Book 2, and of course it was all perfectly clear to me where everything was, so not having a map isn’t that big a deal . . . Yeah. Right.

Now I could just say I’m the writer, it was my decision, so tough bananas, you’re stuck with it, but that sounds rather high-handed. The truth is I was concentrating so hard on writing the story that I lost sight of the fact that many readers like to see where said story is actually happening. I forgot that I’ve been noodling around this Empire place for twenty years, and you all only got here five minutes ago. It’s sort of my duty to make sure you don’t get lost on your way to the Plains of Nothing But Plot-Significant Ruins.

So, I’m sorry. I hope we can still be friends.

Nothing would please me more than to dust off the old Rotring pen and draw a new map (on a bigger sheet of paper!), or invest in some mapping software to play with, but I would probably enjoy that far too much. As some of you might have noticed, I am desperately behind on Book 4. THE DRAGON HOUSE has to be my priority just now, or my editor will glare at me, and I really don’t want that. She has range weapons, you know. She can pick me off from *anywhere*.

Nonetheless it bothers me that I don’t have a proper map to show you the world in which The Wild Hunt Quartet takes place. It bothers me so much that just as soon as I can, I am going to put some effort into making sure there will be a map (and a pronunciation guide, a gazetteer, a glossary, some deleted scenes and a list of characters) even if I have to make a special website on which to put it.

You can hold me to that.

 

Jul 17 2014

Natural history

 

FADE IN:

 

INT. WRITER’S CAVE – DAY

 

The curtains are drawn, cloaking the litter and countless half-drunk cups of tea in shadow. A dishevelled figure crouches over a laptop, face unhealthily pale in the glow from the screen.

 

VOICEOVER

Observe the WRITER in its den. Here it makes a nest of crumpled
paper and pencils, in which it will incubate its precious egg for a
period of up to a year. So attentive is its parenting – some would say
obsessive – that the writer rarely emerges from its cave. When it
does, it is easily confused by bright lights and sudden sounds.

 

The doorbell sounds. The writer’s head jerks up, its ears twitching. After a moment the bell rings again, followed by knocking on the door.

 

WRITER

Yes? Hello?

 

The knocking continues. The writer gets to its feet as if it hasn’t moved in days, and shambles to the door. On the way it scratches its unkempt fur, dislodging biscuit crumbs and the occasional pencil. At the end of the hall it hesitates, squinting in the uncomfortably bright light.

 

WRITER

Who’s there?

 

An indistinct figure in a bright red coat can be seen through the front door glass.

 

POSTMAN

Got a parcel here you need to sign for.

 

WRITER
(twisting hands together nervously)

Oh. Okay.

 

VOICEOVER

Writers are shy, introspective creatures at the best of times. During the
prolonged incubation period they often seem to lose the social skills
required to successfully interact with other creatures. Their attention is
so focused on their offspring that they frequently neglect their own
grooming and their diet deteriorates to subsistence level, scavenging
junk and whatever uneaten food they find lying about the den.

 

WRITER

Um . . .

 

POSTMAN
(muffled sigh)

Miss?

 

The writer scuttles to the door, avoiding the patch of sunlight on the carpet as if afraid it will burn. After fumbling with the key, it manages to unlock the door and open it just wide enough to peer out.

 

WRITER
(suspiciously)

Yes?

 

POSTMAN

Parcel? To sign for? You’ll have to open the door a bit wider, love.
It’s quite large.

 

A brown cardboard box appears in shot, just visible through the gap in the door. The writer looks around nervously, cringing at the passing cars. Instead of the large box, the postman proffers a smaller one with a screen set into the top, and a dangling stylus attached.

 

POSTMAN

Just sign on the line, love.

 

The writer fumbles for the stylus and scrawls a crude symbol on the screen.

 

POSTMAN
(pushing the larger box towards the door with his foot)

There you go then. Early Christmas present, eh?

 

WRITER
(mumbles incoherently)

 

POSTMAN
(adjusts cap, looks uncertain)

Er, right then. I’ll be off, shall I?

 

The postman holds out his hand for the data terminal. The writer stares at it, nonplussed.

 

POSTMAN

Er . . . ?

 

A particularly large furniture delivery van drives past, belching diesel fumes. Panicked by the noise, the writer flings the data terminal at the postman, and claws the parcel inside. The door slams in the postman’s face.

 

WRITER
(making a keening noise)

My precious . . .

 

The writer falls to its knees, pawing at the cardboard.

 

WRITER

My bookses. Mine. My own.

 

VOICEOVER

Singing happily to itself, the writer retreats to its nest with its treasure.
The precious author copies will be placed in the shrine at the back of
the den, and the box and packing materials added to the the creature’s
bedding to keep it snug through the long weeks to come until eventually,
a new book is born.

 

FADE OUT

 

Jul 16 2014

New arrival: German edition

German_editionsIf you’ve been waiting on Book 3 of The Wild Hunt in German, Der Schleier der Macht a.k.a. The Raven’s Shadow in English, should be available in stores now.

As you can see, Heyne have done another bang-up job with the cover, and it looks even better in the flesh – particularly when arranged with the others in the series. Click the image for a bigger view.

So I guess this means I’d better get back into my writing cave and finish Book 4, then . . .

 

 

Mar 02 2014

The Gemmell Awards longlist and voting is go!

The mighty SnagaIt’s that time of year again: the longlists have been announced for the 2014 David Gemmell Legend Awards, and voting is open. Go feast your eyes on the candidates on display. Go on, I’ll wait.

Right, so, if you’ve been and had a look you might have spotted that one of the names on that there list is mine, up for the Legend Award for The Raven’s Shadow.  If you feel so inclined, you can vote for it here. Personally, I think it’s my best book so far, and I am immensely proud of it, but it is for readers to judge whether it is worthy of a click on the voting form.

And you must do what you feel is right, of course.

 

Jan 18 2014

Of music and magic

Entrance to Fingal's Cave

Fingal’s Cave, the Isle of Staffa : Karl Gruber

One of my earliest memories is of listening to music. On Sunday evenings, to lull me off to sleep, my parents used to leave the radio playing just outside my bedroom door, tuned in to a programme called “Your Hundred Best Tunes”. It featured popular classics, like Morning from The Peer Gynt Suite, and the largo from the New World Symphony, forever to be known in the UK as “the Hovis music” after an inspired television commercial for bread.

That radio programme was my introduction to classical music. Long before I knew the names of the composers, I recognized the pieces by the pictures they painted in my head: the surging surf of Fingal’s Cave, Night on a Bare Mountain with its witches’ sabbat, and the gilded curlicues of The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. Through music I began to explore the landscapes of my imagination, as the pictures prompted questions of who and where and why, and from those seeds, stories grow.

When I’m writing, I almost always have music playing. There are sound practical reasons for this: it blocks out ambient noise that would otherwise distract me, such as the school playground across the road, and creates an aural bubble in which I can focus utterly on what I’m working on, but there are other reasons too; reasons which are equally practical, if a little more ephemeral.

On those days when the creative fires prove difficult to ignite, music provides an extra spark. Whether it’s a mood or a mountain range I’m trying to invoke, the right piece of music can serve as a prompt – and sometimes takes me somewhere I wasn’t expecting. It doesn’t always have to be a classical piece, either: sweeping movie soundtracks, rock, country, any genre you like. If you put my mp3 player on random, it’s entirely possible to segue from AC/DC to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon via Thomas Tallis and Nina Simone, and I’ve found a use for all of them at different times as my stories unfold.

Certain pieces of music also have the power to evoke profound emotional responses, which I can use when I’m tackling a scene that goes beyond my own experience. It’s all very well saying “But you’re a writer, surely you just use your imagination?” but if I want the reader to feel what my character’s feeling, the words have to come not from dispassionate choices made in my head, but from deep inside.

Waterlily in the rain

Waterlily in the rain

I’ve never knelt in the rain with my first love dying in front of me, but start playing the adagio from the Concierto de Aranjuez and I’m there, in that moment, and yes, I’m sobbing my eyes out.

Music has power. Music, to me, is very close to magic. Standing in my garden one summer’s morning, with the sun barely up and the dew still sparkling on the plants, I thought for a second that I could hear the flowers grow. In that moment of whimsy, I heard the songs of the earth, and learned the name of the music Gair heard in the dark as he waited for his sentence to be handed down. With that, another story took flight.

And if that’s not magic, I’m not sure what is.

 

This piece was originally written for my German publisher to promote me as a new writer. I stumbled over it when doing some housekeeping on my PC, and thought it deserved another airing.

 

Jan 13 2014

Cover news – overseas edition

Cover of Bk3 German editionMy spies have reported that this beauty will be the cover of the German edition of The Raven’s Shadow, out later this year.

Hats off to Heyne, who are producing a wonderful set of covers for the series – they look awesome on the shelf together. I can’t wait to get hold of a copy.

Der Schleier der Macht translates as The Veil of Power. Hazarding a guess at why they’ve changed the title, it occurs to me that it might be because Der Schatten des Raben, which is a literal translation of ‘the raven’s shadow’ doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue!

Der Schleier der Macht will be published in Germany on 14 July 2014, in paperback.

In the meantime, I’ll be up here in my office, basking. As you do.

 

Jan 02 2014

The trouble with comparisons

No, really, it's just like it.

No, really, it’s just like it.

There’s something that keeps cropping up in commentary about my books, specifically the first one, Songs of the Earth, which frustrates me no end, because I just don’t get it. At all. And that’s the recurring comparisons to Harry Potter*.

The latest of these occurred over at Fantasy Faction, which is an awesome site and the team that run it are long-term friends and supporters of my work. They just published their list of Top Anticipated Fantasy Novels of 2014, and were kind enough to include my forthcoming book The Dragon House at No. 20:

 

Why we are excited: Elspeth Cooper has some of the best prose we’ve ever come across. We were a little unsure about Gair and this series at first, but Elspeth has really taken this series from something a little too Harry Potter-esque to a series that walks its own path and that is increasingly epic and high-stake for its characters.

 

This is lovely stuff to hear, of course, and I’m deeply flattered to be included on a list with the likes of Daniel Abraham and Jim Butcher, Carol Berg and Elizabeth Bear. But there’s that reference to Harry Potter again. I’ve also had reviews that mention it. One reviewer on Amazon even went so far as to accuse me of totally ripping off Rowling’s books.

To which I have to say: Wuh?

Songs of the Earth is a coming-of-age story, like Harry Potter. This is hardly unique in the fantasy canon. Bildungsroman is one of the key themes of genre storytelling: finding out who you are, where you stand, and what you will not stand for. Songs also takes place in part in a school for magic, like Harry Potter. It’s far from alone in that too**.

But apart from that, there’s very little similarity between the two books. They’re set in different milieus (a magical-realism version of our world vs a secondary universe), aimed at a different audience, and feature very different protagonists (adult bastard nobody-special vs Chosen One boy wizard***).

Bloomsbury cover of Harry Potter & the Philosopher's Stone

A bit too Songs-of-the-Earth-esque?

Even the magic itself is not the same (elemental forces vs cod-Latin spells learned by rote). Maybe you could argue that there’s a minor thematic similarity between the renegade Guardian Savin and He Who Shall Not Be Named, in the sense that they’re both powerful mages gone rogue, but is that really enough to call a book “Harry Potter-esque”?

As for the ‘school for magic’, the two are similar only in concept. Hogwarts is recognisably an English boarding-school environment with Houses and common rooms and intramural sporting challenges. It is Tom Brown’s Schooldays with wands and brooms.

In Songs, I tried to play down the actual learning part because it’d been done before, not least by Rowling, so not one of Gair’s lectures or practical lessons is described on the page in real time. Book magic or learning by rote do not feature. This was because the studying bit was less important to me than exploring Gair’s relationships with others, be they friend, lover or mentor.

Yet the comparisons persist, and I just don’t understand why. My theory is that Harry Potter has had such an enormous impact on popular culture that it’s simply the first thing anyone thinks of at the merest hint of a school for magic – even though that element is probably the least significant part of my book.

Or maybe it’s the imagery of the Masters defending Chapterhouse at the end of Songs that makes them think of Professor McGonagall and Co defending Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I can’t help that: I wrote that scene before the first Harry Potter was even published (Honest. The oldest version of the manuscript I have accessible on this PC is datestamped 6 October 1996. Don’t make me dig out the original files on floppy disk).

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. There are far worse books than Harry Potter to be compared to, after all, but at the same time I worry that these comparisons send the wrong message to potential readers (or worse yet, the parents of potential readers). That if you enjoyed Harry Potter, this book Songs of the Earth is quite like it, when it’s not. Not even a little bit.

So why do people who’ve read it, keep maintaining that it is?

***

* Disclaimer: I haven’t read the HP books, but I have seen the films. Any errors or omissions I make should be considered in this context.

** Just off the top of my head there’s Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy, in which Sonea learns to harness her abilities and rise through the ranks at the Magician’s Guild, and Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind in which the University is basically a school for magic on steroids.

*** Seriously. He’s got a distinguishing mark, his parents were killed in mysterious circumstances, and he was raised in obscurity to keep him safe. If he’d grown up on a farm he’d be Belgarion from the David Eddings books – or Luke Skywalker, the most massive example of the farm-boy-comes-of-age-and-saves-the-world trope in the history of ever.

 

Sep 15 2013

Traditional fantasy: what does that mean to you?

People keep telling me I write traditional fantasy. They’re usually being nice when they say that, otherwise they probably would have called it derivative, so don’t get me wrong, I’m totally happy with the label. But to be honest with you, I’m not sure I know what ‘traditional fantasy’ even means. Or rather, I’m not sure what it means to them, the people using the term. Their perceptions may not be the same as mine.

That’s the thing with labels like ‘traditional’: I want to know whose traditions are being referenced. Y’know, just so we’re clear. There’s nothing worse than having a debate that isn’t actually a debate at all, because we’re talking about the same things, just using different terms to describe them.

Cover of David Eddings' Pawn of ProphecyWhen I think of traditional fantasy, I default to the likes of David Eddings’ Pawn of Prophecy: a Chosen One raised in obscurity to keep him safe, who goes off on a quest with a motley band of adventurers (including a feisty girl that the bewildered, nice-if-a-bit-dim protagonist hates at first but will ultimately marry) leading to a glorious destiny at the end. Probably involving a throne. Black hats and white hats are readily identifiable, motives are rarely murky, and it’s a pretty good bet you know how it’s going to end.

Another trope that I closely associate with ‘traditional’ is the protagonist being somebody’s heir, descendant or a hero reborn. Their destiny is pre-determined and thus their agency is limited because of who they are, so I would put the Shannara books in that category too (although I gather that in later volumes the story tries to get ‘bigger’ and move beyond this). I’d likely throw The Wheel of Time in there too: it certainly started out that way, before Rand got over being a whiny brat, accepted his fate and owned it.

Speaking of prophecy, characters getting pushed around by one is yet another hallmark of what I’d class as traditional. After all, prophecy is a common motif in the myths and religious traditions that fuel much of our storytelling: Ragnarök, Achilles’ heel, auguries etc. As an indiscriminate and voracious teen reader I gobbled up fantasy like that, but these days it chafes a bit. I like to see more characters figuring stuff out as they go and getting thrown off track by their mistakes, rather than just following signposts.

A more general definition of traditional fantasy encompasses those stories which draw on a particular mythic heritage, usually European, usually set in a pseudo-medieval* secondary world, with non-urbanised, non-industrial feudal societies, before the invention of firearms. In other words, a society in which the existence of magic can’t be argued away by actual science. I can see why people would apply that definition to The Wild Hunt, although personally I don’t think the shoe quite fits. It’s pinching my toes and there’s a blister on my heel.

Balliol College Quadrangle (5647597466)

Balliol College, Oxford – founded in 1263

The Empire I wrote about has a state press (at least in the capital), mass-printed books, accurate clocks, mechanised weaving, quite widespread literacy, numerous universities, and some indoor plumbing, all referenced in the text, and none of it dependent on magic, only human ingenuity. By those lights, I wouldn’t call it ‘pseudo-medieval’ at all – it’s more ‘pseudo-early modern’.**

I’ve tried to portray it as a society on the verge of a technological leap: they already import fireworks, so it’s only a matter of time before someone starts looking closely at their explosive properties, and the military applications thereof.***

The Empire is also only a titular monarchy, and the Emperor does not have absolute power. He requires a consensus in his privy council, whose members are regional governors for each of the provinces in the Empire (which were once kingdoms in their own right) and if they chose to revolt, they could vote for the appointment of a new Emperor. Yes, really. No divine right of kings here.

There’s no band of plucky adventurers either. Most of the time Gair’s alone, or with one or two people, who are not constant companions but move in and out of the action as needed – and the feisty girl is an older woman who makes no secret of the way she feels.

I will cop to the wandering magus trope, however, and the fact that there is some mystery over Gair’s parentage, although I tried to poke fun at that a little:

‘You know, that has the ring of a story to it,’ Alderan said. ‘The orphaned boy with the crown-shaped birthmark that identifies him as the lost heir to the kingdom, and so forth.’

Gair shook his head. ‘No crowns. No kingdoms. Just a soldier’s brat put out to charity.’

– Songs of the Earth

The truth is exactly what Gair believes it to be: his mother couldn’t keep him and his foster family didn’t want to, so he ended up raised by the Church. But when the music stops and the story ends, he will not be the king of anything.

I used those tropes deliberately, knowing I would get flak for them, because they fitted the story I was telling. I’ll use whatever tools are available to me to build what I want. Besides, I’m nowhere near well-enough read in the genre to know the minutiae of everything that’s been done before and therefore attempt to create something entirely new; the story came first and the world evolved around it. If all this makes me a writer of traditional fantasy, then so be it.

So I circle back to the original question: what does traditional fantasy mean for you? Is it the setting, the plot, the protagonist’s origin story? Is it the archetypes the author uses, the mythos they chose to draw from? Does it even matter to you, as a reader, as long as the characters are engaging and the story’s fun?

Is a bit of tradition really a bad thing?

***

* A personal grumble of mine: I get a tad irritated when folk use the term ‘medieval’, which refers to the Middle Ages, as some kind of lazy catch-all for any pre-industrial society. The Middle Ages were on their way out by the time Gutenberg produced his folio Bible in 1455. Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and his anatomical sketches were maybe fifty years away,  and both Oxford and Cambridge had colleges that were by then already almost 200 years old.

** I studied early modern history, so I drew on that in building my world. The Tudor era, the dissolution of the monasteries, the Reformation, the whole nine yards.

*** Consider the proliferation of firearms in our world, spreading westwards from China into Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the evolution of personal rather than battlefield weapons. Yes, considering the timelines of other technological developments I appropriated from European history, the Empire should probably have at least prototype mortars by now, but this was one area I deliberately chose not to explore in these books. I had plenty else to deal with. Besides, the trade routes up from the lands beyond Arkadie are risky, so it’s hard to bring new ideas home. Ships are lost all the time to storms and piracy. It’s entirely possible there are cast bronze cannon already languishing at the bottom of the Inner Sea with the Empire’s equivalent of the Mary Rose.

 

Aug 31 2013

The Raven’s Shadow giveaway winners!

Hardbacks to give away

In case you’ve forgotten what you’ve won

Thanks to everyone who entered the recent giveaway for signed copies of The Raven’s Shadow – 176* of you in all. I have so much fun doing these things I wish my dark masters had sent me more copies!

What’s been especially nice this time around has been hearing all the lovely things people have to say about the series so far. I’m quite humbled. Never did I imagine that this story I wrote for myself would be enjoyed by so many people.

So, moving on, before I get any more mushy and ruin my image: the winners have been drawn, and the following five lucky people

Jorge, Wayne, Joel, Babel, and Paul

 

will soon be receiving an email from me for their address and personalisation details. I’m aiming to get your books in the post on Saturday 7th September (how the hell did it get to be September already?)

Hope you enjoy the read!

*3 duplicate entries removed from 179 comments. Winners were selected using the random number generation tool at www.random.org.

 

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