Friday, January 31, 2014

Collaborating With Myself

I'm not one of those writers who can produce a detailed plan of a novel and then fill it out, chapter by chapter. I usually know the beginning and the end of a novel before I begin, and a few places along the way that contain crucial turns of plot, but it's mostly a process of discovery. I know where I'm going but I don't know how I'm going to get there until I set out; as I learn more about my characters, they refuse many of the clever bits of plotting I've dreamed up, turn out to have their own ideas about what to do. After sprinting through a first draft, with its many diversions from the path I intended, there are several revisionary drafts where darlings are slaughtered, the narrative is deepened and reconciled with the story, continuity glitches are fixed, and the prose is tightened and polished. Each new stage is a collaboration with the last. I'm at the final stage in that process with Something Coming Through; this time last year, I was revisiting the three novels of the Confluence trilogy, working in collaboration with my younger self from 17, 18 years past.

When I was finishing the first novel, Child of the River, and was working on the first drafts of the second and third, I'd recently won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Fairyland, had just quit my job, and had moved to London. The second and third weren't triggered by the first. I'd already planned to resign from my job as a lecturer at St Andrews University before I won the award, and because I'd only moved to Scotland to work there and had no ties, I'd also decided to move on.  So through the summer of 1996 I worked on the books in a spare bedroom of a house I didn't own, and spent most of my spare time looking for a permanent home. Like Yama, the hero of the trilogy, I had given up everything I knew for an uncertain future and had moved from a small town to a capital city; as I sweated in the summer heat, he travelled further and further downriver through tropical landscapes towards the waist of his world.

The three novels, published in 1996, 1997 and 1998, were caught up in corporate takeovers in the UK and the US; when Gollancz agreed to republish them in a fat omnibus, the original files used to set the books were long gone. So I resurrected my old WordPerfect 5.0 files and read through them, and then went over them again to remove a few niggling inconsistencies in the narrative and to give the prose a further polish. My younger self didn't need my help move a story through its twists and turns. He'd learnt from Robert Louis Stevenson how landscape can shape and reveal the actions of the characters, and to keep action scenes short and sharp.  He'd crammed plenty of eyekicks and estrangement into the narrative.  And Yama's story, his discovery of the costs and obligations of escaping from his mundane fate and becoming a hero, and the sacrifices he must make to find a way of saving his world, was fixed by the course of the river he follows.

So in its omnibus incarnation, the story and almost all of the narrative of the trilogy remains the same. Revision was mostly a question of tightening the focus of sentences and paragraphs, and sharpening certain passages. My younger self loved adjectives far more than I do, and tended to force-weld sentences together (like this one). Some of the dialogue was a little forced, too; sometimes it strained for profundity. I've tried to cut that away without losing any of the meaning. In short, if Yama's story reads a little more easily in places, I hope I've stayed as true as possible to the intentions of that younger self as he wrote himself into his new life.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Evening's Empires has made the shortlist for Best Novel of 2013 in the British Science Fiction Association Awards. A hugely unexpected and very pleasing tick mark. Many thanks to all who nominated my book, and congratulations to all the other nominees - it's an intimidating list:

  • God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Del Rey)
  • Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie (Orbit)
  • Evening's Empires by Paul McAuley (Gollancz)
  • Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell (Solaris)
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
The full list of nominees for all BSFA Awards is here. Winners will be decided in a balloted vote by members of the BSFA and attendees at the Satellite 4 convention, Glasgow, in April.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Genre Trap

Outwith the many parallels between the actual Greenwich Village scene in the early 1960s and elements of the story and mise en scene of Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film by the Coen Brothers provides a useful lesson in the trap of genre. The eponymous hero is a musician in the pure folk revival tradition, playing old songs and murder ballads with no little skill and intensity, but failing to find a way to advance his career.  He's just released a solo album after his singing partner committed suicide, but can't prise any royalties out of his manager and fails an audition at a prestigious venue after a sisyphean journey to Chicago. He's lost the thread of his life and his artistry.  At one point he notices a toilet graffito: What are you doing? What he isn't doing is creating anything new, apart from a few licks in a work-for-hire novelty record (and he signs away his rights for a quick buck). He isn't breaking out of the narrowing trap of genre, where you can get by with the old tropes and tricks even if you don't believe in them any more. He's waiting, in the brutal winter of 1961, for a thaw that comes (too late, for him) with the arrival of Bob Dylan and his magpie incorporation of the old lines and myths and figures into vivid new structures that speak to the present, not to the past. Take the old and make it new and make it sing again, and break on through to the other side.

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