Sunday, 6 April 2014

What's It All About? (The Joy of Text)

I published my second novel last week so both parts of 'The Written World' are now online and waiting for the world to take notice.  However, the world itself seems to have been a little distracted of late - what with all its wars, political instabilities, live talent shows and everything - so, in an effort to accelerate this notice-taking process, I've been contacting a few indie reviewers and asking if they wouldn't mind taking a look. Quite naturally, one of the first questions they've tended to ask is what the books are about.

Now, I already have a day job so writing, re-writing and editing the two novels has taken literally years. In fact, some of the themes and core concepts have been bouncing around inside my head for more than a quarter of a century - generally wondering quite what to do with themselves and whether they'd ever make it out onto the surface of a page. I mention this not because I'm trying to suggest that 'The Written World' is in any way profound or particularly well-considered but rather to show just how strange and unhelpful it is that, even after all this time, I'm still having a certain amount of trouble explaining what, precisely, the two novels are about.

When I'm feeling especially pretentious, I like to make important-sounding statements in which phrases such as subjugation, cultural imperialism and rebellion against traditional bases of power crop up rather a lot. I sometimes hint at some philosophical themes revolving around ontology, free will and the nature of experience or, with a glass or two of wine inside me, I might even venture to suggest that it's about the motivations and deceptions involved in the writing of fiction itself. At this point, however, most people's eyes tend to glaze over so I usually discover that this is an excellent time to shut up.

In any event, all of this literary posturing is largely irrelevant; it might be useful if I were applying for a grant or trying to impress someone at a party but the truth of it is that all these themes grew out of a much more mundane aspiration. I just wanted to write.

When I began this process, the first words I ever put down on paper were: "A series of entertaining scenarios." That was how I wanted the whole thing to be structured; how I wanted it to feel. That's because, when I look back to some of my favourite authors, that's how I remember their writing. For me, the joy of their work is not so much to be found in the sequence of the events (whether they relate to a real life journey or the unfolding of a fictional plot) but in the experience of immersing oneself in the writing and enjoying the moment.

For example, I love Bill Bryon's wry observations and his perennial position as the slightly bemused outsider. I love Douglas Adams' anarchically inventive use of language. And I love the way Stephen Fry can conjure a creation such as Professor Donald Trefusis, whose phraseology (and world view) are, I think, almost incomparably admirable. Their books are all possessed of real warmth and humanity and, crucially, they're funny. To read them is to be entertained and often, the specific subject isn't all that important; it really is a case of enjoying the journey more than the destination.

Now, clearly, I'm never going to attain those lofty peaks but their presence in the landscape does at least aid navigation; it gives you something to aim for. I wanted to write something that took the characters from one interesting scenario to another and although I obviously needed the plot to build towards a climax, the order in which these scenarios occurred was almost incidental.

As a long-time reader of fantasy and sci-fi novels, I felt that there were all kinds of tropes and clichés that had comic potential - plus a few more from role playing games that I wanted to throw into the mix. Planning the novels was therefore largely a question of deciding which of them to examine and at what point in the journey. The first book tends to look at urban fantasy, wizardry and elaborately dangerous lairs whilst the second looks more at the conventions of the 'great quest' fantasy - the long journey, with all its attendant hardships, exotic monsters and moments of discovery.

I also wanted to make part of the story revolve around cartography and exploration because it just seemed inherently funny, given what we know of history and all those antique maps illustrated with sea serpents and tribes of two-headed men. Some of the real life explorers of old were just so obviously fantasists, prepared to lie and exaggerate in order to elevate their positions, and I thought it would be funny to imagine that a whole industry could evolve to cater for such people.

On top of all that, there are some glances in the direction of cultural intolerance, zealotry and economic development strategy so, all in all, it's a series of novels that has quite a lot chucked in. I suppose that's why I find it difficult to give a simple answer to the question 'what's it about?' and why I undoubtedly still have a lot of work to do perfecting my 'elevator pitch.'

For the time being, I might just say 'wizards.'

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