Holy cows and swastikas – “Cycles of Udaipur”

199 Pichola Lake


In 2012-13 I was lucky enough to take some time to travel the world. My first stop was India, a country so crazy I don’t have the space to describe it properly here. India is a bizarro-England, in some familiar and in some the complete opposite. It is frantic, deliriously colourful, filthy yet pure, spiritual yet seemingly gods-forsaken. I loved it.

Despite the great times I had in subsequent countries – including the currently blighted Nepal (donate here) – I decided that my next novel would be set in India, which is in many ways unexplored by modern literature.

Contemporary novels set in India (at least, those written in English), are enamoured with the history and spirituality of the country, at the expense of reality. They acknowledge the issue of poverty and patriarchal social structure, but shirk its rapidly-growing modernity for a daydreamy post-Raj interpretation. They fail entirely to deal with the disillusionment of its modern youth, the outpacing of technology and wealth compared to the cultural maturity of its emerging middle class, and the much-underpublicised rise in sophisticated gang crime.


Cycles of Udaipur


I adored many of the cities I visited during my time in India, but my favourite was almost certainly Udaipur: beautiful, serene, artistic Udaipur, in deep Rajasthan.  There are two cities in the world that I felt a strong immediate bond with upon visiting (the second is Kathmandu, specifically Boudhanath). I set my novel, “Cycles of Udaipur”, in Rajasthan and set out to explore the new tribulations of India’s youth as described above.

The finished result is “Cycles of Udaipur”, which has been much changed and edited since I finished its first draft a long time ago. I’m now very excited to approach my first literary agency, which the is the first step on the long, steep, painful road towards traditional publication.

I’ll keep you posted – in the mean time, wish me luck!

—db

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On the Western front

seraphim-falls

Back when this was the “Spinning Lizard” blog, I mentioned that I was working on a Western story.  Here’s the original post, from two whole years ago.

Eventually I fleshed out a solid revenge tale and called it “The Gun of our Maker”, which I worked on prior to my jaunt to China and tinkered with since.

The market for Westerns is smaller than a prairie dog’s arsehole at the minute, so I’ve decided to polish it up and release it as an e-book for the fun-sized price of 99p.  Look out for it in the coming weeks or months if you like your grit true and your vengeance bloody!

To whet your whistle, here’s the official blurb for “The Gun of our Maker”, coming soon:


Minnesota, 1859: a man is executed for skimming
from a silver mine to provide for his family.

Arizona, 1877: the sins of the father catch up with the son

Six weeks later: a man on horseback scales
the forests of the Mogollon Rim. He is
searching for Bill Hawken, a renowned gunsmith.

Vivian Culhane is far from a typical hero. Crippled by a
childhood illness, he is weak, blind – yet unstoppable.

Together they will build an instrument of vengeance
that will be known across Arizona, New Mexico and
Texas – a revolver that produces red smoke,
with a limited supply bullets and a thirst for justice.


—db

How to fail at writing a novel (pt.1)

How to fail at writing

I meet a lot of people who are impressed that I wrote a novel. They’re even more impressed when they learn that it was picked up by a traditional publisher.  Writing a novel seems like an unreachable goal for a lot of people, a fantasy that will never come to fruition no matter how hard they try.

And lots of people try.  My artistic social circle is filled with people who have started to write a novel and given up.  From my first days at university back in 2003 to this blustery, wet March of 2015, I keep meeting people who have never achieved what they set out to do: write a novel.

I’m hardly an expert on the subject.  ‘Half Discovered Wings‘ was published in 2009, and it took me six years to write it, get it into a publishable state, then find a publisher.  In the six years since I’ve written several finished manuscripts and attempted to find literary agents for two of those, with no luck (I like to blame the economic crash, but that excuse is losing its validity with every new pre-election Budget).  But as a reader and an increasingly successful ghostwriter, I know what can work if the stars are aligned, and what will not.

Here begins a short series of posts about how to fail at writing your novel.

1. Don’t know your genre

I had great fun reading the long-awaited seventh novel from literary great Kazuo Ishiguro.  Not because ‘The Buried Giant’ was a good novel, but because I was fascinated by the catastrophe of it.  It was a staid exercise in watching the author trying to claw out of quicksand he knowingly walked into.

Kazuo Ishiguro - The Buried Giant

‘The Buried Giant’ was ten years in the making and its release was hailed as the literary event of the year.  People expected great things from the author of ‘An Artist of the Floating World’ and ‘The Remains of the Day’.  As a writer of moving literary fiction, Ishiguro should have known better, but for some reason he decided to venture into the genre of high fantasy.  Without knowing a thing about how to write a fantasy novel.

Personally I was amazed at how a writer as talented as Ishiguro could create a world populated by monsters, dragons and sorcery whilst hardly showing us any monsters, dragons or sorcery Incredible fantasy and sci-fi author Ursula le Guin slammed Ishiguro for being vague in a scathing blog post, and she’s right.

Bearing in mind Ishiguro’s bizarre insistence that his fantasy novel was not a fantasy novel, I was two thirds of the way through the book and still wondering whether it was a clever literary device in which the characters believed in the paranormal but the world was actually as described in our history books.  Nope.  A knight attempts to slay a dragon in the final act, and the dragon is indubitably real within the fictional reality of the book.

So why did I spent 200 pages or so wondering whether this really was a fantasy book?

Ishiguro knew nothing about the trade of writing a fantasy novel.  One can’t write a literary novel and just throw in a witch or two and hope to be taken seriously.  World-building is a serious, concerted effort on the part of the writer to construct something tangible and believable within its own context bubble.  Successful fantasy trailblazers such as Tolkien and le Guin were successful because they created living, breathing worlds with complex politics, ecosystems, economies and landscapes.  I could write a whole other post about the importance of world-building, but that would be going off topic.

So why did Ishiguro, this master of the word, fail so miserably?  He probably read a lot of fantasy, but the wrong kind of fantasyToo many writers saw The Lord of the Rings in cinemas and thought, “Hey, that’s cool and it’s successful, I’ll write something like that”, unaware that Tolkien was a master but also a blight on fantasy fiction that writers are still struggling to recover from.  “Fantasy” is too often synonymous with “Middle-Earth” and it’s taking the Herculean efforts of the likes of China Mieville to reinvent the popular assumptions about fantasy literature.  Ishiguro took the standard fantasy tropes, such as knights, dragons and ogres, and shoehorned them into his rather touching piece about the nature of human memory, more as a plot device than anything substantial.

If you want to succeed in writing in any genre, read a lot of books in that genreOnly then will you know why your particular genre is important and how to be original with it.  If you don’t know which parts of the map have been drawn, then how will you know in which direction the uncharted territory lies?  Originality should be the goal of any writer (as far as that is possible).  I can’t help feeling that Ishiguro thought that he knew fantasy, but has probably never read a book by Mieville or Jeff Vandermeer or M. John Harrison.

For any genre, follow a few simple tips:

  1. Read lots of book in your chosen genre and learn what makes them work
  2. If you’ve read your idea somewhere before, come up with a new idea
  3. Read authors from each sub-genre.  There is no such thing as “fantasy”, there is really “high fantasy”, “slipstream”, “steampunk”, “magic realism”, “weird fiction”…
  4. For your genre, think about its themes and style.  Learn the rules before you break them
  5. Don’t read only your chosen genre – diversify your talents in style and vocabulary

Keep reading, keep writing, never surrender!

—db

How long should a novel be? (pt.1)

Photo by Joel Robison

Photo by Joel Robison

Whenever I meet other writers, one of the questions that often comes up is: “How long should my novel be?”  There are variations on the question, such as “How long is too long?” and “How short is too short?”  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find some reliable answers to these questions myself, and decided to write up the results for the benefit of fellow authors.


Discussing novel lengths and word counts

It’s easiest to talk about the length of fiction in terms of word count, rather than pages.  The reason for this is simple: if you say your short story is twenty pages, I would say “What size font?  Double or single spaced?  What size are your margins?  Do you use a lot of snappy dialogue, or dense blocks of narrative?”  Compare a few pages of a sparse novel, such as James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces“, to a dense tome such as Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow“, and you’ll get the idea.

Every word processor has a function to count the words in your text, so don’t be afraid to use it!  Publishers will want to know how long your novel is in number of words; the same goes if you submit it to an editor or proofreader for that critical review before you submit for print or publication.


Determining your ideal word count

If you have an idea for a novel and you’re familiar with the genre, there’s an easy way to decide how long it should be.  Let’s say you’d like to write the next steamy romance bestseller along the lines of “Fifty Shades of Grey”.  Go to the Romance section of Waterstones or your local bookshop (if there are any left in your area) and pick up a few similar titles.  You’ll notice that, generally speaking, they’re all about the same thickness, and have similarly sized fonts within.  The reason for this is that the publishers have a very good idea of how long this kind of book should be, and stick to it.  If you want them to publish your novel, then you should stick to it too.

One way to guess a book’s word count is to count the number of pages (say 300) and times it by 250 (average number of words per page) to get the total word count (in this case, 75,000 words).

250 words is a good guess per page, but this depends on the font size.  If you want to get a more accurate calculation, open one of those Romance books (or a book from your chosen genre) and count how many words are in each of the first ten lines.  Work out an average, then times it by the number of lines on the page.  This will likely be between 200 and 260 words.  Then you can times it by the number of pages in the book.

Number of words on a full line
x
Number of lines on the page
x
Number of pages in the book


Word count of famous novels

As an illustration, here are some famous novels that will be easily to find in your local bookshop, with their word lengths (credit goes to this site):

  • 30,500 – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl (Children’s)
  • 36,000 – Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe – C. S. Lewis (Children’s)
  • 46,000 – Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (Science fiction)
  • 47,000 – The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (Literary drama)
  • 49,500 – Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut (Science fiction)
  • 56,500 – As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner (Literary drama)
  • 60,000 – Lord of the Flies – William Golding (Literary drama)
  • 63,500 – Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Wool (Literary drama)
  • 67,000 – Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson (Adventure)
  • 67,500 – The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway (Wartime drama)
  • 73,500 – The Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger (Coming of age)
  • 77,500 – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J. K. Rowling (Children’s)
  • 78,500 – The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (Literary drama)
  • 85,000 – The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera (Literary drama)
  • 89,000 – Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (Science fiction)
  • 89,000 – Waiting – Ha Jin (Literary drama)
  • 100,000 – To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee (Drama)
  • 113,000 – The Golden Compass – Philip Pullman (Fantasy)
  • 119,500 – My Sisters Keeper – Jodi Picoult (Drama)
  • 123,500 – Atonement – Ian McEwan (Family saga)
  • 138,000 – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne (Fantasy)
  • 144,500 – One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Family saga)
  • 145,500 – Last of the Mohicans – James Fenimore Cooper (Historical drama)
  • 156,000 – Emma – Jane Austen (Romance)
  • 156,000 – Watership Down – Richard Adams (Adventure)
  • 183,500 – Great Expectations – Charles Dickens (Coming of age)
  • 184,000 – Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë (Romance)
  • 206,000 – Moby Dick – Herman Melville (Adventure)
  • 208,500 – Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie (Fantasy drama)
  • 211,500 – Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Drama)
  • 236,000 – A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving (Drama)
  • 257,000 – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J. K. Rowling (Children’s)
  • 418,000 – Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell (Historical epic)
  • 455,000 – The Lord of the Rings (trilogy) – J. R. R. Tolkien (Epic fantasy)
  • 562,000 – Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand (Drama)
  • 587,000 – War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy (Drama)

So, should you emulate these great authors?  J. K. Rowling’s “Order of the Phoenix” was a whopping 257,000 words, so should you aim for this when writing your first fantasy book for children?  Hell, no.  Apart from the fact that dear J. K. really, really needed a good editor in the post-Azkaban years, she was also by then well established and immensely successful. She had free rein to do whatever she liked, much to the detriment of children’s fiction everywhere.

Also, books we now consider classics were often significantly longer back in the day than popular books now.  Why?  Because there was less competition; because they were often written and published in installments; and because being wordy and “literary” was what made one a “proper” writer and worthy of being read (although it should be noted that many authors now considered masters were thought of as trashy during their own time. Fortunately for E.L. James).


Average word count by genre

My personal recommendation when it comes to choosing your word count is to go on the standard for the genre.  Publishers follow these loose guidelines for a reason.  There are always exceptions, so take them with a pinch of salt, but they are a handy guide.  If you’re out by more than 10,000 words, then you should re-think your plot or give it a thorough editing.

  • Literary: 60 to 90,000 words
  • Young adult: 45 to 80,000 words
  • Romance: 85 to 100,000 words
  • Cozy mysteries: 65 to 90,000 words
  • Thrillers: 90 to 100,000 words
  • Popular & chick-lit: 80 to 100,000 words
  • Epic sci-fi & fantasy: 100 to 120,000 words
  • Modern sci-fi & fantasy: 80 to 100,000 words
  • Horror: 80 to 100,000 words
  • Western: 80 to 100,000 words

No doubt some people will disagree with some of these, so I encourage responses in the comments section!


For some final words, and advice for debut novelists, check this part 2 of this post here.  Thanks for reading!

—db

On writing

pic_1I have been a writer for as long as I can remember.  For years I’ve maintained my writer’s website, SpinningLizard.co.uk, but recently allowed this to lapse.

As the site is no longer available, and as I’ve already been asked how people can find a record of my publications, I’m going to list them here with links.

As I probably won’t have access to social networking once I’m in China, I will update you on this blog with any future publications.

 

          NOVELS

          — “Half Discovered Wings” (2009) Libros International

 

          ANTHOLOGY CONTRIBUTIONS

          Chipwrecked (2014) to be featured in “The Pantechnicon Book of Lies”, Pantechnicon Press

          The Colours Behind the World (2013) featured in “Morpheus Tales: The Best Weird Fiction Volume 3”

          Resolution 1838 (2010) featured in “Skulls and Crossbones”, Bedazzled Inc.

 

          SHORT STORIES

          The Transdimensionalist (August 2014) to be printed in Estronomicon

          Solution (January 2014) printed in Bewildering Storiesb

          Amelia Amongst Machines (August 2013) printed in Electric Spec

          Daylight (July 2013) printed in Creator and the Catalyst

          BigDog (March 2013) printed in Aoife’s Kiss

          — A Taste of Real Earth (November 2011) printed in AntipodeanSF

          A Quiet Moment (October 2011) featured in Paraxis

          Kashkei and the Firebird, at Peace (June 2011) printed in Mirror Dance

          — Untitled short (February 2011) printed in Scifaikuest

          — Shaking the Tree (August 2010) printed in Bewildering Stories

          Numbered (April 2010) printed in Whispering Spirits

          Homuncupus (April 2010) printed in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction

          The Colours Behind the World (January 2010) printed in Morpheus Tales

          A Creature of Substance (December 2009) printed in Delivered

          — Touching the Foam (August 2009) printed in Bewildering Stories

          Sense (July 2009) published at Microhorror.com

          — Albino Weed (June 2009) published at Microhorror.com

          Providence (May 2009) printed in The Cynic

          Tulpa (March 2009) printed in Pantechnicon

          The Dry Air (December 2008) printed in Aphelion

          Bleach (August 2008) printed in Aphelion

          Tranquil Sea (June 2008) printed in Pantechnicon

          Split (March 2008) printed in Pantechnicon

          — Space Castaway (February 2008) printed in Aphelion

          Krill (June 2007) printed in Pantechnicon

          Crust (May 2007) printed in Brew City Magazine

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