Imagine that you are empty.
That’s how you should begin to think of yourself at the start of your career as an author. You won’t, but it is how you should. I certainly didn’t think of myself as being empty, twenty odd years ago. I thought I was well read, I thought I knew the craft, and I thought I had it worked out. Of course, I wasn’t, didn’t, and nothing was like I thought. Instead, I was empty. Maybe a few drops here and there, but nothing worth noting, and certainly nothing to make me realise how poorly read I was.
It might sound like a strange way to begin what is essentially a piece of unasked advice, but when you start out wanting to be an author, what you start out learning first, is how to read. Most people are bad readers. They have a lot of bad habits: they skim, they skip, they have partial understandings of techniques, and firm beliefs in what makes good writing good, and bad writing bad. To a degree, education systems foster those habits. You can, and a lot of students do, write essays having partially read the book. You can use sparknotes and another’s essay to fill in the gaps. High School also invites you to have partial understanding of social and literary movements, such as feminism, post modernity, and so on and so forth, so that you can write confidently about it. And bare in mind that I haven’t even begun to discuss the difference between a well marked piece of creative writing and a publishable story. But, anyhow: there’s a lot of things that go into developing a bad reading habit, and some of it is the books you read, some of it is the pursuit of marks, and some of it is something else, and then something else again. It is just best to think that, when you wish to become an artist, you have to rework how you approach the art.
Your first few years of being an author will therefor be about learning how to read and how to approach the work of others and the work of yourself. That doesn’t mean you won’t sell stories, or novels, or poetry, or essays, or whatever during that time. You may. You may not. But one piece sold is not a career made, and quite often, it is the second piece that is harder.
See, when I talk about being an author, I don’t think in one piece of work, but a body of work. I think of a lifetime given over to a pursuit of art, of an expression of yourself. I think of the evolution of yourself, marked through your work. For me, that is what being an author is about.
Not everyone does, mind you. Everyone works differently. For one author, it might simply be about one book. For another, it might be about a piece here, a piece there, and not a single one is anything but a product made to be sold, and one with little to no impact on the self. There’s nothing wrong with those choices because there is no rule but for art but the one you create yourself. My rule is not your rule, your rule is not my rule. It is a pretty simple concept, really.
But: lets return to the idea that you’re empty.
The question then is how do you fill yourself up?
There are lots of answers for that. Personally, I think it begins when you leave High School, and you leave an education system that is designed to provide you with a general and broad ranged introduction to many disciplines. I don’t think I’ll find many people who will disagree that specialist training begins once you leave High School.
Now, what’s available to you after that is a whole lot of options, and none of them are wrong. There’s university, college, workshops, and more, and none. If you want to go off, and learn about literature yourself, and discover all the different forms and concepts, you are more than welcome to it. Just promise me you won’t go down one of those anti-intellectual arguing paths, where you say that education is a waste, that real life is where it is, and so on, and so forth. It may seem like I have a jaded view of school, but I value it enormously. I’m just realistic about what it produces. School does not pop you out of a shell, ready made, to be anything, be it an author, or a lawyer, or a mechanic. Education, in whatever form it takes after you have finished school, remains important, and just like bagging life experience isn’t doing you any good, taking up an anti-intellectual stance isn’t going to help you, either. Never mind the fact that as an author you have begun to take part in an intellectual exercise. So, if you go it alone, sweet – use whatever is available to you, and read as widely as you can, and write as much as you can – but don’t hate the part of yourself that you use to make art with. If for no other reason, it makes me sad to see that, and who in this world wants to make me sad?
Lets pretend the answer is no one, shall we?
Anyhow, so, instead of going it alone, what if you decide to go into University, or college, or partake in workshops, or mentors, or writing groups – what can you expect from them?
Well, firstly, you cannot expect to be published. If any of those things promise that you will be, at the end, published, or publishable, you ought to view it as a red flag. If there was a simple course that allowed you to learn how to write fiction and then, after two weeks, six months, or three years, become Published Author With Good Contract, there’d be a line for the factory it was held in. It’s just not a promise you can believe in. For some people it will happen, of course, but that has little to do with the course. A course may help you learn how to submit, but if that course takes anything over half an hour to show you how to do that, you’re probably being ripped off (and even then, half an hour is allowing for a lot of unnecessary discussion).
What you should expect is time and exposure. I’ll start with the second, first, because exposure can mean a different thing here, and I do not mean published without payment (which is often called ‘exposure’). No, when I say exposure, what I mean is that a good course, workshop, or whatever, will expose you to writing you haven’t seen, or heard of. Authors, genres, forms – it is from each of these that you will begin to learn the craft of an author. You will learn how to use techniques as simple as metaphor and third or second or first person, and techniques as complex as page space, thematic development, and the like. They are crafts you will have to learn one way or another and anyone who tells you that these things can’t be taught, or that you simply must have ‘it’ is not someone you want to learn from. There is plenty of craft to learn in fiction while you are discovering your voice, and your ideas, and your self, that nebulous ‘it’ factor that the most impressive, and best of authors have that we all admire.
The next is time. Time, as you get older, is one of the most precious things available to an author. A lot of things will get in the way of your fiction, from work, to partners, to family, to whatever else you can think of. It all eats up your time, especially if you’re not making a living out of your art, which, at the start of your career, is pretty much a given. The ability to give yourself over to thoughts about fiction, either yours or another’s, is perhaps the biggest gift that any workshop or course can give you. To simply have that time opened to you, and separated from the daily requirements of life, is a huge boon, and I personally used it a lot in the early years of what I refer to as my career. It was especially important because, if I had been left to go it alone, I do not think I would have had the self discipline, or the tools, to force myself to write, and to discover new authors, and new forms of writing. That time that I got out of University was the biggest gift to me as a new author and, if you need that time, you shouldn’t be afraid to grab it where you can. It won’t be for everyone, of course – either because some don’t like education, or because some can’t afford it, but if you can do it, and it does work for you, then grab it.
(In relation to the cost, I can only hope that you are as lucky as I was that the Australian Government had a scheme that allowed you to defer the payment of your debts, and that if you completed further study in a set time frame, it was free. If you don’t have that available, don’t be afraid to find good online communities and forums, and writing communities in the real world.)
Anyhow, that’s enough for today. Next week, I reckon I’ll write another piece in the topic, and continue it forward. Or, I won’t. But I think I will: it’s mostly about organising my own thoughts and the thoughts are there. If it helps people out, all good.
I made a soundtrack for The Godless last year for fun. It wasn’t professional, or full of music I made – Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong is a brilliant example of that – but I enjoyed making it and so I made one for Leviathan’s Blood.
The soundtrack works just like it did in The Godless: one piece of music per section. If you recall my statement earlier that I used the new TV series structure for the book, then think of each section as an episode, and the song is tied to the final events of that episode, and attempts to tie what has happened together. Just like The Godless soundtrack, Leviathan’s Blood follows the same rule, and each song fits in at the end. It’s mostly just a little bit of fun that I indulge in with the book after I’ve written it, and edits are unfolding, and I tell myself people have a vague interest, so I post it here.
However, there is one difference between The Godless and Leviathan’s Blood soundtracks, in that I am not going to list each sections title in Leviathan’s Blood. It’s mostly for those of you who want no spoilers whatsoever. There not hugely spoilery, but I’m a kind and generous author.
Anyhow: here it is.
‘Have You Passed Through This Night?’ – Explosions in the Sky
‘Picking On Me’ – Skunk Anansie
‘Protection’ – Massive Attack
‘Chains ‘n Things’ – B.B. King
‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’ – Say Lou Lou
‘Help These Blues’ – The Blues Explosion
‘Lazarus’ – David Bowie
‘What We Loved Was Not Enough’ – Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra
‘Imagine’ – A Perfect Circle
‘Bones in the Water – Battle of Mice
‘Knights of Cydonia’ – Muse
‘Go For the Throat’ – Iggy Pop
‘Mrs Jones’ – Hole
‘Now There’s That Fear Again’ – Mum
‘Thankful N’ Thoughtful’ – Bettye LaVatte
Yes, it’s true. Leviathan’s Blood has been released!
You should buy it. You should review it. You should tell your friends about it. Perhaps even your enemies.
I’m pretty happy with it, myself. It’s the middle of the trilogy, the Empire of the Children Trilogy, and there are things in this book that I am absurdly pleased with. There is a set of scenes here that I worked towards from the moment I settled on the narrative structure of the book. (It is, for those of you who have not heard me say it before, a structure that echoes the 12/13 episode structure that TV shows have adopted in the last decade. One of my favourite shows of this was Deadwood, and I remember, way back when I began work on The Godless, how interesting it would be for a fantasy book to echo that.) It’s strange to have a moment laid out in a book beyond the first while you’re writing it, but frankly, the whole series is laid out in that fashion, which will hopefully make for an interesting rereading for people. But anyhow, I am absurdly pleased with this.
Naturally, of course, that means no one will talk about it. But such is life.
Anyhow: go buy, share, and buy for your friends. Don’t allow me to become an old, crazy man in a gave, scribbling on the dirt.
Yesterday, copies of Leviathan’s Blood arrived. These were the UK editions. The book will be released on April 7th, so just over a week from now. Germany and America will follow in May, on the 2nd and 31st respectively. It’s a big, cool book, I reckon – I like it more than The Godless because I think, in certain ways, Leviathan’s Blood is more ambitious. But I’ll let others decide that, in the end. I’m pretty content with it. It’s the middle part of the trilogy, and as with all middle parts, it’s the dark centre.
Like all middle books – well, like all my books – Leviathan’s Blood is going to need help appearing on the radars of people who haven’t heard of the series, and that’s where you can help. You can do that by pre-ordering (or ordering, if you come by this post after the book’s release), by telling your friends, posting reviews, starting conversations about it and, of course, by buying a thousand copies each. Now, I know what you’re saying, ‘Ben, what would I do with a thousand copies of your book?’ to which I say, ‘You could us 999 to burn the bodies of your enemies.’ Not, of course, that I condone book burning. Or murder, for that matter. But if you find yourself with a thousand copies and the body of your enemy… well, let me just say, I understand. Needs must. Of course.
Still, murder or not, I am grateful for the support you give.
On release day, I’ll put up the soundtrack for Leviathan’s Blood, and before that, there will be a few bog posts and the like. They’ll get linked through here, and no doubt through twitter, and facebook, so be sure to check in and see it.
Above is the very slick, very cool full cover for Leviathan’s Blood.
It’ll be published in the UK (and surrounding colonies) on April 7th. The US edition (which also has this nice cover) will be published on May 31st. In Germany, it will be published on May 2nd. Feel free to pre-order the editions you wish. As every author will tell you, pre-ordering helps.
In other news, I turned in the third, and final volume of the trilogy, The Eternal Kingdom, on Monday.
It’ll change in edits – all books do – but I’m pretty happy with it at the moment. I had the last scene in my head for a long time and it feels good to have it here.
For the last four, perhaps five years, I’ve been involving in writing a big, multicultural, epic fantasy trilogy. It was pretty good. I don’t know that I’ve had a better time on a book. I was able to watch martial arts films, tap into the big, crazy imagery within, and explore all the concepts of power I want. The last is a bit of a surprise, actually. I’m not sure when I began The Godless that I would have said that power, its nature and its use, would have been the thematic that I would begin to interact with, but I did. Power, it’s relations with the individual, the isolated, the people outside the institution, the people who distrust the imbalances that exist. There’s more, of course, bits and pieces that seep into big projects, a lot of it my own interests in terms of race, refugees, the world we live in, cross genre stuff, dialogue, and more and more, but I must admit, I was surprised by how much it unfolded along the thematic lines of power. But it’s nice. It’s rewarding when you can look back at a work and see the whole thing and think that it became its own thing, different from your original plans, born from somewhere within you that you hadn’t explored before.
Anyhow, so yeah, the trilogy is done. It’s still in the early stages of published life and it still needs your support, so please, by all means, pick up a copy, tell a friend, leave a review somewhere, pre-order, and all that goodness.
I had a good time with it, and I hope you do as well.
This is the UK version of the cover. I’ll show the US one when it is released, but if you want to know more, there is a blog post over at TorUK that you can read, which has a bit more detail. You can also pre-order the book if you are so inclined (publishers are big fans of the pre-order).
It’ll be published in April, and it should be, I think, a pretty wild ride.
Anyhow, until then, the Godless is still available, if you haven’t checked it out, or read it. The electronic version is still going for a pound in the UK. By all means, feel free to drop some reviews around on the evil empire site as well, if you dug it. Those sorta things help, and we’re pretty skint for them on Amazons and Goodreads.
There are other pieces that come before this. It begins on the Writer and the Critic, Kirstyn McDermott’s and Ian Mond’s long running podcast about books, where they discussed the representation of women in fiction, in part brought on by an article on Jezebel. Rjurik Davidson, the author of Unwrapped Sky, and critic and journalist, followed their discussion with an article, called the Unconscious Discrimination and a Regressive Culture. So naturally I called mine Part Three, because it is the third part of the conversation.
I don’t have a whole lot to say in response to Davidson. I agree with what he says, I agree with what was said in the podcast, and I will let my betters take that conversation forth.
But I did write the book that is discussed a little around this. Not a lot, mind you, but just a little (that said, the podcast does spent forty to fifty minutes discussing the Godless and you should check that out because it’s quite intelligent and funny). At any rate, one of the comments made about my book is that women are presented equally through the text, and that there is no rape in it, all of which is quite true. I won’t lie, either: it is something I set out purposefully to do. In part I did it because I have never agreed with the idea that fantasy is made, somehow, more realistic by its bad treatment of women. There’s a whole lot wrong with that as a statement, but more than anything, the idea that somehow the abuse of women makes something more realistic is just kind of fucked up. Whenever someones says that, you ought to stop, pause, and ponder the sheer fucked up nature of that. But mostly, I did it because it is my book, and I like to read books where there’s equality in it. That’s the world I live in. I think it’s the goal of society to strive towards that. I live it, so my book should live it, obviously.
Once you make that choice, however, the question remains: how do you ensure equality in your work?
I found that it was both an unconscious and conscious act. For example, I created Muriel Wagan, the ruler of Mireea, early on. Ayae, Bueralan, and her were perhaps the first three characters I made in the book. In those early days, I wasn’t quite sure what sort of fantasy novel I was writing, and my first incarnation of her was that she was originally the ruler of Mireea because her husband had returned, blind and mad, from war with Leera. It’s important to note that in the first days, her rule was in direct response to that act.
Then I made Zaifyr.
Zaifyr’s presence in the book required me to rethink Muriel Wagan. What I say isn’t much of a spoiler, but it is, so if you don’t want to spoil anything, but want to read the book… well, you left, right? Right. Anyhow, Zaifyr is one of the original men and women who were cursed with the gods’ divinity. He’s old, he’s done terrible things, he was one of the rulers of the Five Kingdoms, which ended about a thousand years before the book begins, and he is essentially a powerful figure. Like all powerful figures in literature, he needs a balance. In Mireea, he has two, Fo and Bau, who are like him in that they are inheritors of the gods’ power. However, once these three were established, Muriel Wagan’s power looked weak in comparison. You have to remember, much of what happens in the book happens in her city and, because of her initial story, her actions looked like she was guided by others around her, rather than her making her own choice.
From this short description, you can see the imbalance that begins to emerge, I am sure. My response was simple: redesign Muriel Wagan. Not hugely, but enough that she was empowered from the start, that her husband is second to her, and that she became a driving force of her own desire and need. She was given her own plot line, her own arc over the series, and her own conclusion. It sounds pretty simple, in part because it is. The myth of equality is that it’s somehow difficult, but like all writing, it’s pretty basic, and more a test of endurance than anything else. But, still, it isn’t enough to simply have one female character of agency to balance out three male characters of agency, and so others filtered in. Captain Meina of Steel was created. Reila, the healer, was as well. And, of course, Ayae got a lot more agency. She interacted with Zaifyr, Fo and Bau the most of all the characters, and it was important, as much for the equality of the book as for its readability, that she not be swamped by the personalities of all three.
The attention I paid didn’t end there, however. Plot and characters are one thing, but the structure of a book also has a demand to it. In the Godless, I have three main point of view characters: Ayae, Zaifyr, and Bueralan. It’s not a perfect balance – four would have been – but equality is not defined by gender parity alone, and each one of those three represent a different culture, and race. Still, to ensure that the balance of all three is kept, both Zaifyr and Bueralan are introduced through Ayae. I did it so that she would be the first of the characters to be cemented in the readers mind, before the two male characters came in. The book is very much an ensemble cast book and, depending on how that worked for you, it kept the tonal quality right, or didn’t, or wasn’t even something you noticed.
Which leads me to my last point: I don’t intend the equality of the book to be noticed. I don’t intend it to be a conversation that is had within the book. I am not, to be perfectly frank with you all, interested in that conversation right now. It’s an important conversation to have, and I have it outside the book, and in previous books, but it isn’t for this project. This book is all about gods, armies, sword fights, bars fights, big set pieces where cities get blown up, and whatever else you want to throw into it – but I have no interest in having a conversation about equality.
It’s simply there.
Notice it, don’t notice it, comment about it, don’t comment, it’s all the same to me. What moves and shakes the book is an entirely different set of conversations, and equality is not one of them. It’s just there. It just is.
In all writing, the author makes conscious decisions about what he and she wants to have in their book. From the colour of skin, to the clothes characters wear, to the things they do and the actions they take, this is all the authors work, and like an iceberg, you won’t notice the machinations for most of it if it is done right. That, however, does not mean that there aren’t thoughts there, that there aren’t intentions, and theories – and all of this is vitally important to any artist who is creating something.
You must be aware of what you create.
You must take ownership of it.
After all, your work, no matter its quality, no matter its place in terms of worth, is part of a social conversation we are all having. It has impact on your readers, and though at times that impact can be quite minuscule, it is still impact, and it does not happen alone. Your book is part of another book. Part of a movie. Part of a comic. Part of a song. It is part of society’s great weave. To say, for example, that rape makes something more realistic is awful not because of what it says about the fantasy genre, but because of what it says about you, and me, and us, as a culture and society. It is awful because of what it says to the next person to hear the words. Rape is realism in fantasy, someone says. Whiteness is how it was back then. The dragons all had wings like that. She couldn’t possibly have had a position of power. The black man would have be a slave. He had great dental hygiene and she didn’t piss in the street. You say that and you say it to your readers, to society, to the world. It is repeated, distorted, owned, rejected, and repeated, again.
The world is what we make it, I assure you.
Has it really been a year?
I had copies of The Godless, but I think it was a week or two before the book seemed to be everywhere, burning swords and all. It is close enough, at any rate. A year has come and gone. Six months before that, Dead Americans and Other Stories was released. In April next year, Leviathan’s Blood will be released.
I’m not quite sure how to describe last year. Personally, it was a bit rough – there were deaths in the family, sadly – and professionally, I felt like I spent most of my time trying to get two books to break through, for them to find their audiences. In many ways, I feel like it is still happening. I feel it particularly with The Godless. It has a lot of expectation, and two books follow it. It is important for it to find its audience, for it to find its feet commercially, and survive in the harsh, violent environment of a bookstore (if you could imagine books with spears hunting books with swords, and looping rope bridges that unfortunate ones get trapped on above rushing rapids…)
I won’t lie: the books, and me, still need to find their audience. It’s out there. It’s more of the people who like the books and say nice things and enjoy the work I’m writing. But, to continue the metaphor from the paragraph before, both myself and the books are not safe off the rope bridge, and not safe in the secret cave that is filled with Nice Things. Both still need the people who like the work to tell others about it.
I think I have said that about a hundred times in the last year, but it remains as true now as it did when I first said it, long ago.
I like what I do, but there is no guarantee for it, and there never has been. What’s worse, is it sadly cannot be a single person carrying the work forward to find new readers. Publishing has never been about that: it takes writers, editors, publishers, and readers, each of them holding a piece and moving it forward in an incremental fashion. Each new advance requires you to pause and rebuild it for the new people who come to it.
If you’re helping, thank you, truly. The steps the books and I have made, the readers we have found, are due to you. If you’d like to help, you can tell a friend, you can leave notes on Goodreads, Amazon (the US one goes to all sub-Amazons, but my main publisher is in the UK), and discuss it on forums, or in blog posts, or in newsletters, which I have been reliably told are the new thing. You’ll note that we don’t have a lot, there, not compared to some, so any help is appreciated. But be assured that no matter what you do, I am entirely grateful.
I always am, and I always will be.
Last week I would make a soundtrack for the Godless. I’m not sure why – but I did, and you’ll have to suffer it.
The Godless, if you haven’t read it, has three points of view. For most of the book, each of the three main character appears in one of named chapters, their scene divided by numbers. Over all, there are twelve chapters in the book, plus a prologue and an epilogue. Each chapter is around ten and eleven thousand words – in Leviathan’s Blood, the average is thirteen to fifteen – but the bookend pieces are considerably smaller, at three and five. In case you are wondering, the math of each chapter is important to the structure of the book, but in all likeliness, it is important only to me. When I begin a work, I find it easier to understand how the work flows, and how it builds and resolves itself, once I have settled upon the structure and narrative framework of it. What can I say? We’ve all got our little quirks. I liked it because I liked the narrative beat it created and the interplay it allowed between the characters.
I described the structure of the book because, when it came to the soundtrack below, I found myself leaning towards songs that fit in at the end of each chapter. Sort of like a song rolling over the credits of an episode, or a movie, if you can imagine.
Anyhow, enough of that.
Here it is.
(In the Dark Places – PJ Harvey)
Beneath the Skin
(I’m On Fire – Bat For Lashes)
The City Beneath
(This Land is Nobody’s Land – John Lee Hooker)
The Boy Who Was Destined to Die
(The Humbling River – Puscifer)
In the Blood
(Lullaby – Low)
A Small Kindness
(Ain’t Got No, I Got Life – Nina Simone)
In A Town Called Dirtwater
(Into Dust – Mazzy Star)
(Two Against One – Danger Mouse, Daniele Luppi, and Jack White)
(Sacrilege – Yeah Yeah Yeahs)
The Woman Made From Fire
(Fire Walker – Black Rebel Motorcycle Club)
The Important Garden
(Great Waves – Dirty Three)
The Circumstances of Birth
(Words from the Executioner to Alexander Pearce – the Drones)
(Take Me Somewhere Nice – Mogwai)
(Jubilee Street – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds)