9th January 2017
As you read this, book two of The Gates of the World, The City of Ice, is roaming free in the shops. I’m not going to bang on about what an awesome read it is, full of magic, machines, adventure, swordfights, ancient monsters, fallen gods, dying races and all the rest because I’m British, and self-aggrandisement like that makes us want to leave quietly to die alone in the snow. Instead, I’m going to talk a bit about writing.
Writing a second book in a fantasy series presents a different challenge to writing the first. Rather than giving you a rambling essay about the process, here’s a list. We all like lists. This is the internet, after all. I promise no flashing links teasing terrible revelations about Danny Dyer’s sex life in between each segment or dodgy pop-ups for “OUR LUCKY 1000th READER!”. You can have it all at once, no strings attached.
Consideration the first: How much to recap?
I dislike books that spend the first hundred pages reiterating what went on in previous volumes, so I didn’t even think about slipping a potted version of what occurred in The Iron Ship into The City of Ice. Indeed, it would never occur to me to read the second book of a series without reading the first. If you don’t go for a straight introduction, you have to inject it into the story, leading to a lot of “As you know, Bob,” style infodumps. I hate infodumps. I hate Bob too.
The Iron Ship is a complicated book, so is The City of Ice. There are a lot of characters. There is a lot going on. I went a bit nuts on the world building, because breathing life into new realities. is my thing. I don’t think I could’ve easily gone over all that occurred in book one. So be warned, The City of Ice is one of those books where it helps to have read the first. I swear to reward your diligence with a kickass story.
Consideration the second: How much to listen to one’s audience?
As a writer, it is hard to know how much attention to pay to reviews. Books not are not only praised and panned for the same selfsame thing, they can and do generate contrary criticism. One I wrote attracted criticism from one reviewer for being overly poetic, from another for not being poetic at all. A novel remains the most subjective entertainment experience. Stories in novels are born not from the writer’s pen (or mac, or whatever, I’m being poetic here, or perhaps not poetic enough…), but from a fusion of the writer and reader’s minds. Much like love, not every union is going to work.
The Iron Ship was generally favourably received. But there are always a few niggles about a book. Some people found it too complicated and too full of characters. Fair enough, there’s not much I can do about that as a large, multiple point of view character fantasy is what I wanted to write. They should read something else, no hard feelings. But more people enjoyed it for those reasons than disliked it. Horses for courses. No book pleaseth every man.
One good friend of mine thought book one perhaps sagged a little in the middle. A couple of reviewers said similar things. Looking over The Iron Ship, I conceded they might have a point. I therefore made sure to cram The City of Ice full of incident from beginning to end. This is not a story that stands still. See, we do listen sometimes.
Consideration the third: Exert control
Books about ships that don’t launch until page 400 have long been a pet irritation of mine, and despite my best efforts I didn’t manage to avoid that particular pitfall with The Iron Ship. All stories grow in the telling. Novels made up of multiple subplots are in real danger of getting away from the writer, turning into impenetrable hairballs of self-asphyxiating narratives. To avoid such tangles, I took the difficult decision of excluding much of Rel’s ongoing story from this book (don’t worry, he’s back in book three), and removing an entire subplot, also now bound for book three. The result is a more streamlined read that focusses on fewer characters than it would otherwise have.
Consideration the fourth: Pace your revelation
Nothing angers readers more than stories they feel are deliberately obtuse, but opinion varies widely on what constitutes confounding. I love stories that make you work a bit, and don’t lay everything out. I’m always looking for twists and often spoil films for my family by shouting out the big reveal half an hour before it happens, and then feeling very pleased with myself while they glower at me. I am genuinely grateful when a story wrongfoots me. So are they.
Not everyone feels the same way. This is my job, after all, I look at a narrative’s construction in the same way a builder critically eyes every newly built house he enters. You know how plumbers always say “What cowboy did this then?”. Writers do that too. For example, some people find Gene Wolfe’s writing the epitome of masterful puzzle making. I enjoy his books, even though I never figure out what the hell is really going on. For some readers, they are aggravatingly opaque.
The trick here is to feed out enough information about a story’s mystery so that the reader always feels engaged, but never patronised, and definitely not kept in the dark. If you’re really good at this sort of thing, then hopefully you can put enough clues into the tale so that the observant can figure out ahead of a revelation what is happening, but not make them so complicated that the story makes no sense if you don’t figure it out. You also have to keep some cards up your sleeve, because stories where you can figure everything out are boring. Basically, you have to provide the means for people to work it out for themselves, but not make the story reliant on them doing so. Tsk, nightmare.
The most important thing of all is that everyone who reads a series comes away from each book knowing more than they did when they began. The Gates of the World does have a big mystery at its heart. The City of Ice contains plenty of revelations about the nature of the world and the people in it. Rest assured, questions raised in book one are answered in book two. Not all though!
Consideration the fifth: Write what you want to read
This is probably the best advice there is about writing. To be successful is to write what you want to read, write it well, and hope enough people share your taste to make it all worthwhile. You can write material that you are not particularly interested in to begin with, but if you don’t find a way to engage with it on some level – making it, somehow, what you want to read yourself – the whole endeavour is doomed.
The Gates of the World is what I want from fantasy, a rich, deep, riveting world full of characters who are not simple shades of black and white (I’ll leave you to decide if it works). Writing what you want to read is automatically going to preclude some people’s enjoyment, because it will not be what they want to read. Some people want Shakespeare. Some people want Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn. You have to live with that.
Sometimes though, vindication comes along to give you a pat on the back. While writing The City of Ice, I asked my dear publishers when they might want book three. “Hum, ha, depends on the sales,” they hummed and haa-ed. Don’t panic if this happens to you. It is perfectly normal, and a rare occasion indeed nowadays that a series is commissioned in full.
Two days after handing in The City of Ice, I got an email saying that it was very good, and asking when I might have part three ready.
It is very good. Really. (The deadly snow is looking enticing).
So, you may be interested to know that I’m currently beginning The Brass God, part three of the Gates of The World. This ride isn’t over yet. Please, come aboard and join me for the trip.