The books that made me

Today’s blog comes from my metaphorical sickbed. This week I’ve spent four nights in hospital and have committed not a word to hard drive. Sorry. So, without a status update or any insights into the creative writing process, here instead is a quick canter through a few books and authors that I count as major influences on me and my writing. Hope you enjoy.

Sargasso of Space – Andre Norton

A half-remembered classic, one of my most formative experiences of science fiction. My Mum read this to me when I was but small – around 10, maybe. Looking back, I remember not the story so much as the atmosphere Norton created. First published in 1955, it’s a very British novel with such a different feel to the writing of Asimov or the other early American pioneers. It was my first introduction to the concept of ‘Terra’ and also contained the Psych test, now thoroughly ‘appropriated’ by me for the Night Shift novels. I reread one of her later novels recently and found it to be quite stiff, especially in dialogue – very much of her time. But her voice remained strong and her stories are always gripping.

Five Red Herrings – Dorothy L. Sayers 

Gaudy Night has the most beautiful writing. Murder Must Advertise is the classic crime novel. And yet this is the one that I have most admiration for. There are six suspects in a murder investigation: five of them are red herrings. That’s it. Beautifully plotted, I read it for the first time relatively recently and couldn’t help but smile at the deftness with which the story played with itself. Plus Wimsey really does stand up as a character, even in these cynical and proletarian times.

Caliban – Roger MacBride Allen/Isaac Asimov

Don’t be fooled by Asimov’s name – this is one of those ‘by Isaac Asimov, with RMA’ things where you know that all of the work was really done by the lesser name (are you listening, James Patterson?). This novel’s all but unknown now and that’s a shame because it deserves a lot better.

Asimov’s involvement is in the creation of the Three Laws of Robotics and in sketching out the consequences of these on humanity. He posits that they’d create an indolent, unproductive society, cosseted by an ever-worshipful army of dependent robots. But when a robot becomes lead suspect in a murder enquiry society might choose to sacrifice their planet for short-term comfort.

This, you’ll notice immediately, is classic speculative fiction: ‘so if things continue like this, how will they be in a century?’ It’s also a quality crime novel, and a massive, massive influence on the Night Shift trilogy. It’s also a series I’ve re-read many, many times and have lent to many, many people.

Archer’s Goon – Diana Wynne Jones

A confession: I watched the series before I read the book. Well, children’s TV was worth something in 1992. This is everything you want in junior fiction. It’s inventive, funny, thrilling, and a tour de force of the imagination. Howard, the young protagonist, arrives home after school to find a Goon in his kitchen. That’s it – no messing about, we’re right into a wonderfully surreal adventure in a town controlled by seven mysterious siblings, all with their different areas of responsibility.

A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick

I’ve written before about PKD. About how I’m not a fan of his writing – and, like Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this is a story that might actually be better on screen. But the ideas – the ideas! Oh, I can’t tell you how this affected me when I first read it. Unsettling, terrifying, dislocating. I can’t tell you too much because I’ve stolen ideas liberally. Just, if you are going to read this, be prepared for some extreme scowling at the page as you try and decipher those hopelessly convoluted sentences.

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

My first taste of Gaiman and still (alongside Good Omens) my favourite. With an everyman hero and a delightfully off-key world – at the same time larger-than-life and sad and tarnished – London Below is a beautiful labyrinth. It also has some of the best villains in literature. Don’t just take my word for that – ask Mr Pratchett, who lifted Croup and Vandemar wholesale for Discword novel The Truth. I’d have been a teenager when I first came across this, long before I knew I wanted to be a writer. Lenny Henry’s involvement was the big news, not Gaiman’s input. In hindsight it’s a wonder this didn’t make more of an impact because it captures the imagination like nothing else.

UnRoman Britain – Stuart, Laycock

Non-fiction time! And historically/archaeologically dubious non-fiction at that. Which is not to say this isn’t based on good solid evidence, just that the conclusions Laycock draws aren’t widely accepted in academia.

This matters not a jot. This is a fascinating work and one with a good strong story; that of the collapse of Roman culture after the last of the legions left Britain. I doubt you’re interested, but it fascinated me with its analysis of cultural change throughout (and before, and after) the Roman occupation. It strongly influenced Chivalry and, whether or not it all happened like Laycock posits, it really made me think how people react to authority. And what they might do when that authority is removed.

Waxing lyrical

I sit here writing this with music on in the background. Laura Marling, if you must know, which isn’t the best choice as the lyrics are too good. Rather, they’re too much in the forefront of the song and don’t do their job as background to deeper mind processes.

I always write to music. It’s usually a lot quieter than silence, which has a deep sucking sound as the background is vacuumed into your soul. Music provides a sort of creative bubble around you, the rhythms strumming your creative core in a way that nothing else can. Not for everyone, sure – how much of a theme of this blog is that? – but that’s how its always been for me. It’s really no surprise that my writing really springs from the same creative well as all these songs.

I got into words via music. Caught up with depression and a stupid misdirected urge to create, I dreamt up hundreds of songs when I was – what, 16 – 22? Never heard outside my head, I became a prolific writer of lyrics; I still have most of them, now sadly shorn of context – hundreds of scraps of paper all carefully stored away in the spare room, too poor, too painful to be re-examined but too personal to be thrown away.

Slowly, after many, many trials and more errors than you can possibly imagine, these lyrics slowly became less attempts at poetry and more what they should have been all along; accompaniments for music. Some of these, I maintain, are pretty good. I’ve always been pretty cocky at my ability to write a good lyric. I’m certainly more confident about that than I am about my full-length writing. What infuses both, however, is rhythm. I can never measure it, but there’s a rhythm to novels, a pacing, and I think total immersion in a head-bubble of sound can really help bring that to life.

For me, music and words are almost the same thing. The mood that’s created in both can be totally detached from the actual ‘story’; the same plot can be given a totally different feel by the way it’s told (compare Neil Gaiman’s American Gods with his Anansi Boys: both set in the same world and with the potential to create the same emotions – but one’s an adventure filled with a sense of anxiety and foreboding, the other almost a comedy). Whereas in music the same lyrics can be given a totally different feel by the arrangement behind it.

Anyway, here’s some song lyrics for you to mock. I remember the first stanza of the first work as being the first thing I ever wrote. In my mind I was still a child but I’m imperfect: could’ve been anywhere from eight to fifteen. It came to me so complete and so perfect rhythmically – the nursery rhyme-ness of the measure – that I’ve never been entirely sure that I haven’t stolen it from somewhere, some half-buried memory from my earliest days – but if so I’ve never tracked it down. So I’m claiming it.

The second one remains almost mystical, magical to me. It’s the sort of thing you can get away with in lyrics that you can’t with poems and certainly not with prose. A sense (to me) of personal truth that transcends the actual words. I don’t exactly – not quite, not 100% – know what it means. It just felt right; again the first stanza coming to me in one big chunk in university halls, and then at a later date (on a train between Belfast and Bangor, I remember that) the second verse falling from the stars and striking me right between the eyes.

Both of these have actually been performed live with bands, which just goes to show.

Time 

When I was young I’d often sit and wonder who I’d be
But now that I’ve grown up I’ve come to find that I am me
But who am I and what am I and who am I to say
I won’t wake up to find I’m someone else another day

When I was young I’d often sit and wonder what to say
But now that I’ve grown up these feelings should have gone away
Timing isn’t everything, but when you’ve lost your voice
These isolations multiply and soon you’ve got no choice

When I was young I’d often sit and try hard not cry
And wish that I was older so I wouldn’t have to lie
But tears come and fears go and tears still abide
And everything that I once was is carried deep inside

Crush

And a force to crush me sweeps across
And a memory of what I lost
And who I was; but that’s all gone
You were here but time moves on

And seismic shifts in prose and poetry

And this does not mean the world to me
And who was there to wash me clean?
Gravity: my cruel machine
And here comes the rain

And to touch the truth; the story dies
And so we rip out future cries
And all that’s been will come again
You were here to ease the pain
And here comes the rain

And a force to crush me sweeps across
And all that I once was is lost
And here and now; you and me
The weight is gone and we are free
And here comes the rain

And a force to crush me sweeps across
And a memory
Of what I lost…

This article has been brought to you by Laura Marling and Scheer and edited in association with the Levellers, Metallica and Richard Thompson

Insert witty title here

This social media thing: it’s a pain, ain’t it?

 

Who’d have thought that something designed to be fun could lay so much pressure on us? To be out there, on display, our words measured and evaluated and pored-over, each one allowing a (false?) insight into our personalities.

 

Once we’re past the arrogance of the teenage years there’s no certainty anymore. Everything is perspective, point-of-view. Almost everything we think could potentially cause offence to someone. Or could just be weak: the jokes, the witticisms that sound so strong in our heads can be as nothing on the page. No-one can see the crooked smile of irony on your lips. Subtlety needs space to express itself. Understatement needs to breathe. It’s a whole lot easier to be angry than balanced in 140 characters.

 

Every time I go to post on Twitter (@RobinTriggs, by the way) I get a sort of mental block. Is what I’m about to say witty? Does it give people any new information? Am I just coming across as a dick? But I have to post something; I’m trying to promote myself, for heaven’s sake. I’m only hurting myself if I let my account lapse.

 

As an aside, one of my favourite authors has recently started following me. Unfortunately, whilst I love his work, he’s not coming across as someone… shall we say ‘politically compatible’? Another problem with social media. There’s the risk of alienating as many people as you impress. And that shouldn’t really matter – you (by which I really mean me) should have the courage of your convictions. If only this wasn’t a PR-driven world.

 

Anyhoo, whilst I can happily slip into the world of my novel and get a thousand or two words down without breaking metaphorical sweat, I struggle immensely with Twitter – and, to a lesser extent, this blog. It’s my own fault for being disorganised. I should be carrying a notebook around with me at all times, ready to record any of my many ‘ooh, I should write about that’ moments. Indeed, that’s one of the most commonly repeated pieces of advice you read about writing: always have notebook and pen wherever you go.  Maybe that’s why I’m still unpublished.

 

I don’t know if there are any statistics to tell us the number of lapsed Twitter accounts vs active ones. I don’t know how many blogs have been abandoned after a lively start. I’m guessing it’s a hell of a lot. It’s kind of ironic that authors should be amongst the most guilty of this. Neil Gaiman is, of course, the exception. But a quick look around the web will show you that the pressure of deadlines, of being so caught up in the professional life of words, causes professional authors more than others to give up on their blogging ambitions.

 

Which means the best place to keep up with the world of words is Twitter. And that’s a very mixed blessing.

 

*          *          *

 

I’ve said before that I don’t make extensive notes before starting on a project: I like to have a start and an end-point, and then work ‘twixt the two, feeling the way with my toes as I inch forwards. I prefer to roll things around in my subconscious rather than scribbling extensive lists and maps and diagrams.

 

These things can be very handy, though. I will, before I start, sit down in a coffee shop and jot down a few important facts about the world I’m creating; and by world I mean the environment in which the story’s set, not necessarily about an actual world. I’m talking names, jobs, relationships; that sort of thing. A very brief (and certain to be altered) cast list. For example, my first(ish) task with Night Shift was to make a list of what jobs would be needed – what roles there were to be filled – in a mining base in Antarctica. Only once that information was down on paper could I try to ‘hire’ people to fill them.

 

But once I’d actually started the story I barely even glanced at these notes. Once the characters were introduced I found I didn’t need them. My characters can tell their own stories a lot better than I can.

 

Things change, of course. After about four drafts of NS I realised that the story was sagging a little about two-thirds through. The solution? Graft in another character. Completely unplanned – a failure, you could say, in my original technique. It did the job, though. After all, nothing is ever perfect first time around. Persistence, a mind open to suggestion and criticism and the strength – the resilience, the stubbornness – to keep moving when you know that rejections will be flying around you: those are the key skills needed by the author these days.

 

*          *          *

 

SITREP: just easing up to 50,000 words of my first draft of New Gods. I reckon that means I’m about 3/5 of the way through. Happy days! I bloody love writing, I do.

 

Hope whatever gives you joy is an active part of your life.