Giving Iain Banks another chance

Time for a post about reading, after all these writing ones.

I hated The Wasp Factory. I mean, really hated it. So much so that I never even finished the book. I think I got up to the last or second last chapter and realised I was having a properly horrible time.

But I know Banks is well renowned as a fantastic writer. And he’s also written a lot of sci-fi.

So I decided to give him another chance with one of his Culture novels: The Player of Games. My first thoughts were not very positive: the beginning, as with most ‘hard’ sci-fi (I hate that term though), is full of obscure invented words and concepts that you have to try and decipher, or ignore. It seemed very much like these things were there just for show – I’ve created this new world, so I can put whatever I want into it. Of course any alien world is going to be very different from ours, but it was just uncomfortable as a reader.

That first part of the book was not particularly enthralling. It did get a lot better once Gurgeh gets on the voyage to the Empire; there was finally a purpose to the story. Descriptions of the different world, and the games he plays, are a lot more interesting and I read the second half of the book pretty quickly.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like the ending much either.

It feels like something exciting and unexpected is going to happen – it does, but it’s very difficult to tell what’s actually happening, or why. As the book gets closer to the end, I liked the main character less and less. Not being allowed to see much of his thought process, particularly about some of the most important things he has found out, was frustrating. By the time of the final battle, I didn’t even care if he was going to die.

The twist was also unfulfilling.

It’s not great news, as second chances go. I liked some of the ideas enough, and the writing, to think I might try another Culture novel. But only ‘might’.

Day 22

Another NaNo post. There’s just over a week to go, and it’s getting really good. Sitting down to commit a couple of thousand words to the page is easier and easier – I watch my word count less like a hawk as I write, and the actual words seem better, the story more cohesive.

Making the time to write each day, and the space, and the concentration; I hope these are things I can carry through after this month is finished.

Most of all, I can’t wait to actually read what I’ve written. So far, I’ve only allowed myself to look back at the last sentence or so to check my place. I wonder what it’s like. I hope it (more or less) makes sense.

I’ve started getting nervous about all the people I said could read it once it’s done. Before I began, the book was an abstract thing, and I had no emotional investment in it, no reason to say no. Now I am protective. I want the chance to edit it a bit, improve it.

In the past week or so I’ve started reading again, looking to authors I haven’t read much of for inspiration. I’ve noticed that there’s probably a lack of description in my story. Maybe that’s a good thing, that I’ve got enough to say on plot and dialogue. But it’ll need adding.

The pep talks from NaNoWriMo have been particularly useful, and the forums are equal parts comforting and hilarious. It’s a lovely community of writers; a very supportive environment for first-time novelists.

Here’s a confession: I didn’t think I’d actually be able to do it.

Now, I know I will. I’m just over 10,000 words shy of the 50,000 pass mark and there’s still enough time to write the extra scenes I’ll need to finish the book. I have a better idea of how much I can write in an hour, in half an hour. I know without a doubt that I need, at the very least, a basic plan to write a book. My list of scenes has been the best thing to keep me writing each day, even if I don’t feel particularly inspired at the time.

Just over a week to go.

642 things to write about

Write a short story that is set in Argentina in 1932, in which a teacup plays a crucial role.

The wind is blowing through the door, rattling the china. Maria’s hand shakes as she pours the tea, trying not to make eye contact with either of the men.

Sharp suits and sharper scars, they scowl across at each other, palms flat on their knees. The waitress backs away and for a heartbeat nobody moves. The blue pattern on their cups is chipped, and the white paper tablecloth is stained.

A knife rests next to each man’s boot, another dozen unseen around his person. As if on cue, the men get to their feet; slowly, deliberately. Their faces are completely immobile.

In the back, the waitress wishes she could quiet her breathing and become as forgettable as possible. The door creaks in the wind, and outside a coyote starts to howl.

“We can come to an arrangement,” the older man says, his voice steady. His friend shakes his head, his movements cutting the air like a shark.

A Spanish broadcast comes on the radio, breaking the silence.

“We can pay. Just a little more -” the first man starts. He never finishes the sentence.

The other man pulls his knife out of his chest, wiping the blood away on his shirt.

A police officer charges into the door as the body becomes a corpse and takes out his baton, eyes wild. But the assailant fires a shot at his teacup and shards of pottery and scalding liquid burst into the officer’s eyes as he makes his escape.

Seven days down

So, it’s seven days in to NaNoWriMo – how’s it going?

Fortunately, it’s been easier than I expected. 50,000 words sounds overwhelming, but 1,677 words a day is not actually that bad.

It also isn’t taking me as long as I planned to meet the word count target each day. Since I completely cleared my schedule out before November started, that leaves me with the lovely sensation of having extra time on my hands. Keeping on track now feels comfortable and manageable.

Now I just need to use that time to work on improving my plot and sub-plots, to really get to know my characters, instead of just saying “I’m done!” after a few hours each day.

A lot of this comes from my number one revelation (and probably something I already knew) – that I cannot work without a plan. I only managed one day of ‘pantsing’ before I admitted this and drafted out an outline. Now I’m working from a list of scenes. I can add to or modify the list, but that’s my basic structure.

The more I write, the more I want to write. At just over 10,000 words, it’s become the most I’ve ever written on a single project. That in itself is a success. I’m seeing inspiration everywhere and my desire to write is extending to other projects – ones I probably don’t have time for but am really excited about working on.

One big, exciting thing: I’m going to Glasgow for a weekend – the city where my story is based. This is where my romantic side shows up: the idea of walking around the same places my characters live in, seeing the same buildings they see and hearing the same accent, fills me with joy. The long train ride is also perfect for getting in some extra writing.

A note for NaNo critics: you’re basically missing the point. It is a month of fun, experimentation and feeling free enough to try to create something substantial.

Hopefully the rest of the month will go as smoothly; I’m trying to gradually increase the amount I write each day. More soon.