January 30, 2012

Originality versus Engagement

I read four books recently that really brought home a fundamental issue in fiction generally, but science fiction in particular. Over Christmas, I read ‘The Hunger Games’ trilogy, and I’ve just finished China Mieville’s ‘Embassytown’.

There have been all sorts of claims made about ‘The Hunger Games’: that it’s wildly original, groundbreaking – claims I can’t say I agree with. The idea of a competition to the death must be as old as storytelling itself, and the idea of a such a competition being broadcast as a reality show has been around at least since Stephen King’s ‘The Long Walk’, and later, ‘The Running Man’. More recently, the idea of teenagers made to fight to the death in an arena for other people’s entertainment (including some who defy that system) is the theme of the novel ‘Battle Royale’ by Koushun Takami, and later the film of the same name. I haven’t read the book, but the events of the film are much harsher and immediate – and realistic – than ‘The Hunger Games’.

However! What Suzanne Collins has done with the story, in my view, is give that idea enough of her own twist to let us see it in a new light. And, crucially, she’s created a story that takes a grip of you and doesn’t let go. And while I value originality – it’s essential brain food, as far as I’m concerned – I want the consumption of it to be as enjoyable as possible. I want a bloody good story, which Collins delivers with savage relish in the first two books, though to a lesser extent in the third, which I thought wallowed a bit. Anyway, for the bulk of this epic trilogy, she turned out a rollicking good read.

There is a stark contrast between ‘The Hunger Games’ and Mieville’s ‘Embassytown’ – and while they’re very different types of books, I’m talking the principles of storytelling here. Mieville is one of my favourite writers (I don’t have one favourite) – I’ve read most of his books, and though I obviously prefer some more than others, he never disappoints. But then I read ‘Embassytown’.

It is an extraordinary story, comprehensively original, featuring an alien race which speaks a type of language that requires two voices speaking in tandem. Both voices must speak not only in a coordinated way, but with a deeply empathic link (the aliens have two mouths – the humans have to find a way to mimic this). It is a mode of speaking that baffles humans for some time, frustrating their attempts to live and trade with this race, before they come up with the system of ‘Ambassadors’ – pairs of clones with synthesized mind links that allow them to speak the creatures’ language.

That language is intrinsically tied into the way the creatures think; they are incapable of lying, or thinking hypothetically or imaginatively (it’s more complicated than that, but I’m trying to boil it down). They can only say things that are ‘real’ or ‘true’. But their interaction with humans leads some of them to start trying to subvert their own language – to try and speak, and think, in new ways. The results are disastrous, causing violent and near-apocalyptic revolution.

It is a highly intelligent and incredibly imaginative exploration of language, symbolism and communication . . . And though I was intellectually stimulated, I found myself emotionally uninvolved. I failed to engage with the story, or to empathize with the lead character, and the supporting cast – ironic, considering the subject matter. Instead, this was a book I admired, but did not read with any real passion. While there are plenty of books I read on that basis, it was a surprise to find one of Mieville’s would fall into that category.

I think a large part of the problem is due to the fact that the main character, Avice, reports on events from the sidelines far more than she takes part in them – things happen around her, rather than to her. It’s also a very slow book, which doesn’t have to be a problem in itself, but it does wander a lot, and when your narrator is telling everything secondhand, it just doesn’t immerse you in the story. Which again is ironic, as ‘immersing’ is her profession; she works on ships crossing the ‘immer’ – the most practical, but nauseating, means  of traversing deep space.

As my brother put it, this is a bunch of really wonderful ideas looking for a story. For me, this is science fiction’s recurring weakness; it’s a genre where new ideas are valued above all else, so sometimes the plots don’t receive enough attention. I think that’s why the short story scene in sci-fi is so active – a short story can take an idea and play on it for a while without having to work within a sophisticated plot. For a novel, you really need the story to get you through.

‘The Hunger Games’ is not a book like ‘Embassytown’, and is not trying to be. It is a bit irritating that Katniss, the main character, is never faced with having to make the one terrible decision the games were designed to force upon the participants. You’ll know what I’m referring to if you’ve read it, or are going to – if you don’t, I don’t want to spoil anything. In a story full of moral ambiguity, Collins spares Katniss from the biggest moral quandary of all.

But overall, this story engrossed me – something that a much more original and thought-provoking work by one of my favourite writers failed to do.

January 24, 2012


While looking for info on a comics artist recently, I came across a site called Irish Comics Wiki . . . and then found this on it – a real blast from the past. It’s amazing what people can dig up!

Back in art college, I was set on becoming a comics writer and artist. Not long after leaving, I’d started work on a few stories, but wasn’t sure how I was going to get them produced – there were already a lot of photocopied comics out there from local enthusiasts, and I wanted to try and go one better, and get mine printed properly.

I knew a guy who ran a computer games shop and, along with a couple of the lads who worked there, we decided to do a magazine that would combine my work with games and Manga reviews. I came up with the title ‘Twisted’, and we sold just enough ads to cover the first print run – three hundred copies, I think – with a three-colour cover.

There were three stories: ‘The Goon Squad’, about a group of anarchic cyborgs led by a disfigured guy named Ghastly (you can tell Derek Landy I had that one first); ‘Nursery Crimes’ about a psychopathic criminal who is executed and reincarnated as a toddler who tries to take over the creche and meets his match in a criminal prodigy; and ‘Titanium’, about a tiny little scientific genius who creates a superhero that looks human, but which is actually a robot – he controls it, riding around inside its chest cavity.

Two things prevented the completion of the second issue: the first was every self-publisher’s Achilles heel – marketing and distribution. We published the comics without a clear idea of how and where to sell them. The other obstacle was that I started getting commercial illustration work that paid . . . y’know . . . money.

If you ever come across a copy of this mag, hold onto it, there can’t be many left out there.

January 18, 2012

Les Mordus du Polar 2012

They really must like Irish steampunk in France. ‘Voraces’, the French edition of ‘Ancient Appetites’ (published by Mango), is up for a third award. Les Mordus du Polar is an award organized by librarians and focuses on mystery novels – which is interesting in itself, as ‘Voraces’ does start off as a murder mystery, but I’m not sure how long it could be said to stay in that category.

There is a shortlist of four books:

  • ‘Comment Je Suis Devenue Flic’ by Anne and Marine Rambach
  • ‘Le Garçon Qui Volait des Avions’ by Elise Fontenaille
  • ‘Le Tueur a la Cravate’ by Marie-Aude Murail

And my one, of course. As far as I know, all the other authors are French. Getting shortlisted like this is brilliant news, particularly as it’s run by librarians – a very influential network to have on your side. Last year, I was shortlisted for le Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire in the Young Adult (Foreign) Novel category and le Prix Imaginales 2011 in the Jeunesse Category, but didn’t win either, so fingers crossed this time . . .

January 16, 2012

Appropriate Portrayals

Though it’s not specifically about books for children, I wanted to mention a perfect example of how the children’s books industry hobbles itself when it comes to selling to kids. I was sent a link to a blog before Christmas, discussing a project called the Monster Engine by an illustrator in the US named Dave DeVries. It started with his young niece drawing pictures in his sketchbook, prompting him to wonder how the pictures would look if they were painted in highly finished, realistic way. Seeing as this was what he did for a living, he decided to go ahead and try it.

The idea resulted in a book, a gallery exhibition and a public demo, all based around some brilliantly spooky and funny artwork.

You can have a look at the website yourself, but I first found it through this blog where it was mentioned, and where the concept of giving children’s drawings a professional finish sparked a heated debate about whether it was appropriate to treat the products of children’s imaginations in this fashion. Some believed that this idea of rendering kids’ pictures in a highly finished way was interfering in their creative process, while others thought it was brilliant to see the wild and macabre images it produced. I fall into the second category – and it should be pointed out that DeVries didn’t just take the pictures and paint them up, he asked the kids to create monsters, and then discussed with them how he should render them.

It seems to me to be a fun thing to do, if done in cooperation with the kids, and with plenty of input from them. I see no reason to be wringing hands over it, but that’s exactly what we in the books industry do when we’re producing food for kids’ imaginations.

Now let’s take a look at a contrasting approach – that used by those who sell toys. I remember years ago, when ‘The Nightmare on Elm Street’ films were popular, I saw a toy version of Freddy Krueger’s finger-knives on sale in some shops. They were unmistakably aimed at kids – they were the size that would fit a child under ten. Given that the films were for over-18’s, who was buying these toys? Who was playing with them? The first film, at least, would have scared the bejesus out of a kid that age (I can’t really remember the others). I don’t remember any fuss over these toys.

In the run-up to Christmas, I was in one of the Smyths toy stores, where I took this picture. They were using a ‘Call of Duty’ poster to promote a range of army toys (they’re not even ‘Call of Duty’ toys, they just look the part). ‘Call of Duty’ is an 18-cert game, though some of my stepson’s mates got it from Santa last year (I love that, getting an 18-cert game from Santa). In the same shop, they had ‘Halo’ toys on display, which were very like the one shown in the photo. The latest ‘Halo’ game is rated 16+. So who’s buying these toys?

Probably the same kind of kid that I was, when I was nine or ten. And clearly no one in Smyths toys had any compunction with using a supposedly unsuitable game to sell war toys.

My point is this: these are the same kids we’re trying to sell books to – and if you’re talking about reluctant boy readers (as we so often are), these are exactly the kids we should be trying to sell books to. Books are harder to access than games and toys – your reading has to be up to scratch. And they’re clearly not regarded as cool as games, films or even toys. For the most part, books are not objects of desire. So why are we always tripping over ourselves to protect kids from stuff that’s already in their own imaginations? And stuff that’s being sold to them by industries whose products already have massive advantages over ours? Sometimes, I think our imaginations are our own worst enemies.

On a positive note, here’s an excellent article in ‘The Guardian’ (found through ‘Irish Publishing News’), written by Faber CEO, Stephen Page. He urges publishers to be pro-active, rather than defensive, in this fast-changing environment, and talks about his excitement at all the new developments. I concur!

January 8, 2012

Found in Translation

This is a weird business. Just before Christmas, I got a courier package from Random House. I normally know ahead of time when I’m due something from them, so I was a little curious when I opened this one up. Imagine my surprise (and pleasure . . . and a touch of confusion) to discover that the first two Armouron books, ‘The Armoured Ghost’ and ‘Lying Eyes’, had been translated into German. And published in hardback, no less.

This is how I found out – I opened that package to discover my copies of the books.

Now, normally when my books are sold into another country, I’ll be consulted, and there’ll be a contract to sign. Beyond that, how much input I get into the foreign editions is down to the individual publisher – some I have contact with, most I don’t. There’s none with the Armouron stuff, because I don’t own the creator’s rights, the designer of the toy range does – although I did do most of the initial set-up of the world and the characters. Even so, you’d think somebody would have sent word that they’d sold the German rights for two of my books. And my agent (who normally handles foreign rights for me) was as surprised as I was.

Not that I’m being all negative about this (well, a little more communication would be nice); it’s always cool to see your book in another language, even if most of the rights are, in this case, owned by someone else. It’s interesting that Loewe, the German publishers, kept the original covers too – those often get changed when you break into a different market. You can have a look at the covers of my other foreign editions here. I thought I’d got over the stage in my career where I found out about stuff after it was done.But this little episode just goes to show how unpredictable and disjointed this industry can be at times, even when you’re working with the most professional people.

It reminds me of my first ever foreign edition, when ‘The Gods and Their Machines’ was published by Tor in the US. I did have to sign a contract for that one, but the first time I saw the cover of the book was when it appeared on Amazon. Thanks, guys.

January 2, 2012

Creating an Icon

I had a grand time in the two weeks running up to Christmas, partly due to the kids’ excitement, and partly because I got to spend most of my work-time drawing and painting. I was doing a painting for my sister as a present – both for Christmas, and for the apartment she got (after much ado) a while back. But before I could get onto doing that, I was working on the black-and-white chapter icons for ‘Merciless Reason’.

This is a kind of signature thing I do for all my novels – a small image at the head of every chapter. I figure you should do everything you can to make your books as memorable as possible, inside as well as out, and sometimes an image can set a tone or help the reader visualize something or even just act as a tease, a taste at the start of a new scene, in a way that words can’t. And besides, I’ll look for any excuse to get an illustration into a book.

The challenge with these is to find images that are distinctive and eye-catching; each one should be very different from the next and they must all work at a small size. I draw these no larger than 8cm by 6cm, but they appear at the size of a postage stamp. In ‘Merciless Reason’, there are thirty-eight of these little pictures. They’re a quiet pleasure to work on. For the Wildenstern books I do them in a classic brush-and-ink style to suit the era, though people sometimes assume they’re etchings or even wood-cuts. I’ve never done an etching, and only did a little wood-cutting in college. And due to the time involved, these types of techniques are used less and less in illustration, which is a shame really.

I originally wanted to do full-page ‘plate’ illustrations for ‘Ancient Appetites’, as you would have found in nineteenth-century novels, but the folks at Random thought that might make the book look as if it were trying to appeal to a younger audience (can’t old people look at pictures too?). They were very happy to go with chapter headers, however. Too many books just have a basic, graphic design repeated as a header. If you’re interested, you can see a sample of one of my proposed full-page illustrations here.

As the Christmas/New Year holiday draws to a close, it’s time to get back into planning for the next few months. I’m intending to hold a competition to promote the launch of ‘Merciless Reason’, and I’ve already got some events lined up over the next few months. Then there’s the production work on my next novel to get started on; ‘Rat-Runners’ – a very different story to the Wildensterns’ exploits. I’ll see what other projects I can come up with in the meantime. It pays to keep yourself busy these days.

Hope everyone had a fantastic Christmas, and Happy New Year to all of you.