Mike Carey's Blog

April 21, 2014

The Writer's Blog Tour

Last week, the amazing Claire Weaver invited me to take part in the Writers Blog Tour, having been invited herself the week before by our mutual friend John Hunter. The basic idea is that all writers involved in the tour answer the same four questions on their blogs, then invite some other writers they know to do the same thing, effectively passing the baton. So it’s the questions that are making the tour, not the writers. If that makes sense.

The origins of this literary Mexican wave are lost in the mists of time. It’s possible that the writer of the Gilgamesh tablets started the chain, but the passage in question is disputed by some scholars because its use of hashtags is considered to be anachronistic. In any case, it’s great fun to trace the answers back through the uncountably several writers who've participated and compare and contrast.

My answers below…

What am I working on?

A LOT of different things, which is great when it’s not terrifying.

I’m still working on three ongoing comics – The Unwritten for DC Vertigo, Suicide Risk for BOOM Studios and The Houses Of the Holy for the (totally free!) Madefire app.

I’m also working on the next M.R. Carey novel, which is kind of a ghost story with some other stuff going on and is set in a women’s prison (write what you know, right?)

I’m doing a TV pilot and bible for a British production company and an international broadcaster. That’s been pretty amazing, and I feel really lucky to be invilved in it. It was just one of those situations where for once you find yourself in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. The development process so far has been hugely enjoyable, and it feels like we’re in a really good place with the pilot script.

I’m working on two movie screenplays – an adaptation of Jonathan Trigell’s near-future sci-fi novel, Genus, for Matador Pictures and an adaptation of my own novel The Girl With All the Gifts. Again that’s been a wonderful process. I was writing the screenplay at the same time that I was writing the novel, and although they went in different directions in some ways they really informed and enriched each other.

I’m also developing a couple more TV projects that are still at a very early stage, and talking to Peter Gross and Mike Perkins about comic book pitches. Both The Unwritten and Suicide Risk will wrap soon, and it would be great to have projects set up with those guys (my two favourite artists to work with, without a doubt) for when that happens.

The past two years seem to have been a time when my centre of gravity has shifted a long way. I never envisaged a time when the bulk of my work would be screenwriting, and I’m still not entirely certain how that happened. A lot of unlikely coincidences were involved. Or perhaps they weren’t as unlikely as all that given that everyone in TV seems to know everyone else in TV. It’s just like comics, in that respect.

How does my work differ from others in my genre?

I’m not sure I can answer that. I think I’ve got my favourite tricks and tropes – things that I return to again and again by default. I seem to be obsessed with families, and within that wide sphere with parent-child relationships. Is that a distinctive thing? Probably not so much.

I think writing in so many different media has had a good effect on my work. Certainly starting in comics teaches you economy in storytelling and care with structure, although I wouldn’t say I was a quick study in either of those areas.

There are also religious themes that wind their way through my writing, in spite of the fact that I’m an atheist. There you go, I’m a religiously obsessed atheist. That’s my unique selling point. It comes out in Lucifer, in Castor, in my Hellblazer run, and it’s even present in The Unwritten.

Why do I write what I do?

Because I love telling stories and because I’ve got to earn a living.

That probably sounds a bit frivolous, but it wasn’t meant to. I’ve always told stories, for as long as I can remember. I made comics for my younger brother, Dave, when I was about thirteen and he was about eight (and he made comics for me – it was a reciprocal deal). As I got older I starter to write novels and short stories, and even to submit them to publishers, whose reaction can be summed up pretty well in the words of the old hymn Hark an Awful Voice is Sounding. When I got married and we had kids, I made up stories for them and also read aloud to them whenever they sat still long enough to let me. It’s impossible to imagine a life that doesn’t have stories in it. And it’s impossible to exaggerate the joy that storytelling has given me over the years.

But the other half of that sentence above is still true. I write to earn a living. So I write stories that I think I can sell, and then I try to sell them. I don’t write for the sheer love of the thing. It’s an important point to make because it affects the choices you make and the kind of writer you become. I have writer friends who do other stuff for a living and write what’s in them without worrying about whether there’s a market for it. I have one particular writer friend who walked away from a ridiculously lucrative job in the City in order to write and draw comics. I admire him very much.

But for fifteen years now, writing has been my daily bread. And when it’s your daily bread, you approach it differently. I think you do.

How does my writing process work?

I don’t have anything you could dignify with the word “process”. I write haphazardly, taking sudden, hectic run-ups at things. There’s no structure to my working day at all.

I’m thinking about my mum as I write this. In a crisis she was… how can I put it? As much use as the pope’s knackers. Whatever the situation was (the baby’s swallowed a Lego brick; the oven is on fire; another Summer is gone and still we are not saved) her reaction was always the same. She would clutch her head in her hands, wail, and in extreme cases run around the house like a maniac. Practical interventions just didn’t occur to her.

I’m my mother’s son, in a lot of ways. My writing process resembles her crisis management scenario. I panic, I lose control of my emotions, and I put in a lot of mostly unfocused effort.

It seems to work, but it works in a way that makes it virtually impossible for me to fit anything else in my life. I live like a hermit. Friends drag me out of the house occasionally, but if they didn’t I’d probably look like the castaway from the Monty Python credits and cower from daylight like a cockroach.

Okay, that’s me. And this is the link to Claire’s blog post, so you can compare my answers to hers. http://claireweaver.blogspot.co.uk/20...

Meanwhile, I also invited several other writers to add their names to the roster. They’ll post up their answers next week, and the circle of life will continue. Brief drumroll, please. The next three writers on the tour are:-


Mark Williams, screenwriter, playwright and novelist. His plays include Here Be Monsters, and stage adaptations of Jason & The Argonauts and Horrible Histories: The Frightful First World War. He’s written for BBC Wales radio and TV, and recently received his first BBC drama commission. His debut fantasy novel Sleepless Knights, the story of King Arthur’s butler, was published by Atomic Fez in 2013.

His blog is at:-


Tom Pollock, inventor of monsters, hugger of bears and clear and present danger on dancefloors across the nation, Tom Pollock is the author of The City's Son, The Glass Republic and Our Lady of The Streets, probably the most urban fantasy novels you'll ever read. He lives and writes in London.

He blogs at tompollock.com

And David Baillie, is a writer whose work regularly appears in legendary British comics 2000AD and Judge Dredd Megazine. He has also written for numerous other titles, such as the international Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, and his own self-published graphic novel Tongue of the Dead, as well as occasionally dabbling in television for people like Ragdoll and Nickelodeon. He recently wrote a novel, Portal 666, for Amazon US, starring the hugely successful Valiant Comics character Bloodshot.

Dave’s blog is over at www.davidbaillie.net/blog/
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Published on April 21, 2014 00:02

February 5, 2014

Genre fiction and literary fiction

I just read a thought-provoking article by Edward Docx from a few years back in the Guardian. It actually provoked other things besides thoughts, but still... Docx's topic was the perennial favourite of genre versus literary fiction, and he took a fairly robust view.

'...in my view, we need urgently to remind ourselves of – for want of better terminology – the difference between literary and genre fiction; because, to misquote the literary essayist Isaac D'Israeli, "it seems to me a wretched national compulsion to be gratified by mediocrity when the excellent lies before us".

We need to be clear-eyed here because although there is much written about this subject, there is also much theatricality to the debate. And this serves to hide (on both sides) a fundamental dishonesty. The proponents of genre fiction are not sincere about the limitations even of the best of what they do while being scathing and disingenuous about literary fiction (there's no story, nothing happens etc). Meanwhile, the (equally insincere) literary proponents say either: "Oh, don't blame us, it's the publisher's fault – they label the books and we really don't see the distinction"; or, worse, they adopt the posture and tone of bad actors delivering Shakespeare and talk of poetry and profundity without meaning a great deal or convincing anyone. Both positions are bogus and indicative of something (also interesting) about the way we talk of literature and culture more widely.

It's worth dealing with the difference again, since everyone seems to have forgotten it or become chary of the articulation. Mainly this: that even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. That's the way writing works and lots of people who don't write novels don't seem to get this: if you need a detective, if you need your hero to shoot the badass CIA chief, if you need faux-feminist shopping jokes, then great; but the correlative of these decisions is a curtailment in other areas. If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.'

I'm probably not doing Docx's argument any favours by curtailing it, and you can find the whole thing by following the link below, but it did make me sad to see someone in the modern era taking this hectoring and elitist line. Do we still believe there is a literary canon with a defined perimeter which genre fiction can approach but never cross? Does anyone argue this with a straight face any more, after Dunsany's Gods Of Pegana, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5, LeGuin's Always Coming Home, Pullman's His Dark Materials, Gaiman's Coraline, China Mieville's The Scar, and so on and so forth?

Yes, writing in genre entails constraints. And since literary fiction is a genre like any other, the constraints will be present there too. Writing in novel form, or short story form, or novella form, similarly involves accepting (to a certain extent, with goodwill or cantankerously or a devious intention to subvert) a set of arbitrary limits on what you're doing. Anyone who implies that there is a sort of Platonic uber-narrative somewhere that accepts no rules and no limits hasn't thought their position through.

But there's another argument haunting this argument, I think - a belief in absolute, objective measurements of artistic merit, which has been a submerged reef in literary criticism in the UK since at least as far back as Leavis's Scrutiny group in the 1930s.

When I was at college, the poet Kathleen Raine came to talk to us once. She lectured us on absolute aesthetic value, which she believed was a thing. A guy named Adam Chinn talked back to her, suggesting that to say "beethoven is better than the Beatles" is both futile and self-defeating. Ms Raine patronised Adam to within an inch of his life, promised him he'd understand when he was all grown up, and won the day without actually proving her point. It still makes me sad and ashamed that I didn't weigh in on Adam's side, because he was right and Kathleen Raine was wrong.

Docx is wrong too. And the "fundamental dishonesty" he talks about is a straw man. It may be exasperating sometimes to see work you view as inferior lauded over work you see as brilliant and innovative. But that doesn't mean everyone else is a fool or a knave and you're the guardian of a great tradition.

Link to the full article is here:- http://bit.ly/1g1fNF8
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Published on February 05, 2014 03:57

January 10, 2014

Do You Sincerely Want to Be an Editor?

I'm posting this on behalf of a friend, who has an editorial role on the Storygraph, an online literary magazine that mainly publishes fiction by university students and recent graduates. They're looking for new part-time sub-editors (not a paid position - see below) and they've sent out the following call to arms:-

The StoryGraph Needs You!

What is The StoryGraph?

The StoryGraph is an exciting online space celebrating the creative writing of university students around the world. We look for original, inventive pieces that still appeal to a wide audience. Every main story that we publish is accompanied with artwork that the artist has drawn after reading the chosen piece. This combination of writing and art makes The StoryGraph a unique reading experience for all.

Currently, the team consists of the two founders and one main editor. We are looking for a team of sub-editors to join us and enable us to continue publishing top-quality material.

If you love creative writing, maybe write a bit yourself, and have a few hours spare each week, then this could be the role for you. We cannot offer any payment, but you'll be part of an exciting project that we hope to take to greater places in the future. It's perfect for anyone who wants a career in fiction or the publishing industry!

What do you need to be able to do?

First and foremost, you need to be able to spot a good read that is accessible to a wide audience.

The basics: You can spot straightforward spelling, grammatical, and punctuation errors and can neaten up unintentional clumsy phrasing.

The more subtle: You can notice when there is an inconsistent style within a story. Perhaps the message of the story isn't quite clear and you have ideas of how it can be better communicated. Furthermore, you're willing to work a bit more closely with some authors in order to help develop their work.


If you're interested in applying, send an e-mail to editor@thestorygraph.com with 'SUB-EDITOR ROLE' in the subject line. Include a brief description about yourself and why you're interested in this role. We'll then send you a short story sample to edit so that we can see your approach. If you've got any questions, e-mail us at the same address!

We look forward to hearing from you!
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Published on January 10, 2014 02:20

June 9, 2013

Visions and Revisions

I’m going to state a position here, right out of the gate. I think there should be a time limit on revising your own work.

Self-editing is part of the writing process, obviously. I’m sure most if not all of us have done that thing where you put something aside until you can come back and look at it in a cooler and more objective frame of mind and decide whether it works or not. Getting that little bit of distance from yourself can yield huge dividends.

But that’s fine when the “little bit of distance” is measured in weeks or months. Once you get into years, it’s problematic. “Can one man be one thing, and be it long?” Wallace Stevens asked. IMO, no he can’t. And if we’re talking about a woman, then she can’t either. You change as you grow, and though the pace of that change speeds up and slows down at different points in our life, there isn’t any time when it gets to zero.

That’s why, obviously, you look at your own early work and you’re sometimes dismayed. Was I that bad? Did I use that cliché, miss that nuance, mess up that character beat?

But it’s also why you should know to leave well enough alone – because the you that’s doing the correcting isn’t the you who wrote the original work.

I’m saying this having just read the new Drawn And Quarterly edition of Chester Brown’s surrealist graphic novel, Ed the Happy Clown. As a huge fan of the original Yummy Fur episodes back in the 80s, I was looking forward to immersing myself in that strange, enthralling world again. I’d already bought an earlier collection published by Titan Books, and discovered that it only went as far as episode 12. This volume was meant to be a complete edition.

And it was. Up to a point. It’s complete as Chester Brown now sees the story – but that cuts off most of the last third, and tacks on an unnecessarily explicit final beat for the sort-of-vampiric ghost woman, Josie, who had always been my favourite character in the story.

I found this new ending utterly flat and unsatisfying. I’m okay with the story resolving in a minor key, but for Ed it doesn’t resolve at all – it leaves him still lost and adrift from his life, a victim of yet another mistaken identity, his poignant bonding with the Backman girls erased from continuity. And for Josie… well, in Brown’s own words, he’d decided in the interim between Yummy Fur and now (a gap of almost thirty years) that she “shouldn’t get away with it” – that her quest for vengeance on the man who murdered her was a negative and self-defeating thing and deserved to be crapped on by God from a great height.

I say “by God” because that’s really the only way to read the final image of the story – and it was the bitterest pill of all for me to swallow. In reading the original issues, it always seemed to me that the religious touches, especially the grotesque rules surrounding the disposition of the dead, were part and parcel of the surrealism. I didn’t think we were being invited to take them seriously as an actual meditation on sin and redemption.

But in the new version, we suddenly are – and it really, really doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter whether you approach the story as a Catholic, an atheist, an adherent of another religion, or some unexcluded middle. The story just sets up in one register and resolves in a completely different one. It feels both awkwardly tacked on and insulting to a character we’ve come to care deeply about.

I’m conscious as I write this that there’s a certain absurdity in picking a fight with what a writer does with his or her own story. We can respond to the story in any way we like, but obviously the only person who can dictate how it’s told is the original creator – and if he changes his mind, as Brown evidently did, then that’s entirely his prerogative.

I still think, though, that after such a long time has elapsed the original creator might not be the most sympathetic editor of his own earlier work – and little good is likely to come from revisiting it.

Another example that’s close to my heart is The Borrowers Avenged. My affection for the original four Borrowers books – The Borrowers, The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Afloat and The Borrowers Aloft - has stood the test of time. They were one of the best fantasy cycles I encountered as a child, and when I had kids of my own I got to enjoy them all over again. They're vivid and warm and wise and exciting as hell. They were written by Mary Norton between 1951 and 1962, and part of their appeal lies in how perfectly they capture the rural England of the years just after the Second world War, with all its pedantries and prejudices and parochialisms.

Then, two decades later, Norton decided that the cycle needed a fifth book. Unfortunately, her own world view had shifted radically in the interim. The Borrowers Avenged is a farrago as a story, and for aficionados of the first four books it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. One of the hardest things to swallow is Norton’s deciding, on better (or at least later) judgement, that the middle class and respectable Arrietty couldn’t be happy with the working class and unrefined Spiller. So she created the character of Peagreen Overmantel, a borrower with an impeccable petit bourgeois pedigree, to replace him – and had Arrietty’s parents, Pod and Homily, solemnly explain to her that this is the best thing for both her and Spiller. It may hurt now, but it’s better than marrying out of your class and being miserable.

Oh, and borrowers can see ghosts. It’s never come up in the other books, but they can. Because ghosts are real and borrowers can see through the veil to the hidden truth.

God help me, I can’t even think about that book without wanting to cry.

So I guess what I’m saying is you should resist the urge to tamper with your own early works in order to bring them in line with where you are now. Where you are now is not where they originated, and you can’t repatriate them without destroying them in the process.

And Han Solo fired first.
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Published on June 09, 2013 14:03

April 4, 2013

Results of the giveaway!

I should have announced these two weeks ago, and I'm sorry for the shameful delay. It was caused by a combination of me being in Minnesota for Fabletown, me not entirely understanding how the system works here and a logistical hiccup in getting comp copies from Gollancz. But we're up to speed. We're signing the books on Saturday and they should go out to the winners early next week.

And the winners are:-

Steph J-R, from Tyne and Wear
Chris Rodgers, from Somerset
Kirsty Ward, from Derbyshire
Anjali Reddy, from West Yorkshire
Suzanne McLeish, from West Lothian

Congratulations to all, and apologies again for the time lag. Hope you enjoy the book!
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Published on April 04, 2013 01:23

April 1, 2013

Write What You Know, part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote here about how your everyday experiences inform your writing even when what you’re writing is fantasy, horror or supernatural noir – on the face of it, about as far removed from reality as you can get.

But I purposely steered away from the most tendentious and spiky aspect of this issue of the relationship between the writer and his/her subject matter. So I want to swing by for a second pass today, and talk about the issue of cultural appropriation.

This is what happens, or at least it’s what can happen, when a writer steps right outside his or her own experience and writes about a culture or subculture about which they have little or no firsthand knowledge. Cultural appropriation is when the writer cobbles together an inaccurate or fanciful version of a particular place, time, community, subculture or social milieu and passes it off as the truth. An obvious example would be the way Native American culture is presented in dime novel Westerns. Another would be the way the Hippie movement is depicted in the movie Forrest Gump (brief summary: caring about civil rights makes you catch AIDS).

It goes without saying that cultural appropriation can have extremely bad consequences. It’s been used time and again to perpetuate negative stereotypes about disadvantaged groups – mostly so that their disadvantages seem to be a result of their own vices rather than active discrimination against them. And actual members of these groups have a right to feel angry when they find – in effect – forged versions of their lived experience turning up in writing by storytellers who don’t have the slightest clue how they live and haven’t bothered to find out.

Here’s a more trivial but more personal example. My mother, Alice May Carey, had a violent dislike of the novels of Helen Forrester, from Twopence To Cross the Mersey onwards. These were novels about growing up poor in 1930s Liverpool – and my mum, who was born dirt-poor in Liverpool in 1923 and lived there without interruption until three years before her death, felt that Forrester exaggerated some aspects of that poverty for crowd-pleasing effect. In other words, she felt that the substance of her life and her experience was being badly misrepresented by the books.

Some commentators draw a radical conclusion from instances like this. They point out that the literary world is dominated by privileged voices – mostly white, mostly English-speaking, mostly western, mostly male, mostly middle class. They see this narrowness of vision, or at least of point of view, as problematic in itself, in which I’m inclined to agree with them. But some of them go further and advocate an extreme version of “write what you know”, which is this: write the culture you know, and keep your nose out of other people’s cultures. Don’t presume to voice or to speak for groups to which you don’t belong.

This sounds fine on the face of it. A golden rule. The only problem is that it’s impossible to live up to.

A society – any society – is pretty much be definition stratified; endlessly, fractally broken up into different groups. And those groups are not uniform, but are broken up into smaller groups and so on. The only end point to that process is the individual. Every viewpoint is unique, and the only eyes you can see out of are your own.

I could write a novel about growing up in Liverpool in the 70s, and I could base it solidly, a hundred per cent, on real events that I was part of or present for. But that wouldn’t make it true in any sense that matters. I’d still be voicing other characters – female as well as male, younger than me and older, from social strata above and (if I could find any) below my own. So the idea that a story like that would be free of cultural appropriation is really just wish fulfilment.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a defence of inaccurate and sloppy writing. I’m not saying that writers should get a free pass because error is inevitable. Quite the opposite. When we get it wrong, as we very often do, we should be called on it – called at the very least to explain what we were trying to do and to acknowledge our mistakes. And where those mistakes are part of a political agenda or manifesto, we should be gently mocked until tender, meticulously skewered and thrown to the wolves in the form of author kebabs.

What I am saying, though, is this. You can’t, in the end, draw a tidy distinction between works that are guilty of cultural appropriation and works that aren’t. It's only ever a matter of degree. You can point out and interrogate specific mistakes. You can say that this novel feels true and that one doesn’t. You can measure fictions against your own knowledge, the historical record and other sources and draw your own conclusions about their shortcomings.

But all writers ventriloquise. There’s no way to avoid it. Even when you stick to writing what you know, you’re still putting words in other people’s mouths.
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Published on April 01, 2013 08:14

March 18, 2013

Countdown to publication day!

The City of Silk and Steel hits the bookshops on Thursday, a scant three days from now. Gollancz have featured us on their blog today, where they've published the first part of Tales of the Seven Djinni - a suite of interlocking short stories that Lin, Lou and I wrote before City's US publication.


Please check it out. It's separate from the novel and completely free-standing, but it does feature (extensively) the seven djinni who appear in the novel, and there's a brief glimpse of Rem, the character who narrates the novel.

Also, go ahead and sign up for our giveaway if you haven't done so already. Five copies of the beautiful Gollancz hardcover edition will be given away, with winners announced on publication day...

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Published on March 18, 2013 05:01

March 11, 2013

Write What You Know, part 1

It’s still in there, isn’t it? Among all the other little nuggets of advice that you collect as you do your journeyman work and try to figure out what your voice is and if you’ve even got one.

It was advice that I very largely ignored, when I was setting out. What I knew was Breeze Hill, Walton, Liverpool, an unreclaimed slum in a city that in the late 70s seemed (only seemed) to be in terminal decline. I was so green, so parochial, even Birkenhead was a little bit exotic to me. London, when I went there on a day trip from school, was another world. At age 16 I’d never left the country, never been on a plane, could count on two hands the number of times I’d been outside the city of my birth. (once to London, once to York, once to Borth in Wales, three or four times to Bradford to stay with my sister Pauline). I was profoundly ignorant in other ways too. To take just one example, the only non-British food I’d ever met was Vesta chow mein (just add water).

So “writing what I knew” would have been very constricting, and I had no interest in trying it. I wrote science fiction and fantasy, exclusively and obsessively, and although I never thought about the reasons for it, one of them was almost certainly because the Andromeda galaxy and the Horsehead nebula were a long way from Walton. I was making a break for it, in my head at least. Later, like so many people in my generation, I did the same thing physically.

Thirty years on, I’ve written nine novels and five hundred comic scripts, almost all of which have been in the area of speculative fiction – in other words, the broad genre highway that leads from sci-fi through fantasy to horror, with magic realism and supernatural thriller as well-paved satellite roads. And I can honestly say that “write what you know” was one of the most relevant bits of advice I was ever given.

Most fantasy is based on fact, in the same way most fictions of any kind are based on fact. You create a dramatic illusion, and you give your readers good and sufficient reasons to invest in it – to suspend their disbelief. You try to build a world that’s internally consistent, settings that feel plausible, characters who are believable and who speak in authentic-seeming voices. In all of this you draw directly on your own experience.

Here’s a banal example. In the Castor novels, I tended to set the action in places that I know. If I had to set a scene somewhere unfamiliar, I’d usually make an effort to visit it with my notebook and maybe a camera. This isn’t a boast about how thorough my method is – these places were almost all in London (or in the case of Thicker Than Water in Liverpool) so it didn’t exactly take a strenuous effort. And it really wasn’t about any kind of duty to truth. It was about creating texture – in this case, creating vivid and believable backdrops to fantastic and implausible action, so the reader’s immersion in the story isn’t threatened by ludicrous clangers or impossible juxtapositions. Because when you get it demonstrably and visibly and glaringly wrong, the dramatic illusion pops like a bankrupt weasel.

Case in point: when I got the functioning mechanics of an automatic handgun wrong in Dead Men's Boots, for readers who knew about handguns (ie Americans) there was suddenly this sense of crashing unreality. This was not the real world - not because a succubus and an exorcist were fighting a horde of undead gangsters, but because the guns didn't work the way they should.

It’s the same with character. You write from what you know about human nature, and for the most part you try to make sure that all your characters fall within the human range as you understand it. This is not to say that you make them conform to types, unless being human is a type trait. You just kit them out with what you think are possible personalities and possible motivations, based on some kind of composite or some kind of extrapolation from the people you’ve actually met and interacted with. What you know is the foundation for everything else. And if you create characters who just plain don't work, your audience will know it and will feel it. They'll be pushed away from engagement with the story.

And this doesn't apply only to "realistic" fiction, whatever that is. It's just as true if you’re writing about gods, demons, fairies and monsters. The human becomes the yardstick for the super-human or sub-human, even where you strike off at odd angles. I wrote Lucifer for seven years in the DC Vertigo comic of that name, and in many ways he was as far from the human template as you can get. Morphologically asexual, incapable of empathy or mercy, largely lacking in imagination, and of course possessing a level of power that allows him at one point to collapse an entire plane of existence just by stepping into it.


I wrote Lucifer as Everyman. The bits of him that mattered most for the story were the bits that emphatically are part of the basic human kit – especially his driving need to find some definition of himself that didn’t depend on his father’s plan and his father’s influence. (For the purposes of the book, Lucifer was one of the three sons of Yahweh, the other two being Gabriel and Michael). So even when the story strayed into other Creations, underworlds and afterworlds, I was basing pretty much everything on my own experience and my own take on the family dynamic.

What you know appears in your stories as texture. It’s the warp and the woof of the fabric you’re weaving. It informs your ability to depict people, places, voices, events in ways that feel realistic within the context of your narrative. Without that bedrock, you’re building on soap bubbles.
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Published on March 11, 2013 03:10 Tags: felix-castor, lucifer

March 5, 2013

Going Against Character

I’ve had this experience a few times now where I’ve been at a convention, either on a panel or in the audience at a panel, and the question of characters has come up. And the question is some variation on this: “Do your characters ever surprise you?”

And of course the answer is always some variation on “yes, they do”. Even writers who plan obsessively, as I do for certain types of project, don’t go into a story with their minds ready stocked with fully functioning automata of all their cast members. You work characters out on the page. You may know their arc and their plot function and their place in the story as a whole, you may even know their voice, but until you actually start to write you don’t really have more than the fuzziest idea of how they’re going to work.

A banal example of this is the character of Ben Rush in the second of my two Adam Blake novels (The Demon Code). In the plan he’s a middle-aged man, and he was set to die about halfway through the story. I actually got to the death scene, wrote it, read it back and thought “wow, that’s really inert”. Which is sort of an alarm bell: if even you don’t care what happens to a character, it’s a fair bet that your readers won’t either.

It took a while to figure out what was wrong with Ben, but in the end I solved most of the narrative problems I was having with him by making him young instead of middle-aged, gormless instead of grizzled, and completely out of his depth throughout the larger part of the book. He worked a lot better as a kid slowly figuring out what was going on in the female protagonist’s world. He didn’t work well at all as an older man with his own separate sphere of expertise – too much overlap with other characters like Tillman, Ber Lusim and Kuutma.

But coming back to those convention conversations – most writers say yes, their characters can surprise them. What matters most to me, though, is what they say after the yes.

Someone was talking to me on Facebook the other day about “complaint boasting”. A complaint boast would be something like “But god, you know, a Rolls Royce is so expensive to run. I’m starting to neglect the Bentley.” Or “Three weeks in the Caribbean sounds great, but you come back to such a full inbox!” It's usually subtler than that, but I'm sure you know what I mean.

And there’s a version of this “My characters surprise me” conversation that falls into exactly that mould. A writer will say: “My characters never do what I tell them to. They rebel against me and recreate themselves on the page.”

And what they’re really saying, it seems to me, is: “My talent is so huge, even I can’t control it.” It’s like they’re accidentally creating fully realised human beings even when they’re not trying to. Like their characters are so dense and so real, they’ll only agree to be in the novel on their own terms.

My instinct is to call bullshit on this, but what do I know, right? Maybe there are people whose talent works in exactly that way. All I can say for sure is that mine doesn’t.

Creating a character in a novel or a short story is always going to be a multi-stranded process. It’s not like creating a character in Dungeons and Dragons, where you roll dice for each attribute – strength, wisdom, charisma and so on. Or if it is, then you’re probably going to end up with a character who’s exactly as vivid and believable as Frognal the half-elf cleric, level 6, neutral alignment.

In a story, you start off with a rough sense of who the character is and where they’re going. You fill that out while you’re planning or roughing out scenes or doing whatever preparatory work you do, and then you hit the ground, start writing, and stuff starts to happen.

And yes, you CAN find, at that point, that Frognal the half-elf cleric has got a bit more going on than you originally realised. You can find that he’s fun to write, that he can be given interesting things to do in the key scenes, that you’re getting drawn into his point of view and that his point of view is a rewarding place to be.

In extreme cases, you have a character who starts off as a plot function, but then something catches fire and they turn into a member of the core cast. But that’s not the character renegotiating his or her contract on the fly, it’s your creative process. It’s you working on your story, and doing what all writers do when a story goes from being inside your head to being out in the world. It’s a good thing, sure – certainly better than the alternative, which is to stick to the plan and let the story die (characters and all) for lack of oxygen. And it’s wonderful when it comes out right. But it’s not a sign of spectacular artistry or uncommon genius.

One more example, and then I’ll shut up. There’s a character in The City of Silk and Steel – Anwar Das, the camel-thief. He doesn’t appear in the plan at all as a named character. He cropped up in a single chapter, one of the inset short stories, called The Man Who Deserved Death No Fewer Than Three Times. And we just loved the way that story came out. From the core conceit of a man telling desperate lies to save his life, we got a sense of the character as someone who’s so good at tall tales he could convince you to donate both kidneys to him. And when we threw him into the mix in a wider sense, and let him interact with the rest of the cast, it seemed to work really well. He was a good touchstone for the moral seriousness of Gursoon, the brutal directness of Zuleika, the honesty of Rem. He paid his way, and we were very happy to have him.

But he didn’t lock us in a broom cupboard and write his scenes himself. That’s not how it works.
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Published on March 05, 2013 00:38

February 25, 2013

The City of Silk and Steel - extract

We argued a fair bit about which passage to put up here as a taster for The City of Silk and Steel. One of the drawbacks of collaboration is that everything takes twice as long (or in this case three times as long) because everything has to be decided by due democratic process. Or as we call it in our house, shouting at each other.

But in the end we decided to go with a sequence from the novel's first act, taken from the chapter called The Cup Lands Upright. Actually, there are two chapters with that title - this is part of the first.

The women of Sultan Al-Bokhari's harem have been sent out from Bessa into the desert by the new sultan Hakkim Mehdad after a violent coup. He's sending them as a gift to a neighbouring caliph, because he despises the pleasures of the flesh (along with pretty much any other pleasure).

But a day after the women leave the city, a servant reveals to Hakkim that one of the princes of the royal bloodline has been smuggled in among the bastard children of the concubines. So he sends a messenger to intercept the caravan and give his soldiers new orders. To wit: kill the women, and their children, and their servants, and come home.

Which is where this scene takes up:-

The Cup Lands Upright

In the deep desert, meanwhile, another event was taking place which would prove to be full of consequences.

The legate En-Sadim, full of desire and goaded by ever-present temptations, decided to surrender to the inevitable.

He didn’t put it to himself quite so baldly, of course. He was surrounded by beautiful women, he was far away from his own wife and hearth, and it seemed to him – looking at things in the long term, with the utmost objectivity – that this was a victimless crime. In Bessa, the concubines had belonged to the sultan Hakkim. In Perdondaris, they would belong to the caliph Bin Ezvahoun. Here in the desert, though, they were his sole charge and his sole responsibility. Who could fault him if he sampled the merchandise? Surely it fell squarely within the bounds of his job description?

The woman who had brought En-Sadim to this mental crisis was named Zuleika. En-Sadim had noticed her on the first day, and had not failed to notice her as often as he could thereafter.

She was slender of figure—almost too slender, but with a wiry firmness of frame that suggested athletic possibilities in lovemaking. Her breasts were small, but well defined. Her eyes were huge and dark, and her hair fell in black ringlets about her shoulders. There was in her face a contemplative calm that was more sultry than the sultriest of pouts. This woman would draw you into her stillness and show you her storms.

The legate indulged a fantasy in which he took Zuleika out from among the concubines and made her his servant: but sadly, it had to remain a fantasy. En-Sadim’s wife would kill the both of them on the evidence of Zuleika’s looks alone, and the caliph of Perdondaris almost certainly had scribes who knew how to count. No, it would not do.

But the deep desert is like a caliphate unto itself, with its own laws and customs. On the journey, at least, En-Sadim could enjoy Zuleika’s company and her person without reproof.

And so, when they ceased their march on the third day and stopped for the night at the oasis of Khuzaymah, En-Sadim called for the guard captain, a stolid and long-suffering man named Numair, and gave instructions for the girl to be brought to him.

Numair knew the vices of the powerful well enough, and it was not the first time that he had been called upon to play procurer. Without much enthusiasm, but also without protest or hesitation, he saluted and went off to find the lady in question, armed with her name and a somewhat lurid description.

A minute later, a slight, demure form was standing at the entrance to the legate’s tent. Zuleika bowed to En-Sadim, not low but modestly. “You sent for me, Excellency,” she murmured. Her voice was deep, not musical but with a huskiness to it that was extremely arousing. En-Sadim nodded.

“Close the tent flaps,” he said, “and come here.”

The girl obeyed.

“You are Zuleika,” En-Sadim said to her.
“Yes, Excellency.”

“Do you play the buzuq, or the simsimiyya?”

“Excellency, no.”

“Some other instrument, then?”

“I have no instrument, Excellency.”

“Do you sing? Tell stories?”


“But there must be something you can do?”

She raised her head and stared into his eyes—provocatively, En-Sadim considered, but right then he’d have thought it provocative if she sneezed.

“Many things,” Zuleika said.

He touched her cheek. “Do the first of them,” he suggested. “And continue down the list until I tell you to stop.”

“Do you have scented oils?” Zuleika asked.

Oils were duly brought, and she got down to business.

While the legate En-Sadim was being taken to the foothills of ecstasy, Captain Numair noticed a slender column of dust a few miles behind the caravan. To his practised eye, it suggested a single rider moving fast. The sun was still an hour from setting, and a single rider was more likely a messenger than a threat, but he deployed sentries and sent two men out to meet their uninvited guest.

They returned, some little while later, with Mehdad’s messenger riding between them.

The messenger dismounted, and presented himself to Captain Numair. He did so with a certain degree of smugness, because he wore the sultan’s colours on his sash, and the sultan’s seal was very prominent on the letter he carried. Anyone could see even at a cursory glance that he was a serious man on a serious errand.

“Where is the legate En-Sadim?” he demanded. “I bear orders from the enlightened one.”

“The most worthy En-Sadim is asleep in his tent,” Numair temporised. He knew that this was not the case: he had brought the beautiful young concubine to the legate’s tent a scant half hour before, and he expected that it would be at least an hour or so before the business that was between them was concluded. But he did not wish to mention these matters. While the legate’s dalliance with the lady was not expressly forbidden, it seemed unlikely that the new sultan would approve of it. At the very least, this was an awkward situation.

The messenger brushed the objection aside, making a great show of impatience.
“Wake him, then,” he barked. “My business cannot wait.”

Numair nodded reluctantly. “Very well,” he said. “Wait here, and I’ll bring him.”

“Wait?” echoed the messenger. “I wasn’t sent here to wait! Which is the legate’s tent? Tell me!”

The captain knew better than to point, but his eyes answered the question involuntarily. The messenger followed the direction of Numair’s gaze, toward the largest of the silk pavilions, and set off at a brisk stride in that direction. Abashed, Numair fell in alongside him.

“I’ll tell the most worthy En-Sadim that you’re here,” he said, drawing slightly ahead.

“I’ll announce myself,” the messenger riposted.

Numair thrust forward strenuously. The messenger, refusing to be outdone, broke into a run. They bolted together past En-Sadim’s startled bodyguards, who had retired to a discreet distance from the pavilion’s entrance, and broke through the tent flap in a frantic squall of curtailed ceremony.

“The messenger of the enlightened Hakkim Mehdad!” Numair blurted.

“Forgive my unmannerly intrusion!” the messenger cried.

They both stopped dead at this point, staring at the scene before them. Zuleika was on her knees before the legate, naked to the waist, pleasuring him with her hands. Various pots and jars of sweet-smelling oils stood about, with which her glistening fingers had been anointed. The scented smoke of a small brazier drifted gently around them, making a teasing curtain which yet did not hide one single detail of the unfolding act. Captain Numair blanched. The messenger floundered, faced for once in his life with a situation which no protocol appeared to cover.

Zuleika was not outfaced to find herself performing in front of an audience. She ignored the newcomers as completely as if they were not there. En-Sadim did not. He frowned at them thunderously, and after a moment or two, caused Zuleika to pause in her ministrations by touching her lightly on the shoulder. She bowed her head, falling into decorous stillness.

“What is the meaning of this?” En-Sadim demanded, in a portentous tone.

The messenger realised at this point that he had overstepped the bounds of his office. “I bear a message,” he said, his voice faltering, “from Hakkim Mehdad himself. He bade me not to wait, but to deliver it to you at once, by hand.”

This last was pure invention, but the messenger thought it might allay the anger he read in En-Sadim’s countenance. Belatedly he offered a bow of obeisance, the most ragged and unconvincing he had ever performed.

“A message?” growled En-Sadim. “You stride into my tent like a ruffian and offer me a message?”

“A most urgent message,” the messenger qualified, trying to cling to some little shreds of dignity.

En-Sadim’s eyes narrowed. “And what is the purport of this urgent message?” he asked.

The messenger looked at the scroll, then held it up for En-Sadim’s inspection. “It is sealed,” he pointed out.

“Then open it.”

The messenger did so, with fingers that shook more than a little.

“Now read it to me. And if its urgency matches the enormity of your insolence, I’ll spare you the flogging you’ve earned.”

The messenger flinched at the word flogging. He glanced toward the tent flap, and for a moment it seemed that he might turn tail and flee, but Captain Numair stood squarely in his way, arms folded, and in any event he knew that while he was in En-Sadim’s camp he was likewise in En-Sadim’s power. There was no getting out of this.

“To the legate En-Sadim,” he read, haplessly, “from His Excellency, the enlightened Hakkim Mehdad. There is in your charge, among the children of the seraglio, a legitimate prince of the bloodline of Bokhari al-Bokhari, formerly the ruler of Bessa, now execrated and not to be named . . .”

The messenger slowed, caught in a contradiction. Had he not just named the ex-sultan? And was that a sin? Surely not, since he was reading the words of the Enlightened One, which was an unimpeachable defence.

The legate did not seem to have noticed the solecism. Behind him, though, and forgotten by all three men, Zuleika had raised her head and was listening intently.

“Continue,” En-Sadim snapped.

The messenger took a moment to find his place again. “This . . . this prince,” he read, “shall not be suffered to live. No more shall those who have sheltered him, in defiance of my edict. Kill the women of the harem forthwith, along with their children and maidservants. Let not one survive. Their bodies let the desert claim, and their names be fed to silence.”

These were the last words on the scroll, but the messenger continued to stare at it as though more words might appear. The sultan Hakkim had not signed off in the manner demanded by protocol, which gave him no graceful exit from the horrendous sentence he had just pronounced.

He should not have worried. The legate En-Sadim had already moved his attention elsewhere. He turned to Captain Numair, who came immediately to attention and stepped forward, shouldering past the dithering messenger.

“Gather your men,” En-Sadim said. His face and voice were grim, but he did not shrink from the commission: he was a career diplomat, and had seen and done worse things than this. “Give them their orders all at once, and in private, then have them divide the women and children into smaller groups, the better to ensure that . . .”

He stopped in mid-sentence, distracted by an unexpected occurrence. Zuleika, to the astonishment of all present, had chosen that moment to rise to her feet. En-Sadim turned to stare at her, perplexed.

“Resume your station,” he said, with something of gentleness in his voice. “You at least will not die until you have finished the offices for which I called you here.”

“Great sir,” said Zuleika, in a low voice, “let me entreat some mercy for my sisters, and for the children. If you were to let us go free into the desert, we would not return, and the sultan would never know that his orders had not been followed to the letter.”

En-Sadim looked stricken for a moment, then angry. “You must not speak before your betters,” he said. “Kneel. I will return to you shortly.”

“Great sir,” Zuleika essayed again, “I beg you not to do this thing. It is a terrible crime, and will stain your soul into eternity.”

The legate’s face darkened. He strode two steps forward, which brought him directly before the concubine, and he drew back his hand to strike her across the face.
This action was not destined to be completed.

Zuleika leaned aside from the blow, her feet not moving at all but her upper body flexing like a coiled cobra. She caught the legate’s hand in both of hers, and bending it behind his back, broke it quickly and expeditiously at the elbow. En-Sadim crashed to his knees, unmanned by pain.

Reaching behind her, Zuleika plucked the brazier from its stand, holding it in her bare hand without seeming to notice the fierce heat. The legate’s mouth had opened by this time on what was presumably going to be a scream: the concubine emptied the red-hot coals and glowing ash directly between his parted lips and he spasmed in strangled silence, his head striking the ground as his spine folded forward.

The two other men responded to this astonishing event in very different ways. After one moment of stricken amazement, Captain Numair stepped in to save his master; the messenger, yielding to the same impulse that had almost possessed him earlier, turned to flee the tent and shout for help. Help might not be needed, since the captain would surely deal with this madwoman, but at least his own valuable person would be placed out of harm’s reach.

Zuleika leaned down, drew the dagger from En-Sadim’s belt, and threw it with whiplash swiftness. It was a ceremonial dagger, and poorly balanced. It struck the messenger in the back of the head, pommel-first, laying him out unconscious before he could reach the pavilion’s entrance.

This allowed Captain Numair time to reach the concubine, but he had not thought to draw his sword along the way. He punched her instead, a solid blow to the jaw which he thought would fell her. Zuleika did not even appear to feel it. She jabbed her fingers, as straight as a ruled line, into the Captain’s throat, and sudden agony spiked and splintered inside his gullet as though he had swallowed a draught of iron nails.
He opened his mouth on a bellow that would have brought the guards at a run, but no sound came from him. That first blow had ensured that the battle would be fought in silence.

The young concubine was upon him with such dizzying speed that she seemed to be three or four women occupying the same space, and only the Captain’s armour saved him from an instant and ignominious defeat. Well, that and a lucky prescience that caused him to raise his forearms en garde in time to ward off the rain of slashing blows she aimed at his unprotected eyes.

Then she danced away before he could respond, so light on her feet she might have been a child’s balloon, untethered from gravity. Numair did not think of retreating: this woman had assaulted his master, and it was his job to deal with her. Nor did he waste any further thought on the possibility of summoning help—he had no voice left to shout with, and he had seen what had happened to the luckless messenger when he had dared to turn his back on this termagant.

So he drew his sword and advanced, whirling the weapon before him in a wicked arabesque as he had been taught. Zuleika retreated, feinting left and right as if she wished to find a way past the whickering blade. Emboldened, Numair pressed her hard, his eyes only on her slender figure. She was in the corner of the tent now, with no more room to retreat.

The captain leaned forward to deliver the death thrust. Zuleika ducked under his blade and was for an instant on her knees before him. Then she came vertically upward. Her open palm caught Captain Numair under the chin and all the force of her rising body, her straightening arm, her flexing shoulders was somehow translated into a force that operated only at the base of her wrist. Numair’s neck snapped with an audible crack, and he fell, bewildered and disbelieving as he died.

Zuleika took the captain’s sword out of the air, as though the air had offered it to her, and cast her gaze downwards on En-Sadim. He was choking to death on the hot coals, his body wracked by terrible convulsions. Zuleika drove the blade into the legate’s back and slid it along the runnel of his fourth rib to slice his heart in two. The angel of death is the angel of mercy, also.

The messenger recovered his senses to find the young woman kneeling over him, the bloodied sword still smoking in her hand. “I only delivered the letter!” he whimpered. “As I was charged to do! I bear no blame!”

“I offer you none,” Zuleika assured him, and since he was watching the sword he did not see that in her other hand she had picked up the legate’s dagger. A cold pricking in the messenger’s chest made him gasp: looking down he saw that the hilt of the dagger now protruded from his flesh, where the blade was buried deep. The concubine leaned down as if to embrace him, and covered his mouth with her hand as he expired.

Nonetheless, the guards outside had heard some sound—the falling of the brazier, perhaps, or of one of the bodies, or the frenzied movements of En-Sadim as he was choking. Their footsteps approached the pavilion’s entrance, uncertainty written in their halting cadence.

Zuleika gasped aloud, as if in the throes of violent passion. “Ah! Ah! Ah! Please! Yes! There!” The footsteps retreated again hastily.

Zuleika surveyed the carnage, her brow creased in calm but serious thought.
It is meet that we leave her there, for a moment or two, and speak about different but related things.
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Published on February 25, 2013 01:06