Good Omens

The good times continue to roll. My last post chronicled my delight at being on the receiving end of literary luck; now I get to be a giver. A book giver, to be precise, on April 23, in celebration of World Book Night. I applied months ago, along with many tens of thousands of passionate readers in the UK, Ireland, Germany and the USA. Emails were sent to the successful applicants last night. And I do feel truly privileged to have been selected. For a reader, writer and lover of story, this is my kind of community work.

World Book Night prints special editions of 25 great books which volunteers then give away, preferably to non- or light readers. The objective is not only to pass the adventure and excitement of reading on to people who currently don’t spend much time with books; but to do so in a way that makes them ambassadors in turn, passing their WBN books on to others and to others and to others. There’s even an online registration portal that can track the journey that each of the gifted volumes takes.

I get to give away 24 copies of my first choice, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It is a fantastically funny, witty, wicked take on the age-old (and frequently rather tired) tale of ponderous powers locked in a battle of good vs. evil. But there’s nothing turgid or trite about this version. In this one the angels and demons, formally avatars of opposition, turn out to have far more in common with each other than with their ineffable and absent bosses. The deep and imponderable mechanisms of apocalypse are about as reliable as a cheap watch. And humanity, supposedly no more than pawns in their grand game, manages to give a pretty good account of itself.

Good Omens is a bravura collaboration by two great writers at the height of their powers. Gaiman’s feel for character, and his gift for not just retelling but subverting mythology to suit his own satirical ends, mashes up wonderfully with Pratchett’s mastery of the comic fantasy form. The plot spins at a dizzying pace through a series of mounting crises, charting the course from mistake through disaster to catastrophe, leaving you with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach about what might be about to happen – even as you laugh out loud. It is that rarest of things, a comic horror novel.

And I get to share it! I get to go up to perfect strangers on the street, or in the pub, or waiting for a bus and say, Excuse me. I’ve got a great book here, and I’d like to give it to you. No thanks, you’ve had a rough day? Believe me, it’ll cheer you up no end. D’you believe in God? The Devil? Either way, you’re going to have fun with this. You think books are boring? Really? Let me read you the first page.

I’m looking forward to it with an almost evangelical intensity. Is being able to give a great book to new readers a good omen for a new writer? Better believe it.

From an agent, agency

I now have an agent. A literary agent. Someone who thinks my novel is good enough to sign me up and try to sell it. Someone who thinks my writing and characters and storyworld are good enough, in fact, to ask me to sketch out ideas for another two. Just in case a publisher might be interested in buying not only the one I’ve written, but a couple more I haven’t. (Apparently this can happen, even to new writers. Who knew?)

It’s difficult to describe just how seismic this feels. And how sudden. The Chronicle of the Writer is supposed to be a long, dusty, desolate journey, punctuated by rejection, fraught with self-doubt, seasoned with the salt of inky tears. You’re supposed to take at least a couple of years to write the thing, a few more to polish the manuscript and your courage, before you set forth into a hostile wilderness where no one reads your submission or returns your calls or – heaven forfend – wants to represent you. And I had already cheated; while the idea that became the book had been slowly developing in the back of my brain for several years, with occasional eureka moments as parts of the whole came clear, I only started properly writing it last April. I finished in October. Even though it was about as good as I thought I could make it without the services of a professional editor, when I sent it out in early January I still had the uneasy feeling of being way, way, way ahead of schedule.

So I was all set to get knocked back, as custom dictates, and indeed a few rejections had started to trickle in. But then I got a request for the full manuscript, and within a week the offer, from a publishing veteran no less. It all feels a bit miraculous. So now, of course, my innate superstition (which I claim not to have but which, let’s face it, we all have to some degree) is kicking in. Surely I can’t dodge my period in purgatory. Things can’t keep going quite so incredibly well. Can they?

Well, maybe they can. Because I’ve spent the weekend thinking about those other two books – setting out possible scenarios, core themes, central conflicts. Writing them up for my agent. Before, although I had created a world sufficiently complex and populated to generate many more stories, I had barely allowed myself to contemplate them. Now I’ve been given leave and licence to do just that. The stories are starting to take shape. Not only have I secured an agent; I have also, through some strange hoodoo, acquired agency.

Maybe I skipped a couple of steps to get here. So what? I’m looking at it this way – whatever time I don’t have to spend in the Slough of Submission, I get to spend writing. That can only be a good thing.

 

The hidden code of character names

I’ve been thinking a lot about names recently, as anyone who read my recent post about the tribulations of trying to name this blog will know. It reminded me of an online conversation I participated in some months ago, about examples of books in which character names provided powerful subliminal messages about the world and events of the story, and indeed about the characters themselves.

I was in the midst of writing my first novel at the time, and in the earlier planning stages had been struck by how much easier it was to write my core characters once I’d figured out what their names were. I seemed, suddenly, to know them better and to have a more profound understanding of their significance to the story and each other. Their names have meaning; they are part of the DNA, the hidden code that underpins the structure and themes of the story.

Going through this process myself made me think about other books I’ve loved wherein names have provided a subtle, subconscious signal about who and what the characters are. Two of my favourite examples, which I contributed to that online conversation I mentioned, are The Lord of the Rings and The Silence of the Lambs.

As I read and reread The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time, I was struck by how Tolkien constructed names that ‘fit’ each of the races in his story, managing somehow to encapsulate the entire cultural identity of a character in their name. They are internally consistent in terms of the syntax and structure of language for that people, and are instantly evocative. The Hobbits are small, straightforward, simple country folk given to hearty jokes and earthy pursuits, and their names reflect that – Bilbo, Frodo, Merry, Pippin, Sam. The Elves, with their grandeur, magic and ancient heritage tend to have long, lyrical names – Elrond, Galadriel, Legolas, Arwen Undomiel. The Men (humans) are somewhere in between, and their names tend to reflect their degree of nobility, which in the mythology of the book is indicated by how “close” they are to elf-culture; so Aragorn, noblest of all, could be an elf-name, while Boromir, Faramir and Denethor are almost elf-like but starting to have harder consonants. The names of the people of Rohan – Eomer, Eowyn and Theoden being the most famous – repeat the ‘eo’ syllable and so have that sense of family identity, helping to reinforce that while also ‘noble’ humans, they are something of an offshoot. The pattern holds true for the other subgroups of Men, the Dwarves, the Orcs and so on.

The Silence of the Lambs is a bit more obvious, but no less effective for that. I’ve always thought that the names of the two main characters tell you everything you need to know about who they are and what they mean to the story. ‘Hannibal Lecter’ combines a legendary king who was almost superhuman in his ambition, daring and appetite for violence with a surname that sounds like ‘lectern’ or ‘lecture’ – intellectual, dry, a bit pedantic. ‘Clarice Starling’ evokes clarity, innocence, and a vision of something wild and yet vulnerable. It combines a sense of integrity with a sense of striving – taking to the air, reaching for the stars – just like the character.

How about you? Has anyone out there struggled to find just the right name for a character, something that would quietly capture their essence without being too obviously symbolic? Do you have any really good (or bad) examples to share from published books? I’d love to hear from you.


Neil Gaiman on Lewis, Tolkien and Chesterton

I know, I know. Another post that’s actually not mine. I’ve been busy, honest. And it’s Neil Gaiman, and it is, as always, brilliant. I don’t know Chesterton as well as I should, but he speaks for me on Lewis and Tolkien.

Goodreads | Neil Gaiman’s Blog – A speech I once gave: On Lewis, Tolkien and Chesterton – January 25, 2012 23:23.

An MIT Physicist Makes God the Main Character of His Novel

Ok, reposting an article about someone else’s writing instead of finishing the piece I started earlier about my own is probably a bit of a cheat. But MIT is my alma mater, and a novel about physics, faith and music sounds right up my street. I can’t wait to read it.

An MIT Physicist Makes God the Main Character of His Novel – Heather Horn – Entertainment – The Atlantic.

 

On becoming a writer

I’m a writer.  I never used to say that out loud, and it still sounds strange and new to me. Which is odd, because I have written and written and written, for years and years and years. Oh, it never said so on a business card. Those always said Manager of this, Director of that. Executive. Consultant. Different responsibilities, different industries even. But all of them, without exception, required thinking about things, and the coherent organisation of those thoughts into a narrative, and the writing down of that narrative. Marketing copy, reports, proposals, policies, strategies. Not as boring as it sounds, and it pays the bills, and I’m good at it.

But the really interesting stuff was always … the other stuff. Scribbled down randomly, irregularly, almost in secret. In the last five minutes before falling asleep, or between appointments. Half an hour’s jolting ride on a train, pen skipping and juddering across a poem or an essay or an imagined conversation. A weekend, maybe, spent in pyjamas, lost in an idea, a marathon effort to get – it – down before time and mental space ran out.

Gradually, more of this. More time, commitment, more of a need for it. As with so much else it turns out the more you do, the more you can do. So weekends become weeks, weeks become months. Verses become poems, a snatch of dialogue morphs into a screenplay. An idea, a strange, shapeless notion about an inexplicable character in an unthinkable circumstance reveals itself as a novel. And that has turned out to be the most powerful experience yet. You become omnipotent, layering slivers of reality onto a foundation of whim, until the world inside your head feels as complex as the one outside.

There’s no going back after that. I’m a writer. Here I am.

  • I love stories.
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