The Magician's First Fumble
And here it is, my second newsletter. It’s in three sections:
1. Artificial Wisdom Publication Updates
Advance reader copies, audiobook narration… it’s all happening.
2. The Writing Mindset
How I wish I’d learned the writer’s mentality on drafts earlier in my professional career.
3. What I’m reading & watching
And what I’ve learned about exposition and dialogue as a result.
Artificial Wisdom Publication Updates
I’m finally holding the advance hardback copy in my hands, and honestly it doesn’t matter how many times I look at the cover, I fall in love with it all over again.
The inside needs work though: the font is, perhaps, 2pt too big, the top spacing not perfect, and I’m going to change grade of paper for the final hardback. It’s these little details to sweat in the final stages.
Audiobook-wise, I’m beyond thrilled to announce that the audiobook narrator of Artificial Wisdom will be the incredible Steven Pacey.
Steven Pacey, narrator extraordinaire
Steven was always my first choice of narrator. I discovered him, as so many have, as the narrator of Joe Abercrombie's wonderful First Law series, but found he'd also narrated my favourite James Herbert novel (The Ghosts of Sleath), Frederick Forsyth, JG Ballard's Empire of the Sun, Martin Amis, Ian Rankin, Ian McEwan, Andy McNab and so many other fantastic writers.
There was a moment, listening to Abercrombie's The Blade Itself, when I found myself gobsmacked by what he'd achieved: Steven had voiced one character, Glokta, with a lisp, due to his missing teeth... but then voiced his internal monologue — how he'd hear himself in his own head — without the lisp. The attention to detail shown in that one small part of his work has, frankly, ruined other audiobook narrators for me.
But don't take my word for how good he is. He has a fan base online bigger than some of the authors he narrates for:
"I've listened to hundreds of audiobooks and Pacey is by far the best. There's others that are really good and I rate them as 5 stars... but seriously, no one compares to Pacey."
"I've listened a lot of different narrators and Pacey is still on the top of the list for me... Most narrators have some good traits but Pacey seems to combine all of them and that's rare."
"F**k Steven Pacey. The man has ruined audiobooks for me. Every new audiobook I listen to I end up constantly thinking, 'This author can't do accents. Every character sounds the same. This would be better if Steven Pacey was reading it.'"
I got to meet Steven a few weeks ago and go through the manuscript in depth with him, and I can't wait to hear him bring characters to life that, to date, have only been heard in my head. We got slightly delayed due a studio tech malfunction, but are on track now for recording to start tomorrow.
Everything else now is focussed on pre-launch reviews. The book is out on Netgalley, an advance reviewer site, and we’re pushing it hard. My personal aim is to get to 1,000 reviews by a month after the official launch. It turns out actually reading reviews is harder than I thought it would be. My very first review said a lot of very nice things, and a couple of very tough things. And of course, you focus on the tough things, even though you know it’s all subjective, and not everybody will like every character. I’ve decided to stop reading them review by review and wait until I have a cluster of them.
The Writing Mindset - The First Draft
A classic mistake new writers make it to try and write the perfect first draft. It means they spend a long time crafting each sentence and paragraph as it comes or editing and changing as they go. This is a very hard way of writing a novel, since breaking empty space on a page is the hardest bit. The best advice my writing coach gave me is something I now which I’d known and applied all over my professional career: write a bad first draft. The true magic comes in the redrafting. It’s much easier to see the shape of things when you already have text on a page.
In my last newsletter I talked about Ian Fleming, writer of Bond, and his “lock-yourself-in-a-hotel” approach to writing books.
He used to plough through:
If you once look back, you are lost... If you interrupt the writing of fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism, you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain... I don't even pause from writing to choose the right word or to verify spelling or a fact. All this can be done when your book is finished."
For Fleming, the first draft is supposed to capture ideas and tone, not perfect prose. On writing Casino Royale, the author reflected:
"I rewrote nothing and made no corrections until my book was finished. If I had looked back at what I had written the day before I might have despaired at the mistakes in grammar and style, the repetitions and the crudities. And I obstinately closed my mind to self-mockery and “what will my friends say?” I savagely hammered on until the proud day when the last page was done."
Here’s my personal favourite writing advice on this:
Now, I always try and create an imperfect first draft when I work on anything, including this newsletter, which took one draft to shape and one to polish.
I’m currently working on a new stealth tech project with my former co-founder and friend, Chris. We used exactly this mentality to build a rough prototype of an app. We very quickly saw it wasn’t what we wanted it to be, but it gave us the shape of something to manipulate and refine until we reached something much better.
You’ll never see that first draft. The magician polishes their tricks until it seems like magic. You’ll never see thire first fumble. It will seem like it’s always been that way. But it had to start with something rough, not something perfect. And that’s the value of the first draft.
What I’m Reading: Gardens of the Moon & What I’ve Learned
I’m currently re-reading the kind of book I struggle to recommend to anyone. Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson, is the kind of fantasy only people really comfortable with fantasy novels should read. The kind of people who roll with the odd misplaced apostrophe in the middle of a character name, like K’rathkrh’iss or something instead of Bob and Joe. Who are totally chill with learning the names of multiple races of long dead ancient people and their associated magic systems. Who nod knowingly when someone names their sword. It took me several goes over many years to get through it but when I did, the reward was huge.
So why am I reading it? Or, more to the point, re-reading it?
This book is a masterpiece when it comes to exposition, or rather the lack of it. Here’s my exposition primer for those that have no clue what I’m talking about.
My favourite exposition pairing is Josh and Donna in The West Wing. Every episode, it seems, Donna harangues Josh as they walk and talk on why exactly they should care about the policy of the day. And Josh despairingly explains it to her - and in doing so, the audience.
Erikson’s debut is famously hard in fantasy circles because it eschews exposition completely. The characters all know what’s going on, and you don’t. There is no attempt to explain it to you. You’ll take five books to understand exactly what the weird magic system really is. To make matters worse, you’re thrown into the middle of a war and a convoluted plot with no idea as to who is who and how a bunch of seemingly powerful people just got wiped out and why everyone is so suspicious about it.
But here’s the thing. Writing feels magical when the author forces the reader to put the pieces of the puzzle together in their own mind. When they do, they get a lovely little dopamine hit. Spoonfeed the reader, and you don’t get that. Erikson shows just how far you can push this. You need to work really hard, but the payoff is then much greater when you work out almost anything. You feel almost as smart as the characters.
Here’s a great extract that maybe shows you what I mean:
There’s no attempt there, in Whiskeyjack’s internal monologue, to tell you what’s going on. Erikson could have said:
Whiskeyjack also could have said more explicitly what was going on:
But you get none of that, and the book is so much richer for it, so much smarter for it… but so much harder for it.
In my early drafts of Artificial Wisdom, I tried to explain as little as possible. I had one editor along the way who really made me spoonfeed readers, arguing that it made it accessible for all. But I soon realised the book was much poorer for it, and I ended up dialling it back. A little, but not too much, a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. But still a small spoonful, after all. Because we want that dopamine hit.
What I’m Watching: The Marvellous Mrs Maisal
We’ve just finished the final season of the wonderful, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, on Amazon Prime. This is the show with the sharpest, wittiest dialogue I’ve seen since The West Wing. The responses are beautifully oblique: ie they rarely directly answer what was said before.
I’ll leave you with this wonderful bit of dialogue from the pilot. Joel, Midge’s husband, has just bombed on stage as a comedian, and, as you do after such situations, is leaving his wife as a result. Look at how acute this dialogue is. When he tells her he’s not happy, she doesn’t ask why. She tells him: “no-one’s happy.” And check out her first response to being told he’s leaving her. Again, it’s not why? It’s far more interesting.