What do people mean when they say prose or dialogue is sometimes clunky? No, stop, think. What do they really mean?

There are so many books, written by wonderful writers who have been lavished with accolades, that have received a critical reaction from some readers/casual reviewers. And these reactions nearly always suggest that the dialogue / prose was clunky. Clunky, clunky, clunky. It’s the same word used again and again, thrown about the blogosphere and forums.

But think about it, and the use of the word on its own doesn’t really mean anything.

What are readers actually describing here? It’s not that any one bit of dialogue is objectively clunky (how can it be if some also think it’s good dialogue?) but that the reader undergoes a personal reaction to something within the rhythm of the writing. Is it something that isn’t consistent with characters? Because, you know, people are of course always consistent in real life and never do or say anything unusual…

Do people stop others in mid-conversation to inform them that what they are saying is clunky? I doubt it. So what is it that people mean when they use the c-word? Is it that the words they see on paper don’t pass through their mental filters, the ones calibrated by their own everyday conversations? Is it a reluctance to process words outside of their comfort zone?

And what about prose – if it’s about rhythm, why not say so? If it’s that you felt sentences were too short, too long, too baroque, why not explore that instead of saying the c-word?

I marvel that American lit-god Don DeLillo’s dialogue is sometimes described as clunky, whereas I personally adore it for being so, so realistic; though I’ll admit, at first, you have to take your time to understand what’s fully going on, and read out the dialogue in your head. And once you do, clunky is the last word I’d use to describe his writing.


Review in SF Crowsnest Magazine

SF Crowsnest magazine this month contains a rather lovely and lengthy review of Nights of Villjamur.

It kicks off with:

I will now admit that this was great. A great novel, hear that?

And ends with:

The whole book accomplishes the task of setting up the series in a promising and rewarding way. The characters are genuine, the action is well paced and bloody and the bad guys are humanly evil. Do you like you fantasy twisted, epic and bloody? You’ll love this. If you’re not into the above then I think you’ll still love it.

Splendid. It’s strange, looking at reviews for Nights, now I’ve written another book in the series – especially given how different the tone of City of Ruin is. I mean, it feels like a totally different bit of writing altogether, and my mind has been examining new characters and themes for over a year. So reading what people thought of the first requires me to wind the mental clock back a year. I suppose I’ll have to get used to it with the US release, too. (I can hear you now, you sarcastic lot, ‘Oh you poor, poor authorial lamb, such agony!’ – I’m not expecting sympathy, I’m just saying it’s weird!)


Important Extracts From Erikson Interview

There’s an excellent interview with Steven Erikson at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, and I wanted to highlight some extracts – not covering the content of his books, but discussing the internet and genre.

I track things for a time, usually at the start, but invariably someone decides to trash whatever book is being discussed; it’s not the trashing that bothers me, it’s the often inane observations accompanying that trashing. I’m as human as the next guy, after all, though over the years my skin has toughened and, ultimately, I continue to go about my business unaffected by criticism — even still, it does sometimes seem that reviews (ie amazon reader comments) attack with a hidden agenda that baffles me. What’s become clear via the internet is that some readers of certain writers confuse their pleasure at that writer’s work and end up positioning themselves in some weird kind of belligerent loyalty: as if other writers were somehow competing with their favourite. It’s an odd notion, and for what it’s worth, I often hang out with said writers and, surprise, we get along just fine, and bizarre ideas about competition or rivalry, well, they are the exclusive inventions of fans, not us writers. As to the lengths such fans will go, now that’s alarming indeed. But it’s all misplaced and a waste of energy, as far as I can see.

I’ve watched this behaviour from the sidelines and it is, at first, amusing that readers can act like this. But when the Lord of the Flies tribal mentality kicks in… well. Let’s just say I can quite understand why many authors withdraw their online presence. This tribalism might be fun to some, however, it has long term consequences to the genre, and the involvement of authors.

I remember very much liking the opinion of Lou Anders on a related issue (I can’t remember if it was in a convention bar or otherwise): there should be no competition between authors. The success of one author does not thieve sales from another; on the contrary, a proliferation of entertaining, engrossing, well-written genre writers only grows the audience.

One discernible change is the role of the internet, but that almost goes without saying. Once, thousands of years ago when I was just starting out, writers produced stories and books and all they had to say was in their fiction. Now, they speak in their own voices, in blogs and such, and that’s stirred things considerably. We’re no different in feeling the need to fire a salvo every now and then, across the bow or rather more directly on target, and sometimes the fallout gets … heated. And, for all that I said upon beginning this interview, ultimately I think a writer should speak through his or her work; all the rest is just fluff. Often well-written fluff, but still. That said, some writers truly know how to exploit the new media, in terms of self-promotion, and my hat’s off to them. But for me, even the thought of it has my head ducking down. Gun shy, I guess, or maybe it’s that I’d probably end up sounding off on things a little too forcefully. Best I keep my mouth shut, for the most part (and these interviews are like cracks in the smoky glass, I dart out, then back in again).

I’ll admit I’m one of these type of writers who exploit the new media, so far as this blog exists, I have a Twitter page, and a Facebook page – though the latter tends to be not particularly about pushing the books, since I’ve friends and colleagues on there. I suppose all of this new media isn’t just self-promotion, I actually quite enjoy it. Plus, being British and cynical, I loathe it when people spam Twitter and Facebook with self-promo rants constantly.

However I totally agree with Steven Erikson on the fact that a writer should be judged through their work, primarily. How much do readers take into account the personality of a writer? Though if I’m honest, if I don’t like the online persona of someone, I’m less inclined to read their work. Is that a bad thing? I guess it probably is, and makes me a hypocrite.


More Year-End Nonsense

And there’s more Nights of Villjamur year-end-best-of-round-up-awards-quite-liked-of-the-year shenanigans.

Sci-Fi London puts Nights in the top ten:

Nights of Villjamur is a terrific debut, it starts with a bang and keeps on going, building action upon action with terrific pace and plenty surprises before relenting and letting you catch your breath until it starts up again.

As does Dark Wolf’s Fantasy Reviews:

I was caught in the spell of “Nights of Villjamur” but the end of the novel didn’t bring my release and I was left wondering about the outcome of its story. Mark Charan Newton shows in his novel a great potential, for him as a writer and for his fantasy series, “Legends of the Red Sun”, and I believe that he can sit without question in the hall of the new names of epic fantasy writers and bring his contribution to a great new generation of such authors.

Graeme includes the novel in his year-end round-up:

…one of 2009’s most anticipated reads and for very good reason.

And Next Read lists it as a top debut:

This is a book that I purposely didn’t include in my top ten. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed reading it, Newton has a great story to tell and has a strong imagination that makes a textured and colourful read. But it is a debut novel and as such serves as an introduction to him and his writing. I just feel that Nights showed that he’s got a lot of potential and I couldn’t help feeling that this is just the beginning. I have high hopes for City of Ruin.

There, that should do for now. Enough solipsism. People like it, that’s cool with me.

Update: And best debut at A Fantasy Reader:

I expected good things from Nights of Villjamur mostly because of James Long (Speculative Horizons) review. Mark created engrossing characters in a rich world without much flaw. With his writing style, he really set out from the crowd. Noire fantasy like this is bliss.


Year’s Best Round-Up

A little indulgence, if you please. Nights of Villjamur has made it onto a few best-of-the-year lists published so far.

Speculative Horizons’ made it a top five read:

This was easily one of the most hyped books of the year, which as we all know is not always a good thing – whether or not that is the case depends on whether the book can meet readers’ heightened expectations. For me, Nights of Villjamur does.

Wertzone placed it at number eight:

Mark Charan Newton’s debut is a mix of the traditional secondary world fantasy, ‘icepunk’ and the New Weird, with a host of unusual characters caught up in events beyond their control.

OF Blog of the Fallen made it a top debut of the year:

Nights of Villjamur is an interesting hybrid novel. Combining elements of dying earth fiction with “weird” fiction (this is more apparent in his second novel, City of Ruin, of which I have read the first 100 pages or so in draft form before work demands deprived me of any real chance to resume reading it), Nights of Villjamur is a promising opening to a fantasy series.

Fantasy Book Critic placed it in the top ten of their mammoth list (over 200 books read!), and Aishwarya likes how my head works.


What Makes A Good Book Blogger? (From A Writer’s Point Of View)

I wanted to share some thoughts on why I think certain bloggers are better than others, especially from the perspective of a writer.

Some background.

A couple of years ago, only a handful of pro and semi-pro online sites and magazines existed, which reviewed SFF books. Those few controlled opinion. Now, the blogosphere has decimated that power (so far as review power goes). The sheer number of bloggers has meant that nearly all of those previously dominant publications no longer possess a stranglehold (as much as it was) on which books are perceived as good. Opinion is spread out across vast swathes of sites.

This is, ultimately, a good thing. You only have to be in the genre for five minutes to realise just how nepotistic the industry, like any other, can be (as an editor, it was a quick lesson), but the blogosphere has gone to great lengths to lessen that. In fact, nepotism is particularly an issue when people can make friends so quickly at conventions etc. Don’t get me wrong, there were some great sites that were openly honest and ahead of the curve (the fantastic Emerald City, for one), but there was, on occasion, a rather political nature to reviewing.

And how important are bloggers? Well, if imprints like Gollancz are inviting them along to shindigs as an equal to other industry professionals, then it’s clear to see publishers respect some of them very much. Moreover, I’ve personally experienced skewed sales towards online venues, which I can only assume came from the number of online reviews – the internet damn well works.

But out there, amidst all this new white noise, quality varies. Yes, like books and authors, blogs and bloggers can be amazingly ace, or shockingly shite. I don’t want to stray into literary theory, since that’ll turn the majority of readers off, but here are my thoughts on online reviewing today. And okay, let’s get the disclaimer of solipsism out of the way. What do I, as an author and an individual, wish reviewers should or shouldn’t discuss?

1) There are bloggers who use the right tools, and those who are tools. If you’re expecting page-turning romances, don’t read Gene Wolfe and complain that his books are not page-turning romances. They’re not designed to be, they never intend to be. Likewise, don’t approach an entertaining romp expecting philosophical ramblings if it isn’t meant to be one. I wouldn’t say ‘I don’t like beer on account that it’s not whiskey,’ would I? This is not a valid complaint to make – it’s stating the bloody obvious, wrapping it up as your main concern. Judge a book on what it is, and don’t project your hefty genre preferences upon it.

2) Slow and steady. An offshoot of the previous paragraph: slow books aren’t bad books. Get over it. And fast books can be intellectual too. Don’t make the pace mistake.

3) Prose & style. I’ve mentioned this before, but it needs flagging again. When people read a novel, and say that the ‘writing improved’ or the ‘second half was better written’, there’s a good chance they mean that they themselves had become used to the different style in which the book was written. The prose doesn’t necessarily change – the reader’s interaction probably does. And words are just there, on the paper, so if you think they’re bad, explain why.

4) The synopsis should remain on the back of the book. Please, don’t just describe the back of the book – that’s cleverly constructed marketing blurb, which has a secondary aim of making reviewers say what publishers want, and pushing all the right buttons. By all means give the blurb, but don’t make it the whole of your review. It’s lazy, and you’re then merely giving a reach-around to publishers. I certainly won’t link to it. Have your own opinion, write about what you got from the book.

5) Reviewers who are also writers (of the unpublished variety). It’s hard to tell, with some bloggers, just who is a struggling writer and who isn’t. It isn’t bad at all if you are, so you might as well be open about it. One of the things I got used to very quickly as an editor was not to approach a book with my own writing style in mind. So don’t read a book and criticise it by thinking, ‘If I wrote this, I would have done x, y, z differently’; or ‘The style isn’t like my own, so I don’t like the book.’ You’re not doing anyone any favours, least of all the writer, and it’s a tough realisation to make. You write, you think you could do better, of course. But be careful if this mindset takes over.

6) You can’t love every novel. Loving everything diminishes the power of what you say. There is no way of possibly knowing what is good or bad if you recommend everything. Do not feel pressured to do so by publishers – remember, by reviewing, you’re doing them a favour. And if as a writer I come across your review of my book, I’m not likely to think a lot of it if you’ve loved every single book out there. We’re egoists! We want to feel special. 🙂

7) Edit thyself. One thing that reviews don’t always receive on blogs is a thorough unbiased edit. So, once you type, put it down, revisit, rework, spell-check. You’ll get a lot more respect if your review isn’t riddled with obvious errors.

So, my top three bloggers, based on the above?

OF Blog of the Fallen, Speculative Horizons, and A Dribble Of Ink.

And in addition to what I’ve said, these are bloggers who question things, who aren’t afraid to have an opinion rather than just link to something, and aren’t afraid to learn more about the industry. And if they think something is bad, they don’t sound like some jaded industry hack – they actually go into detail on why the book didn’t work for them, constructively, without being dismissive to the author’s (and publishing team’s) efforts. Remember: If you try to make yourself look clever in your reviews by putting the work down, it’s likely you’ll end up looking like a dick – but if you’re at that stage in life, you probably won’t even realise what other people are thinking.

So there you have it. What do you reckon?


Thoughts On 2009

Twelve months ago, I was practically unknown online, and I had this weird little novel that no one could pronounce properly. Now, people still can’t pronounce it right, but at least I’ve got a bit of a name for myself. This blog has gone from having a several hundred hits a month, to nearly ten thousand this month, although a little controversy has helped skew things recently. I’ve posed awkwardly (clothes on) for a double-page spread for SFX magazine, written little snippets for Sci Fi Now magazine, had my book reviewed in national newspapers, been drunk in front of celebrity-types at the Pan Macmillan party, and had a meal with my favourite author. What you need to understand is this: I’m a genre fan – just like most of you lot out there are fans – and I can’t quite believe that I’m now a part of the industry I once looked in on, tapping at the window. It could happen to any of you, too.

There have been some lovely reviews, notably from Aidan, James, Gav, Liviu, Adam, The Guardian, The Times, and SFF World.

But here are a few points of interest.

Things I’ve learned #1 – The Internet Works. I got hyped – a bit of a holy grail in publishing terms. This was a very unusual experience. You can’t really make hype online (a lesson many publishers should take on board, rather than sounding like desperate ex-lovers in their marketing material). Hype just happens. And having spoken to my editor, who was armed with sales figures, the majority of my hardcover sales were online – which is actually quite rare. Being an old man trapped in a young man’s body, I was ever sceptical of the impact of the blogosphere on the industry – but this went to prove that online reviews actually make a difference. That’s a fact. So thank you to all those above reviewers, and remember to use your powers wisely in future.

Things I’ve learned #2 – The Public Eye. The internet runs away with things and Google allows the author to follow it all. But some people really don’t like other novels getting hyped – I’ve had a couple of very unsavoury emails from brave anonymous people saying Nasty Things simply because the novel got talked about a lot. I really can see how authors would tire very quickly of being in the public eye, because the internet allows Very Bitter People to have a public persona, where in a previous culture they’d probably be locked away safely. It’s almost as if they were angry about hype itself – which I find bizarre, because it means they’re not actually engaging with the book.

Things I’ve learned #3 – The View From The Skyscraper Window. Random House bought Nights of Villjamur for the US, and it’ll be published by Bantam Spectra (with the same editor, but not Del Rey – it’s a sister imprint, in the same building). There is nothing cooler than chatting to your American editor (Chris Schluep) as an innocent little Brit, staring out of the publisher’s skyscraper window across Central Park, thinking – How the hell did I even get here? I can’t wait to see how the book is received in the US.

Things I’ve learned #4 – People Love Pictures. I want apologise to the interwebs for there being so many versions of my cover art, but I’ve been astounded by just how many people love talking about artwork – whether or not they hate it, they love to give an opinion. I’ve had three covers for various editions of Nights of Villjamur. Tip to any new writers – make the most of your artwork.

Things I’ve learned #5 – Behind The Scenes none of this would be possible without help/guidance/slaps from the people at Pan Macmillan, especially Tor UK’s very own Boudica, Julie Crisp.

Things you should know for 2010 – In my opinion, City of Ruin is far darker, better written, more intense, more weird, more properly political than Nights of Villjamur. I’ve said before that this book is the one I wanted to write more so than Nights, on account that it’s more naturally me, but I’ll admit I was more conservative not to put off editors. In the same week, I have the US debut in hardcover, the UK paperback of Nights, and the hardcover of City. It’s going to be a busy summer.