Friday, September 28, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

The Quincunx
Charles Palliser, 1989

Like Austen and O'Brian, Palliser's immense novel is set in the early years of the 19th century, and Palliser also follows O'Brian in reproducing the idiom of the period. The Quincunx follows the extreme fortunes of young Johnnie as he attempts to discover his true identity and recover his lost inheritance. With its labyrinthine litigations, London lowlife, streetwise rogues and blistering social commentary, the reader can be forgiven for thinking of Dickens. And in this case, the comparison is entirely appropriate, for Palliser has set out, among other things, to write a Dickens homage. One key name in the plot is "John Huffam", two of Dickens' given names. Palliser has written a novel which in plot and manner is at once a tribute and a commentary on Dickens--in particular, Bleak House.

The Quincunx
succeeds primarily through the sheer compulsion of the plot. It is a huge story, and the tension never lets up. Every page seems to have some fresh revelation, invariably shown 300 pages later to have been illusory. The narrative force drags the reader through 1,000 pages with scarcely a lag. The plot is a marvellously wrought puzzle, whose structure is reflected in the book's title. On this basic level, The Quincunx is a barnstorming 19th century novel which just happens to have been written 150 years after its models. Had Palliser left it at this, he would have earned our acclaim; but he does rather more.

What is easy to miss, because Palliser is so at home with the Dickensian model, is that The Quincunx is profoundly informed by 20th century fiction as well. Johnnie turns out to be a profoundly unreliable narrator, and while there are examples of this from the 19th century (Charlotte Bronte's Villette being an early example), it's a narrative technique which came into its own much later, and now it's a standard part of the fiction writer's repertoire. Palliser gives us a narrator who is so unreliable that the ending of the novel undercuts much of what has gone before. There are entire websites devoted to trying to work out what the end of the novel actually means--the central mystery of the novel (who is Johnnie's father?) is susceptible to more than one interpretation. Even in this, we have something of Dickens: the final sentence of Great Expectations, for instance, admits of two wholly contradictory readings.

Why I admire the book is the way in which it balances its twin aspects. It works perfectly on the ostensible mystery level, while playing with the tropes of Victorian fiction for those who enjoy such things.

How has it influenced me?

The mysteries at the heart of The Quincunx are all about identity: not just Johnnie's but most of the characters in the novel. Hardly anyone is who you think they are. I am sucker as a reader for this device, and have tried to employ it as a writer as well. My first novel-length work, The Zael Inheritance, turns explicitly on whether or not the (anti-)heroine is who she says she is, there are a couple of peripheral identity mysteries in Dragonchaser, and The Dog of the North has a similar puzzle built into the DNA of the structure.

I have also found the more general mystery plot appealing. All novels require the reader to answer the question "what is going on here?". In some stories that's as straightforward as understanding how the characters relate to each other; in others the unravelling the mystery is the entirety of plot. In the kind of fiction I write, the question "what is going on?" also relates most pressingly to the world the characters inhabit: one of the challenges a fantasy writer sets himself is to create an unfamilar environment, and make it both intelligible and interesting to the reader. Palliser is an inspiration in creating a richly-textured fictional world which at once invites the reader to make sense of that world and its central mystery.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

It's all about plot.

No, it's all about character.

If you get both of those right, you can do all the fancy stuff you like (but don't try the fancy stuff without it).

A fictional world created with enough depth becomes a character in its own right.

The unreliable narrator device can illuminate your fictional world from angles invisible in more straightforward narration.

Even after 1,000 pages, you don't have to give 'em a happy ending.
Your protagonist can get what he wants, and it still not need be a happy ending.

"Why Should I Read...?" Gets a Makeover

I have been pleasantly suprised by the amount of traffic and favourable comment occasioned by my ramblings. It's rather unfortunate that my list of ten books is rapidly drawing to a conclusion. I'm re-reading one of them now, and finding to my dismay that it no longer exerts the fascination it compelled in my youth. Our tastes change, since clearly the book itself (which for now shall remain nameless) does not. This in itself is a valuable insight. Several years ago I came to read The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time, and realised to my horror that while I could still admire the book, I no longer loved it. For a fantasy writer this is a shocking admission, and my fifteen-year old self would disown me for it. But when I come to look back at my own fantasy writing, it's a journey of trying to put the things into fantasy which I wanted to see but never found in Tolkien: credible female characters, wit, nuanced characterisation. That's not a criticism of Tolkien--he did not set out to do those things. The revelation for me as a writer is that I was reacting against Tolkien in my fiction long before I realised I no longer enjoyed reading him.

The artificiality of "Why Should I Read...?" is that it fixes my ten favourites at a point in time. As readers and writers we develop. Some of our old friends come with us, some fall away, and sometimes, by the happiest chance, we make new ones (The Time Traveler's Wife, for instance).

With this in mind, I will be extending "Why Should I Read...?" for some time beyond its initial span. Twenty books now seems a trivial objective, and for the time being I am aiming to expand my list to include 50 books, and in some cases I will relax my "one book per writer" rule. This will require me to re-read a number of books which are certain to feature on my list, a toil I endure for the sake of my readership.

And, tempting as it is, I have no plans to begin "Why Shouldn't I Read...?", a review of the ten books I have considered most irritating or over-rated. Such speculations have no place in the corn-fed sunshine world of ::Acquired Taste -- although I would as an aside note that you can learn as much from a book you hate as a book you love.

Next on our list at "Why Should I Read...?" is Charles Palliser's The Quincunx, an extraordinary book which at once a Dickensian homage, an intricately-carved puzzle, a deconstruction of the Victorian novel and--most of all--a rattling good yearn.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

Master and Commander
Patrick O'Brian, 1970

I had been saving O'Brian for later in this series, but David Isaak's comments on my last post make this the opportune moment to consider him. Master and Commander is the first of a series of twenty novels treating the fortunes of Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship's physician, naturalist and sometime spy, Stephen Maturin. Why should you read Master and Commander first? Well, it's the first in the series, and they demand to be read in order.

There are two broad approaches to historical fiction: one uses language modelled on that of the period, the other more contemporary with the author. Both are illusory, of course, but the former method aims for verisimilitude through immersion in the language of the time, the latter through the immediacy of modernity. There is no "right" way (although in general I prefer the less modern approach) and each school carries its own risks.

O'Brian is perhaps the exemplar of the "total immersion" school. Not only the characters' dialogue but O'Brian's authorial voice drip Napoleonic period. O'Brian can write seamlessly in the Austen manner (witness the first half of Post Captain, the second novel in the series) but he has a much broader range. The drama of battle on the high seas (and the agonising tension of waiting for it), subtle verbal humour, coarse seaman's humour, the range of human emotion: O'Brian can do it all, and make it look effortless--although on close examination the scope of his research is awe-inspiring.

From a technical point of view, O'Brian is austere in the way he conveys information to the reader. The books employ jargon from the Age of Sail without any direct authorial explanation: there are no concessions to the 20th century reader. Luckily--although it is not luck, of course--the co-protagonist Maturin knows as little of ships as we do, and as he learns, so do we. But this info-dumping is not crude and mechanical: Maturin's ineptitude is a comic feature of the series, and while we laugh, we learn. And because Maturin is so accomplished in so many other fields, he does not appear a buffoon.

The Aubrey-Maturin series is also remarkable for retaining its freshness over 20 volumes. It is hard to maintain interest in a small group of characters over the long haul, but--partly because Aubrey and Maturin are so different--O'Brian is always able to till new ground. Both characters develop significantly, although this is not a prerequisite of series novels (Richard Stark's Parker, for instance, is much the same in 2007 as in 1961, and the reader wouldn't have it any other way).

How has it influenced me?
I discovered O'Brian comparatively recently, and much of my voice as a writer was already shaped, but he does something that I have long been trying to achieve: to take the narrative coolness of Jane Austen and deploy it in an action novel. O'Brian never belabours his effects, never nudges you to make sure you notice: he can kill off a sympathetic character we've known for ten novels in a single sentence and let you make what you will of it (and in this situation, if the author has to tell you how to react, either he or you is doing something badly wrong).

Dragonchaser also owes several explicit debts to O'Brian. The strong nautical theme--albeit racing galleys rather than square-riggers--came from my admiration for O'Brian, and the protagonist's naivety when not on his galley comes straight from Jack Aubrey.

I also admire--and try to replicate--the way in which O'Brian is able to juxtapose the comic and serious in a way which enhances both (a characteristic we also see in Jack Vance).

If my two greatest literary influences are Austen and Vance, then in O'Brian we see a writer who embodies the best of both. Writers are always learning and always absorbing new influences: I am sure O'Brian's over me is not yet complete.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
You can trust the reader to make sense of your world without explaining everything up-front.

Having a character as ignorant as the reader is helpful way of conveying information.

You can have two major characters without setting up a protagonist/antagonist relationship.

Using period diction need not alienate the reader.

Make sure you know far more about your fictional world than the reader--but don't feel compelled to tell them more than a fraction.

If you love the world that you are creating, it will be apparent to the reader.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen, 1813

There are few books I write about with trepidation, but Pride and Prejudice is one of them. It is surely the most widely read book on my list, and one on which most people already have an opinion. In this case, I can dispense with a plot summary: there can be few readers who are not aware of the switchback romance of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy.

In any event, the plot is the least interesting aspect of the book: girl meets boy, girl hates boy, girl hates boy even more, girl reconsiders, girl gets boy. Austen does the mechanics with unobtrusive excellence, but it’s not for this reason we’re still reading the book two hundred years later.

When we think of Pride and Prejudice¸ what comes to mind most of all are the characters. A detailed analysis of how Austen delineates her characters is (fortunately) outside the scope of this piece. For now it’s enough to note the variety of techniques employed: interior monologue (Elizabeth); naturalistic speech (Darcy, who is never a viewpoint character); comically exaggerated speech (Mr Collins, Mrs Bennet); direct authorial statement.

The conventional view of Austen as a purveyor of superior drawing-room romances does her a considerable disservice, since Pride and Prejudice is more than a crisp love-story with rounded characters. There is real steel under the surface. Charlotte Lucas’ marriage to Mr Collins has no place in a fluffy comedy, and the astringency of Austen’s authorial voice is no less mordant for coolness with which it is deployed. When Caroline Bingley goads Darcy into praising Elizabeth, Austen soundlessly slides in the killer thrust: Miss Bingley was left to all the satisfaction of having forced him to say what gave no one any pain but herself. It’s unfortunate that the currents of modern fiction make such authorial observations unfashionable these days.

How has it influenced me?
Jane Austen is not perhaps an obvious influence for a fantasy writer (unless you’re writing Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell)¸ but her impact on me as writer is second only to Jack Vance. It’s interesting to speculate whether my cool narrative tone comes from reading Vance and Austen, or whether I like those writers so much because of my predisposition to that style.

The Dog of the North would be a pitiful novel if I had never realised the tensile strength and flexibility of formal dialogue, and the immense power to be gained from restraint. And while it would be crass to compare any aspect of my dialogue with Jane Austen, the battles between hero and heroine in all my stories always have Elizabeth and Mr Darcy not too far from my mind.

Austen’s characters are frequently unable to speak and act directly because of the constraints of the societies in which they exist, hence the marvellous verbal subtleties and indirections they employ: as a writer who specialises in stratified societies, political intrigues and injudicious romances, I would be cloddish not to try for the same effects. Others are better placed to judge the effectiveness of my technique.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
The modern creative writing advice “show, don’t tell” is valuable when not taken to excess, but when you can do the telling as well as Jane Austen, it’s criminal not to.
Don’t be afraid to give the reader information directly. Sometimes it’s more efficient and more pleasing than a contrived dialogue drop.
If you are going to use the “classic romance plot”, your characters need extraordinary freshness and vividness to pull it off.
The tension between formal dialogue and the emotions concealed beneath is a powerful dramatic tool.
Conflict can be not just protagonist against antagonist, but protagonist against society. Best of all, use both together.
Understatement trumps overstatement. Always.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro
Joe McGinniss, 1999

This is the first book on my list which is not fiction. McGinniss spent a season with the Italian football—should that be "soccer"?—team Castel di Sangro as they struggle against relegation. Not the least of the ironies is thrown up is that perhaps the greatest book ever written about football should come from America, one of the few countries where the game has never taken root.

The Miracle succeeds on several different levels. The ostensible sporting story which underpins it is dramatic, as Castel di Sangro avoid relegation in the penultimate game of the season, but this is really a story of relationships: McGinniss becomes close to the players as the season unfolds, is befriended by the team’s coach and is drawn into the sinister games of the quasi-mafiosi club owner and his henchman. Two of the players, friends of McGinniss, are killed in a car accident and another is arrested for drug-smuggling.

So far we have a magnificent sports book, raised above the ruck by McGinniss’ ability to get inside the sporting clichĂ©s and the vividness with which he draws the characters. But it is truly great for another reason, and it’s one I don’t think McGinniss intended: I came away from the book thinking that for all his privileged access and his genuine empathy with the players, he in fact fundamentally misunderstood the world he was living in. McGinniss becomes an unreliable narrator in his own life.

At the end of the book, Castel di Sangro go into their last match of the season have secured safety. The players tell McGinniss that he doesn’t need to go to the game—he should stay at home and relax. McGinniss goes to the match anyway. Castel di Sangro lose—lose because they have deliberately thrown the match. In Italy, if you have nothing to play for at the end of the season, but your opponent does, you come to an arrangement: il sistema, the system, Italians call it. You never know when you will want the favour returned. McGinniss can’t accept il sistema. It offends his sense of fair play, and he calls the players liars, cheats, cowards. Most of them he never speaks to again. The acceptance of the players, for which he so yearned, is withdrawn. Despite Castel di Sangro’s escape, the book ends in bitterness.

McGinniss can’t accept the ethics of the world he has aspired to enter. Of course match-fixing is wrong, but McGinniss can only view the situation through his own perspectives; he can't, or won't, enter into the players' maps of the world. He doesn't understand that "this is how we do things round here", that players' livelihoods are dependent on following these unwritten rules. He has been opinionated throughout the book (a privileged observer, he regularly harangues the team’s coach on his tactical errors) and ultimately his tragedy is that he can’t fully give himself over to the values of the world around him. It makes for a melancholy conclusion to what should have been a triumphant story.

How has it influenced me?
All writers, whether in fiction or factual, are faced with the task of organising their material: that’s what writing is. There is more crossover between the two than might immediately be apparent. If we see The Miracle in structural terms, we have a protagonist coming into an environment as an outsider, being partly assimilated and ultimately rejected. The outsider plot is certainly not original, but McGinnis retails it with power and pathos. And in all of my fiction, the hero begins as an outsider, and ends up as one. In The Dog of the North , like The Miracle of Castel di Sangro¸ the protagonist has goals whose implications he doesn’t fully understand, with profound implications for the achievement of those goals. And all of my protagonists struggle, usually with indifferent results, to reconcile their personal ideals with the grubby world around them.

I have long nurtured the idea of writing a story in which the fortunes of a sports team are central (also partly influenced by Jack Vance’s Trullion). Dragonchaser, with its galley-racing plot strand, was a part-scratching of that itch.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
The “outsider motif” is a strong mechanism for transmitting information about the world of the book to the reader.
Having a protagonist who doesn’t understand key elements of the world around him creates dramatic tension and the possibility of a strong denouement.
If you are telling a story about a principled man in a flawed world, the effect is much more powerful if you are not uncritically sympathetic to the protagonist.
Sport may ultimately be trivial, but writing about it doesn’t need to be.
Plotting is not just a sequence of events: it’s how the events fit together, what to include, and what to exclude.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

The Time Traveler's Wife
Audrey Niffenegger, 2004

Uniquely among the books on my list, I've only read this once--and a single reading is enough to know that this is a magnificent novel. Combining a "why didn't I think of that?" central concept with two beautifully realised protagonists and a heart-breaking climax, it's hard to imagine a more compelling romantic novel.

The novel is structured around the extended relationship of Henry and Clare. Henry suffers from a genetic condition which causes him to time-travel unpredictably across his lifespan, and as a result he meets Clare, who is to become his wife, when he is an adult and she still a child. He knows how the relationship will develop, but she does not: later in life, when Clare meets Henry "for real", she knows they will marry, but he does not. Niffenegger handles the time-travel paradoxes with skill--while The Time Traveler's Wife was not marketed as science-fiction, science-fiction it most assuredly is, but that's a hobby-horse for another day.

It becomes apparent early in the novel that Henry's time-travelling does not persist beyond his early forties, and with gloomy foreboding we come to realise that it is his death which will put a stop to it. Niffenegger imbues the characters with such vitality that we hope against hope (with occasional encouragement from the author) that we are wrong, but as the novel races towards its climax, the conclusion is inescapable. And while the ending is not by any means a happy one, it is uplifting in a bittersweet way wholly in keeping with what has gone before, at once both unexpected and appropriate.

One of the prime achievements of the book is to make it into print at all. In synopsis it must have seemed all but unpublishable: a chronology all but impossible to describe, and a science-fictional premise underpinning a novel which could only ever have been aimed at a mainstream audience. If any one element of the whole had not worked--if the timeline had unravelled, if the characters had been flat, if the ending had been pedestrian--I suspect the whole thing would have collapsed. But Niffenegger is pitch-perfect throughout. The result is a quirky, brilliant, unclassifiable novel which, against all the odds, became the international hit it deserved to be.

How has it influenced me?
This is the most contemporary work on my list, and I would be hard-put to find any direct line of succession to The Dog of the North, the only novel I've written since. But it's always encouraging to find speculative fiction enjoying mainstream success, and so it must have weighed to some extent in my decision to submit my own writing to Macmillan. And in the ending of The Dog of the North, I try for that mixture of poignance and congruence which Niffenegger so perfectly achieves, even if in rather a different way.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
If it's good enough, it will sell--even if it's uncategorisable.
Sometimes the biggest hits come from doing something no-one else has ever tried.
No matter how avant-garde your premise, make sure you do the basics right: compelling, vivid characters and rigorous control of plot and pacing.
The most powerful endings combine several often contradictory emotions.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

My Cousin Rachel
Daphne du Maurier, 1951

Daphne du Maurier was a prolific writer of novels and short stories, and most of her work repays careful reading. Many of her novels combine intensely-realised Cornish settings, warped romances, a central mystery, an unstable protagonist and an overwrought Gothic sensibility. When all the elements come together the results can be spectacular, as in her best-known story Rebecca (1938) and The House on the Strand (1969).

Even better than either of these fine novels is My Cousin Rachel. The plot incorporates all of the familiar du Maurier motifs and each enhances the other. The naive young protagonist Philip inherits his cousin's Cornish estate and shortly after, his cousin's widow Rachel visits. Rachel is clearly a woman with a past, and from the outset there are suggestions that she might have poisioned her husband. As the story develops, Philip becomes infatuated with her, moving from hostility to adoration under Rachel's manipulations. Du Maurier depicts the relationship beautfully, never nudging the reader to emphasise her points. It's all there in the text without needing to be underscored.

Philip's mental and physical state unravels as the story unfolds. From being the only character to suspect her at the beginning, he is the only who does not by the end (although his doubts are starting to return). Du Maurier gives plenty of contradictory clues as to Rachel's true nature and motivation and--this is what makes the novel great--never resolves the question at all. The book ends with Rachel's death, and we never know whether she killed one man and plotted against another. It is a rigorous triumph of point-of-view: Philip is the narrator, and he cannot be certain--so neither is the reader. How easy it would have been for du Maurier either to give us an explicit resolution or a heavy hint. It's what the reader expects, and it's taking a big risk not to provide it. In the end, though, it's that risk which takes My Cousin Rachel from a very good novel to a great one.

How has it influenced me?
I have never written a story which doesn't have a beautiful, enigmatic (anti-) heroine, invariably more intelligent than the male central character. I'm not unique in that, but I've never seen it done better than the character of Rachel Ashley. The combination of mystery and romance so favoured by du Maurier has also underpinned all of my plots: when the elements are properly intertwined, they make a rock-solid plot structure.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
You don't have to tie everything up: sometimes less is more.
The limitations of first-person narration can sometimes be a strength

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Macmillan New Writing has been a controversial imprint since its launch in 2006, attracting howls of outrage and passionate defence in equal measure. David Isaak surveys the arguments in such detail that any further analysis on my part is redundant.

I can speak only for myself when I say that my experiences of MNW have so far been uniformly positive. A couple of weeks ago I met my editor, Will Atkins, a reader of eclectic tastes and seasoned judgement. Since he chose The Dog of the North for publication, I can add “discerning eye” to his list of virtues.

MNW publishes only first (and on occasion, second) novels, but its definition of first novel is a broad one. It excludes unpublished drafts lurking in drawers, and, happily foe me, also excludes self-publication. My previous novels The Zael Inheritance and Dragonchaser, self-published with Lulu, have therefore not debarred me from MNW. Even The Dog of the North has had a limited self-publication (the only negative consequence of which is that we may need to change the title before publishing with MNW). I understand from Will that Dog is the first self-published novel MNW has picked up. If you want to know more about those two previous novels, why not have a snuffle around my website?

Many novels that find their way into publication do so only after multiple rejections. This hasn’t been my experience. I couldn’t find an agent to take on my first two novels, and for The Dog I did not even try. Most of what I wanted to get out of writing I got from self-publication: the joy of creation, the existence of a physical artefact, and the praise of a discriminating (if small) readership. I had no real thought of commercial publication, having come to believe that my work was resolutely uncommercial. I had long ago accepted that I wasn’t going to make a living from writing. It was only the unusual nature of MNW that led me to submit there—and I found it most unlikely that they would be interested in a fantasy novel. Shows how much I know… Indeed, I would not even have submitted to MNW without the recommendation of Kate Mosse, who know the industry from both sides and sees MNW as a great opportunity for new writers.

So what happens next? Will putting together some suggested changes over the next month or so. This in itself is a fresh experience for me. Will understands what I am trying to do with the book, and likes it enough to want to publish it, so I am working with someone on my side: but it is still a little unsettling to have to share something as uniquely personal as a novel with someone else. MNW writers have uniformly lauded the experience of working with Will so, natural qualms aside, I’m looking forward to it.

Once Will and I have agreed the final version of the text, Macmillan will copy-edit and produce a set of proofs, probably by the end of the year. And then, it seems, we wait, and after a suitable gestation period a new book will be born in July.

Meanwhile, the omens are favourable on paperback publication. The Pan Macmillan empire includes TOR, a major science-fiction and fantasy house. Initial indications are that the TOR editorial staff like The Dog too, and we are tentatively looking at a paperback edition in 2009. I am told from several sources that such early consideration of the paperback route is highly unusual and a good sign. And as a Jack Vance bibliographical scholar, who can list all the Vance titles published by TOR, it’s a delight almost beyond comprehension.

I’ve also given Will a copy of Dragonchaser to look over—unpublished it may be, but it’s a story I have great faith in. If nothing else, it illustrates the consistency of vision I have for Mondia, the continent on which both The Dog and Dragonchaser take place. And one thing I've learned from the MNW experience is that you have to put the work out there if you want anyone else to see it...

Monday, September 10, 2007

Shock and Awe by David Isaak

This blog is not an arm of the Macmillan New Writing publicity machine, and I am under no obligation to plug the books of my stable-mates. Such a ploy would be insultingly transparent, and I would expect my readers to see through it in an instant. I won't, therefore, suggest that you buy David's book, published last Friday. I may regard it as thriller of exceptional sophistication and moral complexity. I may have read it from cover to cover in only two sittings, reluctantly setting it aside only to grab a few hours' sleep. Privately I may remark on the adroitness with which David handles the pacing, the seemingly effortless competence with which he deploys the story's hardware and the assurance with which he rounds off the plot. However, if I were to tell you to rush and out and buy the book before the first edition sells out, you would suspect me of the kind of "you-scratch-my-back" boosterism for which writers are infamous.

So I'll leave it to you, gentle reader, to decide whether to make Shock and Awe your next literary purchase, without the faintest hint or recommendation from me. The link to David's blog, with information on the book's stockists, is therefore provided on a without-prejudice basis. It is entirely your decision whether you dash to your nearest bookshop to pick up a copy of Shock and Awe while you still can, or whether you waste your money on books with greater hype and smaller merit.

I will not try to influence you either way.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

On turning the page

To get to the end of a book, you have to turn the pages: all of them. Writers have varying strategies to make sure you do exactly that. A book which carries you along is often called a “page-turner”, as if this was all a book was meant to do. In fact, it’s the bare minimum—fail here and any other merits you may have as a writer are lost.

Last week I read Simon Kernick's Relentless, which is just about the acme of this kind of book. If ever a title was apposite, this is it: Relentless is, well…relentless. Kernick has clearly devoured the rulebook of thriller-writing. He gives the protagonist a problem on page one, and just keeps cranking it up. For six hundred pages the plot rattles on at such breakneck speed that any implausibilities are in the rear-view mirror before you see them. The edition I have has small pages, big type, wide margins. The sentences are short and the vocabulary unchallenging. Characterisation is as complex as necessary to hold the plot together, but no more. As a reader, I had the sense of moving very quickly through the book, if only because I turned the small pages so quickly.

Relentless is currently No.56 on’s sales rankings. The book is a big seller. I don’t know what Kernick's aims were, but most realistic authors would be delighted with his results.

Nonetheless I finished the book with a lingering dissatisfaction, only partly the result of an ending which ran out of steam. Was the characterisation perhaps too perfunctory, even for a genre which does not place a premium on it?

My perplexity was resolved by the next thriller I read, I See You, by Gregg Hurwitz. The book comes out of the same tradition, the protagonist working to uncover a threat against him which he does not understand, but Hurwitz works with an altogether subtler palette. The action scenes are every bit as, er, relentless as Kernick's, but Hurwitz realises you don’t need them on every page, that a story needs room to breathe. In the down-time, he deepens and enriches his characterisations. You care about what happens to them, not just about what event is coming next. He also isn’t afraid of humour, and his hero Andrew Danner has a likeably laconic wit. Danner is a writer (usually a Very Bad Sign), but because he is conscious that his situation is like the plot of the thrillers he writes, Hurwitz is able to create an intriguing tension between the story Danner thinks he is in, and the plot he really inhabits—and all done in a deft way which doesn’t derail the story. Hurwitz has given us a story which satisfies on the level of a conventional thriller, with a richness of texture and playfulness which lifts it above the ruck.

It’s not just about turning the pages. What’s on them counts too.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Ubiquity of Plot

Last week I discovered a fun utility: This allows you to set up a permanent Google search on whatever topic you choose. When the googlebots discover a new instance of your chosen term, they send you an email. Marvellous for the paranoid: I knew They were talking about me—and now I can prove it. Except They aren’t talking about me…(with a nod to Oscar Wilde). Paranoia is wonderfully resourceful, though. Obviously They have sabotaged the utility so that it doesn’t work on searches on “tim stretton”. In fact, the lack of result proves it.

No-one who knows me will be surprised to know that I set up a Jack Vance alert immediately. Neither will they be surprised to know that Vance has already featured on my blog. What only the most intuitive would expect (and here I exclude myself) is that this afternoon, Google Alert came back notifying me of a new Jack Vance reference: my own blog. The perfection of plot, in live action…

On reading and writing

The proportion of aspiring writers securing even a single professional sale is vanishingly small. As someone now in the professional category, I am occasionally asked—OK, very occasionally—what qualities are needed to secure publication. I usually give an insufferable laugh and mumble something faux-modeste about luck. But while luck is clearly useful—your text needs to hit the right reader at the right time—there are certain other characteristics the published writer will display. These can broadly be described as:

1.Natural facility
There is a school of thought that anyone can be taught to write. If by "write", in this context we refer to the ability to compose prose fiction to a professional standard, I disagree. Anyone can be taught to write better, but without a degree of innate talent, you ain't going anywhere. And how do you know if you've got it? That's the fun bit: you don't. You just have to take a punt on it.

2. Vanity
See 1. Do you believe you have talent? Even when your novel has been turned down several times? Even when your second and third novels have suffered the same fate? Maybe you do. And maybe you're right. But to keep plugging away, in the absence of any external validation, for years, decades if necessary, presupposes a colossal vanity. I'm going to sit down and write 130,000 words. And at at the end of it, I'm going to think my work is so compelling that other people will pay money to read it. I am right: the industry professionals are wrong. Such pig-headed certainty may not be an admirable characteristic—but without it, your novel will languish on your hard disk.

3. Persistence
You've got talent; you even believe in it. Now you have to sit down and write. Today. Tomorrow. The day after. You can have the day after that off—if it's Christmas Day. Eventually you will have a story. And—this is the bad news—it will be crap. But—this is the good news—the next time you try, it will better. The more you write, the better you'll get.

4. Omnivorousness
This is a metaphorical omnivorousness: I'm not suggesting vegetarians will never make it into print (who better to write A Universal History of Tofu?). I've suggested that the best way to learn to write is to write, but I think the next best way is to read—omnivorously. If you are a genre writer, read outside your field. So you want to write horror? Read crime novels—if nothing else, they'll teach you the importance of rigorous plotting. Read romances—you'll learn about character dynamics. I've argued that writers are born and not made, but the kind of writer you are depends on what you read. Why not read a bit of everything?

With that in mind, I set out my own ten favourite books. To avoid overpopulating the list with Jack Vance and Jane Austen, I have limited myself to one book per author. The list is ordered a
alphabetically by author, with no sub-divisions of merit. These books are too good to bicker:

1. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

2. My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier

3. Augustus, Allan Massie

4. The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, Joe McGuinness

5. The Time-Traveller's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

6. Byzantium, John Julius Norwich

7. Master and Commander, Patrick O'Brian

8. The Quincunx, Charles Palliser

9. The Persian Boy, Mary Renault

10. Lyonesse, Jack Vance

Over the next few weeks I'll explain why I think these books are so good. Feel free to disagree!

"And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?"

Few things are more tedious than humdrum consistency. That’s why, despite denouncing writers’ blogs as self-indulgent puffery, I have launched myself into the blogosphere. This is still self-indulgent puffery—it just happens to be my own.

My experiences as a writer might be of interest to others, if only because, after ten years and three novels, I have been signed by Macmillan New Writing. My novel The Dog of the North will be published in July 2008. Over the next few months I’ll share my thoughts on publication and literary matters in general, to almost universal indifference.