Monday, February 25, 2008

"Why Should I Read...?"

The Book of Dreams
Jack Vance, 1980

For the first time, "Why Should I Read...?" revisits an author, the peerless Jack Vance. I make no apology for this; Vance could easily support forty entries. In our first visit, we looked at his masterpiece of high fantasy, Lyonesse: The Book of Dreams, another work of Vance's rich later period, is an example of his sf. I don't propose today to revisit my earlier analysis of Vance's excellences--instead, I'll let the work speak for itself.

The Book of Dreams is the final work of Vance's "Demon Princes" series, in which the hero Kirth Gersen tracks down and kills the five galactic crime-lords who killed his parents. It sounds pretty grim stuff, an Elizabethan revenger's tragedy set in the far future; but that reckons without Vance's characteristic humour, and his interest in the societies in which his protagonist finds himself. Most Vance novels have an interaction between the protagonist and a local functionary: in this case, Gersen is staying at the prestigious Penwipers Hotel as he tracks down the elusive 'Howard Alan Treesong':

The porters moved swiftly around the room, adjusting the placement of furniture, wiping surfaces with their scented cloths, then departed, swiftly and quietly, as if they had merged into the shadows. The chief porter said: “Sir, the valet will attend you at once to assist with your wardrobe. The water is already drawn for your bath.” He bowed and prepared to leave.
“One moment,” said Gersen. “Is there a key to the door?”
The chief porter smiled benignly. “Sir, you need not fear intrusion at Penwipers.”
“Possibly not. But, for instance, suppose I were a jewel merchant carrying a parcel of gems, and a thief wished to rob me. He need merely saunter to my room, open the door and divest me of my wealth.”
The chief porter, still smiling, shook his head. “Sir, such a terrible thing could never happen here. It would simply not be tolerated. Your valuables are quite safe.”
“I don’t carry any valuables,” said Gersen. “I merely suggested a possibility.”
“The inconceivable, sir, is rarely possible.”
“I am totally reassured,” said Gersen.
“Thank you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
He drew back as Gersen extended his hand. “The staff is adequately paid, sir. We prefer to accept no gratuities.” He inclined his head crisply and departed.

—The Book of Dreams, Chapter 3

I'm not even going to explain why this is wonderful. If you don't see it, I don't think I can tell you. Our brains are just differently wired up. The only clue I can give is that it's not just the quality of the writing; it's also the context. Can you think of another science-fiction writer who would try to deploy something of this sort in an adventure story? It's the kind of passage which helps us to understand why one of the 20th century's greatest science fiction writers cites his own favourite author as P.G. Wodehouse.

How has it influenced me?
This one's simple. One day I'd like to write a passage this good--and be able to repeat the trick, as Vance does in every novel after about 1960.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
  • read the passage a couple more times; you'll find the lessons
  • look particularly at the dialogue tags and adverbs

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Breaking the Rules

Jim Crace's The Pesthouse rejects all the advice given to aspiring writers--but does he make the risk work?

In our last blog entry, I set out my current reading list before plunging in to what fellow writers seemed to agree was the most promising choice, Jim Crace's The Pesthouse. It's not a long book, and already I've had the chance to read and digest.

The Pesthouse is part of the long tradition of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction, the brand of speculative fiction most likely to find a mainstream audience (think, for instance, of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale). Technology, and even the memory of technology, are long gone from America as the unlikely couple of Franklin and Margaret pick their way to the east coast through famine, pestilence and marauding robber bands. The Pesthouse is a self-consciously mythical journey, the journey east deliberately reversing the western spread of the original European settlers.

Many of readers of ::Acquired Taste are themselves writers. You will all have heard the 'rules' (and almost certainly questioned their validity). Show don't tell. Reveal character through dialogue. Tell us what characters do, not what they're like. Crace knows these rules better than the rest of us: The Pesthouse is his ninth novel. So, in choosing to ignore 'the rules of fiction', he's making a deliberate artistic choice.

The most obvious of these choices, and the biggest risk, is to all but dispense with dialogue. In a novel of over 300 pages, there are perhaps five pages of it, half of that in a conversation between one of the protagonists and a minor character. Crace has foregone the most common, and most useful, way of conveying information, and to replace it, he simply tells us what the main characters are thinking, and why they act the way they do. It's an extraordinary decision, and not one I would dare take in my own (unusually dialogue-intensive) fiction.

So how does Crace get away with it? His main weapon is the sheer beauty of his prose. If you can write with the muscular lyricism Crace commands you can probably make your shopping list into compelling reading. And the lack of dialogue is curiously appropriate to the story: it's a quiet book about a quiet place. America is huge, and empty. The survivors are concentrating on staying alive, and mistrustful of their neighbours. When people do get together, there's a wary truce as they tell their life stories over a shared meal. The Pesthouse can be seen as an extended version of one of the stories, a story told and not shown.

Crace also has a facility for the creation of place. The decayed, toxic America with its ruined highways and towns beyond the inhabitants' memory or understanding is realised with stark clarity. Occasionally we'll see a bizarre institution from the new America. The Finger Baptists, a luddite sect whose arms have atrophied because they believe using their hands is the devil's work, would not be out of place in Jack Vance. The ships on the east coast, taking a select few to Europe, are sail-powered, and the careful reader can infer that it's not just America which has sunk into a dark age.

But Crace's choices are not without cost. Because most of the action takes place inside characters' heads, or through a distant third-person narration, the story can be uninvolving at times. Franklin and Margaret sometimes feel more like archetypes than individuals. That's entirely appropriate for mythic tale that Crace is telling, but it takes a risk in terms of reader involvement. What we lose is perhaps best illustrated by thinking about The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood is also a stylist of unusual talent, but she puts us in the action, rather than above it. Tastes will vary, but for me at least, The Pesthouse is an ambitious work which falls just short of the first rank of dystopian fiction.

Monday, February 11, 2008

What Shall I Read?

I have a problem which I share with many writers: too much on the 'to read' pile. Indeed, I doubt that anyone who doesn't have that problem is really a writer at all. Reading is part of the nutrition which we all need to create the kind of links and cross-fertilisations that lead to satisfying fiction.

That said, my reading pile is worse than usual at the moment, something I blame in large measure on my fellow MNWer David Isaak, whose blog spews an endless stream of things which simply demand to be read. His current series on books about writing promises to continue the trend: Lawrence Block's Telling Lies for Fun and Profit was full of good sound practical advice, retailed in the style I call 'American Smartmouth'. A treat from start to finish.

So what's on my reading pile at the moment? I confine myself to books I have in the house, ready to pick up, and which I haven't yet read (re-reading is important too, but would make my current decision far too difficult. How could I justify not picking up Pride and Prejudice or Emphyrio once more?).

1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow
Alex Zamoyski
The title says it all. For anyone with even a glancing interest in 19th century history, this can only be a fascinating topic. Sometimes history books are let down by the prose, but Zamoyski's work has drawn many plaudits. Surely this will be good!

The Gentle Axe
R.N. Morris
Maintaining the 19th century Russian theme, MNW stalwart Roger Morris takes Porfiry Petrovich, the detective from Crime and Punishment, and gives him a new case to solve. I've not yet read any of Morris' work, but I'm looking forward to trying this one.

A Quiet Belief in Angels
R.J. Ellory

A 'Richard and Judy' choice, I picked it up on a 'buy one, get one free' offer with Regeneration (see below). It's set squarely in the 'literary thriller' genre which is very popular at the moment--and doesn't always work for me. Probably one for my summer holidays.

Pat Barker
I've been meaning to read this World War One story for years. Now I can. Penguin have had the excellent idea of returning to their classic cover design for certain of their books--and when the classic design is this good, why not?

The only problem is, the cover doesn't look right on a new book. Orange Penguins should be smashed to buggery, like my copy of My Cousin Rachel.

How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction
ed. J. Williamson
As recommended by MNW's other fantasist, Matt Curran. No more need be said, and my fingers twitch every time I see the volume. This one won't be on the pile for long.

Jim Crace
This dystopian vision of a post-apocalyptic America was not just recommended but given to me by Will, my editor. Because Crace has a sigificant reputation as a mainstream writer, he can get away with writing fantasy and seeing it published by prestige imprint like Picador. I've not read Crace before and I'm looking forward to this one.

Lord of Light/The Amber Chronicles
Roger Zelazny
As recommended by David Isaak, these stories come from one of the premier stylists of SF's Golden Age. Somehow I've got to 40 without reading any of his longer fiction. This needs to change!

Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football
Phil Ball
Over the past fifteen years, football has finally acquired a literature to rival cricket's. David Winner's offbeat but revealing Brilliant Orange, a history of Dutch football, keeps company with David Foot's more straightforward but equally intelligent Italian chronicle Calcio. The best football books are about much more than football: the world's most popular sport is a revealing prism through which to write social history. In Spain, with the eternal rivalry between Real Madrid (once Franco's house team) and Barcelona, the focal point for Catalan nationalism, one can argue that football is the county's social history. Among the fiction I'd like to write one day--for now, at the bottom of the list--is a history of a fictional European country told through its football. If nothing else, the idea is original...

* * *

So, which of these should I read next? To deflate any possible narrative tension, I should say that I've already decided--but what would you read?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Macmillan New Writing focus

Alis Hawkins

I'm in danger of becoming the kind of reviewer I despise, singing the praises of my own coterie of Macmillan New Writers to the point where the reader despairs of any kind of objectivity. The risk of attracting adverse comment, however, is entirely worthwhile in if it allows me to draw your attention to Testament, the January MNW offering.

Yesterday I quoted with approval David Isaak's assessment of MNW novels as 'the teensiest bit outside the standard categories'. Testament is an interesting illustration of the view, all the more so because on the surface it doesn't seem to be true. The timeslip novel--two narratives, one historical and one contemporary--is very popular at the moment. Kate Mosse's two recent novels, Labyrinth and Sepulchre, are recent bestsellers in the genre.

No doubt MNW's marketers were delighted to have a novel to promote which occupies the territory as solidly as Testament. One narrative is set in the 14th century, the other the 21st, and the unifying feature is Kineton and Dacre College, under construction in the first strand, and under threat in the second. So far, this seems a genre staple. What makes the book unusual is the stories Hawkins chooses to tell in each strand. The plot of the historical section is centred around a master mason's struggle to build an architecturally-revolutionary new college; the contemporary narrative centres on that college's efforts to resist takeover by a brash younger rival. We are not in 'arcane secrets passed down the centuries' here, which is a refreshing change.

Given the rather unusual nature of the plot, I won't give too much away. Birth and rebirth are major themes of the novel; both for the college itself, and for the main female characters in each narrative. Hawkins is as comfortable with the political machinations--medieval and current--as she is with the emotional dramas of the characters' lives. And her portrait of Toby, the disabled child so disgusting to the 14th century world, is a melancholy and moving one which stays in the mind after the covers are closed.

The danger all writers of timeslips face is the risk that the reader will find one narrative strand more interesting than the other, fatally unbalancing their reading experience. Testament is the most successful timeslip novel I've read in terms of keeping the present-day narrative as fresh and absorbing as the historical one. It's a difficult technical act to pull off, and almost invisible when it succeeds--so it's worth drawing attention to here. Hawkins is hugely gifted in the creation of character, and her lead females in both stories are so powerfully rendered that the reader is fully anchored in their world, not left waiting for the next change of scene.

Testament will, I suspect, be marketed as a "woman's book". Pigeonholing books by gender is never very helpful (after all, I want women to read The Dog of the North, even though fantasy is a traditionally masculine genre). "Women's fiction", in particular, has pejorative undertones, suggesting either frothy vapidity or issue-driven sentimentality; and in any event, the book really does have much broader appeal. Yes, the the central characters are female, and both stories turn on women's yearning for children and the unexpected consequences of those yearnings; but Hawkins is a profoundly humane writer. Her eloquent message of tolerance, and the importance of liberal values, is articulated in prose of crisp purity and emotional power: all readers of discrimination--even men--will enjoy it.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

"Introducing an outstanding new voice in fantasy fiction"

Many visitors to ::Acquired Taste will be seasoned readers of fantasy, and thus keen to read "an outstanding new voice". Even more so, perhaps, when they learn that the book in question is "an exquisitely written tale of loyalty and treachery, heroism and cowardice, homeland and exile, set in a brilliantly imagined and utterly spellbinding world". Hey, who wouldn't to read that?

Well, hang on a sec... there's a catch. For the "new voice" in question is none other than...Tim Stretton, author of The Dog of the North. And you all had that on your must-buy list anyway--didn't you? Even worse, the literary judgement quoted is hardly objective; it comes from the Macmillan New Writing site and is lifted from the blurb. It hardly qualifies as objective opinion.

And yet... there is an art to writing blurb (beyond getting people to buy the book, which is a given, and which the MNW piece does very well). Good blurb stops short of hyperbole, although a little exaggeration can be winked at. It takes elements which are present in the text, polishes them, and shoots them in a flattering light. The elements the publisher chooses to display in the blurb are significant. And in the case of The Dog of the North, Macmillan have chosen to emphasise my authorial voice--ironically, the very thing which has proved the biggest obstacle for other publishers. But Macmillan are right: the single most distinctive feature of my writing is the authorial voice, and if the book is any sort of success the voice will probably be the main factor.

Lest I be accused of over-promoting my own work (surely a permissible peccancy on my own blog, in any event), I should also note that if you dislike The Dog of the North, it will also, I suspect, be for reasons of voice. The more distinctive a feature in a work of fiction, the harder it is to overlook it if it isn't to your taste.

David Isaak has mentioned elsewhere that the sole unifying feature of the MNW range is "most of them are a little bent, just the teensiest bit outside the standard categories". I think that's right, and what's 'bent' in my work is the coolness and narrative distance I use to tell the story. I'm pleased with the plotting in The Dog of the North, but it's not what makes it an MNW novel.

From July 4th, you will be able to form your own judgement. In the meantime, I can give thanks for having a publicity department which appears to understand the book.

* * *

Bonus marketing quiz - kudos to the reader who can tell me which author has written, according to their publisher,
a sexy and irresistible novel to launch a major new fiction brand

Additional credit will be awarded to anyone who can explain what a "fiction brand" is, and how it differs from a "writer".

Friday, February 01, 2008

How To Write... Mystery

A brief look at why all stories are, on some level, mystery stories

Once again, "How To Write..." is about something other than its ostensible title. I've never written a pukka mystery (although I've come close), so my advice is--not for the first time--of dubious value.

On Wednesday, my editor Will gave me the copyeditor's comments on The Dog of the North--another milestone out of the way. The copyeditor had told Will how much enjoyed the book (not always a given) and, even better, said it reminded him of Jack Vance. (Note to flatterers everywhere: this is the biggest compliment you can pay me. It's best when accompanied with familiarity with Vance's work, although even this is not essential...)

The copyeditor's detailed comments were generally straightforward. If the house-style is to write "marketplace" and not "market-place" I'm not going to hang myself over it. But there was one specific comment which was fascinating, even where I didn't agree with it. The Dog of the North is structured around two separate but interlinked narratives which do not converge until the end of the novel. The copyeditor noted that the relationship between the two narratives--particularly the temporal relationship--is not immediately clear, although certain aspects of it can be inferred. I could, he suggested, have made things clearer by a couple of sentences at an early point in the story. And so I could: it would be a very easy change to make.

The copyeditor outlined how the narratives had unfolded in his head, and at which point he had reached the key realisations. And it was exactly the way I had intended it. The novel has a number of key mysteries: one hidden (i.e. I'm doing something in the background I'm not telling you about) and one superficial. The superficial mystery is in making the reader ask: "why are you telling me two stories? how are they related?". And the alert reader, by picking up on the clues, can establish the answer before I tell them. By giving them a little puzzle to solve, I pique their interest and, with any luck, hold their attention.

The Dog of the North is not, in any conventional sense, a mystery novel. It does not stand or fall on how the puzzles in the text are resolved. But it's a mystery in the sense that all novels are mysteries. In all but the most experimental works, "what happens next?" is what keeps us reading. That can be as obvious as "will Poirot catch the murderer?", through "will Hamlet kill Claudius?" right the way through to "will Elizabeth marry Mr Darcy?" If you don't want to know what happens next, the writer hasn't written a story. Note, however, that that question doesn't have to be resolved in the expected way (most murder mysteries work by delivering the expectedly unexpected) or even at all (the ending of Great Expectations is crafted to allow two mutually exclusive readings, and the ending of The Italian Job works only because it doesn't resolve anything). And some endings resolve the central mystery, only to open another (Jack Vance frequently does this, and more recently L.C. Tyler's The Herring Seller's Apprentice closes off one mystery only to open up another).

So I've got two flippant pieces of advice for anyone who wants to know how to write a mystery. The first: write any story. Job done--you've written a mystery. Secondly, if you want to write a 'mystery' in the narrower genre sense: read The Herring Seller's Apprentice. It uses, and subverts, just about every trick in the book. If you can't see how it's done after that, you're beyond help.