Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"Are the days of the full-time novelist numbered?"

... asks Canadian sf writer Robert J. Sawyer.  Unsurprisingly, if gloomily, he concludes the answer is "yes".

In this, at least, I am ahead of the game, never having been a full-time novelist to begin with.  Sawyer concludes:

Maybe we will all indeed still be smiling as writing sf shifts from a career to a hobby. Still, lengthy, ambitious, complex works — works that take years of full-time effort to produce — aren’t things that could have been produced in any kind of reasonable time by squeezing in an hour’s writing each day over one’s lunch break while working a nine-to-five job.
 I'm not sure that I'd go so far, but such a model suggests that publishers' appetites for the "one book each year" series may be on the wane.  Maybe it's not all bad news.

Monday, July 19, 2010

It's Love

We all, perhaps, have an ideal: a yearning for something which we never quite achieve.  We spend our live looking, and then, when our attention is elsewhere, we may find it.

I am no different; I have spent the past thirty years looking for perfection.  And at last, I think, I have found it:
Even though I don't write my novels longhand, I have never given up looking for the perfect pen.  You see it in the image above--the Pilot V Pen (known in the US as the Varsity Pen).  It's a disposable fountain pen which unites ideal inkflow (neither too fulsome nor too miserly) with a nib at once smooth and firm.  It is not particularly attractive to look at, but pens are about utility, not aesthetics.  It is also--a factor which should never be overlooked--cheap.  Call me parsimonious if you will, but I prefer to have a pen I'm not afraid to take out of the house in case I lose it.

The Pilot V Pen is the perfect pen.  Anyone who enjoys the tactility of quill on paper should have one, or several.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Macmillan New Writing Watch

Low Life, by Ryan David Jahn

One of the unexpected pleasures of being part of Macmillan New Writing is seeing other writers on the imprint go on to achieve critical and commercial success.  Recently Ann Weisgarber, LC Tyler and Brian McGilloway have all been nominated for major prizes.
Ryan David Jahn has now, with his second novel, Low Life, been assimilated into the mainstream Macmillan imprint.  I always look forward to MNWers' crime novels (my former editor Will Atkins is now head honcho for Macmillan crime acquisitions, such is his ability to pick winners), and Low Life does not disappoint.

When Simon Johnson is attacked in his crummy LA apartment, he knows he must defend himself or die. Turning on the lights after the scuffle, Simon realises two things: one, he has killed his attacker; two, the resemblance of the man to himself is uncanny.
Over the coming days, Simon’s lonely life will spiral out of control. With his pet goldfish Francine in tow, he embarks on a gripping existential investigation, into his own murky past, and that of Jeremy Shackleford, the (apparently) happily married math teacher whose body is now lying in Simon’s bathtub under forty gallons of ice.
But Simon has a plan. Gradually, he begins to assume the dead man’s identity, fooling Shackleford’s colleagues, and even his beautiful wife. However, when mysterious messages appear on the walls around Simon’s apartment, he realises that losing his old self will be more difficult than he’d imagined. Everything points to a long forgotten date the previous spring, when his life and Shackleford’s first collided. As the contradictions mount, and the ice begins to melt, the events of the past year will resolve themselves in the most catastrophic way.
Combining gritty noir, psychological drama and dazzling plotting, Low Life is a shocking novel that announces Jahn as a brilliant new voice of modern America.
So goes the blurb, of which I am automatically wary.  The phrase "gripping existential investigation" invites immediate scepticism, and yet this is exactly what the novel proves to be.  Jahn builds on his exceptional ability--showcased in his debut Acts of Violence--to nail urban American life in the accretion of telling detail by adding a plot of clockwork precision: few writers would have the audacity to combine hidden quantum physics with a seamy naturalism, and fewer still would be able to pull it off.  The crime field is a crowded one, but with Low Life, Ryan David Jahn proves he is working in its upper reaches.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Dog of the North - Book Club Questions

The Dog of the North is sometimes discussed at at book clubs (don't you have anything better to read?) and on occasion I'm asked to suggest some questions.  Since I hate to disappoint an audience, I've suggested a few questions you might want to ask when thinking about the book.  If you haven't read the book yet, they do contain some spoilers.  In the unlikely event that your book club disdains fantasy literature as adolescent claptrap, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

By any normal standards Beauceron is not a "good" character.  Did you sympathise with him despite that, and if so, how did the author persuade you?

The story is driven by Beauceron's desire for revenge, but achieving his goal brings him little satisfaction.  Why do you think that is?

The story unfolds over two different time periods which only come together at the end.  Did you like that approach or was it confusing?

The Dog of the North is stocked on the fantasy shelves of bookshops.  Did it meet your expectations of fantasy fiction, or do you think the genre label limits its potential readership? What purpose do you think genre labels serve? 

Given that most of the trappings of conventional fantasy are absent, the book could very easily have been written as a historical novel set in the Renaissance.  Why do you think the author chose to write it as fantasy?

The book has a lot of strong female characters.  Which did you like most and why?

Lord Thaume is a strong and decisive leader throughout the book, but his actions become increasingly arbitrary.  Is the author telling us something about the nature of power?

The author has said that he imagined Mettingloom as a "frozen Venice"?  What did you think of this way of reimagining real-world locations?

Mettingloom is ruled for half a year each by the Winter and Summer Kings.  Did you believe that such a system could have worked in practice and if not, did you mind?

The author gives us a very detailed description of the Battle of Jehan's Steppe.  Did you find it convincing?

The male characters are consistently outwitted by the female ones.  Is the author suggesting that women are more manipulative by nature, or that in a male-dominated society they can only succeed by their wits?

Political intrigues are at the heart of the novel, but all of the characters seem to be motivated by self-interest rather than principle.  Do you find that a convincing depiction of the political process?

The characters in the story tend to use a very formal style of dialogue.  Did that help to create a particular atmosphere for you, or did it grate on you?

At the end of the book Beauceron has the chance to avenge himself on Siedra, but lets her escape so that he can rescue Isola.  Why do you think he does this?

The novel's ending implies that Arren and Eilla will never be together.  Do you think that's true, and was it an appropriate conclusion?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Vancean Influence

David Isaak over on Tomorrowville, in the comments thread to his stimulating post on ephemerality, made the mistake of asking me to trace Jack Vance's influence on my fiction.  (This a bit like asking me to tweet about biscuits...).  The two aspects of Vance's art David doesn't notice in mine are (deliberately) overripe prose and extensive use of magic.  I'd agree in both cases: any overripeness in my prose is unintentional, and my fascination with the Middle Ages leads me to play down the role of magic in my own stories.

So what have I tried to keep from Vance?  I've always--flying against the critical consensus--enjoyed Vance's female characters, and especially the way in which they nimbly outwit the more pedestrian male ones.  (Vance himself, I suspect, picked this up from PG Wodehouse).  In The Zael Inheritance, Laura Glyde persistently befuddles Lamarck with a mixture of superior intelligence and restrained sex-appeal; while in Dragonchaser poor Mirko has to contend with both Larien and Lady Catzendralle.  The relationships are perhaps more nuanced in The Dog of the North, but Arren rarely comes off better in sparring with either Eilla or Siedra, while Beauceron's kidnap of Lady Isola hardly goes according to plan.  In an otherwise damning review of The Dog of the North, Deathray magazine described the women as "haunting", so I must have got something right.

Vance also enjoys identity games, where one character is someone other than reader thinks.  This features strongly in the Demon Princes series, where Attel Malagate, Kokor Hekkus and Viole Falushe all masquerade as other characters, but we see it too with Sir Pellinore in Madouc and, in a curious fashion, Kul the Killer in The Green Pearl.  My own fascination with identity games runs even deeper: the true identities of Laura Glyde, 'N', Beauceron and Malvazan are central to the novels in which they feature.

I've long admired the cool detachment of the mature Vance's prose (while I take David's point about the overripeness, it's mainly seen in the Dying Earth novels.  His extraordinary evocativeness is usually the result of surprising economy of method).  It's particularly noteworthy when he's describing atrocities.

The single remaining warrior rode pellmell down into the swale, where the Kaber warriors cut off first his legs, then his arms, then rolled him into the ditch to ponder the sad estate to which his life had come.

---Suldrun's Garden

The use of this tone of crisp precision, regardless of circumstance, is one of the distinguishing features of Vance's work, and which alienates many readers.  But those who appreciate it find it part of his continuing appeal.  I'm conscious that, in Dragonchaser, the early hanging scene owes much to Vance:

The crowd set up a hooting as the poisoner was led towards the platform, where the gibbets were erected at a good elevation to facilitate viewing. The prisoner cowered low as the noose was set around his neck.

“Larkas Laman,” said the Sergeant of the Constables sonorously, “you have been adjudged guilty of the heinous crime of extinguishing your wife – ”

“As we all would if we could!” called one wag from the crowd, to general hilarity.

“ – using toadstools garnered for that purpose. Your guilt is unquestioned. Do you have a final message of repentance or edification, that others might not share your fate?”

Larkas Laman seemed unwilling to draw general conclusions from his circumstances. “I am innocent!” he called. “There were no toadstools! Her mother laid an information against me, but poor Melsifar was always of a sickly disposition.”

The Sergeant was attuned through long practice to the tenor of condemned folks’ final speeches. Protestations of innocence were common, if futile, and provided neither entertainment nor enlightenment. He nodded at the hangman, who pulled on a theatrically large lever. A trap-door opened, Larkas Laman dropped three feet with his conclusions unfinished, to kick and jerk on the end of the rope. The crowd cheered this satisfactory outcome.

Next was brought forward the schismatic Clovildas Cloon. Unlike Larkas Laman, he spoke long and fervently, ignoring questions of guilt and innocence, instead justifying his acts. Mirko was no clearer as to the nature of his offence at the end of the peroration, but he recognised a fanatic. Clovildas Cloon appeared to welcome martyrdom, and at the end of the speech commanded the hangman to pull the lever “that I might the sooner begin my eternal blessings.”

The crowd had enjoyed this spirited defiance of mortality – even if, to Mirko’s eyes, religious feeling was not in great evidence – and the opening of the trap door was greeted with applause. There appeared to be little difference between the twitching bodies of Larkas Laman and Clovildas Cloon: might the latter’s eternal blessings be deferred, or even apocryphal?

Vance's related ability to extract humour from grim situations, usually through understatement, is a close cousin to this narrative detachment.

Without wishing to devalue readers' experiences with spoilers, I'd also suggest that a fondness for the melancholy, half-resolved ending is something I've taken from Vance.  Some have suggested that his endings are perfunctory, but the best of them--The Book of Dreams, perhaps, or Maske: Thaery--have certainly influenced the endings of both The Zael Inheritance and The Dog of the North.

There are no doubt many other Vancean influences on my writing, but those are the conscious ones for me - a particular take on male-female relationships, an interest in concealed identities, a cool narrative tone and a certain attitude to endings.

Sadly what I don't seem to have absorbed from Vance is his work ethic--4.4 million words over a 50-year career.  There's always something to strive for...