Monday, December 31, 2007

2008 approaches, and that means ...

...only one thing: publication!

The week before Christmas I sent my revised script for The Dog of the North back to Will at Macmillan. I adopted perhaps 300 out of his 400 suggestions, and rewrote a handful of scenes where Will had justly pointed out infelicities or implausibilities. I've mentioned in earlier entries that this process was surprisingly enjoyable. The outcome is a book which is tighter and--with any luck--more likely to find favour with readers. The next stage for the text is a visit to the copy-editor, out of which should emerge the 'Authentic Text', ready for launch on an unsuspecting public.

My googlebots have been hard at work, and last week they came scurrying back with the exciting news that The Dog of the North is available for you to pre-order on Amazon (those of you familiar with NLP will recognise the embedded command in that sentence...). There is even an image of the cover which is slightly later than the one I've seen (and very smart it is too). We have an ISBN too, and even a page count. This latter item looks rather suspicious: all Macmillan New Writing books yet to be published seem to have 304 pages, and I think The Dog of the North will end up having rather more than that. But here, in any event, is the cover:

I hope you all like it as much as I do.

* * *

Now that I think about it, 2008 isn't about just one thing: as well as publication, we have work on the next book to worry about too. I'm always envious of Matt Curran, who seems to generate an endless fund of ideas for new plots. I'm far less fecund, but I have been working hard on a new idea since mid-December, given a kick-start by my recent creative writing course at West Dean. My Christmas presents included a wonderful Italian leather-bound notebook into which I've been decanting my ideas using a fountain pen and sepia ink (a wonderfully aesthetically satisfying process). I've never approached any aspect of novel writing in such a low-tech way, but it's been an experience at once soothing (the scratch of the nib, the absorbency of the paper, the filling of the small pages) and liberating. Once I get round to the real writing, it'll be back to the laptop (so much quicker, and so much easier to revise), but at this stage, when I'm working slowly, just letting my ideas evolve, pen and paper are doing just fine.

I won't give too much about the new story away (see some great posts by David Isaak and Faye Booth on writers' superstitions), other than a couple of little tasters. It isn't a sequel to The Dog of the North, but it takes place at broadly the same time on the same continent--and indeed at least one character features in both stories. The setting is a great maritime city-state and the plot involves a wastrel of an aristocrat, his unsuitable paramour, and the political manoeuvrings into which he is being sucked. My traditional motifs of betrayal and revenge are of course to the fore. It's not quite ready to write yet: a couple of the key characters aren't clear enough in my head, and the magical element the reader expects to find in fantasy is so attenuated that it might as well be a historical novel. I'm still deciding how serious a flaw this is before working out how to fix it.

This stage of writing a novel is great fun. I can have all kinds of ideas, run with them in my head (without the inconvenience of needing to write polished prose) and feel the deep structure coming together. It's the stage that most novels stall at: anyone can have ideas; it's turning them into a coherent and satisfying prose narrative that's the problem. But it's not today's problem.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

On the Big Screen

I Am Legend, 2007
dir: Francis Lawrence
starring: Will Smith

Having written earlier this week about Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, I went to see the film yesterday. It's always strange to see the film of a book you've enjoyed, and rather a cliche to say that the film is inferior. Novel and film are different media, and they work in different ways. The artistic choices that a screenwriter makes will inevitably be different from a novelist's.

On its own terms, then--the only way a film should be judged--I Am Legend can be seen as a success. Will Smith is an actor of unusual versatility, and here he has to carry a 100-minute picture largely on his own: he is, after all, the last man in the world. The film is genuinely chilling with some horrifying set-pieces, and the resolution, although very different from the book, is largely satisfying.

The divergences from the book, however artistically justified, are nonetheless interesting. I Am Legend is a dark film by Hollywood standards (although somewhat lightened by the ending), but does not approach the bleakness of the book. Will Smith's Neville becomes the eponymous legend by finding a cure for the vampiric plague; Matheson's original is a legend of horror to the surviving vampires. Smith's Neville spends his days looking for a cure; for Matheson, days are spent hunting and killing vampires while they sleep. Both film and book have endings that are to an extent redemptive, but Matheson's redemption is hidden deeper, and much darker in nature.

* * *

It's always misconceived to criticise a film adaptation for "not being the book": if you want the book, read the book. Novels and film have different characteristics, and film in particular has difficulty in depicting inner states. There are ways around it, of course, but film is essentially a medium external to the protagonists' minds: what we see is what they do, and what they are can only be inferred from that. In fiction, a similar effect can be created with a tight third-person narrative, but the novelist has a much wider field of vision to work with; so the novelist writing in tight-third person is doing so from choice, not necessity.

Look at the economy with which Jane Austen nails her heroine with the opening of Emma:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
In a single sentence at the start of the novel, Austen has told us all we need to know about Emma's backstory. The perceptive reader will sense a "but" coming, and of course it's the "but" that occupies the novel. Given that, Austen has not chosen to waste time showing background detail when she can tell us, get it out of the way, and move on to showing the material she's really interested in.

Film, unless it uses the voiceover (very rarely a successful technique), is limited exclusively to showing. This necessity has had a great impact on the teaching of creative writing: the mantra that the novelist must show and not tell owes much to the filmic approach of many "how to write a novel" books. But while film and novel have much in common, as two readily accessible methods of laying out a narrative, it's a mistake to see them as interchangeable. And in insisting that the novelist must only show, conventional wisdom limits and banalises the writer's arsenal.

So next time you go to see the book of the film, think about how the two differ and why the screenwriters have made the choices they have. You may not agree with the choices, but there should be an artistic reason behind them.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Christmas from ::Acquired Taste

::Acquired Taste will be taking a short break to enjoy the seasonal festivities. A Happy Christmas and rewarding 2008 to all this blog's visitors, and the myriad scurrying googlebots who seem to make up so much of my traffic here.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

"Why Should I Read...?"

I Am Legend
Richard Matheson, 1954

This month sees the release of the Will Smith film of the same name (which I haven't yet seen), and today "Why Should I Read...?" takes a look at Matheson's original novel, seemingly as influential today as on its release half a century ago.

I Am Legend is the story of Robert Neville, the last man on Earth--or at least in Southern California, which may be much the same thing--trying to survive in a world over-run by vampires created by a bacterial plague. Told through a tight third-person narrative, Matheson meticulously records Neville's disintegrating mental state. The horror--for this truly is a horror novel--lies in the banal everyday detail. Each evening Neville must return before sundown from his daily slaughter of vampires as they sleep, so that he can barricade himself indoors against their nightly assault.

What makes I Am Legend a brilliant novel, and not simply an intelligent character study, is the way Matheson steadily unpicks the reader's sympathy. Neville discovers that there are two different kinds of vampires, one of which is still "alive". This makes no difference to Neville's programme, which remains the extermination of as many vampires as he can find. Meanwhile, those plague victims still surviving with the bacillus inside them find a way to control its growth and attempt to rebuild their society. By the end of the novel, it is Neville who is the monster, the "legend" of the title. This gloomy ending is partly offset by Neville's recognition of both his inhumanity, and the fact that the new society has no choice but to destroy him.

I Am Legend is a beautifully realised study in paranoia, and for all its enduring popularity it is very much a novel of its time. It reflects and comments on the Cold War psychology of 1950s America, where it has far more in common with Finney's The Body Snatchers and Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz than it does with Dracula. Vampires are simply the mechanism Matheson uses to explore themes of paranoia and xenophobia--themes every bit as relevant in the 21st century as they were in the 1950s.

How has it influenced me?

The most striking technical characteristic of I Am Legend is the way Matheson steadily erodes sympathy for the protagonist. I've never tried this trick in this way, but one of the things I've tried to do in The Dog of the North is manipulate the reader's sympathy for Beauceron, one of the twin protagonists. His goals--revenge and the destruction of a great city--and his methods of achieving them--kidnap and brigandage--are essentially ignoble; but he is one of the viewpoint characters and I need the reader to identify with him on some level. In particular, I set out to manipulate the extent of their sympathy at specific points in the novel. The notion that I needed to do that owes a debt to I Am Legend.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

A novel which takes place largely inside the protagonist's head should not be too long (I Am Legend comes in at 160 pages)

A very close third person narrative is an effective way of at once keeping the reader close to the character but being able to manipulate sympathy

Manipulation of sympathy for the protagonist is one of the subtlest and most powerful tools in the writer's armoury

It's possible to write a satisfying novel in which the protagonist's psychological state is emphasised at the expense of more 'dramatic' plot elements

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"Why Should I Read...?"

The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins, 1859

Regular visitors to ::Acquired Taste will by now have formed a good impression of my reading tastes. It will come as no surprise that I have chosen today to praise a ninetheenth century novel, a mystery playing tricks with unreliable narrators, a compelling charismatic anti-hero and a female character more clear-sighted and intelligent than any of the men. When we consider that this a story with an identity mystery at its heart, it's easy to understand that this book could have been written for me. It even has a fire at a key point in the plot.

The intricate plot follows the seemingly doomed romance between heiress Laura Fairlie and impoverished art teacher Walter Hartright. Hartright becomes embroiled in an attempt to rescue Laura from an enforced marriage with the villainous Sir Percival Glyde. He is assisted in his investigations by Laura's half-sister Marian, presented by Collins as plain but practical and intelligent. Sir Percival is a cardboard villain but behind the scenes he is being manipulated by Count Fosco, an eccentric, cultivated and thoroughly corrupt Italian aristocrat.

The novel proceeds to its happy resolution, recounted by a number of narrators, incluing, at the end, Fosco himself. The multiple narrator approach is successful in sustaining the mysteries of the plot, and overcomes the potential weakness that Hartright himself, although the nominal protagonist, is not a very interesting character: if he were the point of view for the entire story, matters would rapidly become tedious.

Most interesting of all is the relationship between Fosco and Marian, an unusually capable and dynamic for fiction of this type. Marian is set up as "plain" from the outset, so the reader knows that Hartright will never fall for her: but Fosco--he's eccentric, remember--develops a high regard for Marian, even though they are opponents. It might be overstated to describe Collins as an early feminist (Marian herself is hardly complimentary about female capacities) but it is unusual to find a "plain" female character so sympathetically portrayed in a novel of this type and period. The relationship is subtly nuanced and far richer than any other in the novel, including the textbook romance between Hartright and Laura around which the plot is structured. A carping critic might argue that Collins has let the minor characters take over, but the avid reader is unlikely to complain. This is nineteenth century 'sensation' fiction at its very best.

How has it influenced me?

The fiction I write is on the surface very different from Collins', but I am conscious of a lot of underlying similarities. The Zael Inheritance, in particular, is very much a 'sensation' novel, and the name of one of the main characters, Laura Glyde, deliberately draws from The Woman in White. Collins delights in identity puzzles, a motif I often employ, most centrally in The Zael Inheritance. It's no big thing in modern fiction to portray dynamic female characters (although it's overlooked surprisingly often, especially in fantasy) but Marian Halcombe remains one of the best examples for me, and an influence on Lady Catzendralle in Dragonchaser.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Multiple narrators can be an effective device if handled well

Heroines need not be beautiful

Narrative pace can overcome dull protagonists

Sympathetic villains are a surprisingly under-used fictional device, but very effective

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Craft of Writing

I've spent the past week, one way and another, very close to the technical aspects of writing. The image that most people have of 'writing' is of a frenzied outpouring of creativity, scribbling frantically or clattering away at a keyboard. There's no doubt that this is part of the process; it happens to be the most glamorous bit, and also the hardest to explain. What goes on inside a writer's head in this initial composition phase defies ready analysis (although several of us have tried over on the Macmillan New Writers' blog), where I only semi-jocularly refer to hearing voices as my core writing experience.

What we're talking about when we use these stereotypes of the creative process is really the preparation of a first draft, but there are several stages before and after this. All writers do some pre-planning before they start to work, whether it's a scene-by-scene storyboard, background research, character analysis, timelines, or any of the other techniques writers use to get themselves ready to face the blank page.

There is also, once the draft is complete, the revision and editing process. I've been spending the past week working on the edits suggested by Will, my editor at Macmillan. This is an entirely different kind of creativity--a better description would be applied evaluative judgement. Will has suggested 400-odd line edits as well as half a dozen or so areas where scenes needed to be wholly or partly rewritten. A 'brainstorming' frame of mind is not helpful to me at this stage: instead, I need to see why Will has made the suggestions, whether I agree with them, and if I do, whether his suggested fix is the best way of doing it. This is an interesting and perversely enjoyable activity, but it couldn't be further from the idea of the writer taking dictation from the Muse.

At the same time as I've been working on my edits, I was also at West Dean on Greg Mosse's "How to Write a Novel" course. It sounds banal to suggest that to be able to teach creative writing, you need to be able to write, and you need to be able to teach, but much professional tuition is deficient in at least one of these areas (more often the teaching side). Greg is a trained teacher, and his courses are relentlessly practical. The emphasis is on how you generate a workable story area, people it with believable characters and a compelling location--but most of all, it's "how do aspiring writers then stop themselves from doing it?" Having completed my NLP Practitioner training this year, I found this approach fascinating. The last couple of days were as much about the mental state we need to be in to write a sustained piece of fiction as any technical discipline. Greg's wife Kate, author of the hugely successful Labyrinth and Sepulchre, was on hand to share her thoughts on the writer's craft, as was Jason Goodwin, creator of an expanding series of detective novel set in 1830s Istanbul. By the end of the course, we all had a good sense of the mindset used by successful writers.

I still stand by my original views on the road to publication (although they do not follow the party line in every case). If I had to summarise them in a single sentence, it would be "keep at it" -- and that very much is the party line.

As well as being educational, the course was great fun, and I was privileged to spend the week with such a talented and supportive group. So a special hello to Anne, Denise, Eileen, Fiona, George, Hainey, Kirstin and Lakhraj. Sorry if I gave any of you my cold, and I'll see you all in Panama one day!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

::Acquired Taste takes a break

Activity on this blog will be reduced--possibly to zero--for the next week or so. I'm off on a week long creative writing course, and even more significantly, my editor Will Atkins has sent through his suggested edits for The Dog of the North.

Will's comments are eminently sensible; anyone who worked on the Vance Integral Edition will know that a rational and sympathetic editor is a jewel beyond price. Will has come up with half a dozen or so general observations, including the odd plot implausibility which really does need fixing. In addition he's made another 400 or so suggestions about word choice and clarity, which I'll need to work through one by one.

It's a strange feeling to find someone else now knows my work as well as I do. "Why would Beauceron say that?", "How can this happen when that has already happened?" The characters and story are no longer all mine in the way they were when I created them. That's not as unsettling as I'd thought it would be: there's something satisfying about entering that world again and seeing it through another's eyes. And I know, of course, that Will genuinely admires the book: his livelihood is making Macmillan New Writing a success, and he's staked some of his professional judgement on my story.

But for a week or so it means some hard work. A couple of the plot lapses Will mentions clearly need fixing, but I haven't yet worked out how to do it. A period of head-scratching ensues... but by Christmas, the text should be with the copy-editor, and another pre-publication hurdle overcome.

Normal service will resume in a week or so.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Why Should I Read?...
“The Ballad of Lost C’mell”
Cordwainer Smith, 1962
For a writer with such a small output—20-odd short stories and an episodic novel—Cordwainer Smith has been a surprisingly influential writer within sf. He is one of those writers, like Vance and Lafferty, who is sui generis. There is no-one who writes remotely like Smith; and one Smith is probably about the right number.
“The Ballad of Lost C’mell” is perhaps not Smith’s best story (that has to be “Scanners Live in Vain”) but it is representative of his mature, finished, voice. The plot—not that we read Smith for plot—revolves around C’mell, a woman engineered from cat DNA (I did say don’t worry about the plot) and her role in the rebellion of the ‘underpeople’. C’mell, a girlygirl (a kind of courtesan) at once intrigues against and falls in love with Lord Jestocost, a representative of the Instrumentality of Mankind, the rulers of human space who deny the rights of those derived from animal stock. Recounted as baldly as that, it sounds unremarkable, even clichéd. Smith is famous as a Christian writer, but this aspect of his work is subtly integrated. What is more apparent in his attitudes and subject matter is that he is writer whose period of maturity coincided with the Civil Rights movement.
What lifts the story out of mediocrity is Smith’s extraordinary narrative voice. Most sf draws its cultural nourishment from the Western European literary model, but Smith, an accomplished Orientalist, draws at least as much on traditional Chinese techniques. The result is fiction which is at once alien, startling, beautiful, ornate. Despite the astonishingly distant narrative voice, Smith’s work is oddly engaging, and the strange love story at the heart of “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” is at once haunting and understated.
How has it influenced me?
Smith is one of those writers who defies imitation. I find a little of him goes a long way—which, since there is very little, is not a disadvantage. His style is one I have neither the capacity nor the desire to emulate, but he is a powerful illustration of just how far it is possible to develop a narrative voice. There are those who argue that the best stylists are invisible: while I understand that argument, I don’t entirely agree with it—and Smith is one of the greatest examples that for some good writers, style is the defining aspect of the work.
Lessons for the aspiring writer
Do your own thing – no matter how bizarre it seems, and regardless of whether anyone else is doing it
A highly distanced narrative voice need not result in emotionally uninvolving fiction
The Writer's Craft

I am sadly remiss in writing up my "Why Should I Read...?" on Cordwainer Smith (for now, just take it as a given that you should). If you have any interest in the technical side of writing, your time would in any event be better spent on David Isaak's blog than mine. His latest piece, on what he calls "psychic distance", is mandatory reading for anyone who's ever thought about narrative tone and distance. Best of all, there's even more to come.

What are you still doing over here?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

Galactic Patrol

E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, 1937-38

Last time, we looked at Italo Calvino, one of the most playful and intelligent writers of the 20th century; now we move to E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, which the uncharitable might regard as the sublime to the ridiculous. Certainly Smith’s writings are humour-free zones, and his undoubted intellect (he is reputed to be the man who worked out how to get icing sugar to stick to doughnuts) is not always on display in his fiction: but his Lensman series, of which Galactic Patrol is the best, has been immensely influential on generations of young, invariably male, readers—including this one.

The Lensman series is one of the first space operas. As the seven books unfold, ever larger space battles (sometimes involving millions of ships) occur, harnessing ever more potent technologies. Smith gives us action, and plenty of it. There are strong-jawed incorruptible heroes, intelligent and beautiful heroines who nevertheless recognise that their role is essentially subservient to the men. You couldn’t write it today, and you probably wouldn’t want to. But what Smith loses in nuanced characterisation—which, let’s face it, is just about everything—he gains in sheer sweep of imagination. It’s hard to imagine the infinitely richer space operas of writers like Iain M. Banks without Smith.

Smith’s prose is overheated, as the extract below shows:

"You are wrong, Conway; all wrong," Clio was saying, very seriously. "I know how you feel, but it's false chivalry."

"That isn't it, at all," he insisted, stubbornly. "It isn't only that I've got you out here in space, in danger and alone, that's stopping me. I know you and I know myself well enough to know that what we start now we'll go through with for life. It doesn't make any difference, that way, whether I start making love to you now or whether I wait until we're back on Tellus--I've been telling you for half an hour that for your own good you'd better pass me up entirely. I've got enough horsepower to keep away from you if you tell me to--not otherwise."

"I know it, both ways, dear, but...."

"But nothing!" he interrupted. "Can't you get it into your skull what you'll be letting yourself in for if you marry me? Assume that we get back, which isn't sure, by any means. But even if we do, some day—and maybe soon, too, you can't tell--somebody is going to collect fifty grams of radium for my head."

Triplanetary, 1934

It’s hard to imagine an adult modern reader failing to find the passage unintentionally amusing—even at the age of thirteen I suspect I found it pretty risible (although oddly engaging nonetheless – and the fifty grams of radium is cracking). But no doubt I was thrilled with:

The Nevian vessel--the sister-ship, the craft which Costigan had seen in mid-space as it hurtled earthward in response to Nerado's summons—hung poised in full visibility, high above the metropolis. Scornful of the pitiful weapons wielded by man she hung there, her sinister beauty of line sharply defined against the cloudless sky. From her shining hull there reached down a tenuous but rigid rod of crimson energy; a rod which slowly swept hither and thither as the detectors of the amphibians searched out the richest deposits of the precious iron for which the inhuman visitors had come so far. Iron, once solid, now a viscous red liquid, was sluggishly flowing in an ever-thickening stream up that intangible crimson duct and into the capacious storage tanks of the Nevian raider; and wherever that flaming beam went there went also ruin, destruction, and death. Office buildings, skyscrapers towering majestically in their architectural symmetry and beauty, collapsed into heaps of debris as their steel skeletons were abstracted. Deep into the ground the beam bored; flood, fire, and explosion following in its wake as the mazes of underground piping disappeared. And the humanity of the buildings died: instantaneously and painlessly, never knowing what struck them, as the life-bearing iron of their bodies went to swell the Nevian stream.

Triplanetary, 1934

That’s the end of Pittsburgh, and it’s what Smith does best: space opera in its undiluted form. The prose may be purple but it’s not inappropriate in the context. As I said earlier, you couldn’t write this stuff today. Part of me can’t help thinking that’s not altogether a good thing.

How has it influenced me?

Smith is not by any standards a literary writer. What he does have, though, is an imagination on the grand scale and prose of a fiery energy. In the decade when my reading tastes were formed, the Lensman series was a consistent favourite, and for a long time I yearned, in a pretty callow way, to write space operas. Soon after, I discovered Jack Vance, and the realisation that these stories are even better if you can control the language you use to write them. But in the same way I would not have become the writer I am without Vance, neither would I without Smith. He is in every sense a dinosaur, left behind by literary evolution, but a part of all our pasts, and a source of fascination and wonder to this day.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

If your imagination has sufficient scope, it will cover a multitude of stylistic sins

No matter how futuristic your plots, you are always a child of your times

Sometimes purple prose works…

…but almost certainly not in love scenes

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

Difficult Loves

Italo Calvino, 1948-58

Calvino is one the quirkiest and most distinctive authors of the 20th century. A member of the experimental Oulipo group and one of the defining voices of magic realism, Calvino’s intellectual, playful amusing fictions are at once profound and stylish. Works like Cosmicomics, Invisible Cities and The Castle of Crossed Destinies have influenced a generation.

My favourite Calvino comes from much earlier in his career, in the series of short stories written in his twenties and collected as Difficult Loves. These stories are influenced not so much by magic realism as the Italian postwar cinematic movement, neorealism. Calvino’s beautiful short stories are set in urban Italy in the years after World War II, and focus on the wild and wonderful field of male and female relations. Each story takes a tiny incident, describes it in heightened detail, and implies in that detail a whole hidden world (in this, perhaps, we see the root of Calvino’s later magical realism).

In one magnificent story, The Adventure of a Clerk¸ a humble bureaucrat enjoys a one-night stand with a great lady. Calvino is uninterested in the act itself: his focus is the mood of the fortunate Enrico Gnei the next morning, as he slinks into his office without going home, and applies himself to the tedium of his work, a man transformed. The delight is in the detail, restrained yet telling, working always indirectly. In another story, a married woman slips out early and takes coffee in a working man’s café, an adultery of the spirit. Calvino has the happy knack of nailing a mood, a moment, a transformation, with elegance and brevity.

Why do I prefer these seemingly slight early stories to Calvino’s later mastery? For my tastes, Calvino’s mature fiction is perhaps over-intellectualised: the all too apparent cleverness is at the expense of warmth, of sustained characterisation, and of human relationships. That’s not because Calvino can’t do those things—Difficult Loves shows everything except sustained characterisation—but because his interests as a writer moved elsewhere. Difficult Loves is minor Calvino; but it’s major fiction nonetheless.

How has it influenced me?

Calvino is a writer I’ve admired for over twenty years. His magic realism has consistently entertained, amused and piqued my imagination; Difficult Loves has long been a touchstone of how much can be done with seemingly insignificant incidental detail. My work is entertainment, pure and simple: I make none of the claims for it which can easily be advanced for Calvino. If Calvino has influenced me at all, it’s been through those early neorealist fictions, and their underlying assumptions that all stories, if you boil them down enough, usually come down to a man and a woman.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

The voice you master in your youth is not necessarily the one you will retain for life

All details have a wider significance if they are examined closely enough

Not all loves may be difficult, but easy ones don’t make good fiction

Not for the first time in Why Should I Read?, less is more.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

“Flowers for Algernon”

Daniel Keyes, 1959

Perfection, in any walk of life, is rarely achieved. Once in a lifetime is enough, and Keyes, whose fame rests on this single story, elevated himself among the greats in under 12,000 words. Keyes later expanded the story into a fine award-winning novel: but somehow it works better at the shorter length. The expansion adds nothing fundamental, and by detailing in subplot what was only hinted at before, serves only to dilute and coarsen the purity of the original.

“Flowers for Algernon” is the story of Charlie Gordon, an adult with an IQ of 68 who undergoes a revolutionary and highly dangerous medical procedure which triples his intelligence—an operation previously performed only on Algernon, the mouse who gives his name to the story. In an emotional but beautifully controlled first-person narrative, Keyes tracks Charlie’s ascent to genius, and then, as Algernon sickens and dies, his equally rapid decline.

As Charlie’s intelligence grows, he comes to realise that he has been the oblivious butt of his colleagues’ jokes, and comes to see Dr Nemur and Dr Strauss, the scientists who operated on him, not as gods, but as flawed human beings. When Algernon’s decline foreshadows his own, Charlie knows Nemur and Strauss cannot save him. He can no longer understand the limitations of those whose intellect he has surpassed, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Charlie was both happier and morally superior before his operation—a position that would be both trite and patronising if it were not articulated with such sure-footed élan.

What raises the story into the realms of greatness is Keyes’ narrative strategy. The story is told through Charlie’s ‘progris riports’ which he submits as part of the medical experiment. The prose therefore follows Charlie’s intellectual expansion, and the sections at the beginning and end of the story, where Charlie is barely literate, are handled with particular narrative skill. Simply looking at the pages’ typography allows the reader to sense Charlie's journey, and the emotional power of some of the simple passages is heartbreaking, as here where a bandaged Charlie returns to work:

We had a lot of fun at the factory today. Joe Carp said hey look where Charlie had his operashun what did they do Charlie put some brains in. I was going to tell him but I remembered Dr Strauss said no. Then Frank Reilly said what did you do Charlie forget your key and open your door the hard way. That made me laff. Their really my friends and they like me.

“Flowers for Algernon” is a subtle and moving illustration that intelligence does not automatically confer happiness or moral improvement. Of its kind, I don’t think it has ever been bettered.

How has it influenced me?

My response as a writer to “Flowers for Algernon” is amazement and awe. I have never attempted to copy its techniques, and don’t think I could if I tried. In that sense, it has had no influence at all; but in the other, grander, sense, it is one of the most significant pieces I have ever read. It was one of the first things I read which showed me how glorious the written word can be, and that how you write is as important as what you write about. Even today, a quarter of a century after I first read it, its power over me is undiminished.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

A good short story will not necessarily be improved by expansion to novel length

Truly original ideas come perhaps once in a lifetime…

…but a single good one can make your reputation

Perfection is a mixture of form and content

The "right" ending is not always a happy ending

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Macmillan New Writing focus

Cover the Mirrors
Faye L. Booth

OK, I know I said I wasn't going to do any more Macmillan New Writers for a while. I am happy to reverse myself for Faye L. Booth's Cover the Mirrors, because it's a book the discerning reader will read with pleasure and profit.

Cover the Mirrors is the story of Molly, a fraudulent spiritualist in 1850s Preston. The spiritualism is a nice idea, but less central to the novel than the blurb would have the reader believe: what Cover the Mirrors is really about is the position of women in nineteenth century England. The conventional Victorian romance novel has women yearning for a chaste fulfilment with husband and children. Molly, on the other hand, wants nothing of the sort. Her desires most certainly do not run in the direction of chastity, and she sees a husband as nothing more than the man who will legally steal the house her aunt has left her. Any son will grow up to own the house and Molly will have to live in her own home on sufferance. In any event, childbirth is messy, painful and dangerous.

Molly nonetheless finds herself married and pregnant as she struggles to reconcile her cold-eyed view of life with her attraction to men. The plot plays out with skill and neatness, and some vivid, if bloody, setpiece scenes.

It's a take on the nineteenth century which may surprise some readers, but ironically would not have seemed strange to contemporaries. Jane Austen may not be so direct in her subject matter, but reading any of her novels we see that for a young woman marriage is not just--or even primarily--about love: it's business.

As well as this unusual but clear-eyed perspective, Cover the Mirrors does the bread and butter extremely well. The characterisation is first-rate, not just the engaging Molly but her childhood friend Jenny, her unsentimental Aunt Florrie and William, the husband for whom Molly has such equivocal feelings. Booth is steeped in the period and readers of nineteenth century novels will not find themselves raging at anachronisms. In addition, the prose is always well-judged and shot through with a wry humour.

Faye L. Booth is already a writer with a distinctive voice. I hope we will be hearing plenty more of it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

The Talented Mr Ripley

Patricia Highsmith, 1955

If you’ve been following this series so far, you will have formed a picture of my reading tastes. You will have noticed that I enjoy books with a cool narrative tone, that I often come back to the thriller format, and that a morally-compromised protagonist is often appealing. It is not from this point a great leap to find Patricia Highsmith on the list. The Talented Mr Ripley is the first and best in a series of five novels exploring the career of Tom Ripley, con-man, art-swindler and unrepentant murderer. Best of all, he gets away with it.

Highsmith is in many ways reminiscent of Richard Stark. Ripley, like Parker, does what he needs to do without any kind of commentary by the author. Unlike Stark, though, Highsmith gives us much more of her protagonist’s inner life. We don’t just see what Ripley does, we see why he does it. Most of his crimes are for financial gain, or self-preservation, but his first murder, of idle rich Dickie Greenleaf, whose identity Ripley assumes, is triggered at least in part by pique at Dickie’s rejection of his friendship. Ripley being Ripley, he also manages to turn the situation to his financial advantage.

Ripley is not without a conscience, but it’s a rudimentary one, and he doesn’t pay it a lot of attention. It comes to the fore when he feels in danger of being caught, and if his dreams are troubled at night, it’s because he always feel the authorities on his tail, not because he’s really troubled by what he’s done.

Highsmith does not set out to make Ripley sympathetic. She does not elaborate on his difficult childhood (although there are hints) or justify his actions. The prose is cool and uncluttered, even when Highsmith is revealing Ripley’s inner thoughts. He acts as he acts, and the reader must take him or leave him. Given the continuing success of the novels, readers seem to have been happy with that bargain.

How has it influenced me?

Highsmith is a comparatively recent discovery for me: she is not in my DNA in the way of Jack Vance, for instance. Nonetheless, The Dog of the North is in one sense an anti-hero novel, and Highsmith is up there with the best of them. In deciding to write a novel in which the protagonist unapologetically makes a living from crime, gets away with it, and whose thoughts and emotions are retailed without stage-villain mugging, then The Talented Mr Ripley, which I read soon before starting my own book, can certainly be seen as a distant cousin.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

The reader will identify more readily with a strong rogue as a protagonist than a feeble hero (the latter device really only being effective in comedy)

Criminals need not be caught at the end of the novel (especially if you plan a sequel…)

When exploring the mind of the amoral or sociopathic, a cool narrative tone works best

Overt moralising does not lead to good fiction

Friday, November 16, 2007

"Why Should I Read...?" Takes Stock

Our second list of books has come to an end. On the sidebar to the left is an entirely subjective list of eighteen books which have changed my life, and each has a mini-essay about why I think it's so good, how each has helped make me the writer I am today, and what others can learn from them.

Such a list is never-ending. As writers we are - or should be - the most voracious of readers. Some of the books on my list have been part of my life for over twenty years, some for only a year or so. We never stop learning, and nor should we. Somewhere out there is the next great book in our lives. (Somewhere out there is The Dog of the North, waiting to belong to someone other than me).

"Why Should I Read...?" is not going to stop at eighteen books. I've spent some time over the past few days thinking of other books and writers I want to share. In no order of merit, over the next few months you can expect to read about: Sherwood Anderson, Honore de Balzac, Alfred Bester, Italo Calvino (trust me on this one), Wilkie Collins, Edmund Cooper, Greg Egan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Patricia Highsmith, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Foot, Daniel Keyes, Paul Kimmage, Ursula K. Le Guin, George R.R. Martin, Richard Matheson, Philip Pullman, Robert Silverberg, Cordwainer Smith, Jack Vance (again), Barbara Vine, Alison Weir and Emile Zola. I may even chuck in a couple of others. The list is deliberately eclectic, and reflects nothing more than books I've enjoyed. There's a mixture of nationalities, periods and genres. For the first time, we have some short stories on the list. Some of these books have had less obvious influence on me than others, and l'm looking forward to exploring those as I come to them.

::Acquired Taste is not a democracy; blogs are, by their nature, monuments to the ego and vanity of their creators. Any service they provide to the public is far outweighed by that they provide to themselves. That said, if one of your favourite - or indeed least favourite - authors is on the list, why not let me know. I am happy to allow queue-jumping at my readers' request. The new "Why Should I Read...?" will begin next week.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

Lucky Jim

Kingsley Amis, 1954

Ironically, given Amis' reputation as an "Angry Young Man", Lucky Jim is the funniest book I've ever read. No other book has reduced me literally to weeping with laughter on a (fortunately largely deserted) train. Anger and humour are not incompatible, of course, but Amis' great gift is primarily comic.

Lucky Jim tells the story of Jim Dixon, a monumentally lazy lecturer in a 1950s redbrick university, as he attempts to hold on to his job despite his utter contempt for his colleagues and his marked preference for drinking and chasing women. Its focus on contemporary academic institutions made it seem a groundbreaking work in its day, but it follows an archetypal pattern. Dixon is the outsider who never fully assimilates the world of the novel - a world on which he acts as a window for the reader. Dixon is by no means an admirable character, but he is refreshingly free of hypocrisy and pretension, vices which his colleagues embody to excess. Like Jack Vance's Cugel stories or Richard Stark's Parker novels, in Lucky Jim we identify with a flawed protagonist. Amis, in using humour as his primary technique, has rather more in common with Vance than Stark.

And indeed it is humour which sets Amis among the greats. Again like Vance, Amis is a precise verbal humourist, and the amusement arises not so much from the situation as the way in which it is retailed. Have you ever woken up with foul taste in your mouth and a hangover? Me too. Ever thought of describing it like this? Me neither.

His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.

In another episode, Dixon writes a deliberately illiterate poison-pen letter.

He read it through, thinking how admirably consistent were the style and the orthography. Both derived, in large part, from the essays of some of his less proficient pupils.

Such a style is a pearl without price and it cannot be taught. Amis' subsequent work never improved upon Lucky Jim; but what a benchmark he had set.

How has it influenced me?

I discovered Amis at a time -- the late 1980s -- when I was becoming very interested in matters of literary style. I could not have been less interested in 1950s' university life, but I devoured Lucky Jim. Amis is one of the very few writers I had discovered (Vance and Austen being the other obvious examples) who managed to impart humour to a situation solely by the way they described it. By divorcing the comedy from the situation, it is possible to find humour in circumstances which are not inherently amusing. At its best, this technique can make us look afresh at the situation, sometimes to feel guiltily complicit with an aggressor, sometimes to counterpoint an underlying poignancy. It's one of the things I try to do most often in my own writing, and Kingsley Amis is one of my touchstones.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

If you really do want to be angry in your writing, you need humour to avoid didacticism or ranting

Genuinely funny writing is a marriage of situation and style

If you are of the "write what you know" school, you almost certainly need to add something else: thematic depth and comedy are good places to start

Your first novel doesn't have to be crap...

Monday, November 12, 2007

More on the Chichester Writing Festival

As I mentioned last week, I spent the past weekend at the Chichester Writing Festival. This was every bit as good as expected. There were some fascinating panel discussions, ranging from debates on the publishing industry to in-depth explorations of individual writers' creative processes (and perhaps the most hilarious discussion of cookery books imaginable...).

I had my own moment in the limelight when I outlined my own experiences with self-publication and being picked up by Macmillan New Writing. It was strange to go from working in utter obscurity to a situation where my own experiences were not only of interest, but in some cases inspirational, to others. If there is a lesson in all this, it's that persistence pays -- not just in the business of keeping writing, but in always looking for new ways to learn and improve. It's one thing (and very praiseworthy) to keep writing year after year, but without applying some kind of analytical process to what's coming out of the sausage machine, sustained improvement is unlikely. I certainly see it as more than coincidence that The Dog of the North was successful in finding a publisher immediately after I'd been on Greg Mosse's course at West Dean last year: there is always someone with something to teach you, and I was lucky enough to encounter Greg at the right time.

Gratifying as my own minor celebrity proved to be, the Festival was really about the views of writers with sustained records of success. There were enough different approaches to writing on display to dispel any notions of there being a "magic bullet" secret for success. All of these professional writers had evolved methods which worked for them, but those approaches had nothing in common beyond a willingness to put in the hours. As writers we all have to find out our own methods.

There was something of interest in all of the participants' views, and all were generous with their time and expertise. It's unfair to single out individuals, so I'll settle for commending William Broderick and Jason Goodwin because I've read and enjoyed their work as well as their panel contributions, and Rachel Holmes for writing the book I came away from the Festival most wanting to read (The Hottentot Venus, a biography of Saartjie Baartman). Particular thanks are due to Greg Mosse for marshalling proceedings with an unobtrusive and good-humoured efficiency, and Kate Mosse for continuing to show writers of all abilities how to deal with success with grace and humility (let's hope this particular piece of knowledge comes in useful...).

On top of that, I got to make some new friends. I'm looking forward to next year already.

Why Should I Read?...

Bleak House

Charles Dickens, 1852-3

An earlier “Why Should I Read…?” looked at Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx, a very 20th century take on the 19th century novel. Bleak House is the book which most influenced it, a huge plot covering all social classes with a protracted legal case at its centre.

While Palliser is concerned with deconstructing the Victorian novel, Dickens uses his story as a powerful vehicle for social criticism. Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the legal action at the core of the book, consumes the lives of all the characters who seek to profit from it, and in a final irony, the estate over which the plaintiffs had fought is shown to have been bankrupted by the legal fees.

Narratively Bleak House is also interesting. It has two parallel narratives, the first related in the first person by the unreliably reticent Esther Summerson, the other an omniscient—but savage—authorial voice. It is never entirely clear how the two strands interact, but each enhances the other.

The true brilliance of Dickens, and the reason we still read him today, is his characterisation. His cast is slightly—in some cases much—larger than life. It’s hard to imagine that anyone has ever done humorous grotesques better—and nobody, anywhere, ever, has surpassed Dickens in the naming of characters. Where Jane Austen creates an illusion of everyday life, Dickens’ characters could never live anywhere but in the author’s imagination. What we end up with is an exaggerated version of the ‘real’ world, but it’s an exaggeration which illuminates our own.

With its powerful satire, compelling portrait of 19th century urban life and range of brilliant and socially diverse characterisation, Bleak House is an astoundingly ambitious novel. Dickens’ trademark energy and pace abound—across the whole 1,000 pages. It defies ready summary: if you have a couple of weeks to spare, read it instead.

How has it influenced me?

Dickens is a writer of extraordinary emotional range. He is master of an overblown sentimentalism which is difficult to appreciate today, but he also commands an angry satire and humour on many levels. One thing I’ve always admired in his work is his ability to mix the tragic and comic in a way that enhances both. I try for a similar effect in my own work, but few writers can pull it off with aplomb: Dickens is one of the best.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Don’t be afraid to write a long story…

…but if you do it will need to compel on several levels to sustain interest (the weakness of many of today’s enormous fantasy novels is that don’t have sufficient variety of tone and theme to warrant the length)

Strong characterisation can overcome plot deficiencies; but a strong plot will not bail out inadequate characterisation

The editorialising authorial voice may be out of fashion but handled skilfully it can add power and direction

Fossilised social institutions make excellent satirical targets

Characters' names are worth taking trouble over

Friday, November 09, 2007

Chichester Writing Festival

::Acquired Taste is taking a short break to visit the Chichester Writing Festival at West Dean. Hosted by Kate and Greg Mosse, this promises to be a stimulating weekend. It’s also dipping my toe in the waters of being a “real writer”: as well as going along to listen to the panel discussions, I’m involved with one of the panels in talking about my experiences of being published by Macmillan New Writing. This feels somewhat bizarre; I’ll report on this minor foray into the world of literary celebrity next week.

It’s also a chance to catch up with some of my writing friends. Last year, when I was putting the finishing touches to The Dog of the North¸ I went on a week-long creative writing course at West Dean run by Greg and Kate (highly recommended if you want to spend time really immersed in the craft of writing). Several of us from the course have stayed in touch so it will be good to meet up again (hi Davy, Graham and Jean if you’re reading!). It was on this course that I first heard about MNW, which Kate recommended as a good way into print for the aspiring novelist.

So all in all, West Dean has some good associations for me. I’m looking forward to the weekend.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

Beyond a Boundary

CLR James, 1963

“Why Should I Read…?” has only looked at one sports book before, and that was as much for its narrative interest as its sporting theme. Beyond a Boundary is very different: unlike The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, this is a remarkably self-aware book.

Beyond a Boundary is nonetheless a complex and subtle work. James was a Trinidadian political activist – a Communist for much of his life—who spent many years in the US and Britain. A prominent journalist and writer, he was at the forefront of the campaign for West Indian independence from British colonial rule.

James was also—and here’s where the seeming contradictions start to arise—a passionate cricket lover. There is an immediate irony in James’ attraction to the most British of games even while his political consciousness was reacting against British rule.

Beyond a Boundary is a remarkable meditation. James dwells lovingly on the cricketing heroes of his youth, but always through the lens of the West Indies’ struggle for independence. In one moving chapter he writes of Wilton St. Hill, a black Trinidadian and hero to many, who was selected to tour England with the West Indies. Here he was an abject failure, and James can see this as a blow in sporting terms, but a tragedy in the political environment. “It was the instinct of an oppressed people that spoke”, he said, reflecting on West Indians’ dismay at his failure.

As late as the 1950s, it was inconceivable that a black man could captain the West Indies cricket team, even when—as was the case at this time—there was no white player worthy of a place. James campaigned ceaselessly for the appointment of Frank Worrell as captain, a black West Indian who commanded universal respect. In due course, Worrell was made captain, a role he filled with distinction for several years.

“What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?” asked James. Beyond a Boundary is the supreme exploration of how sport can reflect wider social questions—and all retailed in prose of lyrical beauty. A great book.

How has it influenced me?

This book was perhaps the first to make me realise that sport isn’t just about what happens on the field. That, indirectly, led to the galley-racing strand of Dragonchaser, but more importantly Beyond a Boundary opened my eyes.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Even the most trivial aspects of human existence have wider significance

If you want to write about weighty political issues, it helps to be able to write decent English

Sometimes the best way to tackle political themes is not to write directly about politics

Monday, November 05, 2007

Stretton admits "I don't write my own books"

Head on over to the Macmillan New Writers' blog for my shocking admission that I am not the author of the books which bear my name...

Why Should I Read?...


Thomas Mann, 1901

Subtitled “The Decline of a Family”, Buddenbrooks appears on the surface to be a traditional 19th century novel. It traces the lives of several generations of the Buddenbrook family as they collapse within two generations from the unquestioned merchant princes of Lubeck into complete extinction. This plot is handled deftly—the characterisation, particularly of Thomas Buddenbrook, the head of the family, is especially strong—but the book is considerably richer than a simple plot summary would suggest.

Buddenbrooks was Mann’s first novel (and many would consider it his best). It gains strength from its position on the cusp of the centuries: it reflects not only the traditional story-telling virtues of 19th century fiction, but looks ahead to the symbolic and allusive elements of the 20th. For many readers (including this one) Mann’s later work emphasised the latter at the expense of the former, upsetting the balance which makes Buddenbrooks so remarkable. There is a parallel with Muriel Spark magnificently balanced early work giving way to more overtly philosophical but less artistically satisfying later output.

The result in Buddenbrooks is that Mann is able to present a richly detailed picture of 19th century Lubeck, with characters whose invariably unhappy lives move us, while also presenting a thematically and symbolically nuanced whole. It is a mature perspective with no heroes (although there is at least one out-and-out villain): just recognisable people struggling with their own mediocrity. In its gloomy descent into death and obscurity we can see elements common to great 19th century realists like Zola and Hardy, although without their relentless sledge-hammering which can make reading them so wearing at times. At the same time Mann can remind us of modernists like Virginia Woolf with his interest in the creative process , the passage of time and his symbolic richness.

Buddenbrooks is unique on my list in that I’ve never read the text the author intended: I don’t read German and have had to rely on Helen Lowe-Porter’s rather twee Penguin translation. Since Mann has a reputation as a remarkable prose stylist, that’s my loss.

How has it influenced me?

Buddenbrooks is a novel I’ve admired without wanting to emulate. Mann is, as we’ve seen, perched between the 19th and 20th century, and as a writer I’ve always been much more attracted to the former.

In The Dog of the North¸ Lady Isola and Lady Cosetta act out two different strategies for surviving in a world which is at best indifferent to lone women (in Dragonchaser, Lady Catzendralle adopts yet another approach). In Buddenbrooks¸ Thomas’ sister Tony finds herself with similar difficulties—but I think this is less a case of direct influence and more a question of similar fictional interests.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

If your story is strong enough it can survive a God-awful translation…

Symbolic and thematic richness can add depth to your novel, but it needs to be buttressed by strong plotting and characterisation.

In any culture, social position is important…

…but without money it won’t get you very far. In creating an imaginary world it’s important to recognise these realities