Friday, April 25, 2008

Six Things About Me

(with apologies to Aliya Whiteley)

I know that I've made it as a blogger now that I've been 'tagged'. This requires me to list six random facts about myself. The 'tagger' is none other than Alis Hawkins, known to regular visitors as the author of the recent Macmillan New Writing title Testament.

The rules of tagging are thus:

Link to the person that tagged you.
Post the rules on your blog.
Write six random things about you in a blog post.
Tag six people in your post.
Let each person know they are tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.
Let the tagger know your entry is up.

I'm never very good either with team games or rules, so I'm disregarding numbers four and five. Anyone who wishes to volunteer to be tagged is welcome to do so, and I am delighted to respond with my own Six Facts...

1.Athletic Prowess
I finished 83rd out of 90 in the 2007 Arundel 'Sprint' Triathlon. This was a curious definition of 'sprint', one which I pondered for most of the 1hr 38mins it took me to complete the course (excluding the embarrassing moments where I struggled to heave myself out the pool, my arms having turned to jelly during the time it took me to swim 400 metres).

My greatest athletic achievement was in 1983, when I came fifth out of eight in the Sandown High School sports day javelin--with a throw of 3 metres 1o centimetres. Three of the other contestants registered three foul throws, so on my last effort I threw the javelin at the ground in front of me, thus making a mark in the ground and securing a legal throw.

2. I am a millionaire
This morning I received an email from Nigeria. The family of a deceased general is unable to access the money he had salted away in his account and need assistance in moving it out of the country. His family have promised me $4.5m if I launder the money through my account. This seems an excellent and well-thought out plan, and as the email ends 'God bless you' my associates are clearly trustworthy. I will be transmitting my bank details immediately.

3. Physical conditioning
When I was having treatment for an injured Achilles tendon a few years ago, my physiotherapist said I had the least flexible ankles she had ever encountered. I was oddly heartened by this judgement.

Ankles may have been responsible for another of my 'embarrassing sports moments'. Again at Sandown High School, my team swept up the basketball court in a move of flowing precision--at least until the ball was slipped to me, and I squandered possession with a negligent pass. My PE teacher, the notoriously short-tempered Mr Munn, bellowed "Pervert! Pervert! Pervert!" in his rage. It was only subsequently that I realised that with his Scottish accent he was in fact shouting 'pivot', but the damage was already done. Pivoting was never my strong point, and now I have a physiological explanation. (In the very unlikely event that Mr Munn is reading this entry, I have a personal message: you sadistic bastard. I should have conveyed the sentiment at the time).

4. Counting beans
In the remote contingency that anyone out there requires training on English local government finance, I am probably your man. For some reason I am much in demand at the National School of Government where I lecture on the topic a couple of times a year. I also have a column in the Local Government Chronicle where I try to write an amusing article on local government finance every couple of months (believe me, this is as challenging as it sounds).

5. Love at first sight
I read my first Jack Vance book, The Face, at the age of 14 in 1982. My reading until that point was noteworthy only for its voracity, and I had never read anything like this before. (The second Jack Vance book I read, I checked out of Shanklin Library. Entitled Servants of the Wankh, it caused the teenaged me some embarrassment as I placed it, face down, before the librarian).

6. Love at second sight
My first proper kiss, with a girl called Suzanne at the age of 16, came at a friend's party in Bembridge, Isle of Wight. It was in part fuelled by the illicit alcohol on offer, and ten minutes later I was sick in the flowerbed. This was an apt metaphor for the relationship which followed, and indeed several subsequent ones. Lucky I'm now a millionaire and can afford the therapy which will allow me to leave these traumas behind...

Thursday, April 24, 2008

One Hundred Words of Genius

3: Sea Voyage,
The Pnume (1970)

Our Jack Vance passage today is taken from the prolific period from the early 1960s to the late 1970 when he reeled off a masterpiece a year with an unceasing sureness of touch. The Pnume (1970) is the final work of the Tschai series, in which an Earthman finds himself stranded on a richly-evoked planet with no obvious means of returning home. Tschai is at once dangerous and beautiful, and shows Vance's peerless world-building capacity at its finest. But Vance also deploys a melancholy reflectiveness, one of the qualities which lifts him far above the ruck of genre writers.

In this passage, suggested by Richard Chandler, the protagonst Adam Reith undertakes a journey by water:

The voyage proceeded, southwest toward the Saschan Islands. Days passed without event more noteworthy than the turn of the heavens. Each morning Carina 4269 broke through the horizon into a dull bronze and old rose dawn. By noon a high haze had formed, to filter the sunlight and lay a sheen like antique silk on the water. The afternoons were long; sunsets were sad glories: allegorical wars between dark heroes and the lords of light. After nightfall the moons appeared: sometimes pink Az, sometimes blue Braz, and sometimes the Nhiahar rode alone under the stars.

This passage is characteristic of Vance at his best. A lifelong traveller and sailor, he often reflects both interests in his work. Tedious descriptions of sunrise and sunset are the bane of much descriptive writing, but here Vance excels. The components of the excerpt are straightforward: a sea voyage, colours of muted subtlety, sunsets, a melancholy otherworldliness. No aspect of the prose shouts: it's a restrained beauty appropriate to the dull bronze and old rose dawn. The only part of the passage which moves outside of the factual is the allegorical wars between dark heroes and the lords of light. Even this is of a piece with the melancholy flavour of the whole.

Vance has a reputation as a great stylist, and justly so; here he shows that style is not always about pyrotechnics. Here he whispers with the soothing beauty of the breeze.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Marks in the Dirt

We had a discussion a few weeks ago over at Tomorrowville about whether writers could read while they were actively writing. Some abstain from reading altogether for fear of contaminating their own writing voice; others either feel their voice to be incorruptible, or actively seek ‘contamination’. I’ve always been in the second camp: reading and writing are two entirely separate, albeit related, activities.

But—there’s always a but—I am reading at the moment a wonderful novel recommended to me by fellow MNWer Alis Hawkins. Set in 17th century Derbyshire, Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders is the story of a village that quarantines itself when the plague strikes, told through the first person narrative of Anna Frith, twice a mother and widowed at eighteen before the story even gets going. I’ll write more about this book later; for now, the important thing is that it’s just about bloody flawless. The control of voice, at once accessible but credibly of the period; the evocation of place; the emotional intensity; and the sheer exquisiteness of the prose: all combine in a pitch-perfect narrative that places it in the front rank of historical novels.

And then I have to go away and do my own writing. It didn’t help that last night’s twin scenes were disastrously inept (entirely my own fault—I hadn’t thought through what I wanted from either of them, and the result was woolly mission-creep). It’s difficult, when your own writing venture is misfiring, not to compare your work with whatever you’re reading at the moment. There is decent argument, therefore, for not reading anything too good while you’re writing: it makes your own stuff look like marks scratched in the dirt with a stick.

Part of the writer’s life is to be able to deal with the inevitable swings that come on a project the size of a novel. Some days your prose is godlike and you sense the structure of the whole in your mind without having to reach for it; on other days it seems like even literacy is achievement beyond your grasp. I’m used to it by now. I know what was wrong with last night’s scene, which was not only badly written but in the wrong place; so tonight I’ll be back at the keyboard writing the scene I should have written (and which was taking shape in the shower this morning). And this time I won’t pick up Year of Wonders until I’ve finished writing for the day.

Monday, April 21, 2008

More on The Last Free City

I managed to put in a couple of decent shifts on TLFC over the weekend: word count now stands at 7,900 (yes, I know we should be measuring outcomes not outputs, but...). The weekend's work included one of my trademark scenes: a formal social gathering with suppressed tension, conflict concealed under a veneer of politesse and a male protagonist crushed by a more intelligent and flexible woman. Does this sound like all my stories are the same? If there are only seven basic plots (always a bit sceptical about this one), there are probably only a dozen or so basic scenes. (I just know there's going to be a swordfight at some point. And for some reason I like hangings...)

Many years ago now at university, I did an entire module on Thomas Hardy (never again, thanks). My professor, the excellent and irreverent Michael Irwin, said that all Hardy's novels used the same situation: two boys and a girl. Sometimes he'd add an extra girl for variety, but the essence never changed. If you're a Hardy reader, think about it - the Irwin Insight is spot on. It occured to me that all my stories can also be reduced in this way, although rather than two boys and a girl, it's two girls and a boy. (The Dog of the North twists this almost beyond recognition because of the way I've structured the narrative, but once you know it's there you can see it). Is it necessarily a bad thing to have a favoured structure in this way? At such a high level of summary, I don't think it really matters. There are so many riffs, and any kind of relationship triangle plot has infinite dramatic possibilities. Where there would be a problem, I think, was if the writer used the same characters every time with different names. My protagonist in TLFC is very different to anyone I've put centre stage before (at this stage, callous, lazy, selfish, egocentric and very very cocksure, he's hardly sympathetic, but that's a minor issue...).

All three of my "two girls and a boy" spent some time on stage over the weekend. One of the great things about the writing process for me is I don't really know the characters yet (or indeed whether the plot will becalm one of them). I was reminded of Stephen Koch's "find your story by writing it" dictum once again when I put the two women on stage together for the first time, I discovered--and this should have been obvious--that they hate each other. Given the way I have set up their characters, and their relationships to others, there is no way they could ever feel any different. But until I came to start writing it, I didn't realise it. And what I don't know, of course, is whether they will still hate each other at the end. Resonant narratives include character growth, and relationships never stay constant.

In the early stages of a project I quite often change the characters' names. Naming is very important, particularly in fantasy. One way of implying that you have a unified culture in your head, that you know more than the reader, is to have a consistent nomenclature. If some of your characters are called Bill, and some are called Q'zs-aan, you'd better have a good reason for it. (Actually, if any of your characters are called
Q'zs-aan, you'd better have a good reason for it...). My way around this is to use an existing language as a base, so in The Dog of the North, the characters from one of the cities all tend to have Italianate names; another culture has a strongly Gallic sound. In Dragonchaser, there was a strong Lithuanian tang. The Last Free City has names with a strong Serbo-Croat flavour, partly because I like the feel of them and partly as a homage to the original inspiration for the story, the mediaeval Republic of Ragusa (modern-day Dubrovnik).

* * *
I don't intend to write about the work in progress in quite this detail all the way through. The occasional update keeps me honest, though, because I don't want to admit to slackening off; and this weekend brought some useful insights. So expect a bit more of the same over the next few months...

Friday, April 18, 2008

A New Project Underway

I'm delighted to say that, galvanised partly by the "find your story by telling it" advice in Stephen Koch's book, I have started work (by which I mean writing rather than thinking) on my latest novel.

Provisionally entitled The Last Free City, it's set in the same world as Dragonchaser and The Dog of the North. I've been at work on it sporadically for much of the week and have about 5,500 words down. In truth, it seems at this stage absolutely terrible, but I remember identical feelings at this point during every previous novel I've written. I have faith in the process, and I'm sure I will come to love it as the story ripens. I'm pleased with a couple of passages, and the protagonist's character is becoming sharper as I write. He doesn't start the book as a very admirable person, which is excellent: nothing is worse than a vanilla hero.

So what's it about? You tell me, at this stage: money, power, corruption, sex and other trivialities are my best guesses. Oh, and poetry...

More on this in due course--although at this stage, perhaps not too much more...
One Hundred Words of Genius
2: Opening to The Eyes of the Overworld (1966)

Our first visit to the the art of Jack Vance looked at the opening of The Dying Earth, his first book (1950). By the 1960s Vance, while still capable of spectacular prose, had added a new restraint and control to his work. The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), a fix-up of a series of stories from the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The book revisits the Dying Earth milieu, but introduces the darkly comic anti-hero, Cugel 'the Clever', a rogue who is cunning enough to stay alive in a hostile environment, but not clever enough to profit for any length of time. Here's how the book starts:

On the heights above the river Xzan, at the site of certain ancient ruins, Iucounu the Laughing Magician had built a manse to his private taste: an eccentric structure of steep gables, balconies, sky-walks, cupolas, together with three spiral green glass towers through which the red sunlight shone in twisted glints and peculiar colors.

Behind the manse and across the valley, low hills rolled away like dunes to the limit of vision. The sun projected shifting crescents of black shadow; otherwise the hills were unmarked, empty, solitary. The Xzan, rising in the Old Forest to the east of Almery, passed below, then three leagues to the west made junction with the Scaum. Here was Azenomei, a town old beyond memory, notable now only for its fair, which attracted folk from all the region. At Azenomei Fair Cugel had established a booth for the sale of talismans.

Compared to the opening of The Dying Earth, this is sober and restrained. But it's still highly effective, and reflects many of Vance's stylistic preoccupations. The tone is straight from the Vance manual: cool, composed with some slightly unusual word choices. The seasoned Vance reader will notice three almost stereotypical features in the first sentence: manse, gables, cupolas. Although the description is far less detailed than Mazirian's garden in The Dying Earth, the reader gains a clear impression of Iucounu's residence: Vance has mastered the trick of getting the reader's imagination to do the hard work using a few deft prompts.

The second paragraph leads us into the sombre surroundings of an Earth where the sun is slowly going out. There is an unimaginable antiquity, a tiredness beyond age, in the landscape. There are only hills, because mountains have been abraded over the aeons, the town of Azenomei (how pitch-perfect are Vance's proper nouns) is 'old beyond memory'. And then, in the final sentence, the protagonist Cugel is introduced: not in a void, but at one with his environment.

As an opening, it's a masterpiece at once understated and rococo: a fusion of two of the finest elements of Vance's voice.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

One Hundred Words of Genius

I have never made any secret of my admiration for--or my debt to--the works of Jack Vance. I've been commissioned with the pleasurable task of writing a magazine article on Vance, the Vance Integral Edition, and Vance's influence on my own writing. The only downside to this egocentric enterprise is that I'm limited to 800 words. I'll blog more about the article later, but one thing I wanted to do was to give the unitiated a flavour of Vance's work in a short space; I decided to include a hunderd or so words of Vance's prose. The question immediately arose: which hundred?

I now have very many excerpts, most of which I can't use in the article, but which deserve exposure to a wider audience. Hence the latest thread, 'One Hundred Words of Genius': over the next few weeks I'll be posting some of my favourite hundred-word quotations, illustrating some aspect of Vance's art. And to prove that Vance is not my obsession alone, I'll start with some suggestions made by other aficionados.

Today's 'Hundred Words' are submitted by Patrick Dusoulier, the pre-eminent translator of Vance into French. It's an appropriate passage to begin with, because it's the start of the first work Vance ever published:

Deep in thought, Mazirian the Magician walked his garden. Trees fruited with many intoxications overhung his path, and flowers bowed obsequiously as he passed. An inch above the ground, dull as agates, the eyes of mandrakes followed the tread of his black-slippered feet. Such was Mazirian's garden--three terraces growing with strange and wonderful vegetations. Certain plants swam with changing iridescences; others held up blooms pulsing like sea-anemones, purple, green, lilac, pink, yellow. Here grew trees like feather parasols, trees with transparent trunks threaded with red and yellow veins, trees with foliage like metal foil, each leaf a different metal--copper, silver, blue tantalum, bronze, green iridium.

--The Dying Earth (variant title: Mazirian the Magician), 1950

By the 1960s Vance had eschewed this lush, evocative style in preference for the leaner, more allusive approach which marked his maturity. Such richness would cloy if used to excess, but in this passage Vance conveys, with some economy, the visual extravagance and sheer otherworldliness of Mazirian's garden (for Mazirian is a magician first, and horticulturalist second). The beauty of this introduction has a sinister undertone, the plants imbued with sentience by Vance's verb choice: bowed, followed, swam, pulsing. It's a striking place, with its scents, its movement, transparent trees and metallic leaves: but it's not a garden for relaxing in.

In his first hundred words, Vance has set the tone for the entire 'Dying Earth' cycle to follow: beautiful, startling, cruel. It does not surprise the reader to learn soon after of Mazirian's character: callous, avaricious, vengeful.

Next time in 'One Hundred Words of Genius' I'll look at another element of Vance's art.

Monday, April 14, 2008

"Why Should I Read...?"

The Book Thief
Markus Zusak, 2005

"Why Should I Read...?" is normally stocked with books I have read and loved repeatedly. The Book Thief forces its way onto the list on the basis of the single reading I finished yesterday. Like The Time Traveler's Wife, another book on the list on the basis of one intense experience, The Book Thief is sui generis--not always a good thing.

The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl growing up in Munich in the early years of World War II. On one level it's a standard coming of age story: as the war unfolds, Liesel learns about life, death and human nature--as well as finding her voice as a writer. But Zusak takes some extraordinary risks with the material to lift it well beyond the normal Bildungsroman. The story is narrated by Death--a Death wearied by humanity's constant ability to overwork him. He becomes drawn to Liesel's story as she and her foster-family struggle through the war.

Most writers, in scoping a story of this sort, would try to spin out the narrative tension. Liesel's family is harbouring a Jew in the basement: what will happen to them all? Zusak, using Death's omniscience as a narrative tool, tells us well in advance who's going to live and who's going to die; rather than draining the tension, this builds up a poignant foreboding. We know almost from the start that Rudy, Liesel's best friend, yearning to kiss her, will be killed in an air-raid. Rudy, obsessed with Jesse Owens and brimming with life, is one of the most sympathetic characters in the novel: his tragic destiny doesn't detract from the energy and decency of his life.

Zusak also allows Death some "facts" every few pages, where he'll elaborate on the characters' fates and his views on their lives. It makes for a risky kind of experiment, but it pays off. Although the narrative is tricksy, the plot is fairly straightforward: it would be hard to imagine Zusak's devices being as successful if the reader simultaneously had to puzzle out what was going on.

At times Zusak seems to strain over-hard for metaphor, but one sustained image works beautifully. Max, the Jew in the basement, paints over the pages of Hitler's Mein Kampf, and writes his own fable for Liesel on the newly blank sheets--although here and there fragments of Mein Kampf still poke through.

The ending is heartbreaking: although we know what's going to happen when the bombs fall, Zusak does not dissipate the emotional power of the moment: it will be stony-hearted reader whose eyes are not moist when Rudy finally, too late, gets his kiss from Liesel. Normally I am resistant to this kind of manipulation, but Zusak has spent 500 pages making us care about these characters, so he's earned the right to underscore the moment at the end.

Quite aside from his narrative choices, Zusak has entered a difficult field in writing a 'Holocaust novel' aimed primarily at young adults. He's to be congratulated for writing a story which never trivialises the subject, but remains accessible and doesn't lose sight of what everyday life must have been like for most Germans. This is a book which will be around for a long time to come.

How has it influenced me?
Some books are so singular they don't influence - they just are. This is one of them.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
  • even a young audience can tackle difficult themes if they are handled adroitly
  • narrative experimentation can pay off...
  • ... but if you are going to experiment here, it's best to keep everything else on an even keel
  • the greatest success can come from trying something no-one has done before
  • narrative voice is perhaps the single biggest decision a writer faces
  • a book which speaks to young adults can also have something to say to a wider audience

Thursday, April 10, 2008

From Page to Screen

The Prestige
Book: Christopher Priest 1995

Film: Christopher Nolan 2006

::Acquired Taste occasionally considers the subject of film adaptations. Writers are generally less sniffy than readers about such things—if only, perhaps, because they hope one day to luxuriate in film rights themselves.

A couple of months ago I saw Christopher Nolan’s film of The Prestige, starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as two feuding fin-de-siecle stage illusionists. It’s a cracking tale, full of intrigue, mystery and narrative reversals. I thought it was a highly accomplished film, and Christopher Priest, who wrote the book, was also favourably impressed with it. Last week I read the book to see how they compared.

While I enjoyed the book, reading it increased my admiration for the film. Priest’s novel does not naturally scream “screenplay”: there are stories within stories, narrative misdirections and concealed identity puzzles. The form is entirely suited to a story about stage magic.

Like all good adaptations, the film is faithful to the novel’s themes even where it is violating the original plot. The central obsessive rivalry of the two illusionists, Angier and Borden, each trying to fathom the mystery of the other’s signature trick, holds together both film and book. Nolan gives a different, more dramatic, reason for their rivalry, and adds poignancy to it by having them friends at the beginning. Themes of obsession, concealment, identity and rivalry run through both. What Nolan has added is the pace and narrative drive necessary to interpret a reflective novel into a commercially successful film. In bringing the novel’s themes into such melodramatic relief, he loses some of the subtlety and indirection of the material. It’s a trade-off, and to my mind a successful one.

The best thing about the film, which Nolan does retain from the book, is the moral equivalence about the main characters. Neither is particularly sympathetic: both destroy their own lives and others’ around them with the fervour of their obsession. At one stage it appears that Angier (Jackman) will be the villain and Borden (Bale) the hero. But Borden becomes so bloody-minded, so completely deranged in his pursuit of Angier that he can hardly be regarded as a ‘good’ character. In the frame story which bookends the main plot, Angier exacts a grim revenge on Borden—but when Borden turns the tables, the viewer doesn’t see it as the standard Hollywood ending. It’s much more ambiguous than that—although I don’t want to give away more about the magnificent twist ending (which Nolan, again, throws into much sharper relief than the original).

In a pitiful attempt to generate more blog hits, I must note that, as with The Other Boleyn Girl, reviewed last month, Scarlett Johannson is again present. This is good news for my blog, since the words “Scarlett Johannson” generate a significant amount of search-engine traffic; but also good news for the film, where she is excellent as the assistant/mistress to both illusionists in turn. Michael Caine no doubt contributes fewer hits as he once again hams up a supporting role, while David Bowie is convincingly eccentric as Nikola Tesla (shown here in a real-life rivalry with Thomas Edison to counterpoint Angier and Borden's rivalry).

I very much enjoyed both book and film, although for me the film was noticeably the better piece of work. With a smaller canvas on which to work, and the demands of Hollywood to satisfy, Nolan has concentrated on the salient features of the story (rather than the ‘plot’, to use Stephen Koch’s useful distinction) and thrown them into sharper relief than the novel.

The story has a concealed science-fictional premise which only pays off at the end. This irritated some reviewers, presumably those who like to know the end after the first ten minutes (I hear High School Musical IV is in production, for those of this cast of mind). But for readers and viewers who are not afraid of unpredictable narrative twists, and don’t demand a square-jawed hero to root for – The Prestige is highly recommended.

Monday, April 07, 2008

As writers and readers, we should always be open to experience. The "Why Should I Read...?" list is not a fixed canon, although it contains many books I have loved for twenty years or more. But there are always new books to read, and some of those strike such an immediate chord. I came across one last week (with apologies to David Isaak, whose original post on the subject set me scurrying to find it).

"Why Should I Read...?"

The Modern Library Writer's Workshop
Stephen Koch, 2002

"How to write" books are ten a penny. Most contain some germ of useful knowledge (although some are wholly meretricious), and many of them I've read and profited from. Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy is one of the best. But nothing prepared me for Koch's double-distilled vintage.

Koch taught for many years on a prestigious American university creative writing programme, and his book is, above all else, practical. His prose is cool and lucid, and on first reading his insights, and the observations from other writers he sparkles throughout the text, seem unremarkable. That's because he's stripped away the semi-mystical trappings of many guides, to concentrate on what you need to do to set about creating prose fiction. (His approach has many similarities to the classes run by Greg Mosse, about which I've blogged elsewhere).

All of Koch's book is recommended. In particular, I've never seen better on point-of-view and redrafting. On point of view, he trenchantly argues that in getting hung up on having a unified point of view, you're sacrificing the great advantage the novel has over other forms of narrative--the ability to switch distance and viewpoint in the interests of the whole. For redrafting, he suggests a slow second draft to counteract a rapid first one, and vice versa; and he argues that the focus of the second draft should be primarily for structure. And don't worry if it comes out longer, because it will be cut away in third draft. (He cites he 10% rule: the final draft should be 10% shorter than the first, whatever length you're working at).

Koch is not, though, a doctrinaire teacher: if what I'm saying doesn't work for you, he says, ignore it: for his only real rule is that you should just get on and do it. Especially, don't put off starting because you haven't worked out the story yet: Koch argues that you can't establish the story until you work it out be writing it. This seems perverse, undisciplined--but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Every story I've ever written, I know the end, and sometimes not much more. Doing more work in advance, as I'm doing with the follow-up to The Dog of the North, doesn't make things any easier (in some ways, it makes it more difficult). Koch's views help me understand why this is the case.

This is a book for writers. If you haven't written, or attempted to write, a sustained piece of fiction, the insights are no more than academic. But for the practising writer, this is gold-dust.

How has it influenced me?
Hey, I only finished it yesterday. Give me a chance! Already I can see some specifics which will help kick off my next piece of work, and the idea of that you can only understand your story by writing it is what management consultants call a 'paradigm shift'--a moment which at once alters and clarifies the way I think about the question.

This is a book which will be on my bookshelf for some time to come--so that lurid green cover is no bad thing after all...

Lessons for the aspiring writer
(too many to summarise, but:)
  • you don't need to know everything about your story to start writing it
  • indeed, the story only comes into existence as it is written
  • point of view is a liberation, not a constraint
  • "the cat sat on the mat is not the beginning of a story; the cat sat on the dog's mat is" (quoted from John le Carre)

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Havant Literary Festival

I've been asked to appear on a panel at the 2008 Havant Literary Festival. To put that another way: people are going to be asked to pay money to hear what I have to say. This is, to put it mildly, a strange feeling.

Here's the official blurb:

Sat 27 Sep 1.00-3.00pm

'How I Got Published'

Local authors Tim Stretton (The Dog of the North, Dragonchaser), Tim Bouquet (Cold Steel) and Tom Cain (The Accident Man, The Survivor) describe their individual journeys on the road to getting published. They will share the benefits of their collective experience and take questions from the audience. Chaired by local maritime crime author, Pauline Rowson. Numbers strictly limited - book early!

Tim Bouquet and Tom Cain were on panels at the Chichester Literary Festival last year. Both spoke engagingly about their books, and no doubt will do so again. There will clearly be an expectation that I do the same...

In a masochistic kind of way I'm looking forward to this. There's a mental adjustment I need to make, that to most people in the audience my experience is something they aspire to achieve. I don't know if it's revealing a trade secret to say that I don't feel any different to the ranks of unpublished writers--the job is still the same: trying to write the best fiction I can. Matt Curran has frequently drawn the distinction between wanting to write and wanting to be published. They aren't quite the same thing. For me, writing has always been about the stories, and not what happens to them afterwards. So if I have any free advice ahead of the Havant Literary Festival, it's this: throw away all your "How To Write the Perfect Query Letter" books. Writing--and even getting published--isn't about the confections you use to decorate your work. It's about getting that work right - whatever "right" means for you. And if that doesn't attract a professional publisher, that doesn't make it a bad book; and The Perfect Query Letter is unlikely to have helped you much.

Looking forward to seeing some of you at Havant in September.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Case Study - First Person Narratives

I don't normally write about books I'm in the middle of reading, although in some ways this is the truest response of all. Once I've finished a book, I reinterpret the experience in the light of my assessment of the whole. Very often this means I undervalue a book which has kept me enthralled for 400 pages but then lost me with a weak ending. The emotional experience of 'reading', rather than the analytical one of 'having read', is found only when we are in the process of reading the book.

That prologue aside: I'm about halfway through Philippa Gregory's The Boleyn Inheritance, the sequel to The Other Boleyn Girl, about which I wrote last week. Gregory has adopted a different narrative strategy for the later book: rather than a single first-person narrative, there are three intertwined first-person stories. First-person is usually discouraged by creative writing gurus (and certainly it imposes considerable technical challenges and limitations), but handled well, it's an immediate and intimate viewpoint.

The Other Boleyn Girl was relatively straightforward in its narrative stance. Virtually the entire book is from the viewpoint of Mary Boleyn: the reader identifies with her, and Gregory doesn't play unreliable narrator games with us. The approach reinforces the claustrophobia which is the dominant atmosphere of the novel.

The Boleyn Inheritance takes more risks in giving us three narrators: Gregory has to ensure that the voices are kept distinct, and there is a danger that in giving us three viewpoints the reader identifies with none. So far, at least, the risks are paying off. All three characters are clearly defined: Anne of Cleves, cool and dignified, intelligent and reflective; Katherine Howard, a brilliant rendering of a giddy flirtatious girl given added poignancy because the reader knows her fate; and Jane Boleyn, a calculating, ambitious character resurrected from The Other Boleyn Girl.

Anne is perhaps the easiest to identify with. She is a stranger to Henry's court, a victim of her brother's intrigues (and repressed incestuous desires), and the reader learns about the environment through her. Her stoical intelligence as she tries to avoid being Henry's second murdered wife engages our sympathy. I found the repeated references to Anne intending to live her own independent life without men overdone, and anachronistically 'feminist', but it's a small objection.

Katherine is the most clearly rendered voice. Those of us who have daughters will recognise the tone. Without being a modern 'teenager', she is idenitifiably adolescent. The reader can only look on in horror as her vanity and boy-mania lead her down to a destruction she cannot see coming. She is not exactly a sympathetic character, but the reader hopes against hope that she will see sense.

Jane is the most interesting of the viewpoints. In The Other Boleyn Girl she is presented through the eyes of Mary, who strongly dislikes her; and even when we see her through her own reflections, she is not an attractive character: manipulative and ambitious. But she has self-awareness, and a conscience of sorts. This conscience is a flexible friend: she genuinely likes and admires Anne, but is willing to give false testimony against her on trumped up witchcraft charges. Jane's character development is the best thing in the novel, and while I know what happens to her at the end, I can't see how she's going to get there--which keeps me turning the pages.

The initial chapters are relatively lengthy: Gregory wants to give us a foundation for all the characters before moving on. Once she's established character, the chapters become much shorter, sometimes only a page. This risks fragmenting the narrative, but is probably unavoidable with all three characters often commenting on the same event (such as the chilling scene where Anne is set upon by a drunken lout, spitting out his foul kiss--only to find it's King Henry in disguise). This triple-retailing approach would be unworkable if we had to wait twenty pages to switch viewpoint characters.

The two major decisions a novelist has to take is: "who are the viewpoint character(s)?", and "first or third person?". Gregory's work shows that, while first person is often discouraged, it has more flexibility than is often acknowledged. By giving us three viewpoints, she avoids the limitations imposed by a single character's perceptions, but she doesn't sacrifice the intimate, confessional tone. The Boleyn novels can be read as a terrifying study in tyranny, but we never see inside the tyrant's head at all. What we're shown is the effect his actions have on his powerless court. It's technically highly accomplished, and should make any writer think twice before rejecting the first person narrative.