Monday, March 30, 2009

Chichester Writing Festival 2009

I've spent a very enjoyable weekend at the latest Festival, run by Greg and Kate Mosse in the sublime surroundings of West Dean, just north of Chichester. Greg and Kate have been very supportive of The Dog of the North since before it was published (as they are with all aspiring writers) so I'm delighted to go along to anything they run; but even without that connection the Writing Festival is an occasion to delight, with an array of stimulating panels and panellists. And it's always good to catch up with old friends and make some new ones (quite aside from the fact that some of them might buy my book...).

The panellist who seemed to make the biggest impact on the audience was Roger (R.J.) Ellory, whose novel A Quiet Belief in Angels was picked up by Richard & Judy last year. The book epitomises the "classy commercial" fiction which is currently the publishing industry's Holy Grail, but what really impressed about Roger is that he wrote 22 unpublished novels before making the breakthrough--all the time while carrying on a demanding day job. His hard work and astonishing self-belief will inspire and daunt the aspiring writer in equal measure.

If there was a common theme among all the many writers on display it was that passion and a commitment to hard work are the essentials without which publication will never happen. From my own example, minor as that may be, I'd say that's a perfect message to take away. The bottom line is that you really do need to put in the hard yards.

The next Chichester Writing Festival is scheduled for November 2010 and I'm looking forward to it already.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bite-Size Reviews

Since submitting The Last Free City I've had a bit more time on my hands which I've been using to catch up on my reading.

First on my list was Cecelia Holland's Jerusalem. Holland is a highly-regarded historical novelist, although new to me, and while some aspects of the book failed to please, I can see why she is so well thought of. Jerusalem takes place at the time of the Second Crusade. It encompasses the final years of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, with some well-realised court intrigue with a particular emphasis on the Templar Order. Holland is first-rate in economically conveying the feel of the period, even if her dialogue is a little too modern-American for my taste. There was also a tendency to switch point of view, even within conversations, which I also found offputting. Set against this, the characterisation was subtly nuanced, with the protagonist Rannulf especially interesting. What hinted most at Holland's mastery of the form was the ending, however, which it is hard to discuss without spoilers. Suffice it to say that, in refracting what could have been a downbeat resolution through a twelfth-century lens, Holland firmly anchored the book in its period. I will certainly be reading more of her work.

Next I turned my attention to one of my favourite Jack Vance novels, To Live Forever. Vance, to my mind, gave up writing true science-fiction in the late 1950s, and this is the best of his core sf novels. It explores the practical consequences of a treatment bestowing immortality--a treatment that must be rationed if a population explosion is to be avoided. The novel follows the fortunes of Gavin Waylock, who has been cheated of his own immortality and is determined to win it back by any means at his disposal. It's one of Vance's earliest forays into the crime-fiction format he later developed in the Demon Princes and Alastor series, and is a good starting point for the science-fiction reader who wonders whether Vance will be to their taste. Published in 1956, it is the first novel to showcase the precise and pared-down style which was to become his hallmark. To Live Forever shows Vance's facility for creating bizarre but plausible societies and then pushing them to breaking point. The novel is hard to find these days and unjustly neglected. Why not track it down?

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Church of MNW

As you will all know, The Last Free City is with Macmillan at the moment, while my editor decides if it's right for them. You might view it as disingenuous in this context to review, very favourably, two MNW titles acquired by that selfsame editor. The fact is that L.C. Tyler's A Very Persistent Illusion and Doug Worgul's Thin Blue Smoke are both such very fine novels that they are sure to attract the attention of readers who do not have a vested interest in keeping their editor sweet.

Len Tyler is one of my favourite Macmillan New Writers: more to the point, he's one of my favourite writers, full stop. He lists P.G. Wodehouse among his favourite writers, and his highly distinctive voice is reminiscent of Wodehouse on a very, very heavy dose of downers. A Very Persistent Illusion is the kind of book for which the much-abused term "black comedy" was coined. His narrator, Chris Sorenson, is at once dislikeable while embodying many of the characteristics we will recognise in ourselves. His unusual pathology plays out to an unexpected ending with a sureness of touch and a facility with the devastating one-liner which will be familiar to readers of The Herring Seller's Apprentice. If your taste in humour runs to the dark, this is the book for you.

The humour in Thin Blue Smoke is of a different stamp. Worgul takes a wry look at a beautifully realised ensemble cast, refracted through the lenses of barbecue, blues, baseball and bourbon. Of these, barbecue is closest to the book's heart, and LaVerne, ex-baseball star and barbecue philosopher, is an offbeat and pleasantly flawed hero. At one point he discusses the essence of barbecue with another character (it's that kind of book), and they conclude that barbecue is the art of taking the worst cuts of meat, and transmuting them slowly over a low heat, making them into something wonderful. Worgul does something similar with his characters: poor, disadvantaged or alcoholic they may be, but over the course of this marvellous novel he smokes them until they too, turn into lives which fascinate and move us. A novel as quintessentially American (just what is a "pulled chuck"?) as A Very Persistent Illusion is British, Thin Blue Smoke deserves to be a huge success.

One of the things I really do like about Macmillan New Writing (aside from the fact that they publish me, of course) is the sheer variety of the titles they put out. Considering MNW only publishes twelve titles a year (it really is a small press hidden inside PanMacmillan), the breadth of output is remarkable. I can never read titles like the two above without that old genre writer's inferiority complex kicking in at some level: MNW publish fantasy, too! And my fantasy at that... Maybe reading two such accomplished MNW titles just after I've submitted my own was not such a good idea after all. Those not in that singular position need not hesitate, and should get hold of these two excellent novels immediately.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Into the Ether

Yesterday I sent The Last Free City to Will, my editor at Macmillan. (Will, if you read the previous more downbeat post - only joking! The Last Free City is the greatest work of literature written in English...). There is nothing more I can do to the novel unaided. If Macmillan accept it, of course, I get to work with a professional editor and that will improve it. A good editor will bring a keen and objective eye to material you may have been living with for a period of years, and if my experience of The Dog of the North is anything to go by, the effect on the text can only be positive.

Of course, Macmillan may not want the book - and as a writer you should never submit anything unless you're prepared for that outcome. I feel curiously relaxed about it, because there's nothing else I can do now to improve my chances: I've spent a year writing the best book I can, I've sent to an editor who likes my writing, and that really is all I can do. It's out of my hands now.

I'm already thinking about what I'm going to write next. For some time I had this nailed down pat: The City of Green Glass, the story which wrapped up this particular part of the Mondia cycle. Now I have other ideas, and I may reach a couple of generations back into Mondia's history instead, because there are stories there which interest me, and directly bear not only on The Last Free City but also The City of Green Glass--which is now likely to have a different title, because it's so confusingly close to its predecessor. Alternatives I'm thinking about are The Vitrine Gates and The Glass Labyrinth. I don't need to worry too much about any of this just now: until I know the fate of The Last Free City, I can't devote too much time to another project because I might have more editing to do.

For now, I can just enjoy not having a work in progress--although soon enough I will be bored, I'm sure!

Monday, March 09, 2009

An Acceptable Level of Failure

At what point is a book finished? Anyone who's ever written one will know that the answer is "never", but there does come a point when, whether through inertia, frustration or some external factor, the writer accepts that there is nothing to be gained from further work.

The Last Free City is almost at that stage. I spent last week at home polishing the latest, near-final draft. All of the loose ends I can find have been tied off: the story is complete and it's told in the way I eventually decided to tell it. It has scenes of high drama and characters I have come to love and it has--no great surprise here-swordfights, possibly to excess. It nods to Vance, Shakespeare and Calvino.

This should be cause for celebration, but I always find this part is one of the grimmest of the whole process. The end of the first draft is a fantastic feeling - the whole story is there, I know what happens to everyone and there's still the chance to fix what's wrong: I can even include more swordfights should I wish. Because the gestation of The Last Free City was so difficult (I radically changed the structure of the book halfway through the first draft), there wasn't too much to do subsequently; the first draft was really drafts one, two and three rolled into one, not the way I wanted to write the book. There is a real sense of triumph in subduing such a slippery foe. It's like duelling with a vastly superior swordsman and...well, if you if you like that kind of metaphor you might enjoy the book.

Subsequent drafts, for me at least, by contrast are about defining an acceptable level of failure. By the end of the second draft you realise that the book isn't going to be the touchstone of literary genius you'd hoped (a tarnishing process that begins with the first word of the first draft, if not earlier.) Instead, you're just looking to get out alive: the book is not the Platonic ideal you conceived at the start, and now your ambitions are limited to ensuring that none of the holes is below the waterline.

The good news, then, is that The Last Free City is close to being ready to submit to my editor at Macmillan. The challenging news (for we don't have "bad" news, do we?) is that my attempts to touch the sun have failed, and will have to wait until my next book. Now, if I can only manage to cram in a few more swordfights...

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Why Should I Read...?

The Remains of the Day
Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989

Take a lord with some very strange notions and an ability to get himself into all kinds of trouble, and his selfless butler who ensures that everything is running smoothly behind the scenes. That's the set-up for Jeeves and Wooster, but Lord Darlington, the well-bred fool in The Remains of the Day, has peccadilloes more serious than getting in trouble with his aunt. Lord Darlington, in fact, is a Fascist. And his butler, Stevens, is certainly no Jeeves.

The Remains of the Day is deceptively simple. It's a classic unreliable narrator story, with Stevens reflecting on his years in Lord Darlington's service as he takes a motoring tour. Ishiguro captures Steven's voice perfectly: pedantic, opinionated, repressed. The humour in his stiff phraseology is not unlike Jeeves, but where Wodehouse's character is comic, Stevens' lack of self-awareness is tragic. The reader realises long before Stevens the depth of the relationship between the butler and the housekeeper Miss Kenton--and sees all the chances that he had to act on it--and also the nature of Lord Darlington's sympathies. When Stevens' father dies upstairs, Stevens simply gets on with the job of ensuring his lordship's guests are comfortable. Too late, Stevens comes to realise his mistakes, and that all the years he has spent debating the qualities of a "great butler" or the nature of "dignity" have just been ways of blocking off his emotions.

Ishiguro controls Stevens' voice with precision, and he avoids the temptation to make Lord Darlington too obvious a blackguard. His political views are unpalatable, and the episode where he dismisses his Jewish servants painful (although not as distressing as Stevens' quiescence), but he is presented as a sincere, if fundamentally misguided figure.

The Remains of the Day is a deep and subtle meditation on reflection and emotion, and a melancholy love story of the first rank.

How has it influenced me?
The Remains of the Day is an excellent example of how to make the reader care about an essentially unsympathetic character. I've never tried a sustained first-person narrative of this sort, but if I were to do so, this would be one of the first novels I studied. So much of the information the reader is given is indirect--much of the pleasure for the reader is in seeing things long before Stevens does

Lessons for the aspiring writer
  • unhappy endings can be oddly uplifting
  • love stories don't always have to pay off in the expected ways
  • the precise language of the butler/bureaucrat/pedant is a good source of humour
  • you can convey an awful lot of information indirectly--and often the reader will prefer to receive it that way
  • you can rely on the reader to do most of the work, if you plant the right seeds