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 clichĂ©d. 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?