Saturday, December 29, 2007

And, Just for Fun...Expostion Part VIII (and final)

Back to Part VII

Oh, Lord, not more exposition?

Yep. Just to round off this discussion, I thought I'd throw in a few passages from people you might happen to know. These passages have been carefully and scientifically selected by the sophisticated process of flipping rapidly through a few books I happen to have nearby.

1. Aliya Whiteley, Mean Mode Median

Since Aliya noted in the Comment trail that it only made sense to use exposition in some situations, especially in first person ("The reader is aware it's a book, not a film, for Gawd's sake!"), I thought it only fitting to give an example of first person exposition from her own writing--a passage that illuminates the entire novella when you read further. (Before you read this out of context, let me emphasize that this novella is neither science fiction nor fantasy.)

So Ed and I told our mother and father we were normal, and they did not bother to look deeper.

By my ninth birthday we were both ardent readers. The books that really captured our attention were science fiction and fantasy--long epics of books that explored the fragile balances of power in created lands and futures. When we found the the Dune series by Frank Herbert we were both smitten. We read each book in turn, watched the cut-to-ribbons movie over and over again, and played out the parts with each other, aware of the subtle shifts in character that could move a universe onto a different course entirely, destroying it or redeeming it. Heady stuff.

Was it harmless, our game play? Or did it alter us profoundly? I'm not sure. One moment we were clever children with a secret toy, and the next we were more than human, with, to steal a phrase, an exterminating angel hanging over us, touching those we chose to let it affect...

This goes on for a few paragraphs, tightening the screws, and only gets better. And when you first encounter it, about 20 pages into the book, it seems like backstory flavored to make it more interesting. In fact, what appears to be a diversion is in dead earnest, and is crucial to the book. It would take twenty pages of flashback to "show" what she manages in about a page; and, since it is in first person, the exposition illuminates character at the same time.

2. Michael Stephen Fuchs, Pandora's Sisters

In Pandora's Sisters, MSF sets himself a whole host of expository challenges. He has to explain genetics, including DNA coding and transcription; he has to explain modulo mathematics; he has to explain video encoding of grayscale pixels; he has to explain the worldviews of a number of religious sects; he has to explain various aspects of existentialist philosophy. Sometimes this comes out in the actions, and sometimes it comes out in discussion, and sometimes--as in the passage below, where he is preparing the reader for the idea that systems other than species can evolve (as in the the computer-programming techniques called genetic algorithms)--well, sometimes he just tells us:

Most people think that evolution is something that only happens with species, through their genes. But, prior to Mendel--and Crick and Watson--no one had ever heard of genes. Darwin wouldn't have recognized a gene if it had crawled up his trouser leg and gnawed his privates off. He only know how the process had to work--even if he had no knowledge of the medium in which it did so.

So, if you don't need genes, exactly, what do you need? Three things: replication, mutation, and differential survival. You've got to have something that makes copies of itself (replication); the copies have to occasionally be not quite exact (mutation); and a given copy has to survive more or less well, in its given environment, depending on how it mutates (differential survival). If those three things go on, what you'll see is the best mutations spreading and dominating--because they are the best at surviving and copying themselves in that environment...

(A fun read, by the way. MSF has invented a new voice for himself in this novel, and it's smart and addictive.)

3. Brian McGilloway, Borderlands

The whole nature and theme of Brian's book (indeed, the title itself) requires background. A lesser writer would have stuffed this information into the As-You-Know-Bob dialogue of the characters. But Brian faces the problem head-on and early on--these are the opening paragraphs of the novel:

It was not beyond reason that Angela Cashell's final resting place should straddle the border. Presumably, neither those who dumped her corpse, nor, indeed, those who had created the border between the North and South of Ireland in 1920, could understand the vagaries that meant her body lay half in one country and half in another, in an area known as the borderlands.

The peculiarities of the Irish border are famous. Eighty years ago it was drawn through fields, farms and rivers by civil servants who knew little more about the area than that which they'd learnt from a map. Now, people live with the consequences, owning houses where TV licences are bought in the North and the electricity to run them is paid for in the South.

One more paragraph of exposition follows, but at the bottom of the first page he yanks us into the protagonist's point of view with some sharp details, and we're off:

Consequently then, I stood with my colleagues from An Garda facing our northern counterparts through the snow-heavy wind which came running up the river. The sky above us, bruised purple and yellow in the dying sun, promised no reprieve.

Now that's an authorial voice.

4. Jonathan Drapes, Never Admit to Beige

And, of course, all's fair in comedy. John Gardner remarked that the only rule for comic writing was to out it on paper and see if people smile when they read it.

With this thought it all comes back to me like a flood--mud, silt, floating cows and all. Basically. I'm a cursed man. I'm out of luck. Not unlucky, but actually out of luck. My luck has been, for want of a better term, stolen. Stolen and traded on some illegal international luck market that I had no idea existed...

I guess it all started with the messy break up from Kelly three months ago and her tour of the South Pacific. We were due to go skiing in Chamonix, but when I shagged Camille from Kentish Town, I kind of forfeited my ticket. Kelly cashed it in and went to Fiji instead. Anyway, when she got back to London she sent me an exquisite Polynesian tribal figurine. That's Roger. Five inches of the most vindictive South Pacific hardwood ever known to man. Roger came with a note that read something along the lines of: "I hope it kills you, you sad bastard." That's when I noticed Roger's maniacal little grin.

After running through a chronology of diasters that occur following Roger's arrival, we then get the ultimate in expository summary-- a balance sheet:

...currently the ledger looks something like this:

aaaaStill aliveaaaaNo friends
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa No girlfriend
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa No job
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa No family (to all intents and purposes)
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Unintentional public nudity--twice
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Flat robbed--twice (before eviction)
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Still alive

I don't think I've yet put a list into a novel. But reading Jonathan makes me want to find an excuse to add one.

Back to Part VII

Friday, December 21, 2007

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (Distressingly So)

A huge traffic jam! Is it an accident? No, it's the offramp leading to South Coast Plaza, one of the world's largest shopping malls...

I'm not a big fan of Christmas. The desperate commercialism is just plain creepy. So this is the time of year, when everyone is preoccupied, that we usually sneak off to somewhere remote. The desert, or the mountains, or hot springs...

This year it's one of my favorite spots on earth, Harbin Hot Springs. Back when people still took the waters for their health, Harbin--located in a valley 90 miles north of San Francisco--was a major resort. It's up across a small but formidable set of mountains at the upper tip of Napa-Sonoma wine country, though the Guenoc winery (established by the Jersey Lily herself, Lily Langtry) somehow escaped over the hills, and is just a few miles away.

Like so many things in early (and recent) California, the original Harbin hotel burned down. It was rebuilt in another configuration...and of course burned down again. It was rebuilt yet again in a more dispersed configuration, but by mid-century spas were out of fashion, and Harbin fell into disrepair.

It was then purchased by "hippies" who established a cooperative community and rejunvenated the place. There's a little village for the residents tucked nearby, with woodworking shops, pottery kilns, and a forge. Harbin owns 1,500 acres of the valley, running up onto the ridge, and it adjoins national forest land, so there are many miles of trails to wander. And since the community protects the wildlife, the deer wander through with as much insouciance as a prey species can muster. There's also a flock of 30-50 wild turkeys who storm through like a gang of six-year-olds on a sugar high (with two or three stragglers inevitably dashing along behind, gobbling frantically).

But the main attraction is The Pools. Harbin is on a fairly steep slope, but a section has been levelled for an Olympic-sized pool of naturally warm water. Adjacent to this, arranged up the hillside like stairs, are the Warm Pool (90-98 F) the Hot Pool (110-114 F) and the Cold Pool (straight out a little stream; frigid most of the year).

There are two somewhat unusual features of The Pools. The first is that they are 'clothing-optional', which in practice means no one wears swimsuits: it looks just as odd to be dressed in a crowd of naked people as to be naked in a crowd of people who are dressed.

The second unusual--and blessed feature--is No Talking Allowed. Okay, a few people do lean over and whisper into the ear of their companion, but the rule of silence is closely observed. Women tend to be especially fond of this feature, as no one can edge over and open a conversation: Not only am I naked, but you can't even talk to me.

There aren't many pictures of Harbin, as cameras around The Pools are also forbidden (except when the management takes a few publicity shots, such as those posted here). The idea of pools at a spa conjures up pictures of bright, enclosed, sterile environments, but Harbin is anything but. The only term I can come up with for the area around the pools is "Tolkeinesque"; the facilities are one with the natural environment. The Cold Pool and the Warm Pool are both open to the air; the Hot Pool is in a dark little temple lit only by a few candles.

Up near the Cold Pool stands a giant fig tree, and in this environment figs take on a different growth habit than in, say, Italy. They twist and stretch and sprawl, sending down additional trunks and roots (like their relatives the banyans). The fig arches high above the cold pool, leans its branches down onto the roof of the Hot Pool, and reaches out over the Warm Pool, an interwoven natural roof. Under the moonlight, it's the closest thing to Rivendell I expect I'll ever see.

The pools aren't the sorts of things you sit around in, either. The little Cold Pool is shallow, but the huge Warm Pool and the sizeable Hot Pool have stairways descending into them, and end up chest-to-neck deep. Most people spend their time in the Warm Pool, but we tend to cycle between the Hot Pool and the Cold Pool.

It's almost impossible to get into either of these at first. When the Hot Pool is up around 114 F, it feels as though it will cook the flesh right off your bones, and the Cold Pool isn't always much above freezing. But after about two cycles, you get "the buzz": the nerve endings in your skin are so overstimulated that they all jangle at once, and nothing any longer feels hot or cold. After several cycles, you're bulletproof--you can stand in the midwinter air without shivering.

At last I understand that Scandinavian thing of sitting in a sauna and then rolling in the snow.

All that, and nobody jabbering on their mobile phones. Now that's Christmas.

Dismal Math

For those who are feeling too perky because of the holidays, here's an antidote to all that cheer. Over on Jamie Ford's blog (which is always worth visiting) he cites some truly depressing numbers: His agent's record of queries, requests for manuscripts. number of authors taken on, etc.

You can also click on through to his agent's original post on the topic. Kristin Nelson was an occasional contributor to Miss Snark's blog before the Snarky one stepped down, and now she's the leading agent in the blogosphere. The number of queries Ms. Nelson receives makes it clear why the Snarkster kept her identity a secret.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Psychic Distance, etc, Part VII: The First Annual Exposition Exposition, continued

Back to Part VI...Forward to Part VIII

And here's more of the little expository bits I've gleaned from a random assortment of authors (isn't gleaned a good word? It doesn't get used enough these days):

4. Vladimir Nabokov, Ada.

Nabokov slyly opens his novel with a mangling of Tolstoy (presented as fact), then jumps into an omniscient Dear-Reader voice, and finally launches off into ancestral history. Layered within are enough puns and allusions for a dozen dissertations, but couched in an earnest parody style that can’t help but make the reader smile whether or not the references are clear:

“All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy families are more or less alike,” says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievich Karenina, transfigured into English by R.G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor, Ltd., 1880). That pronouncement has little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now, a family chronicle, the first part of which is, perhaps, closer to another Tolstoy work, Detstvo i Otrochestvo (Childhood and Fatherland, Pontius Press, 1858).

Van’s maternal grandmother Daris (“Dolly”) Durmanov was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski…

The idea that the text has been transfigured (in fact, disfigured) rather than translated is funny enough, but this is underlined by the publisher, Mount Tabor, which is the hill on which, according to legend, the Transfiguration of Christ took place...and so on.

5. Martin Amis, The Information.

I found The Information to be a rather uncomfortable and sometimes mean-spirited read, but there is no doubt that Kingsley's bouncing baby boy can write. One chapter opens with plausible deniability (the ellipsis is in the original):

The railway station had changed since he had last had call to use it. In the meantime its soot-coated, rentboy-haunted vault of tarry girders and toilet glass had become a flowing atrium of boutiques and croissant stalls and limitless cappuccino. Trains no longer dominated it with their train culture of industrial burdens dumbly and filthily borne. Trains now crept in round the back, sorry they were so late, hoping they could still be of use to the proud, strolling, cappuccino-quaffing shoppers of the mall. There was even a brand-new Dickensian pub called The Olde Curiosity Shoppe whose set was dressed with thousands of books—written not by Dickens but by that timeless band of junkshop set-dresser nobodies…In other words, the station had gone up in the world. And Richard didn’t like it. He wanted everything to stay down in the world—with him.

Are those Richard’s thoughts? Hmm, maybe. But it’s really the voice of the novel—tagging base in the first line ("...since he last had call to use it..."), then veering off into sheer exposition before jumping back to Richard.

6. Michael Crichton, Timeline.

Enough of that dodgy lit-fic stuff. Do honest, upright, certifiably heterosexual two-fisted storytellers do this sort of thing? Sure. And no one is more in-your-face about it than Crichton. His stories almost invariably require huge volumes of information to be conveyed, but he is ever-conscious of pacing, and there just isn't enough time to stuff it all into the mouths of the characters. So when he needs you to know something about quantum physics theories, he just lays it out:

Each explanation failed for one reason or another. Then, in 1957, a physicist named Hugh Everett proposed a daring new explanation. Everett claimed that our universe—the universe of rocks and trees and people and galaxies out in space—was just one of an infinite number of universes, existing side-by-side.

Each of these universes was constantly splitting, so that there was a universe where Hitler lost the war, and another where he won; a universe where Kennedy died, and another where he lived. And also a world where you brushed your teeth in the morning, and one where you didn’t. And so forth, and so on. An infinity of worlds.

One of the reasons Crichton's exposition works is that it reads like popular science journalism. It may not be your cup of tea fictionwise, but it sounds authoritative. It's hard not to believe him on the facts of the matter--and it works a thousand times better than the As-You-Know-Bob dialogue some writers try to use to convey needed information.

7. Francine Prose, Blue Angel.

One of my favorite contemporary writers, Francine Prose (love the name, too), wrote Blue Angel from close 3rd, but has no qualms about jumping straight from her protagonist’s (Swenson) action to a lengthy digression on the college town of Euston, and then worming her way back into his perspective again:

Hurrying across the quad, he nearly plows into a tour group inching across the campus. Rather than ruin his sneakers by cutting across the boggy lawn, he trails behind the high school students enduring the mortification of being here with their parents.

Deep in the Northeast Kingdom, an hour from Montpelier, sixty miles from Burlington, one hundred fifty from Montreal if you’re desperate enough to wait at the border while the Mounties tweeze through each car to discourage Canadians from crossing to shop at the Wal-Mart, Euston’s nobody’s first choice. Students willing to travel this far to a college this cut off and inbred prefer Bates or Bowdoin, which have better reputations, the Maine coast, and the L.L. Bean outlet. Euston’s conveniently located in the midst of the two-block town of Euston and the moose-ridden wilderness that its founder, Elijah Euston, so loved.

Recently, a public relations team advised Euston to market its isolation. And so the tour leader—Kelly Steinsalz, from last spring’s Beginning Fiction—is explaining that the lack of distractions lets her concentrate on academics. The parents nod. The teenagers scowl. That’s just what they want from college. Four years of concentration!

Swenson can’t imagine how Euston looks to someone visiting for the first time…

Notice how deftly Prose weaves in and out of plausible deniability. Do we really care if the second paragraph is in Swenson's POV or not? Sure, it's informative, but having the Mounties "tweeze" through your car, and Euston's "moose-ridden wilderness" are so much fun that no reasonable reader could complain.

8. William Faulkner, Light in August.

One of the things I love about Faulkner is how he jumps from the mundane to the sublime with such brio. Light in August opens with the close 3rd POV:

Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, “I have come from Alabama: A fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece.”

But on the very next page he moves out of Lena’s POV into a few simple expository sentences, and then without warning leaps for the sky:

All the men in the village worked at the mill or for it. It was cutting pine. It had been there seven years and in seven more it would destroy all the lumber within its reach. Then some of the machinery and most of the men who ran it and existed because of and for it would be loaded onto freight cars and moved away. But some of the machinery would be left, since new pieces could always be bought on the installment plan—gaunt, staring motionless wheels rising from mounds of brick rubble and ragged weeds with a quality profoundly astonishing, and gutted boilers lifting their rusting and unsmoking stacks with an air stubborn, baffled and bemused upon a stumppocked scene of profound and peaceful desolation, unplowed, untilled, gutting slowly into red and choked ravines beneath the long quiet rains of autumn and the galloping fury of vernal equinoxes. Then the hamlet, which at its best day had borne no name listed on the Postoffice Department annals would not now even be remembered by the hookwormridden heirs-at-large who pulled the buildings down and burned them in their cookstoves and winter grates.

Houston, we have liftoff.

And that's the difference between the North and the South of the US, by the way. Down South in Faulkner country they're stumppocked and hookwormridden. Up North in Prose country, they're moose-ridden.

Way Out West, where I'm from, I don't know what we are. Used to be rugged and taciturn and somewhat horse-ridden, but I'm guessing that nowadays Martin Amis would claim we were cappuccino-quaffing.

Well, it beats hookworms.

Back to Part VI...Forward to Part VIII

A Fingerpost -------->

Michael Stephen Fuchs (author of the MNW books The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters) has been rather quiet for the last few months, with only the rare mutter on his blog.

He has made up for this prolonged stillness by publishing a long post reflecting on the topic of life post-publication. It's marvellously written, and, though not the most uplifting thing you might read this holiday season, well worth a look.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Psychic Distance, etc, Part VI: The First Annual Exposition Exposition

Back to Part V...Forward to Part VII

And that's why birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let's do it, let's...

...write exposition. (With apologies to Cole Porter, of course.)

I'm not sure who comes up with writing rules and passes them on, but a lot of writers end up like the narrator of Dylan's Maggie's Farm, with a headful of ideas...that have driven them insane. In the current rules, exposition is recognized as, like certain bodily functions, regrettably necessary; but one is expected to be discreet about it, dribbling in little bits of information here and there, misdirecting the reader so that they don't notice the unpleasant smell of the fact you just dropped.

As you might have noticed, I'm a little defensive on the topic of exposition. And if I'm defensive, it's with good reason. I've been clobbered once too many times. Exposition is so widely believed to be a bad thing in some parts that to say anything on its behalf in writing forums is akin to standing up at the Republican National Convention and suggesting that heroin ought to be legalized and distributed to schoolchildren.

You may get as far as citing a single example before you are shouted down. If your example is a well-known literary writer, the room will burst into a chorus of protests that assert, sure, you can get away with that sort of thing in lit-fic, but not in a well-told page-turner. If you use an example from a popular genre-writer, the room will turn snobby, informing you that, yes, you may be able to get away with it with those sorts of audiences, but the better class of writer would never do such a thing.

The purpose of this Exposition Exposition is to show that all manner of authors write substantial chunks of expository prose, and actually do so with gusto. No one can prove anything about writing, so I can't prove that their books are better for these passages, or that their novels wouldn't have been improved if this information were sprinkled unobtrusively throughout the text; but I have the feeling that most of these folks know what they are doing in their respective arenas. In this post and the next, I'll toss down some expository moments from Richard Adams, Stephen King, Ian McEwan, Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Amis, Michael Crichton, Francine Prose, and William Faulkner. (Is that an odd list, or what?) The next time people whine that exposition just isn't the done thing, wave these passages under their snooty upturned noses.

1. Richard Adams, Watership Down

Writing a dramatic novel about an imaginary rabbit civilization requires more than a bit of background and explication. Fortunately, Adams isn't shy about exposition or description. Here's a sample:

Fu Inle means “after moonrise.” Rabbits, of course, have no idea of precise time or punctuality. In this respect they are much the same as primitive people, who often take several days over assembling for some purpose, and then several more to get started. Before such people can act together, a kind of telepathic feeling has to flow through them and ripen to the point where they all know they are ready to begin. Anyone who has seen the martins and swallows in September, assembling on the telephone wires, twittering, making short flights singly and in groups over the open, stubbly fields, returning to form longer and even longer lines…

(I broke off at that point because we had entered one of the longest sentences in fiction; for those who want to check it out, the paragraph above opens Chapter 4, and the sentence is great fun.)

2. Stephen King, The Shining

At one point in The Shining, Jack looks thorough old magazines and clippings relevant to the history of the creepy Overlook Hotel. One lengthy passage, of which this is just a part, recounts the building of the Horace Derwent fortune:

In the late twenties and early thirties, Derwent turned to aviation. He bought out a bankrupt cropdusting company, turned it into an airmail service, and prospered. More patents followed: a new monoplane wing design, a bomb carriage used on the Flying Fortresses that had rained fire on Hamburg and Dresden and Berlin, a machine gun that was cooled by alcohol, a prototype of the ejection seat later used in United States jets.

And along the line the accountant who lived in the same skin as the inventor kept piling up the investments. A piddling string of munition factories in New York and New Jersey. Five textile mills in New England. Chemical factories in the bankrupt and groaning South. At the end of the Depression, his wealth had been nothing but a handful of controlling interests, bought at abysmally low prices, saleable only at lower prices still. At one point Derwent boasted that he could liquidate completely and realize the price of a three-year-old Chevrolet.

Expository and informative? Unashamedly. But I think it does its work without boring the reader. It tells a story, it is generous with details that ground it in reality, and "the bankrupt and groaning South" is a nice turn of phrase. For me, though, the line that sells it is the last one; there's something vivid and believable about that statement, even in narrative summary.

Okay, maybe you're a little bit sniffy about King. After all, he's not a literary writer, is he? Well, try this one on for size:

3. Ian McEwan, Atonement.

Morning sunlight, or any light, could not conceal the ugliness of the Tallis home—barely forty years old, bright orange brick, squat, lead-paned baronial Gothic, to be condemned one day in an article by Pevsner, or one of his team, as a tragedy of wasted chances, and by a writer of the modern school as “charmless to a fault.” An Adam-style house had stood here until destroyed by fire in the late 1880s. What remained was the artificial lake and island with its two stone bridges supporting the driveway, and, by the water’s edge, a crumbling stuccoed temple. Cecelia’s grandfather, who grew up over an ironmonger’s shop and made the family fortune with a series of patents on padlocks, bolts, latches, and hasps, had imposed on the house his taste for all things solid, secure, and functional. Still, if one turned one’s back to the front entrance and glanced down the drive, ignoring the Friesians already congregating in the shade of the widely spaced trees, the view was fine enough, giving an impression of timeless, unchanging calm which made her more certain than ever that she must soon be moving on.

Notice the sleight-of-hand dodge at the end, where he anchors us back in POV (in this case, Cecelia's POV). And it works well enough to make me happy, though it is quite doubtful that McEwan really wants us to believe that Cecelia is thinking about architectural reviews or even about her grandfather. Instead, the reanchoring of POV smooths the transition from McEwan's high-flying exposition so we can enter the upcoming paragraph already eased into Cecelia's mind.

I do admire the details about the grandfather's patents. Saying he made his fortune in locks would have been good authenticating detail; getting down to the level of hasps makes it seem factual. Ah, yes, the Tallis Hasp--in the same pantheon as the celebrated Rabson Lock. (The Rabson Lock is an almost-unpickable lock. There is no such thing outside of the Nero Wolfe novels--and Lawrence Block's Burglar novels, where he adopted the lock as an homage.)

Next post: More of the same...

Back to Part V...Forward to Part VII

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Farewell to the Book Baron

Though not as famous as Acres of Books, its Long Beach counterpart, The Book Baron in Anaheim was one of the most impressive used-book stores in the US. (Neither of these were quite in the same league as Portland's Powell's City of Books or Denver's Tattered Cover, though; those are world-class institutions.) Alas, as of this Sunday, The Baron will be closing its doors permanently.

This has been preceded by weeks of sales, with prices gradually dropping. When we went a few days ago, the prices on hardbacks and collectibles were:

$100.00 or more-Your Price $10.00
$50.00-$99.99-Your Price $6.00
$15.00-$49.99-Your Price $3.00
$14.99 or less Your Price $1.00

So we came home laden with 53 novels and I'm not sure how many works of nonfiction. Some of those novels are hardback replacements for disintegrating paperbacks, so it isn't as bad as it sounds (wouldn't you trade up to a hardback for $1?); but the fact remains that the last thing we need is more books stuffed into our house. We're out of shelf space as it is. When we moved into this house six years ago, we came laden with 158 boxes of books. I shudder to think how many boxes-worth we have now.

Most of the books are nice, clean copies, but a few have the scribbles of former owners on the first page. Inside a copy of A Maggot, John Fowles' most peculiar novel, is the following inscription:

Nigel Wright

I'm not sure what this means. Either Mr. Wright had a tragically short life and extraordinarily precocious reading habits, or he was an excessively slow reader. Or began the book on New Year's Eve. Or perhaps he purchased the book on the installment plan? In any case, it would be interesting to know how the book made its way from (LONDON) to Anaheim, California, the home of Disneyland. (And, no, Mr. Wright didn't visit LONDON from Anaheim and bring the book back with him. Mr. Wright is clearly from the UK. The US may be the Land of the Free, but we still have our laws, and one of them is that no one is ever named 'Nigel.')

Another fine inscription is on Anthony Burgess' famous 'eschatological spy novel' Tremor of Intent:

Pearl Steele July 8-71
Read Oct 31-71
Dull Very for spy story

Sorry, Anthony--everybody's a critic. Now, I think it's a bit odd to write brief reviews inside of a book, but I think it's even odder to read a novel on Halloween. You'd think someone with a a Hollywood name like "Pearl Steele" would have a costume party to attend.

I'm afraid I'm going to have to go back to The Baron again this weekend. During the closing two days of the sale, prices are:

ALL BOOKS $1.00 each
ALL Mass Market Paperbacks-$.10 each

Though I resent the suggestion that mass-market paperbacks aren't "books", those prices are hard to pass up. This time I'm giving preference to the ones with odd inscriptions.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Shock in Stock...But Amazon US has something against MNW

Will Atkins informs me that when the Pan Macmillan web store shows a title as "out of stock," this means that the number of copies has shrunk below some threshold. He's had them reduce this threshold, and, poof! I'm back in stock. There's still about 50 copies somewhere in the Pan Mac warehouse.

Which brings me back to my original question: What is up with Amazon US? They let people buy copies for months (though as far as I know they never delivered any. And then they dropped the title from their "available" list. They still don't list my book as available for sale except as a used book. Yet their representative tells me the book "ought to be listed as available." Indeed it ought.

The most recent communication from Amazon US informed me that "We have received a few of these items from distributors, but have not yet received them from the publisher. We appreciate your patience with this issue."

Well, now at least I know the problem isn't that Macmillan is out of copies.

Meanwhile, Amazon Canada, bless them, still lists Shock and Awe as available, and what's more, available for CDN$15.72, which is a good price even with the US dollar somewhere underwater. At the moment they list it as "Only 1 left in stock--order soon (more on the way). "

I'm wagering that Amazon Canada receives more copies before Amazon US manages to cover their orders from September. Does anybody have a phone number for Jeff Bezos?

(Update: I've just learned that Amazon US is apparently doing the same thing with other MNW books. LC Tyler's The Herring-Seller's Apprentice is still listed as "available," those who pre-ordered it have been informed that it won't be shipped until mid-to-late January. Faye L. Booth's Cover the Mirrors can still be added to your shopping cart, but there is a note saying that the book is "Temporarily Unavailable".

Peter Anthony's A Town Called Immaculate is listed as though there's no issues, but I have a sneaking suspicion that if you ordered it from Amazon US, you might find that you'd wait a month and then receive a notice informing you that delivery would be delayed...If anyone has ordered Peter's book from Amazon US, let me know how it all progresses!)

(And furthermore: While you can pick up a copy of Cover the Mirrors from Amazon Canada for CDN$15.72, Amazon Canada lists The Herring Seller's Apprentice, which was published a month before Cover the Mirrors, as "not yet published."

Truly, the ways of Amazon surpasseth human understanding.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Psychic Distance, Exposition, and Information, Part V

Back to Part IV ... Forward to Part VI

Tip 4. In exposition, be shameless and have some irrelevant fun

Okay, I’m not screenwriting guru Robert McKee’s number-one fan, but he does have the occasional brilliant insight, and here’s one of them. McKee dislikes explanatory voice-over in film, and his dictum on this topic is:

Look carefully at any voice-over, and if it isn’t necessary to understanding the story, then leave it in.

Let me say that again with some big italics, as most people read it incorrectly the first time through:

Look carefully at any voice-over, and if it isn’t necessary to understanding the story, then leave it in.

Huh? Did you hear that right? Yes, you did. McKee’s point is that voice-over needed to explain the story is usually a fault, while voice-over that is not needed is an ornament. So if you don’t need it, go ahead and keep it. It’s probably not a patch on a faulty structure—it’s probably art.

Now, it’s wrong to map screenwriting to real writing on a one-to-one basis. Writing can go places cinema can never approach. But some exposition is for background and some exposition is for flow, and some exposition, by god, is just for fun.

In my own Switzerland paragraph I quoted earlier in this series of posts, the only point that directly advances the story is that Lorrie is talking to some naval architect. I could have placed the events in, say, Houston, or Inchon, Korea. I think the exposition adds interest to the story; I think it adds a degree of authority, making the narrative voice sounds as if it knows whereof it speaks. And, as it turned out, I found a way to get some story mileage out of the locale--even though it wasn't planned that way. But the truth is, a lot of that paragraph was just me goofing around.

The cool thing about this (if it worked) is that the reader is, I hope, entertained, and also has no idea which (if any) of the facts are relevant. At some level, this kind of exposition is no different from describing a sunset, or how someone jingles the change in their pocket. Is it really necessary? Maybe yes, maybe no. Which can be seen as a reason to take it out, but can also be a reason to leave it in.

The advantage of this plethora of I’m-telling-you-this-for-no-damn-reason factoids or descriptions is that you can easily toss in relevant facts, or thematic concerns, and even segue into dramatization, without being too obvious. Some of the things you list are just color, some are camouflage, some are vital, and some are sneaky ways of steering you to what comes next. The irony is that this is easiest to do when the bulk of the exposition is least relevant to the story.

And if you're a haphazard writer like me (who finds his story by stumbling through it), if your subconscious tosses up some odd fact or image, it's often a good idea to oblige by sticking it into the story. Once it's on the page, the subconscious will often proceed to do something elaborate with it down the road. (I don't suppose it's any secret, given the cover, that there is one or more sharks in Shock and Awe. But they were first introduced as a passing element, purely for atmosphere. Turns out they were important.)

Of course, there are limits to how much seemingly random detail you can stuff into a novel. But the real bottom line is simple: Is the reader engaged?

If the reader is engaged, only writers will quibble over whether it was too expository. And who cares what writers think? (Did you hear the one about the Hollywood starlet who was so dumb she tried to get ahead by sleeping with the writers?)

Back to Part IV... Forward to Part VI

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Psychic Distance, Exposition, and Information, Part IV

Back to Part III ... Forward to Part V

Tip 3. In exposition, be swift, bold, and fearless

In other words, if you're gonna do it, do it. Marshal your martial virtues. Here is where we separate the men from the boys. (With a crowbar.)

It’s tough to write flat-out, unapologetic expository prose these days. There’s a pernicious theory stalking the land that anything expository in fiction is a kind of failing—everything ought to be implied, or woven into drama or dialogue, else it runs the risk of being an example of the dreaded (gasp) infodump. And expository prose is by definition telling rather than showing, and “show, don’t tell” is the cardinal rule of our times.

Well, screw that. Some of the best fiction ever written, from Austen to Dickens to Melville to Faulkner to O’Brian right on down to Ian McEwan, contains exposition and narrative summary. Call me a moron, but I’m willing to assert that perhaps there isn’t something wrong with those writers, but rather something wrong with the rules.

If you care for an academic treatise on the topic, check out Wayne C Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. He analyzes a number of classic texts and concludes that they are more powerful and effective because they skillfully combine showing and telling, and that they would be impoverished without their expository narrative voices.

Long expository passages do run risks—of breaking the fictive dream, of becoming didactic, of being just plain boring. Or worst of all, exposition threatens to replace scenes that demand to be dramatized, and a reader won’t forgive that. (This, in my opinion, is the origin of the "show, don't tell" rule. Newbie writers often dodge the most important--and therefore difficult--scenes, or try to explain their way out of complex situations when imagination fails.)

And few readers today want that full-up omniscient voice pausing to tell them, “Had Rodney only known what events his actions would precipitate…” Exposition’s risky. So's driving. So what?

Emerson noted, “When on thin ice, our safety lies in our speed,” and I think that’s a good rule with exposition—don’t dwell on it, keep it interesting, and keep it moving. If you do all that, it won’t seem like an infodump.

The connection between the words “authority” and “author” are obvious, but your authority is never more needed than in exposition. Other times you have drama and the voices of the characters to carry you through. Exposition requires authority. Most teachers and pundits today would have you cast down your gaze and tug your forelock for jumping into your full authorial voice and saying something outside of tight character POV. They've got it backwards. If the narrative voice is going to speak unfiltered by a character, it should do so unapologetically.

Sometimes the quickest way round is straight through. And sometimes ‘slipping’ information into the story does nothing but slow down the pace, make for awkward dialogue, and make you seem like a self-conscious little weasel.

And we may in fact be self-conscious little weasels. But there's no reason to let the reader know that.

Back to Part III ... Forward to Part V

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Out of Stock...and Awe

I find it necessary to interject a brief note into the middle of this ongoing discourse on the problems and joys of expositional prose. The newish Part III is below. Part IV is somewhere above this…or will be.

My MNW evil twin (and who is that, you ask?) pointed out to me that S&A is now “Out of Stock” according to the PanMacmillan website. Which I guess has an optimistic ring to it.

But I received an e-mail the other day from Andrea, a friend who said she knew Shock and Awe’s theme was controversial enough that US publishers said thanks but no thanks…but that she didn’t realize it was going to be made unavailable in the US, and that even Amazon wouldn’t sell it.

Huh? I said (or something equally witty. Hey, I was talking to an e-mail—how witty do you have to be?). Because I know a number of people who’d ordered it from Amazon US. Admittedly, their delivery dates had been pushed off from October to November to December to January, but it was still available for order…Or so I thought.

(I apologize for the preceding overdramatic paragraph break. That was really tacky. Us thriller writers can’t help ourselves.)

I hopped on to Amazon US and looked up the book. Sure enough—you can still buy used copies of Shock and Awe from third parties, but Amazon US no longer allows you to order it new from them.

So, I asked Amazon US about this. Which isn’t easy to do (and can only be done by e-mail) by the way: Amazon US has all of the transparency, accountability, and ease of access of truly scary entities, like the KGB, or the NSA, or British Telecom.

The first answer I was given is that they aren’t quite sure what the problem is, but the book should be listed as available for purchase from Amazon, because copies are on order…

Well, whether or not it “should be listed as available for purchase from Amazon,” it isn’t. So I asked again, and this time that part of the question was ignored. Though she did tell me that, “We have received a few of these items from distributors, but have not yet received them from the publisher.”

Seeing as Amazon Canada has already sold a big stack of copies (they only have one left, but they claim they will have more soon), and even Amazon Japan has the book on hand (with free shipping on orders of over 1,500 yen!), I find this very strange indeed. Help me out with this. I see only three possibilities:

1) Amazon US actually had no intention of procuring the book until they had some critical mass of orders, and by the time they asked for it, Macmillan was out of stock; or,

2) Amazon US fully planned on getting the book, but now that the dollar has collapsed they plan on stalling on any book published in the UK, hoping people will cancel orders based on old exchange rates; or,

3) Andrea is right, and someone in a position of authority has decided this book isn’t fit reading for the tender eyes of my fellow citizens.

Meanwhile, though, you ought to be wary about ordering Shock and Awe from Amazon US, as it may never arrive. As to Andrea's theory, that's just silly.

I could go on, but I’m going to have to cut this short, because there’s a funny noise in the bushes beneath my office window…

Psychic Distance, Exposition, and Information, Part III

Back to Part II ... Forward to Part IV

Tip 2. Use sleight-of-hand when you can

Big jumps in psychic distance are often confusing, and therefore risky. But sometimes these shortcuts work.

Big jumps are often undertaken at the beginning of chapters--open wide, and then jump down to a character in that landscape. It is also commonly done toward chapter ends, after a big scene. We’ve been in close, right in the middle of limited-POV drama, and suddenly we revert to a long-shot: the writer moves from the turmoil in the mind of the POV character to the sun setting in the smog off over the ocean.

Thriller and horror writers are very fond of these big chapter-end psychic-distance jumps, often when the POV character has just been killed. These usually don’t work for me; we are firmly embedded in someone’s consciousness, and now they no longer have a consciousness, so who the hell is suddenly telling me about the blood dripping down and forming puddles on the marble tiles at the base of the stairway?

On the other hand, successful sleight-of-hand jumps vault the reader up or down several levels of psychic distance without jarring them. One of the keys is ambiguity; the starting point can’t be too obviously the pure narrative voice, or too wildly divergent from the knowledge the POV character might have.

I’m very leery of quoting my own prose, not only because it seems egomaniacal, but also because my best examples aren’t short, and I don’t intend to paste two or three pages of my own fiction into the middle of this discussion. (In addition, putting down a paragraph of my own invites unwanted close analysis--i.e. you may decide it sucks.)

Nonetheless, I will put down the shortest example of my own (from Shock and Awe, of course) because I know how it works from the inside--any, anyhow, it was this chapter (though not this passage)Jeremy originally asked me about. Here's a somewhat-frivolous chapter opening from the middle of the book:

It is a puzzle to geographers that Switzerland, a land-locked nation, should be one of the world’s most important manufacturers of diesel engines for ships. But, then, there was really no logic that predicted the country would be a leading chocolatier, either, or that such a famously neutral nation should be a key source of mercenary soldiers, so Lorrie Sanchez added Taneli Filip Karvonen to Switzerland’s list of enigmas. A Finn with a refined British accent, heading a firm of naval architects in Geneva—why not?

That’s a very simple sleight-of-hand transition. It starts in an essayist voice, at the highest level of psychic distance, and then dodges into Lorrie’s perspective in the middle of a line. Lorrie’s smart (we’ve already established that), even a bit of genius. Does she really know all the random facts recited in that paragraph? Maybe. Does she care? Arguably. By the time the paragraph is over, we’re still not in tight, but we’re anchored in Lorrie’s POV, and nobody can prove in a court of law that we weren’t there in the first place.

There’s a later scene in the same chapter—one of the scenes Jeremy did ask me about— where we move from a dispassionate narrative voice describing the architecture of St Peter’s cathedral in Geneva to a few remarks about the Reformation to Lorrie praying in that same cathedral to a few of her thoughts about being there to a backstory element and then on into a dramatized flashback...after which we bounce back up to a series of Lorrie's current thoughts. If the sequence works, it’s because of sleight-of-hand tricks: no sooner establishing one apparent level of distance than using it to dive off into another…while still maintaining plausible deniability. We’re big on plausible deniability in America. We have a lot of lawyers over here.

Did I think about this kind of process while writing it? Hell no. I just muttered it under my breath three million times as I rewrote it, until it sounded okay and didn’t jar me at any point.

But sometimes the jump cut, even without the sleight-of-hand, is the best possible thing. In my view no one has ever outdone Jane Austen, the original Just Do It girl, in the opening of Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

"My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not…

And we’re off, standing on two authorial generalizations to dive headfirst into drama and character. (And "My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day..." is the most devilishly economical introduction of two characters in one line. Jane was one sneaky tactician.)

Back to Part II ... Forward to Part IV

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Psychic Distance, Exposition, and Information, Part II

Back to Part I ... Forward to Part III

Tip 1. Manage psychic distance until it feels perfect

Psychic distance—often just called 'distance'—is one of the most important yet least discussed aspects of craft. Sure, we hear plenty about third person-limited versus omniscient versus first person, and all that jazz, but how often have you heard anyone talk about psychic distance? What books deal with it?

I’ve nosed around in a zillion writing books, and only one of them—John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction—gives distance proper attention. Because Gardner lays it out so cleanly, and far more economically that I could ever manage, I’m going to quote him at length here.

By psychic distance we mean the distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story. Compare the following examples, the first meant to establish great psychic distance, the next meant to establish slightly less, and so on, until in the last example, psychic distance, theoretically at least, is nil.

1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
3. Henry hated snowstorms.
4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul…

When psychic distance is great, we look at the scene as if from far away—our usual position in the traditional tale, remote in time and space, formal in presentation (example 1 above would be appear only in a tale); as distance grows shorter—as the camera dollies in, if you will—we approach the normal ground of the yarn (2 and 3) and short story or realistic novel (2 through 5). At the beginning of a story, in the usual case, we find the writer using either long or medium shots. He moves in a little for scenes of high intensity, draws back for transitions, moves in still closer for the story’s climax. (Variations of all kinds are possible, of course, and the subtle writer is likely to use psychic distance, as he might any other fictional device, to get odd new effects…The point is that psychic distance, whether or not it is used conventionally, must be controlled.)…

…A piece of fiction containing sudden and inexplicable shifts in psychic distance looks amateur and tends to drive the reader away. For instance: “Mary Borden hated woodpeckers. Lord, she thought, they’ll drive me crazy. The young woman had never known any personally, but Mary knew what she liked.”

Gardner’s infamous Mary Borden paragraph only gets more painful the more often you reread it. Yet there is nothing there your average creative writing teacher would counsel against in principle, except to caution against the use of an omniscient-seeming voice.

You hear certain rules again and again nowadays: Avoid the omniscient voice. Never write exposition. Don’t info-dump. Show, don’t tell. What all of these rules do to many writers who try their best to follow them is make them lock in to a narrow range of psychic distances—often just one or two levels of Gardner’s five-level scale.

One psychic distance for the length of a short story may work. One psychic distance for the length of a whole novel is like trying to read next to a beehive—either the relentless buzz will drive you mad, or will gradually become soporific. At least with a real beehive, you have the excitement of risking a bee-sting.

The problem is to modulate psychic distance, from the dispassionate narrator’s voice all the way down to the point where we are getting the POV character’s thoughts directly, without even “thinker tags” (“he wondered” or “she thought”). And the trick here, usually, is to do it so smoothly that the reader never feels a bump at any transition from level to level.

One point I would add is that while a scene (especially a chapter opening) may start wide, in a narrative voice rather than a clear POV, once the writing gets locked in to an intimate level, it is trickier to retreat up to the dispassionate narrative voice again. (Though it can be done.) Zooming in is more forgiving than pulling back.

Back to Part I ... Forward to Part III

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Psychic Distance, Exposition, and Information--Part I of (Who Knows?)

{Jump to Part II]

Jeremy James dropped me a note asking if I could share my thoughts on a particular point of craft. He noted that I sometimes start out at what might seem like an omniscient POV and then segue down into what is a tight limited third-person POV, and he’s right—I like doing that.

In fact, I love doing that, and I even do it in first-person POV, though that makes it a far trickier matter, since the only narrative voice allowed in first-person is that of the narrator. But give something like The Great Gatsby a very close read, and watch how Fitzgerald modulates the voice—at one moment, very intimately Nick Carraway, but at another quite writerly. (Indeed, some of the most famous passages are the writerly ones, while the most famous scenes are more intimately Nick.)

If I understand the question Jeremy’s posed, it was twofold: First, how do you get away with this without the initial sections sounding overinformative and too expository? And, second, how do you get from the seeming omniscience down to a tight interior POV without the reader sensing a POV shift?

Now, it’s not as if Jeremy hasn’t done this sort of thing himself—I’ve read some of his work. And writers do this sort of thing all the time (with greater or lesser intrusiveness). But I think the reason Jeremy tossed me this question was simply to grin while he watches me tie myself in knots trying to answer it. You won’t see this discussed in any book on craft I’ve ever come across: a common problem of technique, commonly ignored. We don’t even have an agreed-upon name for it.

Okay, I can take a challenge. (And I can fail, too.) How do you do this? I’m not sure. Even though I quite often blather on about aspects of craft, I’m generally an intuitive writer. I’m sort of sure what effect I want, and somewhat sure (though my judgment is not wholly reliable) when I am getting that effect. So I putz around until I think I’ve got what I want, which usually involves gnawing my knuckles raw…all to produce something that a reader is unlikely to pause to admire.

And, in fact, I don’t really want the reader to pause and admire. Elmore Leonard says, “If it sounds like writing, I cut it.” I won’t go that far, because I dearly love passages that ‘sound like writing’. But I don’t want the reader to pause and admire, I want the reader to nod, or smile, or frown, but keep on reading the damned story.

I’ve been mulling this over for a couple of weeks now. I think there are four principles at work here. Two of them relate to how psychic distance is modulated; the other two deal with the expository, seemingly omniscient, essayist voice itself.

* Manage psychic distance until it feels perfect
* Use sleight-of-hand when you can, and when you can’t, just say it
* In exposition, be swift, bold, and fearless
* In exposition, be shameless and have some irrelevant fun

I once knew a brilliant professor of intellectual history who claimed he knew he had his lecture prepared when he had three points, and that if the three points all started with the same letter that he had a spectacular lecture ready.

I don’t have three points, and they don’t all start with the same letter, so I’m making it up as I go along. Feel free to chime in, gang—I’m floundering here.

Jump to Part II

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Three Cheers for Upper Hutt!!!

Some time back Tim Stretton wised me up to the usefulness of Google Alerts: Just drop in the search terms and Google will send you e-mail whenever something new turns up. You'll never have to Google yourself (which, as we all know, can give you hair on your palms) again. So I put my name and "Shock and Awe" together in an alert, and ego-surfed no more.

My latest Alert is the most interesting to date: It's my card catalogue entry for the Upper Hutt City Library in Upper Hutt, New Zealand. It had been ages since I'd seen a catalogue card; sort of made me nostalgic for my misspent youth:

Shock and awe/David Isaak
by Isaak, David
Basingstoke : Macmillan New Writing, 2007.

  • Nuclear terrorism -- Fiction.
  • Intelligence officers -- United States -- Fiction
  • Undercover operations -- Fiction
  • Suspense fiction

I also learn that it is presently checked out (though due back on December 12), and that there are five requests pending for it.

I've been to New Zealand a few times and love the place (though Wellington didn't used to be a good place to find yourself on a Wednesday night)--but I've never been to Upper Hutt. I regret this gap in my travels, as I now realize that folks in Upper Hutt are the most discerning and intelligent of their countrymen (and women), and you can bet the next time I visit NZ, Upper Hutt will be on my itinerary.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Magical Realist Films

Neil Ayres, the rodent half of Pootle-and-Rat fame, is also an editor of Serendipity, a journal devoted to Magical Realism. Though his avatar there appears to be a fox rather than a rat. Well, that's Magixal Realism for you; from prey to predator and from brown to red-orange without any explanation.

Knowing that I'd rather spout opinions than do a moment's honest work, Neil kindly asked me if I'd contribute an essay. So if you're inclined, you can read my thoughts on Magical Realist Films over there. And if you aren't so inclined, you can still hop over there and read their fiction. For free.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari: My Damaged Darlings

Alert readers might note I posted over on the Macmillan New Writers site about my inability/reluctance to talk about Works In Progress. Sadly, that doesn't apply to my Works Out of Progress. Those, I can inflict upon you: here is my so-far-unpublished oeuvre. (Or does that mean "egg?")

This is sort of like death, except that it's my life (2002-present) flashing before your eyes. Be grateful it isn't yours.

Things Unseen. My first novel. An "epistomological mystery" featuring a recalcitrant detective whose unconventional, estranged sister has been murdered out in the California desert. The protagonist is Walker Clayborne, PhD in Geology (can you get any more mundane? Can you get any more obvious with the name and profession?) who is the most rational and reductionist of characters until he encounters unlikely facts he can't explain away. Includes side trips into quantum physics, psychedelic drugs, psychic phenomena, eccentric physicists, Bikers for Jesus, cult murders, and--well, you know the sort of thing.

Tomorrowville. The name of this blog, in case you hadn't noticed. I had to figure out how to characterize this puppy in one line (since I live near Hollywood), and the logline is "A grim cyberpunk political romantic comedy." Since that's the most-requested category when folks wander into a bookstore, offers of wealth and fame came flooding in from every corner of the globe.

Actually, my friends and writing pals were sure this one was going to be my debut breakout bestseller (probably because it was so much less baroque and so much more streamlined than Things Unseen.)

Okay, no wealth and no fame, but any number of agents and editors sat with this for longer than I care to remember. And some of them even liked it. They just couldn't figure out what the hell to do with it--witness some of the responses it garnered. Probably publishable twenty years ago or ten years from now (unless reality catches up with it, which is a real danger). Maybe even publishable now, but surely not as a follow-on to Shock and Awe.

A Map of the Edge. Quite possibly my best prose. After reading the first three chapters, one agent who'd read Things Unseen and passed on it called me and asked to see the full manscript as well as to see Things Unseen again, "as I didn't realize when I read it that you were a literary writer."*

Or perhaps she meant she didn't realize I was a "literate" writer.

*She's one of the ones I never got back to with either manuscript, as I was too deep into the next novel to revise...Sorry, Donna, I really am.

As it turns out, I have a handful of rejections from agents who loved the first hundred-fifty pages and then lost the thread. And I had many invitations to resubmit again if I rewrote--but no one could put their finger on what went wrong. "Too much sex and too many drugs--not that I object to either in principle..." one agent wrote me. Though he didn't amuse me nearly as much as the agent--an agent I greatly admire, by the way--advised me that he'd read my "Young Adult Novel" (the protagonist is 15, but I surely wasn't aiming at a readership under 18, as I didn't fancy a jail term), and while he admired the writing and felt quite moved by the characters, he couldn't think of a single editor who would be interested in taking on this book.

MOTE, as it's known to cool people (ie, me and a couple of close friends), is a slightly demented coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old boy in California circa 1969. Sex. Drugs. Ultimately murder. I wear as a badge of honor the fact that a novelist running a workshop I attended said of the first chapter, "This might be the best sex scene I've ever read." Cool. Can we sell the first chapter?

In other words, unpublishable. And, though there's still several agents who said, back in 2004, that they'd love to have first look at any rewrites, I suspect they aren't pining away by their mailboxes waiting for it.

One interesting response, though, came from an agent who was the son of a famous agent, starting up at his dad's agency. He told me my characters were too generic and my writing wasn't "tight enough" for his standards. All of which might be true. But his biggest sales success to date at that time was a novel written by a former professional wrestler. Not that I'm saying professional wrestlers can't set the literary bar for the rest of us...

Smite the Waters. Oops. That's the one that got published: Shock and Awe.

Earthly Vessels. Too cool for mere mortals. The protagonist is a guy who discovers he is the incarnation of a sort of god, and suddenly everyone is trying to kill him or form alliances with him--except he isn't the Chosen One, he isn't the god everyone is expecting, but rather a sort of screwup in the Cosmic Switchboard. In fact, he is the embodiment of Cosmic Screwup, which, as it happens, needs its own avatar.

I've never had this much fun writing a book. It's third-person multi-POV, but there's also a possibly unreliable omniscient narrator who leans into the story whenever he pleases and lectures the reader (possibly unreliably) on the nature of the universe. What really happens with reincarnation. Why the material plane is special. How erections work and how they relate to what you ate for breakfast. What really lives in the sewers of Rome. Different strategies for expanding the human lifspan. Real estate values. How to attract bees. The honest truth about that sort of stuff...maybe.

These books might not be damaged per se. But none of them are anything a fan of Shock and Awe would expect to read after picking up a book with my name on it.

Bottom line? I've had a lot of fun, and even believe I've, however accidentally, perpetrated some decent work. But in marketability I an idiot, or what? (You need not answer that. The "or what" possibilities are even more disturbing than just wearing an "idiot" sign.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

And Now (drum roll), the Paperback Cover

Will showed me the concept for the paperback cover of Shock and Awe a while back, although it wasn't necessarily finalized. The cover seems to have fed through to Amazon, however, so I guess I'm free to post it here:

Will, being the meticulous editor he is, thought this might need to be fiddled a bit, since, as those who've read the book may remember, the ship in question was a large tramp freighter rather than a naval vessel. But if there's such a thing as poetic license, I'd argue book-cover license extends even further.

And I've got to admit it's striking, and a great pair-up with the previous cover. Blue and orange are complementary, and in some of the Golden Dawn rituals these complementary colors are viewed side-by-side, and then the eyes are closed and the colors reverse in the retinal memory and a door into Yetzirah, the World of Formation, opens. So I'd suggest that everyone needs both the paperback and hardback; as occult ritual it comes cheap, doesn't require virgins or the slaughtering of goats (which can be pretty messy in your average home) and is far easier to learn than, say, scrying in shiny japanned black tea trays. So I'd advise you to buy both.

(nb. This works with blue and yellow, too, but, sadly, I can't recommend any books issued in dual blue and yellow versions. Guess you're stuck with this one.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Grumpy Old Bookman Reviews Me

Or rather he reviews Shock and Awe. Not that any of us writers would take reviews of our books personally, right? We've got good distance between ourselves and our books, don't we?

Grumpy's original article on Macmillan New Writing --one of the most-cited articles in the history of the blogosphere (naturally excluding anything about Princess Di or Britney Spears)--was a critical factor in deciding me to submit my manuscript to the imprint in the first place, so I'm jazzed that he understands my disillusioned book. Getting Michael Allen to describe my book as "deeply cynical" is a bit like getting the Pope to describe me as "deeply Catholic." At the moment I'm a pretty happy fella.

What Would You Do If You Were Me? Part I

(Or rather, if you were I? which sounds incredibly awkward. Or, were you I? which is stilted to the point of being bad imitation Shakespeare. Who We Would Be Were You I and other collected poems, by Jonas J. Scribbler.)

So, to put it into Americanese, What Wouldja Do If You Was Me?

No wisecracks, please. No plastic-surgery jibes, no suggestions that I take the cloth, no observations about the eternal rest that can be achieved in a warm bath with the assistance of a sharp blade twisted under the veins in the wrist. Or at the minimum, keep them to yourself and anybody else in the room with you as you read this. Please don't share your merriment. ;-} (Don't you loathe smileys?)

Hey, I never intended to become a thriller writer. I haven’t read many thrillers, and most of them I’ve read were experiences I could easily have lived without. I adore Graham Greene and John Le Carre, of course, and some of Lee Child is exhilarating (if nothing else to see how many sentence fragments can be squeezed into a paragraph without being distracting. Plenty. Many frags. All over the place. Lots. All you need to accomplish Lee Child’s purpose. And then some.) But I’ve probably read less in the thriller genre than in any category apart from romance.

But the topics I needed to grapple with in Shock and Awe only amounted to a story in a thriller framework. So I wrote it that way. And now it turns out I’m a Thriller Writer.

No, really. I’m now a dues-paying member of the International Thriller Writers with my own page, right next to Susan Isaacs in the list (whom, as it turns out I have read, starting way way back with her funny novel Compromising Positions--hi, Susie!). And I’m now a member of the UK-based Crime Writers Association. (And they're a good bunch; they quite justifiably shortlisted Brian McGilloway’s Borderlands on a very short list for best debut novel, which shows damned good taste.) Crime Writer? Thriller Writer? I’m okay with it.

I have any number of things I want to write that fit into the thriller genre in some approximate fashion, though it's the kind of approximate that might result in a starfish on top of your Christmas tree. But Thriller Hotel isn’t an address I mind checking into. These days, I consider being allowed to sleep indoors with the humans to be a big step up in life. (Though the fellow who led me to my room said I could call him Procrustes. Name seems familiar somehow…Did he used to be on TV?)

It’s not that I can’t write thrillers (I hope). It’s not that I dislike writing thrillers. It’s just that I already have these other non-thriller books lying about the house, and they don’t fit with the persona/brand/expectations of a book by that "David Isaak" guy. They aren’t a logical follow-on to Shock and Awe. They’re the sort of thing someone might take as a debut novel…but I’m no longer a debutante. (Male form “debutant”, but no one has ever used that word outside of the dictionary.) I’m not a deb any more. I’m a—well, what the hell do you call me after my coming-out party plus forty-five seconds of mad passion in the back of a Ford Cortina? (That was rhetorical. Don’t answer that question or I’ll punch your lights out.)

So, here’s the question for y’all: If I have these books Macmillan won’t want because they don’t fit my brand (and because I’d have to be an even bigger nutcase than I already am to want them to publish them under my name), what do I do with them? Forget them? Sell them for firewood? Publish them in a small way under a pen name? (I’ve already had an editor at a small press ring my doorbell about one of them.) Try and get a new agent and create a parallel career (which Roger Morris has done with resounding success as RN Morris)? And, if I’m going to go back to agent-seeking, should I look for an agent in the UK or in the US? (And are you aware that most UK agents have adopted a policy of charging 15% for UK residents, but 20% for us wogs? [The wogs start at Calais, or so I’ve been told.])

More on this dilemma (Trilemma? Quadrilemma?) soon.

I’m sure you’re just a-quiver with anticipation. Us thriller writers know how to build the suspense, don't we?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Fingerpost ---------->

I've perpetrated a post about Music and Writing, but you'll have to go the MNW Blog to read it...

My Favorite Movies Nobody Has Seen, #4

Brewster McCloud 1970

Director Robert Altman had one of the most commercially uneven careers in Hollywood, and this seems to have been almost deliberate: no sooner would he be riding high on a critical and financial success (M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player) then he would turn around and direct a series of clearly uncommercial films until his credit with the studios ran dry once again. Brewster McCloud is a clear example of his uncommercial side; it was released in the same year as the massive box office hit M*A*S*H (and even shares star Sally Kellerman).

The moral of Brewster McCloud is almost annoyingly simple: if you become a grown-up, your dreams will die. But the setup is almost irresistible. Brewster (Bud Cort) lives in the Houston Astrodome, where is cared for by a mysterious mother-bird figure (Sally Kellerman). He spends his days exercising so that he will someday be powerful enough to “fly away” on the elaborate flying machine he has built.

Meanwhile, he spends his time studying birds, and in the process encounters some of Houston’s more obnoxious inhabitants, who invariably end up dead. This brings him to the attention of supercop detective Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy), who begins to piece it all together…

Throw in Rene Auberjonois as an ornithology professor who interrupts the film with increasingly eccentric commentary, plus the first film appearance of the quirky Shelley Duvall (who was discovered by Altman’s production scouts where she worked behind a cosmetics counter), and you have a movie that is, if nothing else, truly strange.

And, of course, not available on DVD.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Shock and Awe Joins the Armed Services

Some time back, Aliya Whiteley mentioned on her blog that a few of the RAF folks she knows were glancing through my novel with interest. Even (gasp) threatening to buy the odd copy and pass it around.

I mused that it would be great if there were some way to donate some copies to the service, and, lo, Aliya found one. A few days ago I mailed off a dozen copies of Shock and Awe to the Armed Forces Library Service in Germany, from whence they will be distributed to various sites (including back to the UK).

I've added a little sticker on the title page which suggests that if the reader enjoyed the book, they should drop me an e-mail and let me know where in the world they are. I’m not convinced the little tag will tell me much, since if I don’t get answers, I won’t be sure if

1) No one is reading the book, or
2) People who read the book didn’t enjoy it, or
3) No one looks at title pages (I mean, do you?).

I doubt this move will boost my sales, but it may boost my readership, and that’s just as gratifying. And it’s intriguing to think of someone reading my book in some outpost on the edge of nowhere. (Though on reflection, I'm not sure it's the cheeriest book...)

If this works out, it might be something other writers want to consider. Morally, you can't go wrong donating books to libraries, can you?

Thanks to Aliya for all her help and suggestions. And if you read this and happen to be serving in uniform--hey, check the library.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

I Do Have a New Post--

--but it's over on the Macmillan New Writers Group Blog. (Just click on the link to the left of these words, though, and it will take you there!) It's in response to Roger Morris' wonderful post about anxiety, so you'll want to back up a day and read his first.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My Favorite Movies Nobody Has Seen, #3

A Pure Formality (Une pure formalité) 1994

Director Giuseppe Tornatore, celebrated for his touching Cinema Paradiso, pulls out all the stops on this one. Pulls out all the stops and then presses down on the keyboard with his forearms.

If Franz Kafka had been a filmmaker, this would be his movie. Everything about it is tight, brutal, and bleak, and the small cast and limited locations add to the claustrophobia. In fact, while there are a handful of other actors on the periphery, almost every scene is between the Commissioner (a brilliant acting turn by Roman Polanski) and the novelist Onoff (Gerard Depardieu). At first it appears that Onoff is wrongly accused of some unnamed crime, but as the Commissioner continues to work at him, alternating between sympathy, brutality, and cold logic, it appears that Onoff may be guilty of something after all...yet he seems to have no knowledge of any crime, but— Nope. I shouldn’t say any more. Except that it has an Ennio Morricone score.

A great Italian writer-director, directing a great Polish director-actor and a great French actor in a French production so I can watch it subtitled in English: The EU has been worthwhile after all. (And, of course, you can’t get this on DVD in the US).

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Quick Note

Be aware, all, that shiny reddish Cover the Mirrors has arrived in Faye L. Booth's hands. Literally. Go gaze in admiration.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

You Know Rob

You know Rob. He's that guy with the funny glasses and the bald patch that makes him look like he's been tonsured and...

No, wait a minute. Actually, I was talking to Rob. I was saying: "You know, Rob, the way people are losing commas from around direct address is really beginning to bother me."

Do you (the reader, not Rob) know what I'm talking about? I'd learned that when someone was addressed directly, you offset the name or title with commas. Like so:

"I can't, Rob."

Without that comma

"I can't Rob."

it looks to me as though someone is asserting that they are incapable of engaging in a specific act of larceny, as in the fine distinction drawn by the lyric to She Came in Through the Bathroom Window: "She could steal, but she could not rob."

Even when it's perfectly clear it's a name--and the initial capital letter ought to be a big clue to me--it makes me crazy, and a perverse part of my mind (that would be that largest part) starts talking back to the character. Let me read:

"I can't Peggy!"

and I'm immediately involved in an argument:

"Of course you can Peggy. Anyone can learn to Peggy...Look here, you just balance on one foot, you lift your opposite arm, spin your hand in the air--Yes! You're Peggying!"

And there are plenty of cases where the sense can be changed:

"I can't bear, children, when you scream like that."


"I can't bear children when you scream like that."

Well, who could? Childbirth is difficult enough under the best of circumstances. (With a nod and wink to Dickens.)

More often, the sense is left unchanged, but the sentence just looks all wrong to my eye:

"I believe you sir ought to go sit over there."

(A much-dreaded 'that' after 'believe' would help the above sentence immensely as well.)

I'm encountering more and more of these missing commas, often in published works, as if the ghost of Gertrude Stein has been sneaking in at night and hosing them away.

But, then I wonder if it isn't our own fault. Although I used to begin a certain class of informal e-mails with the salutation:

Hi, Rob--

more recently I have conformed to current practice and written

Hi Rob--

which I believe is leading many people to believe that the comma in direct address is somehow superfluous. (nb. In either case, many of my e-mail correspondents have been puzzled that I call them 'Rob', so I've taken to addressing them by their actual names.)

Is the comma offsetting the name in direct address really considered optional, or are copyeditors everywhere simply slacking off on the job? I hope it isn't optional, and I hope folks start putting them back in, as I find it distracting at best, and downright confusing at worst. Those commas can make a difference. In fact, I'm going to start stuffing them back into my e-mail salutations.

Call me, Ishmael.

We'll do lunch.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

My Favorite Movies Nobody Has Seen, #2

Celine and Julie Go Boating (CĂ©line et Julie vont en bateau) 1974

Jacques Rivette was one of the intellectual leaders of the New Wave in French cinema, but most of his works are seldom seen. The fact that one—Out 1—clocked in at 13 hours, might give you some idea why his commerical success wasn’t greater. Celine and Julie isn’t short either, running three hours and thirteen minutes.

The movie is allusive, intriguing, and ultimately puzzling. The first time I saw it, by the time the final credits began rolling members of the audience were already arguing with one another. The construction is circular; identity-swapping and repetition are key to the film. The spine of the story covers a specifc day some time in the past where a murder was committed in a mansion. Maybe.

Through some form of magic, Julie and Celine, by turns, find themselves in the middle of the family drama inside the mansion, reliving slices of that fateful day from the perspective of some member of the household...except that they forget everything when they come out of the house…but they invariably find a piece of hard candy in their mouth, which, when they share it with the other one—

I give up. There’s several layers of deep logic in the film, but they are all dream logic. It's like Lewis Carroll meets Jonathan Carroll. Some people (I’m one) find Celine and Julie to be gorgeous and hypnotic and mystifying. (And Juliet Berto, who plays Celine, was sex-eeeee. Whoa.) Others find it too puzzling and ultimately soporific to watch. It has been released on VHS, but there is no US (Region 1) DVD. (There is, I’m told, a Region 2 DVD, which is nice for those in Europe and Japan, but useless to Yours Truly.)

Those who like this sort of thing will love it. Those who don't like this sort of thing will probably stop watching after they realize that Juliet Berto only does the one shower scene.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Moonrise Over Our House, Oct 24, 8:16 pm

Hey, does the Moon look a little funny tonight...or is it just me?

Now We're in REAL Trouble

Considering that a half-million people have been displaced by the fire, things have gone amazingly well. Supplies, many of them donated, have been ample in most places, and down south in San Diego many of the residents--including Jeremy James, who often drops comments here--have taken in refugees for the duration. Public order hasn't broken down, and Californians are doing a great job of taking care of one another.

Yesterday, however, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the head of Fatherland--excuse me, Homeland--Security arrived on the scene. Tomorrow George W Bush will arive. That will fill out the all-star team that did such a great job of managing the Hurricane Katrina disaster. With the Federal government deeply involved, things are bound to go downhill very quickly. Is there some way to get these guys to go back to DC and just send a big check to Sacramento?

In a truly scary development, David Thayer informs me that it is sunny in Seattle. Sun in Seattle any time between September and June is against the laws of God and nature. Excuse me, I've got to go--I think I hear pigs flying over our house.

Update: As unlikely as it seemed over the last few days, we are told that our San Diego house survived intact. A big swath of our neighborhood is apparently gone, and the area is still off limits to entry, but our particular street was untouched. Streets north of ours, west of our, south of ours, and east of ours all burned out, but not ours. As I said yesterday--capricious.

Further Update: We have finally heard that our tenants are safely ensconced in a San Diego hotel. That was our final worry, and it was a relief to hear that they are okay.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Capricious Element

As Matt Curran commented, at least floods follow predictable behavior, ruled largely by gravity. On the other hand, take a gander at this photo of the aftermath of the 2003 San Diego Fire:

Houses, one after another, gone, gone, some untouched houses in the foreground. But nice green lawns all up and down the street, and some bushes thriving on those lawns, and, all around, a healthy forest of hardy Aussie eucalyptus.

To get this effect--burning a house without scorching the lawn--the house has to go up like a piece of tissue paper.

Makes me conscious of how many books I own...

UPDATE: The humidity is now so low that swarms of Argentinean Black Ants are coming into our house seeking moisture. You haven't seen surreal until you've seen a white porcelain toilet swarming with black ants. Eat your heart out, Salvador Dali.