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 Those, I can inflict upon you: here is my so-far-unpublished oeuvre.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 terms...am 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.