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