Monday, November 24, 2008

My Synopsis

I've spent the last three days (taking time out for meals, of course) writing up an outline of my novel Earthly Vessels. I showed the results--12 single-spaced pages (with blank lines between paragraphs)--to a friend who has been an editor, and she assured me that, yep, that's what the outline of a novel looks like. And grim going it has been.

Readers of this blog may recall I'm doing this because an agent asked for a 50-75 page partial, and an outline of the rest. He's the only agent I've targeted so far, and he seemed like a good candidate because he's specifically looking for literary fantasy, and lists people like Italo Calvino and Kurt Vonnegut amongst his favorite writers; to me, this bespoke a certain flexibility of mind and excellent taste in literature (which, in my probably deluded frame of reference, suggests he might be interested in Yours Truly. Looked at that way, it's clear I've lost my senses.)

Earthly Vessels doesn't condense or synopsize well. It's by turns goofy and faux-erudite. It's digressive. There's an intrusive unidentified (and possibly unreliable) narrator who elbows his way into the flow of the story at seemingly inappropriate moments and holds forth on matters only tangetially related to the action scene he's interrupting. But a description of the plot gives no clue about all that.

So I took a risk and let some of the tone of the book come out in the query letter:

All cultures have a legend of a Chosen One, a Messiah, a golden child who will be born to redeem them. But thirty-something Arby Keeling is not that guy, and Earthly Vessels is not that story.

To his credit, the agent didn't let my rather flip cover letter put him off, and he then presumably read my synopsis:

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaEARTHLY VESSELS

For the Gods, incarnation has always been a risky business. Gods thrive on worship and on human emotion, and there’s never really enough to go around.

It’s a God-eat-God world out there.

In New York City in 1969, love child Crystal Keeling participates in an occult sex rite with the Children of Pan—a rite that, unbeknownst to her, is designed to bring a God down into manifestation. Annoyed with the cult, she disappears to Oregon, unaware she is pregnant with an entity from the Inner Planes.

The child she carries isn’t the Hero, the Chosen One of the Children of Pan. Instead, because of a metaphysical snafu on the Inner Planes, her son Arby is a manifestation of the tarot card The Fool, the force of improbability and randomness in human nature.

Arby grows up unaware of his heritage, and tries to lead a normal life—a tricky project, when your essence makes things go haywire all around you. But in 2005, thirtysomething Arby unwittingly makes others aware that some unknown God walks the earth. The most powerful incarnated God, Benedikt von Fleischer, sends minions to destroy him; other, lesser powers send their members to try and recruit a new ally.

Rescued by a mysterious blind woman, Arby is led through a series of physical and metaphysical adventures in Rome, where the very earth still twists with all the ancient emotion invested in the Empire and in the Vatican (powerful energy sources for those who know how to feed on them). They escape to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the emotional power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs lives on in the soil. Here Arby finds a community of misfit minor Gods united against von Fleischer’s expanding empire.

From Los Alamos, Arby ventures onto the Inner Planes, learns how to reclaim his essential self; and is driven at last to a confrontation with von Fleischer—a battle that destroys them both, but, through another metaphysical wrong number, results in Arby being born yet again.

Along the way, this novel answers the Big Questions. We learn about the mechanics of penile erection, how reincarnation really works, why when you summon bees you also get rattlesnakes, how Mayan civilization fell, how the fabric of space and time can be modified by extended metaphors, and why, on the most rarefied levels of existence, Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors Ice Cream sells only vanilla.

I know you’ve spent sleepless nights pondering these matters, especially the bit about rattlesnakes. This novel has the answers. Honest.

I have to say that anyone who can read through the foregoing--which includes an editorial 'we', fer Chrissakes--and still want to see parts of the book in question...well, that's my kinda guy.

You need not tell me that I'm breaking the First Commandment of looking for representation, which is Thou shalt not submit material to only one agent at a time and then sit idly by twiddling thy thumbs awaiting an answer. But this is my second time around, so I won't be wearing white at my wedding, and today I'm not looking for just any agent. I'm looking for an agent who, like, yanno, pretty much gets it.

Wish me luck. Or, to be more specific, wish me good luck.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Somewhere Between Too Much and Not Enough

An agent has asked me for an outline of my peculiar lit-fantasy novel Earthly Vessels. I'm already familiar with the unique pain of writing synopses, but an outline is new territory for me.

As I understand an outline, it's supposed to be a fairly bald, chapter-by-chapter accounting of What Happens Next. This is certainly an easier proposition than composing a synopsis, which is an artform of its own. (And one at which good novelists seldom excel.)

I have to confess, however, that Earthly Vessels isn't the sort of book that outlines well. Yes, there is a this-happens-and-then-this-happens throughline. But the book purports to explain all the mysteries of not just the universe but the multiverse. Sorta. And it isn't clear how much of that needs to go in the outline.

The process of outlining brings the whole issue of balance to the fore. In one of his fine essays on writing fiction, Lawrence Block quotes a musician as saying, "The worst thing in the world's when you're singing dirty blues and not going over, and you're not sure if it's 'cause you're too clean or too dirty." When you have something eccentric with potential truckloads of outlandish detail, should you try and keep the detail to a minimum--or should you view it as the whole point of the work, and give it full rein? Some of the novels I like best are stuffed with potentially self-indulgent detail: O'Brian's endless nautical jargon, the faux-scholarly footnoting in Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Fowles' obsessive Victorian trivia in The French Lieutenant's Woman.

The answer, as always, is the Goldilocks Optimum: neither too hot nor too cold, but just right. Easy to say, hard to achieve.

Earthly Vessels runs about 115,000 words. Outlining the chapters makes me think I have rushed the end (a recurrent sin of mine), and perhaps been a little conservative in larding on the details. Even though 115K is a hefty book, I'm afraid it's a little shorter than it ought to be.

Unless, of course, its problem is that it's too long.

There. That clears things up. I'm so glad we had this little chat.

Friday, November 14, 2008


In a post earlier this week, Alis Hawkins said the hardest thing for her was opening a scene. She asked if others had problems with this--and if not, what our own 'hardest thing' was.

I'm happy to say that openings are the easiest thing for me. I love writing openings of any sort--novels, chapters, scenes--because I am less boxed in by the flow of prose, less limited by the preceding paragraph and the other sentences on the page. It's a mini-opportunity to start all over again. As Joan Didion said in her Paris Review interview:

I start a book and I want to make it perfect, to turn it every color, want it to be the world. Ten pages in, I’ve already blown it, limited it, made it less, marred it.

What she says about books applies to chapters and scenes, too.

Openings are so unconfined. One of the things I like best is that you have choices in psychic distance. When you are in the middle of a scene, moving in deeper or backing out for a wider view have to be done with utmost care so as not to upset the balance of the POV. But after a full break of any sort, you have a chance to begin again from whatever distance you choose--you can start from a birds-eye descriptive view, and then zoom in, or you can start in very tight, with a fierce, disorienting effect.

For those of us who tend to write in reasonably disciplined POV, openings--especially chapter openings--are one of the few places we can go omniscient without anyone crying foul. We can drop in some broad exposition, some description, any number of observations that are not quite from the character's viewpoint. No one seems to object to a wide shot before descending into the character's perception, but getting back out again is nearly impossible. Once in a character's head, it's easy to modulate in closer, laying out thoughts in direct narrative, or pulling back a little so the narrative voice takes over again; but it's very difficult to jump back up to a wide, non-personalized perspective. Tight POV is a bit of a bog, and it's hard to get your boots back out of the mud once they've smooshed their way up to the ankles.

(One of the few places where writers seem to pull back from tight POV into wide shots is at endings--of scenes, chapters, or whole novels. This is especially clear when the POV character has just died!)

So, I love openings. And I like writing endings, although in my first draft I often rush them.

The second-hardest thing for me is middles. I'm overly conscious of the paragraphs and sentences just behind, and even as I discover new things to say, I fret. Does that really belong? Am I running too long here? Why am I even writing this scene? There are days when it flows like any low-viscosity simile you care to insert here, but more often there are days when the middle of a scene feels like an airplane ride in high turbulence, with an underlying sensation of sickness and fear you do your best to ignore.

The fact that I am so happy to start but so reluctant to soldier on says something about my personal character. Something rather unflattering, I'm afraid, but there it is.

If all I had to do in life is write openings, I'd be one very happy fellow. Sadly for me, you have to write the rest of the scene. And the rest of the chapter. And the rest of the book.

Oh, yeah. I said middles were the second-hardest thing for me. What's the hardest? I can answer that without hesitation: Deciding what scene needs to be written in the first place.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Accidental Titles and Proverbs

The BBC World Service used to sign off its late-night broadcast by saying, "This is the end of the world news." Anthony Burgess was listening one night and parsed it a little differently, hearing "the end of the world" as a compound adjective. It became the title of one of his most interesting novels, The End of the World News.

I was once involved in planning a conference to be held in Dallas, Texas. We were trying to work out conference logistics and decide which hotel would be best, and I kept pointing out that Dallas really had two airports, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Love Field. Annoyed, my boss at the time said, "David, listen, that's true, but keep this in mind: Love is a small airport."

That stopped me dead, because it sounded so proverbial. Love is a small airport. How true, one says, nodding, how true that is!...people come and they go, no one really dwelling there, and you have to buy overpriced items you really don't want to break the monotony, and...until one stops and says, "Hunh?" It flows easily into a title, though I'm not sure what novel it ought to squat atop: Love is a Small Airport.

A couple of years ago, my friend Kimberly was telling me about a date she went on; the guy decided it would be unique and romantic to take her whale-watching. I'm not sure how romantic the idea is, though the whales at the time were heading south to Baja to congregate at their birthing grounds in Scammon's Lagoon. I guess it depends on where pregnant whales rank on your eroto-meter.

Whether or not you find gravid cetaceans arousing, the date was sort of a bust, since no whales showed up to be watched. In the middle of describing this minor debacle, she started a sentence with, "So, in the absence of whales, we..." at which point I totally lost the thread of her discourse. In the Absence of Whales. Or perhaps Love in the Absence of Whales. How about Whales in Absentia? What the hell, maybe Harry Potter and the Absence of Whales.

I have a stock of other odd proverbial and/or titular phrases people have dropped around me. And I find that many of my chapter titles--at least for the novels where I use chapter titles--come from something a character has said in that chapter's dialogue.

Suspense writer Stuart Woods's explained on Backstory how he came up with his best title ever when he encountered an ad for a trained Labrador Retriever: Excellent Working Bitch. Inspired by the title, he wrote a book to match. Sad to say, although his editor took the book under that title, he eventually had a meeting with the CEO of HarperCollins who made him uderstand that while he had the right under his contract to use that title, he could expect less-than-enthusiatic support from their publicity department unless he changed the title. Hence his novel Orchid Beach. (I'm morally certain that's also how Jincy Willett's hilarious Winner of the National Book Award came about: title first.)

Do you do this--find yourself stumbling across phrases and wanting to turn them into titles, even though you have no corresponding book in mind?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Child's Play

One of the things you've got to admire about the English language is the way tightly related terms can have nuances that are fundamentally opposed.

For example, take "childlike" and "childish." (Okay, after a solid ten seconds of thought those were the only two that occurred to me; but, since they are what I thought of before I started this post, they'll do just fine.)

"Childlike" seems to have connotations of wonderment, innocence, and originality.

"Childish" reads as fussy, unable to cope with simple realities, and an unwillingness to adapt.

Both of them probably apply to writers.

Most small children I've known love to hear the same story over and over. Many of them can detect even the slightest deviation from the sacred text. And some of them seem to get more out of it each time, as if knowing what comes next enhances the intensity of the peak emotional moments, be they funny or tragic.

That's me. There are books I read again and again, and movies or stage productions that I'll immerse myself in until any sane person would wonder if I didn't have a serious problem. It's as well that I don't live in London or New York, as some long-running stage production would push me into destitution far quicker than an addiction to crack. Books at least have the advantage of being cheap and taking up huge spans of time, in which you are prevented from pursuing other addictive behaviors. I've read Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels, all 20 of them, three times through, and some of them more often. Let's not even discuss how many times I've read Tolkein's trilogy. Or Gatsby. Or The Sun Also Rises. Or Zelazny's Lord of Light. Or the usual suspects, like Pride and Prejudice. And the number of standalones I've read three and four times is embarrasing, if only because it indicates how many new books I'm not reading.

I like to think of it as "childlike" rather than "childish," but sometimes I wonder. I always assumed most writers had this habit, but lately I've met some who seldom re-read. I even know one who is a voracious reader but has almost no books in her house; she reads them and then sells them or gives them away, as she doesn't read books twice. (I don't think she's ever seen a movie twice, either.)

Tim Stretton refers to the books we revisit as "comfort books," and I see what he means. True, each time I revisit them, I come away with something new--either a deeper understanding of their genius, or a greater awareness of their failings (and many of the my favorite books have their failings, which should give hope to those of us who are flawed). But when I stop and consider rereading objectively, it strikes me as odd. With all those other books waiting to be read for the first time, why do I do it?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Farewell, Michael Crichton

In all the US election hubbub, the annoucement of the death of novelist Michael Crichton (Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Rising Sun, Congo, and a host of others) today went largely unnoticed. Although he had apparently been in a long battle with cancer, his death yesterday at 66 was referred to by his family as "unexpected."

His prose never drew much attention, either positive or negative, to itself. But what an imagination! The guy practically invented "high concept." He could make a thriller out of anything that happened to intrigue him.

His blockbusters weren't my favorites of his works (though admittedly I haven't read everything he wrote). I think his two historicals, The Great Train Robbery and Eaters of the Dead, were the most fun. The former, of course, is based on real events, and the latter is an interesting speculation on the truth behind the Beowulf story. (Long after it was first published, Eaters of the Dead was made into a so-so film titled The 13th Warrior, but the movie failed to convey the interesting nuances of the novel.)

Michael Crichton wasn't one of my favorite novelists, but it's difficult to imagine a publishing world without him. He's been one of the monsters of the bestseller list since the Andromeda Strain back in 1969; I mean, we're talking pre-Stephen King here, folks. In publishing terms, he was an entire industry of his own.

But the real take-home lesson for writers is: Pick a slow-news day to die.

Crichton did better than Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis, though. Both of them died on November 22, 1963. The death on the same day of two literary figures of their stature would have been much remarked on--had they not chosen to die on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Champagne Time

It's only 9:55 pm Pacific Time, but we just popped the cork. Obama won. And, best of all, McCain conceded in a gracious, nonpartisan fashion I found truly touching (despite some of the booing from the utter creeps he has attracted over the last few months).

When this campaign was in the late primary stages, I couldn't have been more pleased. Although I was committed to Obama early on, when I looked at the line-up of realistic possibilities and found Obama, Clinton, and McCain, I said, hey--any of these would be an improvement! In the case of McCain, I didn't always agree with him, but I thought he was forthright and willing to stand up to political claptrap. In other words, I thought he was that rarity in the USA (and perhaps in the world), a principled politician.

Alas, when he named Sarah Palin as his running mate in an effort to cater to the worst elements of his party, I think he sold out. And I think the New York Times, in their editorial just after Mr Obama won, sums it up quite nicely:

Showing extraordinary focus and quiet certainty, Mr. Obama defeated first Hillary Clinton, who wanted to be president so badly that she lost her bearings, and then John McCain, who forsook his principles for a campaign built on anger and fear.

McCain's concession speech went a long way towards redeeming him.

Now, everybody's making a big deal about the fact that Obama is an African-American. I'd never vote for or against someone because of their race, but I'll admit it's a nice bonus. What makes me happiest is his educational background. After the Bush years, it would be good to have a Constitutional scholar in office, and Con Law is Obama's specialty. Maybe he can patch the poor old document back together.

One of the things that drove me mad about Bush was the way he kept claiming, as he stripped away our civil liberties and set the NSA to spying on us all, "My first duty as President is to protect the lives of the American people." Well, you know, I checked. That isn't his first duty as President. Here's the Oath of Office in full:

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Not to protect lives. To protect the Constitution. Lives are valuable, but still expendable in certain causes, and many were spent to give us that document.

Obama has so much to do. And many of the things he needs to do would limit Presidential powers (especially so-called 'signing statments,' which Bush invoked in 1,100 instances to say that he as President felt free to ignore laws passed by Congress if they interfered with his executive rights). Now there's a real test of character: Is the first thing you do on assuming power is try to limit your own power?

I think Obama may be up to it. I hope so.

Well, enough of that. Time to watch all of our weird California ballot initiatives.

Cheers, everybody.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Can I Buy You a Drink?

I'm passing through London once again, for a meeting on November 27th.

I'll be around on the 26th (though probably worse for wear, having just arrived that morning). At the moment, I have Friday the 28th free. If you're around and available, I'd be happy to knock back a glass of something with y'all.

LATE NEWS: This is cross-posted over on the MNW blog. Len Tyler has kindly offered to locate a venue for Friday evening.

If you're around but Friday evening is out for you, drop me an e-mail and maybe you and I can meet up during the day. Though you'll miss out on the rest of the gang!)