Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Son of Sam

Like any other dough boy in the trenches I need something to keep me fighting when I'm up to my knees in mud, dodging bullets and subsisting on the meagre rations the writing game doles out. I don't wrestle a glossy of my sweetheart back home out of the pocket in my battledress but instead turn to Sam Delany's About Writing.

It's one of the few books that utterly changed the way I think about writing and what writing can be. I turn to it when I'm labouring on a story or when one is going well and it has never let me down. It is packed with good sense, useful insights and all round encouragement. There's so much in it that I can open it pretty much at random and find something useful. I'm heartened to discover that successful writers like it too.

But like Nicholson Baker when he wrote about John Updike my liking for this book of Delany's is not based on any familiarity with the rest of his work. I thought I had read some SDR but it turns out I haven't. So I've no idea if SDR's good sense on writing is carried through to his own work. I don't regard that as a problem given that sometimes the best managers were mediocre exponents at their particular trade.

I think that what I like about it most though is that it hums with the sense of what writing can be. Delany claims that writing is about creating false memories - painting a scene so vividly that it feels like a distant memory of an event someone lived through. In example after example in the book he shows how that can be done and how most prose fails to reach such heights. I have to admit I much prefer over-fed prose that borders on the purple though very spare text, such as found in Cormac McCarthy, can be just as good at evoking a sense of place. What matters is that a writer tries for that effect.

Despite buying About Writing a year or so ago I've not rushed out and bought any of SDR's books partly because I don't want to lose the sense of wonder and sheer possibilities that it has brewed within me. By reading quite a few books about being a writer I feel that I've got an idea of the craft it takes - in a way they've taught me how to build a brick wall. But Delany is the only one that has got me thinking about building cathedrals.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Books on tour

I've been on holiday hence the hiatus in posting and while I was away I read The Business of Dying by Simon Kernick. It's a good holiday book in that it is easy enough to read but, to be honest, it's not a great book, not even a good book. Why? Well, the central character was adequately drawn but the prose was pretty lumpen. There were no flights of language that painted a scene effectively, the action scenes were stodgy and the plot was telegraphed so clumsily that even I, who is only an occasional reader of crime fiction, could spot whodunnit.

But what also struck me was that, despite it being shelved under crime, it was a fantasy and it deserved that epithet almost as much as Tolkien does. By that I mean it depicted a world wholly unrecognisable from our own which turned out to be quite comforting in the way it worked. The reactionary revelation at the close of the book suggested that the crimes its central character is investigating, rape and murder of several young women, are caused by conspiracies among the great and the good who rule over us.

That's comforting because it absolves us of any duty of care and the alternative, that these young women are vulnerable because people do not act, is almost too terrifying to contemplate. We have let them down and continue to do so. It is much easier to think that nothing can be done about the neglect society as a whole visits on vulnerable people and it confirms many people in their powerlessness. That's another reason it is a bad book.

I'm not saying that men, or indeed women, in high places do no wrong. I'm sure many have, do and continue to do so. But it is as John Crowley said via Pierce Moffett in Aegypt (and one of my favourite books) - secret societies have not influenced civilisation but the idea that secret societies have influenced society has influenced society. There is no conspiracy, just us. And the sooner we contemplate that and do something about it the better.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Jewel crafting

There are times when a story has to be beaten bloody before you can drag it out into the light. When the words are so reluctant to come forth that you wonder if they perhaps have a better paying day job and that explains why they are so unwilling to show themselves and get down to some graft for you.

And then there are the times when you seem blessed, when the world helps so much with the writing that the cynic who lodges within suspects a set-up and advises you to tread carefully unless the Earth decides that the price of such benevolence is your body and opens up wide to swallow you whole.

I'm having such a time with the story I'm writing right now. Irrational fears about the momentum of the story stop me saying too much about the tale but it is set in New York around Wall Street. I needed some guidance on street names so duly turned to Google maps to find out where a particular subway entrance debouched commuters. And there it was on the map, around the corner from the stairs, a street named The Canyon of Heroes - a perfect fit for the story. So perfect in fact that if it is ever published lots of people will suspect I've made it up. And then there were lots of other parts, names, people and objects that fell into place too. Whether the finished story is better for it remains to be seen.

I've done enough of this to know when the writing is easier because of all the planning that has been done and this story I have planned endlessly - my pack of notes for it is verging on the Brandoesque. But that only explains part of how, or why, it is working. At times it feels like there are other forces at work that you are not so much writing a story as uncovering a hidden history that has always existed, unseen, until someone trips over it and looks back to see what caught their toe and sent them sprawling. And then, in the dust, they discover a gem. Only time will tell whether that turns out to be a diamond or glass.