‘Simplicity or style’

Over at The Passive Voice, Passive Guy has reposted a precious little peacock strut by a minor critic, entitled, ‘Simplicity or style: what makes a sentence a masterpiece?’ The author offers one sentence each from Pride and Prejudice, Emma, 1984, Neuromancer, and other works – as if it were the presence of that single sentence in each novel that assured its place in the literary canon.

I found myself strongly moved to reply:


Ah, the Sentence Cult rears its ugly head. A novel is not made of sentences; it is made of scenes and récit, characters and plot elements – building blocks on the narrative level. The individual sentences are always replaceable – else it would be impossible to translate a novel into another language, or make it into a movie. Too often, the writer’s ‘masterpiece’ sentence marks a place where he ought to have followed the advice, ‘Murder your darlings.’

I can think of one notable exception. That is where the great sentence has special meaning and force inside the story. Perhaps it serves as a Leitmotiv; perhaps it is a bit of dialogue that the characters will recall later, and understand more of its import in light of later events. In any case, it must be possible for the reader to take it in stride. If you have to drop out of the story to pause and admire, the writer has manufactured an opportunity to lose you.

All this, of course, is lost on the pinchbeck critic raised on ‘close reading’, which requires one not to experience the interior drama of the story, but instead to remain carefully on the surface. Such a reader is like the nearsighted tourist who spends his whole day looking at pebbles on the beach, and never even notices the ocean.

An experiment in speed writing

Came back Friday night from a short holiday in British Columbia, where lakes were swum in, and hot springs soaked in, and beaches lain upon, and peaches picked and gourmandized. The Beloved Other and I were both much refreshed upon our return.

Today, I began a brief experiment in writing at top speed, to see if I can break myself of some of the perfectionist habits that have so impeded my productivity. I am reminding myself (truthfully, I hope) that there are those who enjoy my writing just as it is; I do not have to make it utterly bulletproof so that a Traditional Publisher will find no excuse to reject it, as I was once warned that I had to do. (Traditional Publishers were quite willing to reject my work without an excuse, because they saw no benefit in admitting me to the Cool Kids’ Club; but that is a rant for another time.)

So, having all but finished the opening episode of Where Angels Die, I am trying to write a rough draft of the second episode in three days. This episode is called ‘The Little Charter’, and it is designed to stand somewhat independently as a story, whilst fitting into the overall arc of the serial: the technique of episodic television. I expect it to weigh in at about 12,000 words when finished.

Four thousand words a day is a biggish output for me, but I often write essais of that length or more in a single sitting. The idea here is to keep myself from niggling unnecessarily, and teach myself to write fiction with roughly the same facility. If I can do that, I may yet manage to pay my bills at this dodge. Fiction is where the money is, but hitherto I have been too slow and sporadic to build an audience with it.

Today I did a chapter-level outline, and wrote about 2,600 words of draft copy. I will have to improve on that pace to meet my goal, but it should be feasible now that the prior planning is quite finished.

Time is not on my side in this venture. Wish me luck!

Writing for the wrong crowd

Very often new writers will try to gain the approval of literary critics, writing books that become more and more obscure and difficult to read, so that the average reader ends up not liking them. They try to load their books with (often simplistic and foolish) metaphors. I call these folks the FRM crowd because they are “fraught with meaning.” Remember: critics don’t buy books. They get them for free, and their tastes are not necessarily the same as the average person.

—David Farland

‘You’re No Good’

In stories, as I have said before, the substance – the events of the story – is the payload, and style is the rocket that delivers it to its target. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, in the other arts. More than fifty years ago, Clint Ballard Jr. created a payload that is still hitting targets today: a three-minute poison-pen letter in rhythm & blues form, called ‘You’re No Good’. It was recorded in a fairly pedestrian R & B style by Dee Dee Warwick, the younger and lesser-known sister of Dionne Warwick, and subsequently by Betty Everett, the Swinging Blue Jeans, and divers other artistes.

But it was Linda Ronstadt who built the rocket that was truly fit to put it in orbit and rain its astringent soul upon the world. Ronstadt belonged firmly to the singer-songwriter tradition that was strongly en vogue in the 1970s, and her version is fuelled by, well, Linda Ronstadt. Her vocal performance delivers the raw emotion that the song demands, refined through the filter of her great musical skill and showmanship. Others before her had sung the song; Ronstadt sold it.

But there is more than one way to build a rocket. Twenty years later, Aswad, a British reggae band heavily influenced by American soul music, recorded their own version of ‘You’re No Good’. I happened to hear it for the first time last night, and was struck by the unexpected power of the recording. The sound is as lush as a Turkish bordello; about fifteen layers of flavoured syrup poured over a base of crystallized honey. It ought to be unbearably cloying. But it is all done in the service of the song; the rocket is built precisely for its payload. Where Ronstadt gave us a show of emotional sincerity, Aswad’s vocalists deliver the words with authority and gravitas, with thick layers of musicianship to make the bitter pill palatable.

When you hear Linda Ronstadt sing ‘You’re No Good’, you feel that you have been told off. When you hear Aswad, you have simply been told: not with bitterness or rancour, but with the finality of a magistrate passing sentence. That, at any rate, was my reaction. I encourage you to judge for yourself:

But there is something rather odd in being told with magisterial finality that you are no good. It may be utterly sincere, but it is not true. This is a point that I should like to go into, for it is a matter of unexpected controversy.
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Progress report

Since inquiries have come from several of the 3.6 Loyal Readers, I answer at large:—

Tonight I finished compiling and formatting the essais that will go into the Superversive collection, and to my surprise, they seem to hang together pretty well, and add up to a sustained and forcible polemic. I still need to go through the drudgery of compiling the bibliography and endnotes (always the worst part of the job), and to write a valedictory piece, ‘Recovering the Tao of Story’. Then I have got to talk Sarah Dimento into doing a cover. I expect to have the new book out in July.

I have also, at long last, come within a few chapters of completing the first episode of Where Angels Die. I am reasonably pleased with the work so far. My original plan was to make the episodes about 60 manuscript pages apiece; that is, roughly as long as the screenplay for a one-hour television drama. But the first episode has a lot more work to do, introducing the main characters and setting up the central conflict; so it will be double that length. This is not without precedent; quite a lot of TV series have premiered as made-for-TV feature films, which were then cut up into two episodes for syndication.

I have sketched out the next three episodes, tentatively entitled ‘The Little Charter’, ‘The Bad Enough Brigade’, and ‘Luck’s Travelling Temple’. I should like to release all of them at once, and get some of the ‘Liliana Nirvana’ effect I referred to earlier. We shall see if this has a salutary effect on sales.

Meanwhile, I am formatting several paperback books for Wendy S. Delmater, and editing a translation of a stage play by Bruno Moreno Ramos. I am open for more commissions of both these kinds, at the right price.

Once all these things are taken care of, I intend to get back to work on the Magnificent Octopus. It is still my firm intention to get The Grey Death out for an autumn release; though at present it looks as if it may be later rather than earlier in that season.

The opposite of funny

chesterton

Mr. McCabe thinks that I am not serious but only funny, because Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else.

 

The question of whether a man expresses himself in a grotesque or laughable phraseology, or in a stately and restrained phraseology, is not a question of motive or of moral state, it is a question of instinctive language and self-expression. Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or short jokes is a problem analogous to whether he chooses to tell the truth in French or German. Whether a man preaches his gospel grotesquely or gravely is merely like the question of whether he preaches it in prose or verse.

The question of whether Swift was funny in his irony is quite another sort of question to the question of whether Swift was serious in his pessimism. Surely even Mr. McCabe would not maintain that the more funny ‘Gulliver’ is in its method the less it can be sincere in its object. The truth is, as I have said, that in this sense the two qualities of fun and seriousness have nothing whatever to do with each other, they are no more comparable than black and triangular.

Mr. Bernard Shaw is funny and sincere. Mr. George Robey is funny and not sincere. Mr. McCabe is sincere and not funny. The average Cabinet Minister is not sincere and not funny.

—G. K. Chesterton, Heretics

Cover design: Your feedback, please?

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Good news, everybody!

The formidable and talented Sarah Dimento has delivered the all-but-final cover design for Where Angels Die, based on my rough concept and rubbishy layout.

I always feel embarrassed when taking cover ideas to Sarah, because something about her puts me in mind of Edna Mode from The Incredibles: ‘This is a hobo suit, dahling, you can’t be seen in this, I won’t allow it!’ But she has a rather nifty way of turning those hobo suits into eye-catching book covers.

The current idea is to release each episode of Angels under separate cover, and then bundle them as a fix-up novel later. To minimize the amount of design work required, we have it in mind to reuse the same design with different background colours (and, of course, episode titles). The design follows the jump below.

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An embarrassment of not-riches

First, the news according to Truman: Last night, I did nothing.

This is because I worked during the day; but the Boneless Beast flaps a scornful pseudopod and replies, ‘Details, details.’ At any rate, I am back on the job with Where Angels Die, even if I am getting the work done outside of abnormal business hours.

Meanwhile, a difficulty arises.

When I sell books in June (as I am doing now, thanks to my Loyal Readers and some new faces), Amazon tots up the account at the end of the month and pays net 30 days – that is, at the end of July. If I keep the nose to the grindstone and so forth, I may be all right to pay my bills for August. But my usual source of income has been temporarily cut off, and I find myself with one foot hanging over the yawning chasm of July and nothing to build a bridge with.

In short, I am scrambling for a few bucks to pay the bills.

If anybody wants either ebooks or print books laid out, typeset, and proofread, I am available for such jobs at the most reasonable rates. Wendy S. Delmater of Abyss & Apex (where I serve as Editor-at-Large) can vouch for my skills in these areas; or you can look at any of my own books and judge of my work for yourself. If you know anybody who is looking for such a service, it couldn’t hurt to mention my name. I can be most easily reached by email through the CONTACT link at the top of this page.

And if you haven’t got any work to send my way – though it pains me to ask – if you happened to drop a few bucks in the tip jar by clicking on the Donate button, it would be received with blessings and gratitude.

I want to get Where Angels Die out, and the Superversive collection, and the McStudge book, and resume publishing The Eye of the Maker, all of which my Loyal Readers have asked me to do; I am here to entertain you, and perhaps give you somewhat to think about. But I need to buy the time to do it.

Your support and good wishes are greatly appreciated. Thank you all,

The equitable division of shirking labour

Last night, I did nothing.

That is, I got no work done on Where Angels Die, which it had been my firm intention to do when I applied the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Instead, I sifted through the archives to choose the right essais for the Superversive collection, and whittled my list down to ten. (But ten of my longer pieces; the book will be slightly longer than Writing Down the Dragon, which will make it my largest collection yet.) Then I imported them into Word, made some necessary edits (mostly to eliminate repetitive bits), and formatted them for submission to Amazon’s Magic Ebook Gonkulator.

‘But you did nothing!’ cried Truman the Boneless Beast. I have introduced you to Truman before, I think. He is a fat little sluglike creature, boneless and quite possibly brainless, who inhabits the subbasement of my mind. His function, such as it is, is to criticize everything I do, and everything I omit to do, and make it out that I am a complete and miserable failure as a human being. I call him Truman because it helps me to imagine him talking in the voice of Truman Capote, who had a voice that nobody could possibly take seriously. (He sounded very much like Droopy, the sad little dog from the Tex Avery cartoons.)

Of course, Truman meant that I wrote no original copy – ignoring the fact that I did several hours of solid work, editing and formatting and so forth, amounting to about half the labour of putting out a new book. (The other half: I shall have to write a new essai especially for the collection, my standard nefarious plot to make my 3.6 Loyal Readers buy it instead of just reading it all here for free.)

So Truman and I have struck a deal; or rather, I have made Truman an offer that he can’t refuse. Every night, when I go to work, I shall do nothing on one particular project; and Truman can castigate me as much as he likes for that. And I shall sneak away and play hooky, and spend my time working on something else, so that I can feel a sense of virtuous accomplishment about the ‘nothing’ that I did.

I regard this as a very fair way to divide up the shirking of labour.

If any of you are afflicted with minor chores or big jobs that you don’t much want to do, and your own inner screamer (miscalled your conscience) is riding you illogically whether you do them or not, I can only humbly suggest that you give this method a try. It seems to be working for me, so far.

And now I hope you will excuse me. The hour draws nigh, and I have my lack of work cut out for me.

Here comes another one: STYLE IS THE ROCKET in paperback

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Order your copy!

With this latest release, all my books are now available in print editions from CreateSpace, except The End of Earth and Sky. That one will have to wait until I have a press-quality map ready. I plan to re-release it (with map) along with The Grey Death, some time later this year, if I am able to work regularly. We shall see.

Thank you all for your support and encouragement. Keep spreading the word!