Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why Dickens?

My aspiring-author son approached me on the run-up to dinner last night. “Remember when you told me not to describe a bunch of stuff unless it was important to the mood or the plot?” he asked. 

“Yeah . . .” I had a funny feeling about this.

“And you said  to use interesting verbs and not so many adverbs.”

“Right . . .” And I knew all that was about to be thrown up into my face, in a way I couldn’t yet predict.

“Well,” he said, “My teacher is making me read GREAT EXPECTATIONS by CHARLES DICKENS!”

Twisting in my socks, I launched my arguments. I explained it was an older style of writing. I tried to point out Dickens’ genius in describing characters, illustrate the historical benefits of reading his work, but it was all for naught. Like so many other people I know, my son is staunchly anti-Dickens. At last, the adults in the room had to fall back on the old, “Everyone should read it!” and, “If you don’t read it, you won’t know what other people are talking about!” Cultural literacy used as a last, desperate assault against the forces of modernity.

There is a good argument to be had for, “Why do I have to read something I don’t like?” These days we have over 500 television channels. If a show comes on we don’t like, there are several more that we might. Music is accessible and varied. There are things to read everywhere—in magazines, on the internet, free, not free, electronic and printed. An endless array of choices. 

So why read Dickens if you don’t have to (of course, in my son's case, he has to)?

I don’t have an answer for that. I can only present this:

                Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond that was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

To me, that’s a great, distinctive style of writing; to my son, it’s a sentence that goes on too long.

Your mileage may vary.

Monday, March 19, 2012

On Covers and Fantasy Books

Recently it was brought to my attention, by Mr. Bryce Dayton and others, that the cover for Daniel Polansky’s new book,  Tomorrow the Killing, is very similar to the cover of my book, The Emperor’s Knife.

I have seen a lot of blue-tinged books in the stores, especially this luminescent, greenish blue, featured below on (the newest edition of?) The Name of the Wind, which also shows a hooded man and a landscape, though in each of these three books the landscape is different:

Though all these covers are beautiful, I notice they seem to be made up of photographs that can be recycled (I think I have seen the man on my cover gracing other books, and you can see a similar device on both The Emperor’s Knife and Tomorrow the Killing). They also use the identical font. Contrast this with the unique cover of Prince of Thorns, drawn by Jason Chan:

Here you see more variation in color, the dramatic cut-out of the cloak from the white background, and the specially created font. I don’t think many would deny this is a special cover.

In the SFF world much is made of covers. Good covers, bad covers, covers that misrepresent the contents. There is no end for discussion here. Since I use a kindle I often don’t see the covers, or see them only in passing as I order the book, and so it is sometimes difficult for me to know how much they might influence the buying habits of others. Still, there are things I have come to understand. First, a cover with a naked male torso, or a romantic-looking male looking off into the distance, are a big turnoff for some men:

While hooded men are code for lots of action and assassin-type stuff:

Swords and men in historical getup mean “fantasy” of one type or another. A girl with her back to the camera, twisting around to look at the reader, means paranormal romance and/or urban fantasy (yikes! This one is holding onto a blade!). A more abstract cover on an SFF book signals that the contents are more adult or literary. A beautiful, ornate cover means you’re going to get some old-school magic and wonder.


Marketing minds at publishing companies must think about who is going to enjoy a book, and then tailor the cover accordingly. (Perhaps Daniel Polansky and I appeal to the same type of reader.) But marketing is more than covers; marketing is price, promotion, placement, distribution, timing, and so much more. The cover is the last thing at the end that causes the shopper to pick your book up from the shelf – but getting that book to the shelf, hopefully at eye level, is a series of other hidden tasks. Count into that the continuing loss of standard bookstores, and you begin to wonder how many sales are still made through covers. 

I’m thinking that besides selling books, covers serve to code a book and help you decide what not to buy as much as they help you decide the opposite. When readers buy such coded books and they don’t match to expectation, the disappointment is greater than if they had known they were trying something new.

In some ways publishers might be more in the dark than amazon. Amazon can reliably tell you, ‘people who clicked on this book also clicked on that book.’ But publishers can only hope that the same people who liked one book will like another, and design the cover accordingly. They know what they want to put out there, and thank goodness for that – but as to who will buy it, perhaps they don’t know the answer any more than you or I. So they use the cover as an opportunity to advertise, to catch the eye, to place the book in the buyer’s mind.

So to answer those who asked whether I planned to protest in some way the similarity between my book’s cover art and Mr. Polansky’s – no (I don’t even know if there is such a mechanism to complain about someone else’s cover art). I don’t care. Maybe we’ll sell one another’s books. Maybe not. But we are both communicating the same thing – an old city, some (perhaps regretful) killing, and some nice prose. At least I hope that’s what we’re communicating. And good luck to all of us!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Living Underwater

It last January that my mother was rushed to the hospital with multiple fatal conditions including kidney failure and internal bleeding, brought on by overenthusiastic medication by her cardiologist. Miraculously, she survived – beginning a ten-month decline ending with her death in October.

During this time life went on about us, with the ordinary joys and stresses of living with a family in a house that requires upkeep. Band recitals, fundraisers, visits to universities with the eldest – one has to show up for these things, preferably in clean clothes and with a somewhat sane demeanor. One must shovel, hammer in that loose floorboard, finally fix the bathroom floor.  Through all of that my mother was lying in a bed, suffering unknowable pain from various infections and her longstanding arthritic condition.

My mother lived her last months with few joys and with much waiting. Waiting to find out the results of the latest test, waiting for the pain medication to kick in, waiting for a visit. Carrying that with me while driving my kids to and fro, doing laundry, and sitting down to write became impossible. I turned down the knob on my emotions. It was the only way I could make it through that one-hour drive to the hospital or nursing home several times a week. The only way to write book two and undergo a dozen interviews, conversing as if life hadn’t just been revealed to me as one great pile of suffering and bullshit. As my mother once said, joking: “Is this IT? That’s all there is?” But she was funny, while I am too often humorless. I had to turn it down.

While it worked for me as a survival strategy, here is the problem. When you exist like that for too long, you become submerged,  and everything on the surface is muffled and distorted. You know how you must feel about things, but you don’t actually feel them – or only long enough to recognize and suppress them. So disconnected from yourself, the main thing you feel is frustration.

And I find that it is not the best way to write. No wonder that in writing KNIFESWORN, I felt most connected to the character who drifts through life on a steady diet of opium, emotionally removed from those around him. Now that the book is finished I have a sense that it is not emotionally honest, that it will ring false – that I have strung together a bunch of emotional reactions that seem right, but that I did not feel. (Luckily, one of the themes of the book is isolation and loneliness. )

A person can’t stay submerged for long.  Those feelings begin to simmer up from the deep, to grab you unawares.  Guilt, anger, grief, and love are all powerful emotions that can drive you before them, lost and confused, and they don’t like to be ignored. They come back with a vengeance and have amazing destructive power.

But it’s not all bad: emotions are a writer’s fuel, and negative ones are like high-octane gasoline. I wish that I could begin KNIFESWORN now, instead of a year ago. I think I’d do a better job at it. I still have book 3, and any other book I might choose to write, but I regret writing KNIFESWORN in a fog. I think that if I had known more about being a professional writer, I would have seen the problem before it was too late. Writing has to come from a true place, a raw place. You have to allow yourself to be there, to live in it, to feel. I know that now.

Writing the first book is easy. You can take your time, and not work on it when things don’t feel right or your life is difficult. With the second you have a deadline. Pressure. Less advice than you had before. It’s enough to set even the strongest of us back. I am going to mark this down as a lesson learned and keep going. There’s not much else to do: March 1, 2013 is another deadline.