30 January 2004

Blurb's up

Well, the editing process for Of the City of the Saved... has been rather tiring. But it appears now to be over. The novel's final text has been sent off to the publisher (who may make further changes to it, but hey...), the back cover blurb has been finalised, and all I have to do is sit back and wait for my complimentary copies to show up. (And the feedback from readers, of course.)

The editing was... surprisingly difficult, actually. Only 5 000 words (of 125 000) had to be cut in the end, so my occasional feelings that my offspring was being disembowelled before my eyes were needlessly melodramatic. (4% of someone's mass would constitute, at most, a striking haircut.) Still, the process kept leaving me feeling unsettled and vulnerable. It's very easily to be overly "luvvie" about it, but -- a story you've written is a very personal thing, and having people rummage round in it and pull bits out can be distressing.

Some of the cuts (although not very many of them, because they were mostly paragraphs here and there rather than entire scenes) will turn up as Extras on my website, once Of the City of the Saved... is published.

Coming up with the blurb was more fun, firstly because it involved creating something new, and secondly because I always enjoy writing to strict rules, believing that they loosen up the creativity like a kind of inspirational castor oil. The blurb had to be a certain length, to be immediately arresting, and to convey a clear idea of what the novel was a) like and b) about, without actually spoiling any of the plot. That's quite a strict specification.

My first approach was to try and summarise the salient points of the setup. Since OtCotS... is a huge, sprawling edifice of a book this was something of a challenge, and the result of that approach reads too densely for a back cover. (At only 75 words, the "About the Author" blurb was theoretically even more of a challenge: rather humiliatingly, I managed to cover everything important with a couple of them to spare.)

The cover blurb which I eventually came up with attempts (like the official Preview) to be an interesting and intriguing piece of writing in its own right. It should tease and titillate, tempting the reader to investigate between the covers. Feel free to judge for yourself whether or not it's successful in this.

29 January 2004

A thought on reading Monstrous Regiment

There's a truly enormous amount that could be said about Terry Pratchett and his work. One day I may try and do that. For the moment, may I just observe that his recent Discworld novels (the adult ones, that is) have been amassing a degree of emotional honesty and realism that is beginning to make even the humour look out of place, let alone the comedy trolls and vampires?

Night Watch was extremely good, possibly the best thing Pratchett has ever written, short on laughs though it was. As a study of the absurdity of conflict -- of footsoldiers dying from decisions made by those of a social stratum completely alien to them -- it's very fine. Not quite Les Miserables, perhaps, but within spitting distance of Catch-22.

Monstrous Regiment is more of the same, although now with added comedy vampires. Perhaps Pratchett feels (or his readers have told him) that Night Watch was overly bleak, but to my mind that was what made it magnificent. If I were Pratchett (please God), I'd continue to skim off the whimsical zaniness into his Discworld books for younger readers (which are also pretty good, and not without their own deadly-earnest aspects), and take the adult novels further along the route Night Watch is heading in.

With his wacky early oeuvre -- not to mention his chosen genre, although as I've suggested that's becoming less and less relevant with the progression of his career -- Pratchett is unlikely to be treated by the contemporary literary establishment with the seriousness he deserves. (All credit, though, to AS Byatt for bucking that consensus.) In a couple of generations' time, however, he's going to have been one of our major, and most significant, novelists. He owes it to the readers of that era to leave them the best work he's able to.

19 January 2004

Help! Police!

I bought some new glasses in December. I've been severely short-sighted for years, but it seems I'm now developing some slight astigmatism in my left eye as well. Fantastic.

I admit I didn't buy the cheapest frames in the shop (the shop in question being one of those lengthy opticians' chains). I bought some which cost a little more than that, but which weren't, by these opticians' standards, notably expensive ones. (They were on special offer, of course). I thought it was time for a change from the round glasses I'm used to, so I went for narrower, squarer lenses. I chose to get them in black, because that particular design, when metal-rimmed, inevitably make one look like a Gestapo officer. (Why do Gestapo officers in films wear glasses? Why do so many of them walk with a limp? That doesn't seem terribly ubermensch-isch to me, but maybe I'm not getting the whole picture.)

Anyway. When I got the glasses home, I saw that the case the opticians had given me for them had the word "POLICE" on it. Odd, I thought. Seems a peculiar name for a spectacle frame manufacturer. On the other hand I always thought it was a strange name for a band, and that didn't stop Sting et al. So I thought no more of it.

When I saw my brother over Christmas, he congratulated me (ironically, because that's the sort of brother he is) on having Police glasses.

"What?" I asked him. "Eh?"

He explained that "Police" are an agonisingly trendy designer of fashionable spectacles, and that their frames are worn by international footballer and minor Hindu deity David Beckham.

"Christ," I opined.

I hadn't imagined that Mr Beckham and I had anything in common at all, beyond the human genome and a limited percentage of the English language. How wrong I was. It does seem that the two of us now share an eyeware-related fashion statement. This was brought home to me last Friday at work, when a PE teacher -- a PE teacher! -- congratulated me on the trendiness of the aforementioned spectacles.

I have enough difficulty as it is relating to the PE teachers at St Brad's, since the experiences of my own school years make me profoundly sceptical that anyone could possibly do the job effectively without being an ignorant sadist with a love of power and an unreasoning hatred of... er, pretty much everything else. I do try to be tolerant, though.

But honestly, if they're going to start congratulating me on my entirely accidental choice of spectacles, I can't be held responsible for my actions.

12 January 2004

Thrones, Dominations

I've recently reread the excellent Thrones, Dominations by Dorothy Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh -- the very last detective novel featuring celebrity sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey.

Sayers is far and away my favourite author of detective fiction -- erudite, humane and (for the era, and given that her central character is the brother of an Earl) surprisingly liberal in her politics. Jill Paton Walsh was nominated for the Booker Prize for her thoroughly excellent novel Knowledge of Angels -- a study in atheism and medieval Christianity which pulls off the surprising trick of remaining deeply sympathetic to both, even while the atheist character is being burnt by the Inquisition.

The last novel which Sayers herself completed was Busman's Honeymoon, published in 1937: after this she turned her attentions to larger projects such as her cycle of radio plays on the life of Christ, The Man Born to Be King, and her mammoth translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. (I have both, of course, and they're fab.) Before this, however, she was working on a twelfth Lord Peter novel, and it is this unfinished fragment (already called Thrones, Dominations) which her son's estate asked Paton Walsh to work up into a fully-fledged book.

The first time I read it was shortly after its publication in 1998, and at that point I was unable to agree with Ruth Rendell that "it is impossible to tell where Dorothy L Sayers ends and Jill Paton Walsh begins". It seemed clear to me then that the boundary came a third of the way through, roughly where the murder is announced and what has been a study of two married couples in 1930s high society turns into a (very fine) detective novel. This would be ironic, of course, given that Sayers was known as a detective writer and Paton Walsh isn't, and indeed on this rereading I wasn't so sure. (Then again, last time I had been reading a lot of Sayers, so I was more intimately familiar with her style.)

There's an interesting short essay where Paton Walsh talks about some of the challenges of completing Thrones, Dominations (or Thrones, Denominations as the webpage calls it at one point). What struck me in reading this was the similarity between Paton Walsh's experience of "a fusion [...] in which [Sayers'] vision, her characters, would seem to have become mine", and the experience of writers who contribute to "shared universe" series fiction. (It's certainly unusual for a mainstream literary novelist like Paton Walsh, though.)

I'm interested in the way modern fandoms, such as the various science fiction communities, have their precursors in the followings attracted in previous generations by the great literary detectives. The Sherlockians showed everybody else the way, of course, but respectable readers of the Lord Peter Wimsey adventures (such as the historian of heraldry, CW Scott-Giles, who went so far as publishing a short history of The Wimsey Family) engaged in activities which -- in a modern science fiction fan -- would be considered the very epitome of nerdishness.

Indeed, Sayers herself was not innocent of this. Lord Peter's beloved, Harriet Vane -- by the time of Busman's Honeymoon and Thrones, Dominations, his wife -- is an independent Oxford-educated detective novelist of unconventional sexual morals, who bears a more than passing resemblance to Sayers herself. The Wimsey novels may thus contain the first instance of the fan-fiction phenomenon known as a "Mary-Sue", whereby the author writes into the story a transparent version of themselves, usually with the clear intention that in so doing they will get to shag the central character.

It's pleasing -- and I mean this quite sincerely -- to know that bookish, scholarly types can have such kinship across generations.

06 January 2004

Finally, the Website

I've been neglecting this weblog over the Christmas break. Poor thing. Now I'm back at work, though, and have time to spare which would otherwise be spent on absurd frivolities like assisting stressed students to pass their A-level exams. So I should be able to start paying attention to it again.

First things first. My website is now approved. It's up and running (pending a handful of minor corrections) at www.infinitarian.com. When March comes and my novel, Of the City of the Saved..., is published the site will be augmented with some commentary and deleted scenes. Until then, though, there's a fair amount to get your teeth into: some background material on my contributions to The Book of the War, unofficial and entirely unendorsed illustrations to Of the City of the Saved... and a fair amount of my pre-professional writing. There's also some stuff relating to my thesis, including an interview with sf author Dan Simmons (Hyperion, Endymion etc) which may be of interest. Just don't read it all at once.

The particularly pleasing thing is that, over the Christmas / New Year break, I finished the novel and sent it off to my editor, Lawrence Miles. January will see the whole editing process come alive like a pretty snowdrop from the earth, and by the end of the month we should have a final text. That will include around 5 000 words of cuts, which makes me nervous -- but really, I'm sure I can cope with it given that there'll be 120 000 or so left.

My thesis was far more problematic -- I had to cut that down from 150 000 words to 100 000. Made me the man I am today.

Anyway. The alleged publication date for Of the City of the Saved... is March 2004 for the paperback, and probably a month or so later for the limited edition hardback (and aren't I looking forward to signing those...). There are plenty of links at the website to places where you can pre-order both. So go on -- buy copies and make me very slightly rich.

My next writing project (which I'm not at liberty to reveal at the moment, largely because it's far from being commissioned yet) will have a running commentary on this weblog as I write it.


Why does the same word mean "a moment of secular revelation" and "the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus"? Buggered, as Vivian Stanshall once observed, if I know. I must try to introduce the literary world to an alternative meaning of "Septuagesima" one of these days.