Monthly Archives: October 2018

532. A Writer Lives for Libraries (1)

A bit of this was published in very early posts, but it has been completely rewritten.

A writer lives for libraries.

If you want to be a surgeon, there are a hundred textbooks you will have to read. If you want to be a lawyer, the reading list is even longer. If you want to be a novelist, however, you don’t read textbooks, or how-to books. Oh, you can, but beyond the basics, they are worthless.

If you want to be a writer, you have to read whole libraries.

Of course, for a minimal amount of money, you can live on e-books, and know everything about what people think in 2018. If you want a broader education — if you want to know what people were talking about in 1988, or 1908, or 1758, you need libraries.

(The primary exception to this rule is Project Gutenberg, which I recommend without reservations. Check out this, and this, and especially this.)

I didn’t have access to libraries when I grew up. I was born on a faraway planet called Oklahoma in the fifties, on a farm three miles outside the nearest town, and that town was tiny. We had no plumbing at first and the wind blew through the walls in the winter. Don’t get me wrong; I loved life on the farm, and it wasn’t poverty. This was normal life at the edge of the world on the edge of the modern era.

I learned to read from Little Golden Books. They were cheap, available at the local dry goods store (local means twenty miles away), and Dr Seuss wasn’t writing yet. When I was about ten, my grandfather sent me a copy of Tom Swift Jr. and his Outpost in  Space for my birthday. I was instantly hooked.

We lived midway between three towns, which we visited frequently. If you farmed in the fifties, you spent half your time farming and half your time fixing broken machinery. That takes replacement parts, and that means a trip to the John Deere dealer.

Every time we went to town, my great-grandfather would give me a quarter. Tom Swift Jr., the Hardy Boys mysteries, and Rick Brant adventure books all cost a dollar each. I bought a book every fourth trip. Looking back, most of these books were terrible, but a few were gems.

When I was about twelve my mother dropped my father off to buy parts, then drove to the other end of town and took me into the county library. I had never seen a library and was barely aware that they existed. I almost fell out of my work boots. It was a big room with tables down one side, and ten double shelves of books down the other.

“Library, where have you been all my life?”

The nice lady librarian typed up a temporary library card and told me I could only have one book the first time. She would be a big part of my life until I left for college and I still remember her face, but I never knew her name.

My mother was waiting, so I quickly picked up a book. It was Andre Norton’s Star Man’s Son, and my fate was sealed. more on Wednesday

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531. I Knew!

I suppose there are writers who finish a first draft and move on to the next book. Louis L’amour was like that; you can tell from his goofs. There will be a statement in chapter three that is flatly contradicted by another statement a few chapters later. It’s the kind of thing that even a cursory second reading would have caught.

For the rest of us, there are always bits left on the cutting room floor. In my case, whole novels worth, but I’m probably extreme.

One thing I like about computers is that when inspiration strikes, you can write down an unrelated paragraph or two right in the middle of the chapter you are working on, and then go back to what you were doing before. Maybe put it in bold to catch the eye. Later, at leisure, you can retrieve it. I do that all the time, and with every rereading the bit catches my eye and reminds me to make room for it.

Sometimes, no matter how good a bit is, it never gets used. That offends the little voice in my head that says waste not, but there is no help for it.

I was revising Like Clockwork today when one of those bits shamed me that I couldn’t find a place to use it. For context, one of my characters, called Balfour, is a kind of ghost of Robert Louis Stevenson. In the bit that will never be used, someone says to Balfour . . .

“You wrote a boy’s book about pirates. Who knew that there was anything more than that in you?”

. . .  and Balfour replies . . .

“I knew.”

Anyone who writes genre fiction will understand Balfour’s pique at the assumption that he was only a writer of books for children.

530. In the Valley of Magic

I recently finished JM Williams’s novel In the Valley of Magic, and I’m here to tell you about it.

Over the three years of this blog, I have been liked by quite a few people and most of them are bloggers. I always drop in to see their sites, with mixed results. If they are also writers, I try to sample what they have written. Usually the results belongs in a blog, not a bookstore. That’s not criticism; everybody has to start somewhere. Once in a while they are good, but not my type, so I have to give them a pass. One author wrote an amusing and entertaining first novel, which I reviewed positively, and a second novel I couldn’t get through.

JM Williams is the positive exception. I have read three of his works now, and they have all been excellent. Be careful if you go looking for him, though. An Amazon search will offer more than one JM Williams, and you won’t know which is which. You might try his website to keep things straight.

If you have read Iric, you have already been introduced to Marudal, the scene of the action. Iric’s appearance in the new novel is sadly brief.

JM Williams calls this a short-story-novel. There is no single, main hero. For most of the book, each chapter introduces a new viewpoint character. That may sound challenging, but the characters are cunningly drawn and are mostly people you will want to spend time with. It all works well, although I don’t care for his term short-story-novel. That suggests a fix-up novel, which this definitely is not.

If you don’t know the term, a fix-up novel is a novel made up of often tenuously linked short stories. They were popular in the early days of paperbacks, when writers would mine their short stories from SF magazines and shoehorn them together to make novels. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t.

In the Valley of Magic is nothing like that. It is a single, unified novel, very tightly organized and plot driven. It just has lots of characters, and each one has a piece of the story to tell. By the end of the book, those characters begin to reappear and to interact in ways that bring the whole to a satisfying conclusion.

The characters were varied and interesting, and the ones who should have been appealing, were. Many were flawed, sometimes deeply, and in need of a little redemption. There were plenty of villains, too, but most were self-serving or driven by ignorance and indifference. Some were simply on the wrong side of a developing war.

The plot was complex, and made to seem even more so by the way it was presented by one character at a time. It wasn’t a whodunnit, but more of a a what-the-hell-did-they-just-do? Since we couldn’t ask ourselves, “What will happen next to our hero?” given that our “hero” changed with every chapter, we were left asking, “What was that all about, and what is it going to lead to next?” The plot propelled the story forward and the payoff was well worth the read.

JM Williams also recently published a retelling of a Hans Christian Andersen tale titled The Nightingale. It has a few characters always on stage and the rest in the background, so we see the action through just a few viewpoints. That’s normal, and I wouldn’t mention it except to point out that Williams also excels in traditional storytelling.

529. Dystopia Lost

A few days ago, as I was working on Like Clockwork, a matter came up that calls for sharing a thought. Many dystopian stories end in a catastrophe. This is particularly true in movies, where special effects are always a temptation. Walls fall, the city burns, people flee or die, and the old order is disrupted or brought down. End of story.

Things haven’t quite worked out that way in Like Clockwork, although some of that is certainly on the horizon in my pocket London. I know this because I have already written the bulk of the first half and the bulk of the second half, and now I’m trying to stitch up the middle.

Hemmings — who used to be called Helmsman, and before that was called Bartleby after the scrivener, and who may still have another new name before I’m finished — has just destroyed the God he worships, metaphorically speaking. No problem, it happens all the time, but now he has destroyer’s remorse.

I didn’t expect that, as I sent him out to (deleted to avoid spoiler). It is a peculiarity of the way I think, that every time one of my characters does something I ask myself, “What would happen now in the real world?” Not what would Heinlein do, or what would Zelazny do, or what would Neal or Neil do, but what would Life do?

I can’t imagine Hemmings doing what he just did and getting away clean. He would certainly have to wring his hands and cry, “What have I done?”

When you burn down the church, metaphorically, there is no way to avoid ending up hip deep in ashes. To quote yesterday’s draft, “God had hurled Lucifer out of heaven; Hemmings had hurled himself out.” Hemmings didn’t expect that, nor the regrets which followed. Neither did I.

Writing is certainly an interesting way to spend your time.

528. Repeat, with Variations

You hear it said — author Joe Doakes has written the same book thirty times. The phrase is sometimes supercilious and often has more than a touch of envy hidden in it. The implication is, “Hell, I could do that.”

True confession: I couldn’t. Sometimes I feel good about that, and sometimes I wish I could do that, because repetition is one of the main paths to $ucce$$. I keep telling myself it is not the only path.

If you are, or want to be, a writer, you should examine this notion from the viewpoint of a reader, standing in front of a shelf of books, with only enough money and time to buy and read one of them.

The one with the naked woman catches your eye (male viewpoint assumed; for alternate gender, insert your own preference) but you’ve been burned by that advertising gimmick before. One looks likely, but you’ve never read anything by that author before, so you hesitate. If you could find a book by a favorite author, you would be reassured. If you could find a book by your favorite author, featuring a favorite character, your satisfaction would be almost certain.

It’s that simple. In addition, the author has the advantage of not having to invent a new main character for each book. It might be that finding something new for an old character to do would become tedious, but I can’t report on that from personal experience. No wonder publishers want books that can become the first of a new series.

We are talking about comfort food books here; true escapist reading for the times when you want to think, but only just a little. Television substitutes. Something for the long-haul trucker to read at night to take his mind off the fact that his wife is two thousand miles away, and what he would really like to be doing is . . .; you get the picture.

For me, during my first twenty years of writing, my go-to escape was Louis L’amour. I was writing science fiction and fantasy; he was writing westerns. He didn’t exactly write the same book fifty times. If he had, I couldn’t tell his good ones from his bad ones, and he had both. (Read Flint or Conagher, but avoid The Haunted Mesa.)

After beating my head against the typewriter (this was pre-computer) for a few hours, I would pick up a Louis L’amour western and ride off across the plains. Thoughts of interstellar travel were banished until the imagination well refilled itself. It was good stuff, but I don’t read him much any more. I have them all memorized.

I also have Heinlein in the photo at the top, which is a little unfair. He was not guilty of writing the same novel over and over (people who have only read from the second half of his career may disagree), but he only had one character. Male, female, both alternating, old, young — it didn’t matter. Every one was the Heinlein character, so if you liked one of his books, you were likely to like the rest. And if not, not.

The Travis McGee books are a clinic in how to do a series character who can continue to repeat with variations. No one ever did branding as well as John D. MacDonald. Every book contained a color in the title. He wrote The Deep Blue Good-by, Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying, the Quick Red Fox, and seventeen more shades. You could recognize a McGee book from across the bookstore. MacDonald’s biography was titled The Red Hot Typewriter. In it, he explained that before he committed to the series, he wrote the first two novels to see if he could stand to be married to McGee for decades. For more, see 49. The Green Ripper.

The Spencer novels belong here as well. I read with pleasure through the first ten or so; each one was reasonably unique and expanded his character. The next thirty were increasingly dreary repetitions; they provided a quick escape and as quickly faded from memory. I still occasionally re-read one of the early novels, but the rest were all one-and-done.

Today, when the writing stalls, I rinse my mind out with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I can’t say I really like them, but I always know what to expect.