My guest this week is another returner to the series. When she posted about her first novel, her preoccupations included memory and time, and they return again in this new work – a romantic thriller based around the twined stories of an ancient memoir and the world’s first Tarot cards. Music was key to creating these different lands and lives and her mental soundscape includes a tour through ancient Egypt, Milan in the 1400s and the modern seers Dead Can Dance. She is Gwendolyn Womack and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
I had been intending to bring you a craft post this week as I’ve written a guide to suspense for Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman’s Writers Helping Writers blog. But I mistook the date because I’ve been immersed in my current book, but it should come out in the next few days.
Speaking of which, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is maturing nicely, which means we’ve reached the stage of gentle, hair-tearing chaos. I thought I’d share it with you, in case you’re going through book production chaos too, or to prepare you in case, at some point in the future, you strike an iceberg. And to reassure you that if everyone keeps their heads, it comes out right in the end.
At the moment, I have chaos in two departments. The inside of the book and the outside.
I’ve put the text through a thorough developmental thrashing, had scourging feedback from Dave, and sent it to two trusted readers, who are seeing it for the first time.
You could not receive two more different sets of responses. They both think it’s 90% fine, but their suggestions for tweaks show that they had radically different ideas of what the book would be. Expand the vignettes, said one. I love the vignettes, said the other. Add more of this element to fortify the climax, said one. Add more humour, said the other.
The bottom line: something is slightly off, and I have to figure out which set of comments is most in tune with my vision for the book.
Cover design is under way. I had an initial concept, got favourable feedback, changed my mind, got another concept, got favourable feedback about that, and also now conflicting feedback. (I’m not going to reveal the options here until I’m further along because it’s easy to contaminate a jury … and I might need you guys for a mass vote later!)
Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve got my foot on both the brake and the accelerator at the same time and have to figure out which one to choose. And I’m not a mite frustrated. It’s always the way that the things you thought would be easy are difficult, and the things you thought would be difficult are easy.
But I have to remind myself of this when a comment gives me headaches: everyone involved cares about this book. They have its best interests at heart. And I am lucky to have them.
But wait, I also have chaos in a third department: publicity and marketing. I saw a post this week from Jane Friedman that said: ‘Don’t publish your diaries. You’re not Sedaris.’ Later, it reiterated: ‘Don’t publish essay collections or vignettes. You’re NOT SEDARIS.’
Why this prohibition? Because unless you’re a Person Of Significance, diaries, vignettes etc are impossible to sell. Jane’s advice is commercially sound (and is aimed at writers who are seeking traditional deals).
I already knew diaries etc are hard to sell, which is why I recently embarked on an important task – to find comparison titles.
Which brings me to chaos #3. I can’t find any comparison titles.
Book marketing folk say that there’s no such thing as a book that doesn’t have comparison titles, but so far I haven’t found one that’s a close enough fit, and I have gone cross-eyed browsing the stacks of LibraryThing, Goodreads and Amazon. I don’t think for one nanosecond that that I’ve invented a genre, but I’m feeling, rather like the title of the book, lost.
What did my critiquers say? Um, it’s not really like anything.
But I do understand the market a lot better now. And I know what the book is not. It’s not unified by fashionable issues or whacky modes of travel (bicycle, barge, battered camper van). There are no backpacks. The territories aren’t exotic (jungles, tiny forgotten railway stations). It doesn’t contain wisdom for others, or a journalistic hook (conspiracy theorists, scandalous confessions). It’s not a book about moving to a country where lemons grow, or dragging a fridge there.
That in itself is surprising. In my fiction, I like the extravagant concept. But those stories are also knitted from quieter yarn, and that’s what Not Quite Lost is – the kinds of people I’m curious about, what amuses me or appeals to my sense of whimsy, the scent of the mysterious in an ordinary place. While my novels are the bold performances with proscenium and drama, these are the small details. The props. The originals of the characters and places.
Not Quite Lost is like an artist’s sketchpad. An album of songs. In fact, I find those to be easier comparisons because its most distinctive qualities are not so much its content, but its style – things that are hard to translate into algorithms and categories.
I will continue to search for comparison titles. But in the meantime, if you can suggest any I’d be grateful.
Chaos is the rule
Just last week I went to the launch of The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie (you saw her on this blog a few months ago when she was raising funds via Unbound ). Before the launch she confessed to some behind-the-scenes hair-tearing, when some of the book’s files got corrupted, erasing several rounds of refinements and corrections, which meant everybody had to start proof-reading again from scratch, and get it finished in no time whatsoever.
It happens, but we come through in the end.
Thanks for the swan pic USFWS Mountain Prairie on flickr
Are you going through book production chaos? Have you been through it in the past? Let’s swap war stories.
My guest this week is one half of a collaborative writing team known as ‘Christoph Martin’ – which is actually the two minds of Libby O’Loghlin and Christoph Martin Zollinger. Together they are writing the Expansion series of four political thrillers, and music became a common language that helped them keep their ideas in tune. Spanish-language pop from Nicky Jam helped establish some of the locations; Benjamin Clementine suggested a plot twist; and when a character faces terminal illness, David Bowie’s final album Black Star was a guiding light. They’re on the Red Blog with their Undercover Soundtrack.
‘A dead soul, a journalist in a dystopian Scotland, and painful family memories’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Philip Miller
My guest this week has a novel of three complex threads – as you can probably guess from the above description. He says music was as much a part of the process as his notes, plotting and character building. Indeed, he found his way to a music style he’d never before warmed to – prog rock and, specifically, King Crimson. I’ve seen this before with contributors to the series – experiences and interests that you never took much notice of become suddenly essential. As you work on the book, it works on you. Other musical essentials for this author were Kate Bush, who I could never disapprove of, and he says the novel was so essentially ‘Bush’ that he began the edits by playing Hounds of Love on his iPod. He is Philip Miller and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
I haven’t had a hardcore writing post for a while, so today I’m making up for that. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have invited me to their blog to be a guest tutor, and the subject I’ve chosen is love triangles. In spring, a young man’s fancy, etc etc.
Seriously, though, it’s a potent ingredient that can spice up any story, whether it’s centre stage or a dalliance in the wings of the main plot, and can fit into any genre. So I’ve worked out some ground rules to help you make the most of it. Do come over.
Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang is probably better known as its movie adaptation, Arrival. I haven’t yet seen the movie – but before I do, I want to post about the prose story because it pulls off a trick that seems impossible in the literal and external medium of film.
Spoilers follow; if that’s a problem, toodle-pip and see you next time.
Still here? Fasten seatbelt. Off we go.
Story of Your Life opens as alien artefacts appear on Earth. They seem to be windows into a spacecraft. The narrator is a language expert who is called in to help establish contact. This narrative is intercut with another story – a letter to her daughter, who, we soon learn, has died.
Two narrative threads
One of the narrative threads is linear – the process of decoding the language. The other, the story of the daughter, has a more haphazard order. One moment we see her as an infant; the next, her mother is travelling to identify her dead body.
The focus isn’t on revelations or startling events. We’re not directed to wonder what the aliens want and there aren’t any secrets to learn about the daughter and her fate. The story’s interest is smaller scale, an unravelling process of study. While the aliens and humans evaluate each other, the narrator is retracing the times with her daughter. Indeed, for some readers it might veer perilously close to the navel-gazing kind of literary story where nothing appears to happen.
But there is a story
Still, something kept me reading – a sense of exploration, in themes of time, development and change. There’s a searching emotion, a sense of puzzlement. One puzzle is literal – the intellectual task of figuring out the aliens’ language. The other puzzle is less easy to solve – the phenomenon of the narrator’s loss. Her mind grasps at memories and questions: how her daughter could grow up so fast; how parenting could cause such anxiety and wonder; how the narrator’s own life could extend beyond the beginning and the end of her child’s. This interior working is the true quest of the story, the narrative momentum.
As the narrator studies the aliens’ language, she begins to grasp their way of thinking. While humans’ world view is mostly linear, like our sentences that place one word after another, the aliens think in complex constructs of time. Their written language is more like a work of art, an image that contains many ideas all at once. With this comes the main reveal. The action with the aliens is not in the present, but in the past. It’s how the parents met. The family life – and ultimate tragedy – is yet to come.
Described like this, the revelation seems rather negligible, but within the atmosphere of the story I found it to be a powerful perceptional pivot. It suddenly transforms everything we’ve seen.
The process of learning the aliens’ language has altered the narrator’s perception and allowed her to reach a resolution. Because of the way the aliens communicate about time as complete pictures, the narrator is able to see her years with her daughter as a complete, rich life, instead of just its endpoint, a numbing loss. We finish with the narrator and her husband coming together on the night that will be the daughter’s conception – and an uplifting feeling that, if you look at it as a whole, the best is yet to come.
Kurt Vonnegut has said it rather elegantly:
Stephen Hawking found it tantalizing that we could not remember the future. But remembering the future is child’s play for me now. I know what will become of my helpless, trusting babies because they are grown-ups now. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now. To Stephen Hawking and all others younger than myself I say, Be patient. Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and likes you no matter what you are.
And here’s the thing. I don’t know of any medium that could do this better than prose. I’ll be interested to see the film adaptation, but I’m guessing its story will have to be more literal, perhaps including a device like time travel or precognitive vision. It may work well in its own terms, but I can’t see how it could achieve this subtle, deep-level trick of switch and release, which allows the narrator to let go of the tragedy. The interior shifts are as important as the objective facts. And they’re only possible because prose has such a close contact with the reader’s mind.
Tell me your interpretation
As with all good stories, you could argue several interpretations (and do add yours below in the comments if you wish to). But whatever your takeaway, Ted Chiang’s prose has achieved something rather fascinating – the learning process about the alien language has gradually adjusted the reader’s brain.
I think that’s awesome.
I’ll no doubt have more to say when I’ve seen the movie. Meanwhile, if you want to read more about Arrival, plus a little bit about the story, here’s a discussion about how it portrays translators. And if you want to know more about storytelling techniques, you might like the Nail Your Novel books.
What am I working on at the moment? My latest newsletter
My guest this week has just published a collection of vignettes. They’re linked by a sense of time passing, anniversaries both happy and sad, and nostalgia. Music was the way to capture and preserve the essential moments and personal memories she wanted to examine, so the soundtrack was a soundtrack to her life too. She is Theresa Milstein and she’s on the Red Blog now.