The one book on writing that I recommend without hesitation is Stephen King's On Writing. There's another book of the same title, rather older, by George V. Higgins. If you haven't heard of him, that may just be an indication of how old I am... or the types of books you read. He wrote crime thrillers, his first (published in 1972) being made into a movie starring Robert Mitchum. And if you haven't heard of Robert Mitchum, we really are from different generations. But that's part of what I'm talking about.

Except that I've just flicked through the book, which I've not read for, er, about 20 years, and I can't find the passage I was after. Heck. So, some divertissements...

Higgins said this about writers, and it's not entirely comfortable to read:

"Stupid people do not write good fiction. Arrogant, smart people write good fiction. Their arrogance is to demand center stage as the tellers of the stories. Their intelligence is what enables them to conceal that arrogance. If you are a good writer, you are a sneak."

He's more complimentary about readers than writers:

"Never tell your reader what your story is about. Reading is a participatory sport. People do it because they are intelligent and enjoying figuring things out for themselves."

The final paragraph of the book goes: "The secret remains that there is no secret... Those who do [write] can't help themselves. We do it for the hell of it, and those who raise a lot of hell, and then get very lucky, well, we make a living..."

I guess I'm going to have re-read the whole thing slowly. It contains long excerpts followed by discussions, much of it being mid-20th century lit'ry fiction. For a non-US reader, some of them suffer from the same thing as Stephen Jay Gould's Full House and Stephen King's Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon: what I described as "a surfeit of baseball" to one of my American friends.

But perhaps I've misremembered, and the passage I was looking for exists in some entirely different book. The excerpt in question features a telephone conversation between two characters. The non-fiction book's author then names the novel's title and author, and points out that you've probably never heard of them. (I hadn't.)

So what is the passage's distinction? It's the first appearance of a phone conversation in a published novel.

And the point is that no one cares, because putting in a clever leading-edge reference doesn't create a wonderful novel. It's one little sprinkle on the cake.

Robert B. Parker's early novels (which were terrific) often included details of what his characters were wearing. Generally, this is a no-no; but there was always (well, often) something socially telling about the choice of garments. To a young reader now, though, they're just bizarre discriptions of flares and platform shoes.

Writing novels set in the far future, you might avoid this danger. Perhaps an analogue, though, is to make use of some current literary motif in a way that will leave your novel eventually looking dated.

When I went up to Bill Gibson at the '87 Worldcon, I gushed fanboy-wise: "You've revitalized the entire genre! You're brilliant!"

And how dated do the lesser cyberpunk novels look now...?

Leaping further afield still (welcome to my mind), the notion of It From Bit - as I've previously mentioned - arouses my suspicion. Information might be a fundamental aspect of reality - or it might be as misleading as the clockwork universe that was most people's mental extrapolation of Newton's physics. Clocks were the cool, leading edge tech of his day. They became a metaphor for cosmic reality - a metaphor we no longer find exact or rivetting.

In an earlier age, in the Renaissance, the cool thing to have in your home was a map. I've not worked out how that might have affected intellectual worldviews in those days.

Perhaps this is preying on my mind because I've outlined a contemporary, non-SF book in which computer tech needs to be part of the background. Gulp.

On the other hand, the shelf-life of books on real bookstore shelves has been shorter and shorter for decades, so mulling over posterity is even less relevant now than it was. Or on the, er, third hand, ebooks never go out of print, so perhaps that's flipping back to the Old Days.

I remember the Three-Day Week of 1974. Here in Britain, commercial users of electricity - i.e. every business in the country - had power for only three days of every week, which therefore became their new working week. This was due to a massive coal shortage, which at that time was caused by the miners' industrial action... itself a fraught period of our social history.

So however much I like this interweb thingy, the idea of entrusting all my reading material to electronic devices that need a functioning power supply to recharge... Nah. Even though you get a portable library out of it.


Anonymous Lew Lepley said...

John, reading Resolution, book three. Beautiful work, except, why, oh why, in an era when replacing arms would be childs play, was Tom Corcorigan one-armed. Jarred me out of the story quite badly, as I expected you to fix his arm post-haste, at the beginning of the book...
All the best,

Lew Lepley

August 29, 2011 at 6:59 AM  
Blogger John Meaney said...

Good question, Lew... I needed him to be one-armed throughout the first 2 books, but you're right, in Resolution it would have been possible to change that. Before everything went too crazy, of course.

I think that by this time, for Tom, the absence of an arm was part of his identity - including the social stigma of conviction for theft, and even more so his lower-class background - or at least part of what drives him. And he is of course a very driven person.

It was certainly possible technologically, in that he turned down the offer of regrowth treatment in Paradox, because of who was offering it, and the price he would have paid.

Sorry if it jarred you out of the story... There's always a choice of what to include and what to exclude, and that includes inner conflict sometimes. Perhaps I should have examined the issue through Tom's eyes, rather than ignoring it. Hard call.

I'm also slightly wrong-footed by the question - in an interesting way! - because I wrote the book ten years ago, and I'm finding it hard to recreate my mental space sufficiently to give a definitive answer. In fact anything I say sounds like a rationalization, even to me...

I see you live in AZ. My brother was there for some years, living in Phoenix and Tucson, though I first visited in '96, before he moved there. I love the place! (I once, er, survived the Arizona Marathon. "Ran" would be entirely the wrong word.)

August 30, 2011 at 5:23 PM  

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