Monday, January 31, 2011

I'm working on - The Raven's Seal

The Raven's Seal is the novel I've been working on since late 2004. In fact, the first few lines were written in the winter quiet of Uris Library, at Cornell University.
What is The Raven's Seal? It's an historical mystery, but it's a mystery in the Dickensian sense, in that the characters find themselves thrown into the centre of a mystery that they must navigate and survive as much as investigate.
It's set in the late-eighteenth century city of Airenchester (my own invention, in the tradition of Cloisterham), and in particular, in the precincts and surrounds of the Bellstrom Gaol, where the protagonist, Thaddeus Grainger, is falsely imprisoned for the murder of his rival.
For me as a writer, the device of the mystery, with more than a nod to the Victorian novel of urban mysteries, gives The Raven's Seal a more open, flexible form, encompassing the prison narrative and the novel of society. The mystery (I hope) is an experience, an entertainment, not simply an exercise in detection and deduction.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

E-books and the classics

One of the odd convergences of technology and content around e-books is the availability of many classic authors as free texts through Project Gutenberg, and even the commercial e-publishers themselves. Being free and easy to download, there’s a certain attraction to these works over contemporary (paid) titles.
Will this lead readers back to the pre-modern and early modern classics in the most high-tech context?
To be sure, the typography and text flow of Gutenburg texts leaves a lot to be desired. But then, the conventions of modern pages, such as spacing and the punctuation of speech, are also forms that developed over a considerable period, and were once much looser.
But, more importantly, what happens when readers rediscover writers like Dickens, Wilkie Collins, H.G. Wells, Conrad or Robert Louis Stevenson, in a perfectly cheap and accessible form? Stevenson, for example, in the short stories collected in New Arabian Nights, creates deft literary adventure stories. There’s no sense with Stevenson that adventure and entertainment are at odds with literary sensibility, or that narrative momentum is incompatible with compelling characterisation. Are these the stories the e-book could bring us back to, or invigorate for the future?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Microdungeons, art, writing

This post is one of those occasional gaming pieces, although curiously, I think it bears on writing and fiction as well.
A few months ago, I came across Tony Dowler's intriguing blog Year of the Dungeon, and in particular Dowler's collection of what he calls microdungeons.
I've dabbled in scenario design for roleplaying games, and published one for BRP Adventures. Dowler's microdungeons are hand-drawn sketches for these scenarios, comprising a small map, some suggestive text and labels, sometimes a random table, and very little else in terms of rules, descriptions or directions.
The microdungeons can be literal dungeons, tombs, small mazes, or they can be libraries, quarters of fantasy cities, or even abstractions, devices, mundane objects reinterpreted.
From a gaming point of view, they are like the sketch of a scenario or location, with a great deal of room left for conjecture and development. Inspirations rather than handbooks for play, they can be adapted to any rules that are at hand.
From a writer's point of view, they are almost like a new literary form. They are short stories without plot or character, resolved into setting and perhaps a hint of incident. Or they are primarily a visual form: illustrations or diagrams with a suggestive gloss. They're intriguing because if you think of them in a particular way, they really do create a space for the play of imagination.

Monday, January 10, 2011

G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday: from thriller to Narnia

Part of my reading over the Christmas break...
The Man Who Was Thursday begins as a police-thriller, as a hunt for anarchists. This is Joseph Conrad’s territory in Under Western Eyes or The Secret Agent, where Conrad has a pitiless, sardonic view of the shabby grandiloquence and moral illusions of the anarchist and the secret policeman. Chesterton, for his part, unveils a nice irony, as one by one each member of the anarchists' council is revealed as a secret policeman. At first this is the source of an elegant, uncanny effect, but as each perceived antagonists is uncovered as a hero, the technique becomes predictable, tiresome even.
Incrementally, the novel switches genre, turning from the uncanny to the fantastic to allegory, as Sunday, the ultimate antagonist, is revealed as The Sabbath, God: it’s like travelling from a spy-thriller into Narnia, when the anarchist’s chairman is unmasked as Aslan. This is a provocative, innovative, even perplexing, turn, but I must admit to the feeling of being sold an elaborate sermon in the guise of a narrative.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

"Stories" - some impressions

The new short fiction anthology edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio is labeled (somewhat redundantly), rather than titled, Stories. The collection brings together works from a variety of genres, many of which are themselves hybrid forms, combining elements of speculative fiction, literary fiction and the Gothic.

Gaiman himself provides a remarkable and energising introduction, writing that:
"I love the word fantasy for example, but I love it for the almost infinite room it gives an author to play: an infinite playroom, of a sort, in which the only boundaries are those of the imagination…. There was so much fine fiction, fiction allowing free reign to the imagination of the author, beyond the shelves of genre."

Presenting fine fiction beyond the restrictions of genre is a goal the anthology mostly meets. There are strong pieces, such as Gaiman's own "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" and Joe Hill's formally experimental "The Devil on the Staircase", and other stories of murder, guilt and retribution, like Joe Landsdale's harrowing "The Stars are Falling". There are several tight, mordantly imaginative thrillers, and a smattering of lighter pieces. Diana Wynne Jones and Kurt Andersen bring a welcome lighter touch in tone and theme.

Some don't quite work. "Juvenal Nyx" seems like the introduction of a character for a longer piece or series. "The Therapist" becomes predictable when it moves from a suggestive premise to a more literal explication of the central idea. And Michael Moorcock, a creator of innovative, energetic fantasies, produces a more mundane relationship drama when he steps away from fantasy in "Stories" (that is, a story, in Stories, called "Stories").

Yet, interestingly, Moorcock makes reference to "a 'two way street' to reunite junk, middle-brow, and highbrow fiction." I don't know if Stories is quite the classic of this "new literature of the imagination" the back cover trumpets (isn't all literature a product of the imagination?), but it is certainly an intriguing, innovative and highly readable journey along Moorcock's two-way street.

Friday, January 7, 2011


'Have you ever felt like one of those pawns forgotten in a corner of the board, with the sounds of battle fading behind them? They try to stand straight but wonder if they still have a king to serve.'

Arturo Perez-Reverte
The Seville Communion

Well, not quite. This blog is just getting started, although the action is elsewhere on the board. But I'm interested in writing, literature and genre, especially that messy edge between popular and literary forms, and this blog is intended for all those displaced pieces of thought, work or speculation that don't quite fit anywhere else.