Thursday, December 18, 2014

A note on The Maltese Falcon

An astonishing proportion of any given page is given over to descriptions of Sam Spade himself: his grins, his grimaces, the set of his shoulders, the variable colour of his eyes. Yet the emotions that inform these are generally opaque, as though the detective himself were the cypher and only his gestures and expressions the clue. This may be the point, since the mystery is not that magnificent diversion, the falcon, or even the murder of Spade's partner, but the question, from the moment the trouble begins: what will Spade do?

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Taste for Death - a tribute to PD James

J.D. James, the preeminent writer of mystery and detection, died late last month. To my mind, she was also a significant novelist and outstanding stylist. I owe a deep debt to her work, firstly, since my Masters thesis on mystery and detective fiction includes a chapter on her work, she helped to cement my interest in the possibilities of mystery novels; and she also belonged to that class of exceptional writers who prove, as I've long suspected, that writing in a particular genre, popular or otherwise, does not signal a retreat from literary excellence but rather the potential for deeper engagement.

James was the closest we have had to an Austenian novelist since Jane Austen herself. Not only was Austen her literary model, but she understood perfectly well that the constraints of genre, in this case the enclosed world of the classical detective story, provided a precise and modulated stage on which to cast a coolly illuminating detective's eye on contemporary society. James used the murder case not just as the foundation for the investigation of a crime, but the investigation of the institutions of British culture, picking through the moral interdependencies, weaknesses, and tangled relationships inherent in institutions from the law, to the church, to publishing, medicine and museums. She had a sharp critical eye for the subtleties of organisations and character. Indeed, many of her characters were administrators, professionals, bureaucrats, often solitary, subtly alienated, of a piece with contemporary humanity.

It may seem odd to say that the comedy of manners was her strength, but although James used the brutality of murder to precipitate her novels – and for James, murder was always a brutal business, no cozy occupation but a source of violent trauma – investigation always led to a restoration of order, an explanation, however contingent.

Her authorial voice was lucid, exceptionally clear, sometimes haunting, combining clarity in detail with atmosphere, and occasionally humour. If her writing could be criticised, it could only be on the narrow charge that her voice was so strong that all her characters in dialogue tended to sound rather like their author herself.

The ambivalent ending to A Taste for Death: 'If you find that you no longer believe, act as if you still believe. If you feel that you can't pray, go on saying the words,' has remained with me a long time. It is an appeal to human order, faith even, in the midst or moral chaos that the detectives cannot untangle. In my thesis, in an off-hand line I proposed that the novelist is God's detective, but if that were so, then P.D. James was our Chief Inspector, and her mastery of her craft will be sorely missed.

Friday, November 14, 2014

NaNoWriMo, or discipline and distraction

November is the National Novel Writing Month (although it has now caught the attention of writers in many nations). Being a writer by intention and calling, I'm always writing a novel, but as an exercise in craft, NaNoWriMo raises some thoughts about discipline and distraction.

Committing to any creative work is a fine thing, a worthy undertaking, but for writers, our commitments to the real, lived world create the challenges – time, focus; in other word, distractions – that NaNoWriMo highlights.

Writing is hard; writing enough requires discipline. We are distracted by our technology, our habits, our connection to the Internet. Like many writers, I sustain this blog, a Goodreads profile, a G+ profile, and that's just writing. We look for the tool that will keep us away from online distractions, and there's even this, the Hemingwrite, a 'distraction free writing device', a fantasy gadget that mimics the writer's myth of the typewriter as perfect writing tool. (I've written on a typewriter: slow, noisy, and impossible to edit; the tech we blame for distracting us also speeds our task enough to contemplate writing 50 000 words in a month.)

But the truth is that our tools are ours to choose. That's a matter of craft, and discipline does not make the business of writing easier or harder, any more than the tools. It only creates the path to getting something done.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Terry Pratchett speaking at the Canterbury Public Library, one drizzly evening in Christchurch, New Zealand. One remark, one figure of his, has always stuck with me: three hundred words a day. That's not much. About a page. It can take ten minutes to write, half an hour, an hour if the scene is complex, the inspiration sluggish. Sometimes, you won't make that, and sometimes you can write twice, three times, much more than that. But three hundred words a day is a discipline, something you can look to and encompass and achieve.

You can learn discipline, but the more important important thing is to exercise it.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Noted in passing: The Devil in the Marshalsea

A recent debut historical thriller, The Devil in the Marshalsea, by Antonia Hodgson, explores familiar terrain to The Raven's Seal.

Indeed, the promotional copy evokes some of the Dickensian themes that drive The Raven's Seal:
The Marshalsea Gaol is a world of its own, with simple rules: Those with family or friends who can lend them a little money may survive in relative comfort. Those with none will starve in squalor and disease.
I hope to have a chance to read it soon, but perhaps readers who have enjoyed The Raven's Seal and enjoy this will return the favour and bring The Raven's Seal to the attention of Hodgson's readership, as the pre-modern prison mystery seems set to gain more followers.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Mark Haddon

The principle difficulty with mystery fiction is the business of telling two stories at once. There is the leading narrative, which must be lucid as any story, composed of incidents and characters that are intelligible and reasonable to the reader, and then there is the covert narrative, built out of clues, hints and sheer misdirection that keeps pace with the primary narrative but must ultimately be unravelled and accounted for as clearly and logically as its counterpart.

Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time cleverly plays with the conventions of mystery by shifting this difficulty from the mystery (the murder of the eponymous dog) to the character of the detective. What is most engaging and moving about the novel is that it forces the reader to read its narrative as though it were a case and points to the distinction between the bare facts and meaning on which detection itself depends.

To explain: Haddon's protagonist and nominal detective, Christopher, is autistic. The condition is never named, but Christopher cannot tolerate lying, cannot read faces or parse the complex emotions that expressions communicate, and cannot tolerate figurative language, although he is an extraordinarily precise observer of facts and details, with a mathematically acute mind. Christopher's revulsion at lies is perhaps aligned with his desperate need to maintain distinction, order and unambiguity in the face the overwhelming stream of reality. His memory for facts and details makes him, in the Holmesian mode, a perfect observer, potentially a perfect detective. All this we understand by inference and reading.

But although Christopher discovers the truth about the mystery, and thereby the suppressed truth about his own family, the solution is trivial compared to the complexity of adult emotions, needs and betrayals to which Christopher is almost completely blind. As a detective, Christopher can uncover the means, but the motives are forever obscure for him. As the last pages in the book outline Christopher's mathematical proof, ending with the triumphant QED, we realise that some proofs and some mysteries will remain outside of Christopher's perceptions.

The reader's task, then, in this work, is not to puzzle out the solution but to experience Christopher's puzzlement, and to understand that though plots are resolved by logic, stories are only brought to life by imagination and sympathy.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Novice and master

I've been writing fiction, serious, publishable (if not actually published) fiction, for over twenty years. I've taught composition and academic writing in the classroom. This semester, I also taught creative writing for the first time. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, not only to address my own passion as a teacher but to see creativity and inspiration develop in the classroom.

I believe that there is no endpoint to writing, only the continuous review and reflection of craft through practice. Writing is holistic and integrated, and so there is no one element of a work that can stand without the others, or be adjusted without affecting the others. We may attain mastery only as long as we think as novices.

But I have noticed that with novice writers I've read over the years there are one or two aspects of craft or 'tells' that show us a beginner's style or voice. This is not a list of pointers on 'how to write' — just a list of writing habits that mark the student.

Show and Tell

I don't wholly follow the workshop cliche 'show, don't tell'. Sometimes, we have to tell, and mostly we choose to show because it is better to let the reader see than force the point. But novice writers often show and tell in the same passage, as if reluctant to trust the details to speak for themselves:
Her hands shook minutely when she took up the scalpel, as her nerves took over her thoughts.

Let speech be speech

Often, dialogue can't be left as dialog. She said, he said, seems too pedestrian. So he commanded. She challenged. He argued. But then the verb drifts away from speech. He chuckled (but that's laughing, not speaking). She keened.
Sometimes it's important to know who is speaking and how, but mostly dialogue should be strong enough to carry its own sense. But then (see show and tell) the novice writer can't let that stand, so:
'Please leave my children, I beg you,' he pleaded.

The stock phrase

Not just the cliche but the familiar phrase, something out of our vast collection of idioms and metaphors that still carry meaning but lack the capacity to surprise, or the precision to make something feel authentic and present. Even when the cliches are deleted, the sense that this has been said the same way before remains.
The same goes for turns of plot and character motivations.

On the other hand, there's also the word, the turn of phrase, that is intended to be poetical and becomes awkward or murky when rendered.

The Auto-correct malapropism

This is a technical point. We all know about Autocorrect, which along with spelling checkers is a fair tool but a terrible master. But the word that Autocorrect introduces unseen is often close but not quite, or unintentionally funny. 
The room was closed up, dusty and dinghy.
I don't trust spelling and grammar correction in any word processor. Machine logic can't produce or apprehend meaning, and so these tools can only apply regular rules to irregular cases.

I won't say anything here about faults in narrative structure or characterisation, although in the end all these things become connected. But all of these tells command attention because, no matter how experienced I become, I will see them or do them again. Seeing them, knowing them, working through them: that's the craft of writing, the path from novice, to master, to novice again.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Fatherhood and writing

I found this reflection from Lev Grossman (author of The Magicians, among other things) quite intriguing. It's an extract from a reflective piece on how fatherhood changed his life and rerouted his writing.

In my case, becoming a father certainly changed my life. Curiously, I sent the manuscript of The Raven's Seal to my publisher just days before my son was born, and the fractured time outside looking after him as a baby was devoted to preparing The Raven's Seal for publication. Something about the urgency of both circumstances, I think, helped me focus.

But I do believe, like Grossman, that a wider sense of family and human relationships are important for a writer. And that writing plans need to be disturbed, even demolished sometimes, so that we can turn to what is really important, in living and writing.

Monday, June 9, 2014

What would Dickens do?

Dickens was a great popular writer, but he was also, in a way rarely seen today, a political writer, and his social criticism should not be buried in the convenient backwater of Victoriana.

Dickens was a social conservative with the imagination of a radical. That is, while he accepted implicitly the middle-class assumptions of the Victorian patriarchy — hard work, the nuclear family, sensible commercial ambition — his sympathies were with the weak, the exploited, the strange and the fanciful, the dispossessed and struggling. And he was far too aware of the power and richness of language to be impressed by pettifoggery, hypocrisy, complacency and indifference, which he attacked at every turn with greater and greater sophistication.

Do you want to imagine what privatised education and charter-schools can devolve into? Reread Nicholas Nickelby. Do you think that corporate interests in collusion with state power always supports innovation? Then read Little Dorrit and take the Circumlocation Office as a warning. Do you think that rationalist economics based on metrics can conjure up human happiness? Check your copy of Hard Times again. Do you dream that the revolution and the apotheosis of state power will be the path to universal freedom? Read A Tale of Two Cities.

So, what would Dickens do in response to the plainly inequitable, the profoundly Scrooge-ish and strangely regressive budget recently produced by the Australian Federal Government under Tony Abbott? Dickens was instrumental in projecting the idea in the English public that the Australian colony could be a nation of opportunity rather than a place of incarceration and punishment. Whatever his reaction, the sheer hypocrisy and political malfeasance of claiming equal sacrifice while rewarding the wealthy and attacking the weakest would surely have attracted his most ferocious attention.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Word is evil

That is, Microsoft Word.

This is a post about tools of the trade rather than craft. But does a sharper chisel make for finer carving? Does a softer brush make a more supple line?

As a Microsoft Word trainer, among other things, which is to say an advanced Word trainer, who has tried and tested virtually every feature of the tool, I often have to tell users that 'Word is evil.' Not evil in the moral sense, but so badly designed and incoherently implemented that it will inevitably frustrate your intentions and prolong the document development task.

Just explaining why would be the start of a hundred posts or more, but consider the almost universally misunderstood implementation of document styles (and themes, and all that), or the frustrating complexity of page breaks, section breaks, and running headers and footers, not to mention the punishing task of inserting simple images.

And yet, as a writer I've used Word for every short story and every novel I have ever published. Why? Because Word and Microsoft Office are ubiquitous, and all our old files are in the same format. Publishers prefer Word files (or sometimes RTF), and now we use the track changes feature to work through editorial issues, so swapping between applications becomes challenging.

And curiously, about the only kind of document Word is any good for, the long document with minimal formatting, is suitable for manuscripts.

Are there alternatives? Apple's Pages is an excellent word processor with a clean interface and less feature clutter, but its export to .doc format is not seamless. Google Docs is clear and functional, and brilliant for outlines, notes and even drafting short inserts from any location, but I like my core writing to be stored somewhere other than the cloud. On the iPad, I admire the simplicity of IAWriter, but although a distraction-free writing window is wonderful, I also want to be able to choose my favourite fonts (Cochin for drafting, Times New for fair copy).

Tools and processes have a subtle relationship. Because I keep my notes and outlines in notebooks and on paper with pencil, I don't need an outlining and note-taking tool added to my word processor. I do long for a simpler, less complex writing environment (there's a reason why George R. R. Martin clings to an obsolete word processor), but I look forward to the day when my writing can follow me everywhere, from the iPad to the study to work. Let's just not pretend that Word is the solution to this problem.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Slow reading The Lord of the Rings: The End (and Back)

Well, I finished slow reading The Lord of the Rings, which means that part of me, like Samwise, goes home, and part of me also continues, sailing out of exile and loss to the Everlasting West. For Tolkien did not mean our visit to faerie to be settling and cosy; it was also meant to be a glimpse of something wild and fair and far, that would change us and remain out of our reach.

But for this last post, I want to talk about the whole work and the structure of reading and writing the extended process of its creation reveals. The impression of depth The Lord of the Rings creates is not located simply in the expanse of Tolkien's world-making and languages, or in the quest narrative, but also in the process of writing and reading itself. By this I mean that The Lord of the Rings changed as it was made.

The Lord of the Rings begins as a sequel to The Hobbit, in tone and content, close to the fairy-tale and the children's book, in the pastoral, pre-industrial Shire. It rapidly becomes something graver and more compelling, as glimpses of the past appear, but one of the passages that always captures my attention is the strange fox in the woods that notices the hobbits, early in the first book. The curious, anthropomorphic fox is to my mind an artefact, almost an archeological fragment, of the earlier children's book narrative.

The passage through Moria changes the book again: here there are depths beneath the earth, shadows and terrors shrouded in ages and darkness. History begins to loom more heavily over the timeless world of the fairy-tale, and the language of action as well as introspection begins to dominate.

By the time of The Return of the King, we have encountered realms and cultures far older than those of the Shire, and the archaic language and rolling, epic diction of the battle scenes pull us even further back in time. We are, in effect, reprising the narrative forms of epic and chronicle, the language of Anglo-saxon battle, as we travel into the deep time of Middle-earth.

Finally, the return to the Shire is a return to modernity, as Saruman's brutal totalitarianism (is there any other kind?) is a reflection of Sauron's absolutist spiritual tyranny. The scouring of the Shire is a necessary return but also a sort of resetting of the clock. The problem is that immersed now in a greater world, the Shire cannot remain an unchanging childhood idyll. Through Sam and Frodo, we can both come home and move on.

And so The Lord of The Rings expands and draws us through its narrative not only in terms of imagined geography or imagined history, but in the very ways of telling that it employs. To read slowly is to see these modes and how wonderfully and deftly they are woven together book by book.

You can read all the Slow Reading The Lord of the Rings posts here.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Digital humanities and programming's first rule

There is an interesting and critical piece here on the role and hype of digital humanities in the humanities.

While I've said elsewhere that interactive fiction and the digital publishing hold great promise for writers as well as scholars, I think overblown representations of the inevitability and scope of new technologies should be considered with the utmost caution.

I recall the simple proposition I learned from programming BASIC in high school: Garbage In, Garbage Out (or ask a silly question, get a silly answer). The digital archive and the digital medium can't substitute for clear, informed thinking and the accumulation of humanist scholarship. Machine logic can only show you the same data in different forms. Literature is a matter for memory, imagination and the human experience; the understanding is in the particulars that data-analysis can only abstract.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

History, fiction, revelance

It's interesting, if disconcerting, to find oneself living in a state of Australia under an administration which seems intent on resurrecting regressive notions in criminal law that were part of the eighteenth century background to The Raven's Seal, or even my new work.

A writer is always on the hunt for new ideas, but this shows me that ideas of crime, law and punishment are always in flux, and that historical attitudes can find currency, and relevance, today. Hence historical fiction is not always about the dead past but instead a dialog between past and present, the character of ourselves as we were and as we are now. Sometimes, the past in fiction illuminates, as we glimpse of ourselves in the historical mist.

For example, the eighteenth century of The Raven's Seal was a period of great economic growth and upheaval: in many ways the foundation and apex of modern capitalism. But the cost of this growth was massive and growing inequality, a broad process of dispossession – an issue more than familiar to us today. In this case, as the few gain extraordinary wealth and the many lose prosperity and stability, I wanted to ask who the real criminals were: where was the invisible hand moving like a pick-pocket's, who could guide it, and who really grew wealthy at the expense of others? This mystery persists with us today, although the causes and policies that contribute to it are not particularly opaque, only the solution. What stands out from the eighteenth century experience is that though the markets are a game, they are by no means a neutral game: those who get to set the rules come to disproportionately reap the prizes, and at the same time label their play by the illusory name "fairness". In the case of The Raven's Seal, the codes of crime and punishment, privilege and service, were part of these rules.

We still live with the legacy and attitudes of the deep eighteenth century. In A Hangman for Ghosts, I'm interested in the "System" as a notion and a mystery, and the system of penal transportation which transplanted whole blocks of the "criminal classes" from one land to another. The task is to weave the story of crime and discovery around it. But as a character notes in The Raven's Seal, if you want to find who's guilty, first ask: "who profits?".

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Slow reading The Lord of the Rings, part 4

A change of scene for reading. A long vacation in New Zealand has given me the chance to advance through Book Five and the battle for Gondor and Minas Tirith. Landscape has a powerful influence of reading: no one who has lived in sight of or visited the Southern Alps of New Zealand can help but see them as the Misty Mountains. Every turn of the road presents a vista of Eriador or The Shire. The vineyards of Malborough are surely those of the Pelennor Fields. All these sights and memories rise in the imagination as I read in New Zealand.

But today I'm thinking about a particular incident: the journey of Aragorn and the Grey Company through the Paths of the Dead. I've thought and read before that Aragorn's journey in the Paths is similar to Gandalf's battle in the deeps of the world against the Balrog, a struggle through death towards rebirth. And so, to some extent, it is. But the Paths of the Dead are not Moria, and this is a journey that Aragorn chooses. To me, the Paths represent the accumulated weight of the past, the legacy and the debts that Aragorn must accept if he is to give up the freedom of Strider to become the King, returned. But just as all forests in Middle-earth are not idyllic but dark and threatening, so the past is sometimes fraught with memory, failure and fear. This is what Aragorn, alone, must bargain with and resolve.

But there is a price to pay, and the character of Aragorn seems to me to become flatter and more remote as the book proceeds. While acting as warrior-king and healer, we glimpse less of his inner life. He becomes less the character and more the symbol.

This is partly in contrast to Theoden, whose death is all the more shocking and moving because we understand the human complexity and vulnerability within the king.

But one thing is clear: although he drew on heroic modes of expression, Tolkien had no illusions about the battlefield. For all that his characters accomplish in war, the instances of blindness, disorientation and sheer terror are what stand out in this reading.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Working out the mystery

For 2014, work continues on my new mystery, A Hangman for Ghosts. A mystery is really two stories: the story of a crime, its consequences and the discovery of the truth of that crime, and the concealed story of what led to the crime, its causes, motives, who is guilty, and why. The investigator leads in the first story to discover the second.

A mystery writer guesses the end, but I for one don't always know what lies between the discovery of the crime and the finding of the criminal. In a sense, I'm writing to work out what happens, and what has happened. And so A Hangman for Ghosts has sometimes intrigued and baffled me, and taken me in unexpected directions as much as the difficult and secretive protagonist. But I'm halfway there, or more, and begin to see it emerging.

In the meantime, here's what I know:

A Hangman for Ghosts

“To escape this place entirely we would need to destroy our memories – we would require a slaughter-man for memory, a hangman for ghosts.”

Sydney, New South Wales, 1829
When a series of brutal murders shake even the penal colony, officials look to the hated executioner, Gabriel Carver, a felon who purchased his own reprieve by turning against his fellow prisoners, for answers. But the sardonic Carver has an aptitude for brutal truths – if not self-preservation – and his dogged search for the truth will lead back to the prison hulks, his own dark path, and into the corrupt heart of the Empire and a shocking reversal.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Slow reading The Lord of the Rings, Part 3

It's been more than a year since I began my project of slowly rereading The Lord of the Rings. These have been some of my most-read posts; though why, I'm not sure (comments are welcome). Slow-reading, closer to the pace at which Tolkien wrote and rewrote, produces some interesting effects of perspective. Passages I hadn't remember stand out, others I had once raced through drag (Fangorn forest, fine; but on this read through, the business of the Ents simply took too long. I felt my patience fraying like Merry and Pippin's).

So here is an update for my entry into the last part of The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King.

Picking up The Return of the King (after a break to plough through The Night Land), I'm interested in how Tolkien seems to take a pause, to slow the action before the great final battles. Normally, one reads rapidly through this part of the epic, anticipating the battle for Minas Tirith and the final journey of the Ring, but this time the preparation for war is invested with an ominous calm and a subtle humanity.

Pippin arrives in Minas Tirith, is presented at the citadel to a proud and brooding Denethor, but he takes meals, looks at the view, walks in the streets, talks with soldiers and boys, watches more companies of armed men arrive. There is a sense of fragility about Minas Tirith, of a culture that is strong but has also atrophied, clinging to its history while losing territory to the Shadow. These early scenes, particularly with Beregond and his son, show us ordinary people preparing for war and disaster. They cheer for reinforcements, although the numbers are too few. They watch the gates and wonder where Faramir is. They touchingly mistake a common Hobbit for a Halfling prince; in other words, they are ordinary as well as heroic. Little happens, but then in war nothing ever really happens until the enemy arrives and the arrows, or the bombs, start falling.

The language of the narrative also changes, shifting from the brisk, sometimes idiomatic language of adventure in The Fellowship of the Ring to the archaic grammar and anachronistic phrasing that suggests Anglo-Saxon and Medieval sources. To my mind, this models the shift from the peripheral, near-eighteenth century Shire to the fulcrum of the conflict, a world remote from us in language and time. More on this as I draw closer to the end.