In a previous post, I indicated that my girlfriend was in the process of reading my latest novel, Flashback. Well, half an hour before we went out for dinner yesterday evening she finished it. Even before she finished speaking my mind was turning to this blog: Should I write a post about this or not?
She didn’t like it. With the usual caveats, this is worrying. Britta is an intelligent woman — she has a PhD, is good at maths, and regularly wins arguments with me despite conducting them in her second language, is very cute, like animals…hang on, where was I? On the other hand — here comes a caveat — one person’s opinion may or may not reflect the ‘true value’ (whatever the hell that means) of the book. One of my favourite directors, Robert Zemeckis, observed on his Back to the Future DVD commentary that if one person makes a critical comment, you can feel free to ignore them; when you hear the same thing from a second person, you’d better pay attention. But now for a caveat from the opposite direction: very often, these criticisms resonate with half-cooked thoughts that the writer already has. When this kind of resonation exists, the problem is often critical.
So many of Britta’s comments are, potentially, a very individual reaction to the work. I won’t be able to get a good handle on the applicability of her comments until the book is reader by a second person. However, given the seriousness of her comments, the next draft will differ in significant respects.
When I was a boy, I used to think that a book was solely the product of a writer’s effort. That all words were chosen by him, and he thought of them in the order they were written down. My brief experience with writing, however, suggests that the process is essentially collaborative. Other writers provide input, as to friends and family, and, finally, the professional editor who picks up the manuscript. In short, a book-length work can be described as a series of problems. First problem: You need to write it. From there, the problems explode to a galaxy of day-to-day niggles that you’ve just got to work through. When you find a solution to a problem, it makes the work an increment better. Some problems, like tone and characterisation, are really a function thousands of smaller problems. At the lowest level, you’ve got maybe 100, 000 problems: each word in the book. Right now, my book has 120, 000 problems at this level.
So what did Britta think? I’ll outline them here, in ascending order of importance. They might be classed as spoilers, but I doubt you’ll remember them if you read the eventual book.
Too many sciffy ideas
Listed baldly, the book contains: smart matter (which can fly to the hand of the villain like a hawk to a hunter); time travel; brain chips; and nanotechnology. I’ve read books that have a higher ‘sciffy carat’ than Flashback, and they seem to work. Quite possibly, I’m too cavalier in jumping to the implications of technology. But it’s the implications — i.e. how people would deal with them — that interests me. Still, you need to give the reader space to breathe when a electromagentic pulse knocks out a character’s brain chip — which contains their personality, obviously — and they resort to the personality of the biological brain, essentially becoming a different person.
Too much philosophy
According to Britta, there are some scenes — including one where ‘our heroine’ and ‘our villain’ conduct a conversation a la Pacino and De Niro in Heat — where the characters appear to discuss philosophy for no reason at all. In these places, I’ve probably not made the motivations of the characters clear. Looking back on a scene, one can get away with a lot of exposition expressed as dialogue providing that the stakes are high enough — and thus the conflict is peaked — for the characters. Each has to be desperate for information, like Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in Harris’s novels. When that doesn’t work, you get the feeling that the writer is showing off.
Too many characters
We have one principle character — a female English con artist called Jem — and six minors: Saskia, mysterious woman; Karel, a police officer; Hrafn, an aircrash investigator; Danny, the brother of Jem; Kirby, stranded time-traveller. I’m not 100% sure what Britta meant by ‘too many’. This is likely to be a problem with focus; when she was got interested in one character, focus changed to another. A separate issue concerns the number of characters the story can ‘hold’. I think it can hold these seven because I’ve read books that have more characters who are perfectly memorable (Stephen King’s The Stand had shedloads; as did Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying). The test of whether a character is important to the story is simple: If you remove the character, does the story fall apart? This is somewhat similar to the test of the importance of a chunk of prose in the book: if you delete it and story no longer works, the chunk is probably deserves to stay.
Wilfully oblique presentation
This, perhaps, is the most serious criticism because it is something I may not be in a position to change without writing a book with a different identity. One of my favourite authors, Hemmingway, often (perhaps always) subtracted the obvious from his work. As a result, there was often an ‘elephant in the room’ that pressed his characters’ behaviour into interesting shapes. As a writer, I think this forces a greater engagement between the reader and the text, and I use this position consistently in my short fiction. I’ve also developed the habit of squeezing my story to its absolute tightest form. One scene may not make any sense until the reader has worked the significant change between this one and the last, and then understanding will dawn.
What are the implications of this? First, the reader has to work harder. I’m not saying that readers who don’t ‘get it’ aren’t working hard enough. These days, books are read on the train, or with kids screaming in one ear, or in a doctor’s waiting room. The reader has to want to put the effort in because they’re somehow beguiled — that’s what a storyteller should do. But I’m aware that this is not the most user-friendly mode in which to present a piece of fiction. It is, I think, a better product, but it is rarified and more demanding than Dan Brown or Joseph Kanon. Of course, demand is antagonistic to sheer entertainment, and a piece of (publishable) fiction should first and foremost be a piece of entertainment. The trick is to entertain with different things: ideas, prose style, hubris, fear.
The short version is this: I’m not the same person I was when I wrote Déjà Vu. I don’t read the same books. I get more satisfaction from more demanding works these days (not Ulysses-calibre stuff, but David Mitchell, Cormac McCarthy, and others who bend the form a little). It’s entirely possible that I’m drifting from the Dan Brown type of thriller to the John le Carré type. I want a little Neuromancer or Ghost in the Shell complexity; one may not understand every turn of the story on first reading, but there should be a sense that confusion or the not-quite-explained is part of the reading experience.
Anyway, I think the solution to this problem is to tie up the story with an artful scene or two that explains what happened with regards the previous 115,000 words. So, I think I must steer Flashback through the straits of cliche, with, on one side, the Scylla of Scooby-Doo’s Velma explaining how the caretaker did it, and, on the other, the Charybdis of the obscure final episode of Twin Peaks.
Oh, Britta said it’s ‘beautifully written’ and ‘gripping’, but I’ve ignored that.
Laughter. Fade to credits.