Category Archives: writing

Of Friends in Tombs, or ‘Shut Up, This Fight is Making your Party’: Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer 1988

To me, Norman Mailer was one of the finest prose styl­ists of the twen­ti­eth century.

This excerpt is from Of a Fire on the Moon (1970, p 354):

Armstrong and Aldrin were to do an EVA that night. EVA stood for Extra Vehicle Activity, and that was pre­sum­ably a way to describe the most curi­ous steps ever taken. It is one thing to murder the lan­guage of Shakespeare — another to be unaware how rich was the vic­tim. Future murders stood in the shadow of the acronyms.

He was also a pub­lic intel­lec­tual, an icon­o­clast, and a buf­foon of epic proportions.

A report of a cock­tail party from 1977 (related by Lennon, p 513):

[Mailer] went imme­di­ately to the liv­ing room and as soon as he saw Vidal, Janklow [a bystander] said, “He charged.” Mailer told a Washington Post reporter that he had “been look­ing for Gore [Vidal] six years and last night I finally found him. When I saw Gore, I just felt like but­ting him in the head, so I did.” Accounts vary, but it seems that Mailer threw a gin-and-tonic in Vidal’s face and bounced the glass off his head. …The host­ess walked in from the kit­chen, unhappy to see a fight at her party. “God, this is awful; some­body do some­thing,” she yelled. Clay Felker, at ring­side, said, “Shut up, this fight is mak­ing your party.”

Why did Mailer phys­ic­ally attack Vidal? Certainly it related to unkind words penned by the lat­ter. Certainly it com­bined the duellist’s need for viol­ent sat­is­fac­tion, Mailer’s idea of releas­ing the dogs of his mas­culin­ity, and a deeper, mys­tic notion that unmet chal­lenges cre­ate a psychic revolt at the level of the cell, can­cer being the result.

For Christmas, I was given Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J Michael Lennon. It’s an excel­lent bio­graphy that, among other things, con­trasts the pub­lic Mailer and the private. This blog post is not a review, but a record of thoughts I had while read­ing Lennon’s book.

Money in the Bank

Mailer spent his life look­ing for exper­i­ence. He did this, in part, because the chief dif­fi­culty for the nov­el­ist is obtain­ing mater­ial. Douglas Adams once wrote some­thing along these lines: “Your whole life is research for your first novel. The research for your second novel takes about a year, and is mostly spent in bookshops.”

Mailer did not spend much time in bookshops.

Graham Greene wrote:

The great advant­age of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listen­ing to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is use­ful to a writer, you see — every scrap, even the longest and most bor­ing of lunch­eon parties.

This is half of Mailer. He com­ple­men­ted it with a liv­ing exper­i­ment in the pur­suit of exper­i­ence. Too often, he agreed to capers–like trav­el­ling to Russia on the prom­ise of access to Lee Harvey Oswald’s KGB files–for credit in the bank of mater­ial. The drugs provided as much illu­min­a­tion as a lit fuse. Here is the nadir of writ­ing The Deer Park (1955), as described by Lennon (p. 193):

Without drugs, he couldn’t write; he needed more than in the past. Along with marijuana, Seconal [a bar­bit­ur­ate], booze, cof­fee, and two packs of cigar­ettes a day, he began tak­ing a tran­quil­izer, Miltown… “Bombed and sapped and charged and stoned,” he lurched for­ward through May, feel­ing as he had when on [war-time] patrols in Luzon.

Everything You Know is Wrong

Mailer was an exist­en­tial­ist, a philo­soph­ical school defined more by a push away from clas­sic ortho­doxy than the pull of well-argued altern­at­ives. The heart of exist­en­tial­ism, accord­ing to Walter Kaufmann (1975, p. 75), is:

The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repu­di­ation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and espe­cially of sys­tems, and a marked dis­sat­is­fac­tion with tra­di­tional philo­sophy as super­fi­cial, aca­demic, and remote from life

Mailer val­ued the primacy of exper­i­ence (as a truth, or some­thing closer to it that than the truth presen­ted by logical pos­it­iv­ism). The richer that exper­i­ence, the bet­ter. Hell-raising lives next door to this idea. Here’s Nietzsche (The Gay Science, sec­tion 283):

…Believe me, the secret of the greatest fruit­ful­ness and the greatest enjoy­ment of exist­ence is: to live dan­ger­ously! Build your cit­ies under Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves!

From the per­spect­ive of the writer, there is value in this. If exper­i­ence is credit, woe betide the over­drawn. But there is some danger, as most people will recog­nise, in throw­ing out the baby with the bathwa­ter. It can lead to the some­what bizarre state­ments like Mailer’s com­ments in this inter­view with William Buckley (Part 1 of 6) from 1968:

I don’t think in cat­egor­ies. I try to think in this way, that the world is bet­ter off if every so-called type in the world is bet­ter. In other words, it’s a bet­ter world when the cops get bet­ter and the crim­in­als get bet­ter. It’s a poorer world when the cops are dull and the crim­in­als are dull.

Mailer emerged at a time when a writer was seen as a trans­form­at­ive force. He was eager to assume the role of com­ment­ator and doer. His dis­tance from true power frus­trated him. Like Sergeant Robert Hearn in The Naked and The Dead and Menenhetet in Ancient Evenings, he wanted to be Merlin at Kennedy’s Camelot, but his over­tures to Jackie Kennedy were botched. Later, his influ­ence on the Clinton admin­is­tra­tion was neg­li­gible. Mailer’s life seems to have coin­cided with the decline (in America and the UK, at least) of the pub­lic intel­lec­tual. Today, our intel­lec­tu­als pro­duce BBC doc­u­ment­ary series and tie-in books. Easy to poo-poo. But I think the younger Mailer would have seized these oppor­tun­it­ies. He always wanted to trans­mit his ideas and lever change.

Technology Will Get You Nowhere

One such idea is the weak­ness of the arti­fi­cial. There is a moment in Of A Fire on the Moon in which Mailer takes the notion of acceleration–so fun­da­mental to rocketry–and applies it to the moon pro­gramme at large. Imagine the step from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to Tranquility Base, the Moon; this, psych­ic­ally, is an accel­er­a­tion suf­fi­cient to push human­ity from one sphere to another. And yet the mis­sions that fol­low (with the excep­tion of Apollo 13) are both iter­at­ive and bor­ing. The accel­er­a­tion has been lost. With it, will, and with that, the moon pro­gramme itself. For Mailer, this is the treach­ery of tech­no­logy. It appears to be freighted with pos­sib­il­ity but this prop­erty only emphas­ises, once revealed, its emptiness.

The Spooky Art

There are notes in Lennon’s book about Mailer work­ing through his manu­scripts with edit­ors, line by line, stop­ping at every weak sen­tence. While his poetry was unsuc­cess­ful in most estim­a­tions, he brought a poet’s atten­tion to prose. Words were always read aloud. If a sen­tence had to be changed, this might alter its role in a para­graph or a pas­sage, and thus change the char­ac­ter of the pas­sage as a melody leads its key. The pas­sage would be writ­ten again.

And what pas­sages. Nothing stood between Mailer and his words. From Ancient Evenings:

My memory, which had given every prom­ise (in the first glow of moon­light) that it would return, was still a sludge. Now the air was heavy with the odor of mud. That was the aroma of these lands, mud and bar­ley, sweat and hus­bandry. By noon tomor­row, the riverb­ank would be an oven of mol­der­ing reeds. Domestic anim­als would leave their gifts on the mud of the bank–sheep and pigs, goats, assess, oxen, dogs and cats, even the foul door of the goose, a filthy bird. I thought of tombs, and of friends in tombs. Like the pluck­ing of a heavy string came a first intim­a­tion of sorrow.

The last few pages of Norman Mailer: A Double Life, which relate to his death, are dif­fi­cult to read. I was reminded of the com­ments that Arthur Miller made in a BBC doc­u­ment­ary (‘Finishing the Picture,’ 2004) shortly before his death. (Miller and Mailer grew up near each other, but they never really got on, and were never going to after Mailer’s book Marilyn.) In the doc­u­ment­ary Yentob, asks Miller what he thinks of his own death. Miller, as I recall, says:

I always think of Shakespeare and the light going out.

It takes a big tall writer like Miller to com­pare him­self to Shakespeare. But to con­sider all that exper­i­ence, the wick burn­ing low before going out, is troub­ling. The point is to illu­min­ate the party.

Curiosities in the Cabinet that is Interzone 248

Interzone 248

I first sub­scribed to Interzone a few years ago when I was writ­ing short fic­tion. For the unfa­mil­iar, Interzone is a British sci­ence fic­tion magazine, estab­lished in 1982, and a pay­ing mar­ket for writers.

In a few days, I’ll be start­ing a Masters in Creative Writing with Tibor Fischer, so my mind is turn­ing to sources of inter­est­ing short fic­tion. Interzone, which lands on my mat with some reg­u­lar­ity, is a good place to start.

The prob­lem of act­ing like a critic is its endo­scopic nature. You’re always at risk of dis­ap­pear­ing up your own arse. In my defence, as I per­form this age-old trick in the para­graphs below, I’m at least doing it positively.

Some com­ments, then.

Ad Astra

In this story by Carole Johnson, we join a female astro­naut called Lena on an exped­i­tion bey­ond the solar sys­tem. She is accom­pan­ied by her com­pan­ion Rick, who is going bonkers, as is she. There is a sense from the first para­graph that thinks are not going to end well for either.

We have a lot of sex because it’s a way around the things we can’t say. The things we can’t do. The things we don’t want to think. We’ve always been very good at that; even when we hate the very thought of one another, we can still fuck.

Lena engages the reader with her dir­ect style and her thought­ful­ness is con­sist­ent with her role as a per­son ques­tion­ing her situ­ation and her exist­ence. The prose is tight, the pacing rapid. From the begin­ning, the story is on pole for a podium finish.

The work reminded me of the novel The Explorer by James Smythe, in which a lone astro­naut con­tem­plates the oncom­ing jug­ger­naut of obli­vion. Where The Explorer got into dif­fi­culties by being too long and dif­fi­cult to believe (on its own terms), Ad Astra does not. They reach a sim­ilar resolution.

In a story that asks us to face the mys­tery ‘What is out there?’ there is a risk that, as the final card of the hand is turned over, the reader asks, ‘Is that all you had?’ This is, of course, prefer­able to the storyteller keep­ing the cards to her chest as we FADE TO BLACK.

Ad Astra suc­ceeds by mak­ing the last card a per­sonal one for Lena. She has not bluffed. She wins.

En Passant

Oblivion; Silent Running; Solaris

The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension

In this effort from James Van Pelt, we have the his­tory of an American school from its Victorian incep­tion as a col­lec­tion of build­ings to its far future form: a sprawl­ing, mys­ter­i­ous insti­tu­tion that is nev­er­the­less char­ac­ter­ised by an essen­tial benignity.

Half way through this story, I was becom­ing wor­ried that the whole thing was an infodump. At the end, I knew it was an infodump, but I didn’t mind. Van Pelt had won me over.

That’s not to say the story is without puzz­ling blemishes.

Explorers reached both the south and North Pole. They plunged the ocean depths.

Maybes. But wouldn’t ‘plumbed’ work bet­ter than ‘plunged’?

Another uncom­fort­able metaphor:

Whether [the jan­it­ors] know it or not, their hero is John Kapelos, an actor who played Carl, a jan­itor, in The Breakfast Club.

Can you really have a hero you don’t know?

A spanner-wielding line editor would have tightened the nuts on this story in a few places, but I liked the over­all sense of it. Someone wrote that edu­ca­tion is what endures when know­ledge has been for­got­ten, and it would be easy to see this (half-remembered) quote as the inspir­a­tion for this story. The Hareton remains…even when all else is lost. Because edu­ca­tion, like cul­ture, is a continuity.


Russian Ark; Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Dark Gardens

The more I think about this Greg Kurzawa piece, the more I enjoy its images. These I will not describe. I will say that the one image—mine, not his—is an ele­phant, and it is stand­ing in the room of his story. Said ele­phant is The Prestige—or Christopher Priest, depend­ing on how you like your images.

Sam is a per­son we know little about. He has just pur­chased a fore­closed house with the inten­tion of gut­ting the place, doing it up, and selling it on. Before any of this can hap­pen, he dis­cov­ers that the house formerly belonged to a stage magi­cian named Kurricke, and many of his illu­sions remain about the house.

This story is unusu­ally enga­ging. Its mys­tery is com­pel­ling and the steps that Sam—and his scuba-diving com­pan­ion, David—take are logical explor­a­tions in its res­ol­u­tion. What sets it apart are the ways in which the solu­tion to the mys­tery are real­ised, and the human­ity with which the non-human ele­ments are handled. I have little doubt that the cor­rect term adject­ive for this story is Lovecraftian (I write ‘little’ because I have never read that fabled hor­ror writer, H P Lovecraft).

The magi­cian had van­ished after liv­ing in a the two-bedroom ranch for sev­en­teen years, leav­ing spoiled milk in the refri­ger­ator, dishes in the sink, and all the tools of his trade in unlocked trunks.

In the base­ment, Sam dis­cov­ers a hatch that opens on black water.

What’s not to like?

Which Reminds Me

The Prestige; The Room; Android; The Lurking Horror

Il Teatro Oscuro

This story by Ken Altabef is a shortie. We open on an old man, sit­ting alone in a theatre.

The old man’s back aches. This is not unusual, des­pite his hav­ing the best seat in the house. Third bal­cony, dir­ectly centre stage, a seat which still clings to some fair por­tion of crushed red-velvet cush­ion where the brass studs haven’t yet chewed through.

But this does not mat­ter. All thought of worldly con­cerns, dis­com­forts or oth­er­wise, fade quickly to obscurity…

What of the old? Do we stand on the shoulders of our past giants, or do we trample them? Altabef’s story takes an interest in nos­tal­gia and obses­sion. The old man char­ac­ter has an interest in opera—itself a niche art form kept alive by a small but ded­ic­ated fanbase—and there is a sense that its lack of mean­ing grows mean­ing as it matures. A simple cab­inet, after all, gains value by vir­tue of its antiquity.

This a sharply judged and affect­ing story where the meta­phors, place and char­ac­ters bring out the best in one another. While, for me, the end­ing did not work well (we observe the rebirth of a char­ac­ter in whom we have little invest­ment as read­ers), the inev­it­able tramp­ling of the giant tuned this story to just the right pitch of melodrama.


Pan’s Labyrinth; His Dark Materials


Sean McMullen’s story is a mys­tery with a tra­di­tional plot, by which I mean the prot­ag­on­ist is good man doing his best in bad cir­cum­stances. Literary qual­it­ies are min­im­ised as the author con­cen­trates on lead­ing us through a fair whack of story mater­ial. Its atmo­sphere is very Conan Doyle. If the story stands on a giant, that giant is Jules Verne.

In the spring of 1875, I was a right and inno­cent young man. Although steam was the found­a­tion of every branch of industry, I had chosen to study elec­tri­city when I had entered the mech­an­ics insti­tute. By chance I had been given a good edu­ca­tion, and this has kept me out of the mills and the mines.

Lewis Blackburn is invited to meet with a mys­ter­i­ous, rich indi­vidual who wishes to har­ness his elec­tron­ics genius. Before long, Lewis is tangled up in a plot to push com­put­ing tech­no­logy for­ward at a start­ling rate.

Interzone will want to appeal to wide demo­graphic, and will include a vari­ety of stor­ies. It’s not likely that all of them will be to my taste. So, of all the stor­ies in this volume, I liked this the least. That’s not to say it doesn’t have good ele­ments. The plot is con­sist­ent in small chunks (less sat­is­fy­ing in lar­ger units) and con­tains some good dialogue.

However, there are uncom­fort­able tonal shifts. For example, fol­low­ing a quite stag­ger­ing rev­el­a­tion, the main char­ac­ter says:

How does one reply when one’s fiancé says that?

That made me laugh, and the author, too, I expect, but the char­ac­ter would not; this jux­ta­pos­i­tion is cheap.

We have char­ac­ter reversals, too, and a fram­ing nar­rat­ive that rolls too many mar­vels into one.


The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb; The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters; I Am Legend

What’s not to like?

Overall, some great short fic­tion in this issue. You’ll like at least one of the stor­ies a lot. And, at £4.99, you can’t argue about that’s not value for money. I’d like to see more use made of the illus­trat­ors. Their work is good, as usual, but repe­ti­tion of the same imagery gives the impres­sion that more money needs to be spent on them.

Writing a Novel Using Markdown: Part One

This story begins with a per­son like me. When I pub­lish ebooks, I want them to turn out exactly as I intend. That means tak­ing the text of the story, sand­wich­ing it with front mat­ter (like copy­right) and more text at the end (like acknowledgments).

Until recently, I wrote my books using the word pro­cessor Apple Pages. I would export this to a Microsoft Word doc­u­ment for my edit­ors and proofread­ers. Then, when the book was ready to be con­ver­ted into an ebook, I would do a lot of the work by hand.

And therein lies the prob­lem. There’s a lot of manual effort involved when you take a Word doc­u­ment and pro­duce some­thing that Amazon or iBooks will accept as an ebook.

In this post I’m going to talk about using plain text files to con­sist­ently and pain­lessly pro­duce ebooks. I won’t assume much knowledge.

Styling Text

There should be a sep­ar­a­tion between style and con­tent. Style is font size, para­graph spa­cing, and all that jazz. The con­tent is the text itself. Word pro­cessors like Pages or Microsoft Word com­bine style and con­tent into a single file. These files are com­plex, con­tain ambi­gu­ities, and are dif­fi­cult to read without a work­ing copy of the pro­gram that pro­duced them.

When you sep­ar­ate style and con­tent, many advant­ages res­ult. The con­tent file doesn’t need to be in a pro­pri­et­ary format. It can be plain text. The con­tent file will be eas­ily read by a com­puter, which means the com­puter can auto­mate cer­tain things for you: cre­ate an ebook, a nice-looking PDF, a PowerPoint present­a­tion, a web page…all from the same con­tent file.

But how do you make the con­tent file?

Use Markdown

Markdown was cre­ated by John Gruber as a way of writ­ing for the web without includ­ing the dis­trac­tion of mark-up tags (more below). It has been exten­ded by sub­sequent programmers.

The best way to describe Markdown is to show you an example. Here is the open­ing of my novella, Red Star Falling:

## Red Star Falling

In the moment before Saskia Brandt awoke, she had a vis­ion of red chrys­an­them­ums fall­ing. The flowers looked unreal. Their stems were too straight and their falls too slow. Their *Gestalt* was art­ful sadness.

What you’re look­ing at above is a plain text snip­pet. The # char­ac­ter means that the text Red Star Falling should be treated as a head­ing (just like a head­ing in Word). Two ## char­ac­ters means that this is a head­ing level two. Immediately, you can see that this is a fool­proof way of telling a com­puter that the text is head­ing level two; at the same time, it’s easy for a human to read.


## Red Star Falling

there is a blank line. This tells the com­puter to treat the next text it encoun­ters as the begin­ning of a new para­graph. Notice that, in this new para­graph, I’ve used a


char­ac­ter to enclose the German word Gestalt. This tells the com­puter to emphas­ise the word. In this case, it makes it italic.

OK. So I’ve writ­ten the first para­graph of my glor­i­ous story. What do I do with it?

Well, the Amazon Kindle format is based on HTML, which is the simple tag­ging format that most webpages use. So I want to pro­duce HTML from the Markdown. There are many tools that will help you do this. I’ll talk about some of them later. When I con­vert the above text to HTML I get the following:

<h2>Red Star Falling</h2>

<p>In the moment before Saskia Brandt awoke, she had a vision of red chrysanthemums falling. The flowers looked unreal. Their stems were too straight and their falls too slow. Their <em>Gestalt</em> was artful sadness.</p>

If you’re not famil­iar with HTML, this will look a bit weird. The import­ant thing to note is that the ori­ginal Markdown format text will reli­ably pro­duce the HTML.

Why this is exciting

How much do I love Markdown? Let me count the ways.

  1. The thing that I, as a writer, look at, is a plain text file writ­ten in Markdown. It doesn’t get much sim­pler. I don’t need to worry about smart quotes and dash sizes–all this is done when cre­at­ing the HTML.

  2. Because it’s a plain text file, I can work on it from a com­puter of vir­tu­ally any type (desktop, laptop, mobile), any age (even ancient PCs can read text files) and any plat­form (plain text files are very portable).

  3. Helper pro­grams can take this Markdown put it into any form I like: PDF, .mobi, epub, and so on. It can take some time to set up these helper pro­grams, but you only have to do it once.

  4. In ten years’ time, the file will be super easy to open. It’s plain text, not a pro­pri­et­ary word-processing format.

My Workflow

Most of my writ­ing takes place on two devices: A MacBook Air and an iPad. My work­flow is there­fore Mac-centric. However, the approach should work on any system.

Here is the point where I real­ise that my own work­flow files are hope­lessly hard-coded to my own sys­tem, and provid­ing you with a work­ing example of Red Star Falling that you can down­load and play with is impossible without edit­ing my files. So, instead of giv­ing you these files, I’ll explain the pro­cess in plain English.

  • My book is a series of plain text files, all of which are in Markdown format. Each file rep­res­ents a sec­tion of the book that I’ve isol­ated for con­veni­ence. (Note that file num­ber six is actu­ally an alias to a file held in a more cent­ral cent­ral loc­a­tion, which is the same across all my books.)


  • I then pass the files to an Automator Service. The Automator script does the following:

    • Adds them together to make a single, large Markdown file.
    • Uses the Multimarkdown command-line tool by Fletcher Penney to cre­ate an HTML ver­sion of the book. A sep­ar­ate style sheet (see Useful resources) is used to cre­ate the final ebook style that I like. This tool also smartens quotes, cre­ates proper dash char­ac­ters, etc.
    • Passes the HTML to the ebook-converter command-line tool by the indefatig­able Kovid Goyal, which cre­ates an Amazon-compatible .Mobi, iBooks-friendly .epub, and a PDF for good measure.

I’ve now writ­ten a follow-up to this post that includes a detailed example.

Useful resources

A Markdown cheat­sheet.

My Writer as a Stranger CSS (Cascading Style Sheet). Use this in com­bin­a­tion with a Markdown doc­u­ment to pro­duce a book with the same final format­ting as Red Star Falling.

Markdown tools from Brett Terpstra.

Writing ‘Red Star Falling’: Part Three

I heard back from my editor yes­ter­day. He’ll be tak­ing a look at my final­ised manu­script on the bank hol­i­day week­end (next week). Ahead of those edits, won­der­ing what they might be, I thought it would be use­ful to post another instal­ment of my writ­ing journal.

In the last excerpt, I had fin­ished the first draft of the story, which came in at 15,000 words. I next turned to the prob­lem of deal­ing with an editor.

Thursday, 4th April

For my next trick, I’ve been in con­tact with an editor. A few things are rolling around my head on this sub­ject. First of all, the cost. It’s expensive.

As I’m going to pub­lish this short story (call­ing it a novella, now!) to the Amazon Kindle—i.e., in elec­tronic format—it needs to be in good shape. That means edit­ing. What does an editor do? Well, there are dif­fer­ent types of edit­ing. There’s noth­ing about these types that a writer can’t do alone (indeed, many writers edit the work of oth­ers, too), but they usu­ally find it dif­fi­cult because they lack per­spect­ive. The editor gives a kind of ‘san­ity check’. They work as a pro­fes­sional, exper­i­enced sound­ing board. I liken them to record pro­du­cers. They don’t fun­da­ment­ally change the text itself, but they lend it a cer­tain per­spect­ive that can be help­ful. They sug­gest dele­tions, addi­tions, and so on.

Is it worth it? Undoubtedly. As a writer, I feel it’s my duty to get my work into the best shape pos­sible. If my story were a boxer, this would be about hir­ing the best trainer.

Friday, 5th April

It’s a struggle to make the story as alive as it can be; what is the best way of present­ing it?

I’ll need to increase the ten­sion in cer­tain parts. I’ll prob­ably do this by set­ting the char­ac­ters against one another rather more. The final scene, in par­tic­u­lar, is a bit too friendly.

I go on to write:

There’s a char­ac­ter I’ll prob­ably delete, and another I need to be very care­ful about. His iden­tity is


For that [redac­ted] to work, his motiv­a­tions need to seem con­sist­ent dur­ing the ini­tial read (when the reader thinks [redac­ted]) and also when the reader goes back over their memory of his actions and thinks, ‘Aha!’ My model for this ‘Aha!’ moment is the reveal at the end of The Usual Suspects. That is to say that I aspire to cre­ate the same effect.

Good luck with that.

During this stage, the story tends to dog my thoughts and give rise to that faraway look that friends often com­ment on. The story is a multi-piece jig­saw puzzle where I’m allowed to change the size of the pieces as well as their arrange­ments. There’s no way this can hap­pen con­sciously. You have to let your uncon­scious percolate.

One more thing is hap­pen­ing. As I become more famil­iar with the story—dream about it, pon­der about it dur­ing idle moments—I think of cer­tain meta­phor­ical con­nec­tions that could be made. For instance, I’ve decided that Saskia should be ‘awoken’ at the begin­ning of the story by a vase of flowers fall­ing over. Not entirely sure, at this stage, whether the flowers should be red or white. Anyway, it com­ple­ments the end­ing of the story, where [redacted].

Sunday, 28th April

I often recall some­thing that Steve Jobs said about design­ing a product. Good design, he claimed, is about leav­ing things out. By elim­in­at­ing what is not great, you leave the great bits. I’m often reminded of this when I read stu­dent work, like an essay. I’ll look at a para­graph and think, ‘You should have left that out,’ because the other para­graphs were writ­ten at the top of your game; they work well. Only leave in the stuff that works well. If some­thing doesn’t work—a char­ac­ter, scene, metaphor—then you can try to fix it, but must always remem­ber that dele­tion is also a fix.

Structurally, I’ve decided not to include some flash­backs (of the future, where the main char­ac­ter comes from). This should give the story a tighter, more focused feel. You can’t have too much focus.

I’m aim­ing for this story to work in the same way that a third act works.

The final draft was 20,000 words. That’s the ver­sion I sent to the editor.

The Next Big Thing

I’ve been meme-slapped by m’colleague Roger Morris, writer of the Porfiry Petrovich mys­ter­ies and other enter­tain­ments, includ­ing one of my favour­ite books of a few years back, Taking Comfort. I have to answer ten ques­tions in ten minutes about my cur­rent book. It’s very cur­rent indeed, as I’m plan­ning to release it on the 21st December.

1) What is the work­ing title of your next book?

The Amber Rooms. I went through a few dif­fer­ent titles before I arrived at that one. My favour­ite was the St Petersburg Paradox (which is a conun­drum drawn from prob­ab­il­ity theory).

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

I hon­estly don’t remem­ber. I’ve always wanted to write a novel about Russia, and there are ele­ments of Russia scattered here and there through­out both Déjà Vu and Flashback. I have a feel­ing that Russia will fea­ture again in future nov­els, if they’re written.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

It’s sci­ence fic­tion, prob­ably steam punk. Historical sci­ence fic­tion might be a bet­ter term. If I actu­ally had time to read any­thing these days, I’d have a sharper idea of the genre.

4) What act­ors would you choose to play the part of your char­ac­ters in a movie rendition?

Saskia Brandt could be played by Franka Potente, Alexandra Maria Lara, or Olivia Wilde. Kamo: Gael García Bernal. Stalin: Jake Gyllenhaal. Ego: Robert De Niro.

5) What is the one sen­tence syn­op­sis of your book?

Time trav­el­ler Saskia Brandt is trapped in Russia in 1908, try­ing to get home, but she’s stolen a great deal of money that belongs to the Bolshevik Party. They want it back.

6) Will your book be self-published or rep­res­en­ted by an agency?

It’s self-published.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

About nine months, but that the was second or third attempt. I got about 10% into two sim­ilar nov­els before I real­ised they weren’t working.

8) What other books would you com­pare this story to within your genre?

I can only think of The Man in the High Castle.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The main char­ac­ter, Saskia.

10) What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

During the story, Saskia stays in a house that is mod­elled on the St Petersburg home of Prince Felix Yusupov, who con­spired to murder Rasputin.

I have to nom­in­ate three more people, so how’s about comedy-crime-scifi-horror-nonfic writer Aliya Whiteley, scifi nov­el­ist Stephen Sweeney, and tech­no­thriller (and now Kindle best-seller) Michael Stephen Fuchs. (Blast, it looks as though Aliya’s already been in the meme-wash. Check out her Next Big Thing here.)

Where Am I? Readers, Progress, and Free Books

The Amber Rooms

This morn­ing, I received an email beginning:

Well, it’s 2.00 in the morn­ing and I’ve just fin­ished your book.

The email made me laugh out loud, and I reflec­ted that it’s con­sid­er­ably easier to write these days in the know­ledge that people might want to read the final product.

This cor­res­pond­ent raised an issue. Am I still retired from writ­ing? I thought I’d update this blog with the answer. As usual, I’ll try to avoid obfuscation.

I worked with my agent on an updated ver­sion of Déjà Vu over the sum­mer. (With her per­mis­sion, I used this text to revise to the ebook, so it’s effect­ively a new edi­tion.) She then sent the book to vari­ous pub­lish­ers. As is now becom­ing typ­ical, I had pos­it­ive com­ments from all of them, but no bites. There’s a small chance that one might come back to us at this point, but I’m not hold­ing my breath.

Tracking my sales is becom­ing dif­fi­cult because some income is through Amazon’s lend­ing pro­gramme (US-only). As a rough guide, I’ve sold about 16,000 books through the Kindle, and about the same num­ber again (I think) has gone in free promotions.

I’m still writ­ing. My goal is to fin­ish a final draft of The Amber Rooms but the end of October and pass this to my agent. She’s prom­ised to edit it through­out November (though I’ve just real­ised that I haven’t men­tioned the length of the length, which is about double Déjà Vu), and I’d like to release it for Xmas. The pic­ture at the head of this post is the latest ver­sion. What do you think?

I heard a stat­istic a couple of years back that aca­dem­ics top the UK chart for unpaid over­time. Whether or not that’s still true, my writ­ing is very squeezed at the moment. It’s get­ting harder to sit down at a com­puter after a day’s work. I’m pretty con­fid­ent I can fin­ish off The Amber Rooms by then, but there’s a chance it might fin­ish me first.

Under the aus­pice of Thirst eDi­tions, a writerly con­glom­er­a­tion and child of Matt F Curran’s brain, I’ve just pub­lished a short book that exam­ines some of the philo­soph­ical issues that arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence research­ers need to address. It’s writ­ten for under­gradu­ate psy­cho­lo­gists but the lay reader should enjoy it. If you’re intrigued about the extent to which Saskia Brandt is human, knock your­self out with Down to the Wire: A Short Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.

Finally, I’ve made Déjà Vu, Flashback, and Proper Job free for the next five days. There’s no scheme behind this decision other than the nat­ural cycle of the Kindle pro­mo­tions mech­an­ism for self-published authors; essen­tially, you have five days of free offer for every ninety, and I’m still in the busi­ness of get­ting my books read. I’m plan­ning to make them free again at Christmas, partly to coin­cide with the launch of the Amber Rooms, and partly because it’s Christmas and I want to bring down everyone’s mood with tales of my heroine trapped in time.

My Desktop

[See the lar­ger pic­ture]

I’m fas­cin­ated by the series My Desktop, which is a Guardian column by my friend and writer-abite-tine Ben Johncock. The series fea­tures a snap­shot of a writer’s com­puter screen, which allows the word-botherer in ques­tion to riff on their work­flow and habit; some­thing all writers itch to know about, I would suggest.

Here’s mine. You’ll notice that I use a Mac. This is OS X Lion run­ning on my dad’s old Mac Mini. My writ­ing is done within a sep­ar­ate user account. (I have an exact duplic­ate of this account on my MacBook Air.) This means that (i) I can set it up in a way par­tic­u­lar to my wordly habits (it does not, for instance, have a con­figured email cli­ent) and (ii) it provides an uncluttered envir­on­ment that I can rely upon, no mat­ter how untidy my main user account gets. The back­ground was a mono­chrome grey until last year, when I changed it to a more friendly, phys­ical grey. The text ‘Be ori­ginal’ is a reminder that I would like to write books that stand apart from oth­ers. The image itself comes from InterfaceLift.

At the bot­tom of the screen, in the OS X dock, there are no ‘pinned’ applic­a­tions. Minimally does it. The blue com­pass is the Mac browser, Safari. I keep this run­ning for quick checks of Google maps, Wikipedia, and vari­ous pages rel­ev­ant to the cur­rent work. I try to observe Stephen King’s excel­lent rule that you write with the door closed and edit with the door open, so Safari gets an out­ing only when I’m edit­ing, as I am now. Otherwise, I enter [’TC’] in the text if I feel that I need to insert some­thing that I can’t at that moment. ‘TC’ means ‘to come’. For instance, I can never remem­ber the full name of one of my char­ac­ters, so I often write ‘[TC Pasha’s name’], which I’ll replace with Pavel Eduardovitch Nakhimov later.

The pen-and-ink icon is Pages, where I keep the text of the work. I’ve tried writ­ing in applic­a­tions like Byword (where I’m writ­ing this post) but I prefer the feel of Pages. To the right of this is a strange, double-paned icon: OmniFocus.

OmniFocus is a task-manager applic­a­tion that I find use­ful for main­tain­ing lists of edits. Although I haven’t opened it for a few weeks, it was great for work­ing through the edits sug­ges­ted by my agent. I cat­egor­ised them as major or minor and kept a record of what I’d done.

On the left of the desktop, in the win­dow called ‘Amber Rooms 101′, you’ll see three files. One of these is my cur­rent draft. Another is the pre­vi­ous draft, which I’m ran­sack­ing. The third is a text file con­tain­ing notes about what I want to do with the cur­rent draft. This folder is actu­ally a search. It’s look­ing for ‘AR101’ in the title of the file. When I move onto another draft, I’ll cre­ate new files with ‘AR102’.

In the Finder bar at the top, you’ll see a small blue box icon. This is DropBox. I use it to syn­chron­ise files between my machines. I have a Writing folder access­ible to this user account, but my other DropBox files are hidden.

Music? Never listen to it dur­ing writ­ing or edit­ing. The only other things on my phys­ical desk, at which I stand rather than sit, are late-nineteenth-century maps of St Petersburg.

The Cabinet of Curiosities

Some cen­tur­ies ago, it was com­mon for wealthy indi­vidu­als to indulge their appet­ite for the strange using so-called cab­in­ets of curi­os­it­ies. These were not cab­in­ets in the mod­ern sense. They were rooms arranged with arte­facts for which cat­egor­ies had yet to be inven­ted. Narwhal horns. Fossils.

There is a sense in which my cur­rent novel, The Amber Rooms (Saskia Brandt 3), is a cab­inet of curi­os­it­ies. Even now, I can­not be sure how the ele­ments will cohere. They simply interest me. There is the Amber room itself. There are ele­ments of Soviet pro­pa­ganda, such as songs ded­ic­ated to Josef Stalin. To this list I could add another six or seven ele­ments; how­ever, to do so here would spoil the book.

From Wikipedia:

The jux­ta­pos­i­tion of such dis­par­ate objects, accord­ing to Horst Bredekamp’s ana­lysis (Bredekamp 1995) encour­aged com­par­is­ons, find­ing ana­lo­gies and par­al­lels and favoured the cul­tural change from a world viewed as static to a dynamic view of end­lessly trans­form­ing nat­ural his­tory and a his­tor­ical per­spect­ive that led in the sev­en­teenth cen­tury to the germs of a sci­entific view of reality.

I am cur­rently two thirds of the way through the final draft. In six weeks or so, it will be com­plete. The meta­phors at the sen­tence level, scene level, and the level of the story itself will have come together. Their jux­ta­pos­i­tions will be set. It might sur­prise you that I do not know for sure when this will hap­pen, or even if. What is the book about? How does this qual­ity of ‘about­ness’ inform the plot? Which impres­sions will be left in the mind of the reader six months after the book is closed?

The curi­os­it­ies for my novel Déjà Vu made little sense to me at the close of the first draft. It was only later, months later, that I changed the research pro­ject of Jennifer Proctor from some­thing inter­est­ing but them­at­ic­ally irrel­ev­ant to time travel. That was the eureka moment for Déjà Vu. Curiosities, which I had been col­lect­ing for years, came together.

For Flashback, the eureka moment arrived early. I was read­ing a fairytale in which a char­ac­ter cut her fin­ger and fell into a bewitched sleep. Then I under­stood how the recon­struc­tion of memory uni­fied stor­ies of Saskia, Cory, and Jem.

Right now, whenever I open the file con­tain­ing the latest draft of the Amber Rooms, I feel like an 18th-century man of inde­pend­ent means brows­ing his cab­inet of curi­os­it­ies. Why are these things inter­est­ing? How should a vis­itor be intro­duced to them? What are they doing in this room any­way? Back to the basic ques­tion: why are these things interesting?

★ The Amber Rooms: Thoughts on the First Draft

Yesterday even­ing, I expor­ted the first draft of The Amber Rooms — Saskia Brandt novel three — to my Kindle with a plan to read it quickly and estab­lish how much work it needs prior to pub­lic­a­tion. I have, delib­er­ately, com­mit­ted myself to a 2012 pub­lic­a­tion date for the book. This gives me space to re-draft three (maybe four) times, on the assump­tion that a single draft­ing takes three or four months. (I’ll have the energy to work about half an hour, per­haps an hour, when I come home from the day job.)

What is a first draft? Hell, what’s a draft? Back in the day, when writers pro­duced long-hand manu­scripts and had them typed up peri­od­ic­ally, it made sense to think of each draft as a com­plete revi­sion of the last. Some writers — Ken Follett, I know, did this — would not even look at the pre­vi­ous draft when writ­ing the new.

We’re more advanced these days, of course. Our type­writers have Apple logos.

The Amber Rooms. Hmm.

I note that I aban­doned the novel, with a heavy heart at the indif­fer­ence of pub­lish­ers’ reac­tions to books one and two, in September 2008. Even then I had the idea that I was going to retire from writing.

The draft I’m read­ing is quite tightly writ­ten. The first half, I remem­ber, was revised when I came up with a cooler idea for a begin­ning about two thirds of the way through. I could prob­ably release it for the Kindle tomor­row and it would be work­able as a story. However, it has the poten­tial to be a much bet­ter novel than either Déjà Vu or Flashback.

So what’s good about it?

First, the lan­guage passes muster. There are no clichés and each sen­tence deserves to be there. I’m get­ting on for hav­ing writ­ten a mil­lion or so words of pub­lish­able fic­tion. By this point, Hemingway, Chandler et al. are now con­struct­ive rather than crit­ical ghosts. I find it easier to cre­ate and manip­u­late tone. I know when a slow­ing down of the nar­rat­ive works as a rest for the reader without sac­ri­fi­cing over­all pace — or, at least, I think I do.

Second, the story is reas­on­ably com­pel­ling. There are nuts and bolts to be tightened here and there, but each scene is a scene — that is, it advances the story — and the research (which is some­what more osten­ta­tious in this novel, as it is set in Russia, 1908) con­trib­utes to the milieu without dis­tract­ing from it.

So what’s bad?

Right now, the book is some­what ema­ci­ated. I’ve pared it down to essen­tial con­nect­ive tis­sue. While this gives it pace for the most part, there are one or two points — in par­tic­u­lar, an escape scene at the begin­ning of the novel — that are far too brief. It works too much like a mont­age, or notes for a novel.

Talking of mont­ages, I’m head­but­ting the ceil­ing of my tal­ent again: I find it dif­fi­cult to con­ceive of story bey­ond the con­fines of the medium that I’m most com­fort­able with. That medium is, para­dox­ic­ally, cinema, not lit­er­at­ure. Too often, I’m present­ing the story as shots and describ­ing beats with the eye of a cine­ma­to­grapher. I have to get away from this. It does make the story very read­able but I need to remem­ber the par­tic­u­lar advant­ages of the novel as a form. (I will be doing this later in the draft, as I settle down.)

One example is where our heroine, Saskia Brandt, arrives in St Petersburg pur­sued by three ‘watch­ers’ from the Tsarist secret police. She travels quickly from horse bus to trol­ley rather too much like Jason Bourne. And when I describe the moment she loses the last of her three watch­ers, whom she leaves hand­cuffed to a rail on the trol­ley, the fram­ing reads like a story­board. It’s effect­ive, prob­ably, but there is too much sleight of hand about the whole thing. Hemingway could do this without being super­fi­cial; I should be able to do it too, given time and thought.

Let’s get geeky: metaphor.

The meta­phor­ical lan­guage of the novel is often wonky in a first draft. When the book is fin­ished, and I have an idea of its iden­tity, I know which meta­phors are cor­rect and which are not. For instance, there is a meta­phor early on in the novel in which Saskia thinks of time passing through her hands like a rope, too fast to grip. I don’t know why this is a good meta­phor for this point; but it is. Other meta­phors are com­pletely wrong. An inab­il­ity to choose the cor­rect meta­phor is the hall­mark of a bad writer (or at least a writer who has sub­mit­ted a draft too early). One of the dif­fi­culties with select­ing the right meta­phor is that it can­not be done con­sciously (for me, any­way). It must be done ran­domly, a bit like Arthur Dent pulling out let­ters from the neo­lithic Scrabble bag in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They’ll get stead­ily more appropriate.

Looking back, the meta­phor­ical lan­guage of Déjà Vu and Flashback seems to revolve around mir­rors, blood, old wounds reopen­ing, iden­tity, and the con­nec­tion between help­ing someone and the phys­ical cost of that help (ampu­ta­tion; “Take my hand,” and so on).

As you can tell, I’m prob­ably more inter­ested in this stuff than the mech­an­ics of hav­ing the story work as a thriller. However, it must work as a thriller first or the meta­phor­ical brick­work will fall. That’s the job of the second draft — to get the plot work­ing. Third draft — plot plus meta­phor equals story. Four draft — finesse.


And, always there is the chance that the book doesn’t work at all; that it will die on stage. In a way, that makes it more excit­ing. Everything, abso­lutely everything, is on the line.

So I signed up to a Russian evening class, Comrade

Like you do.

Or rather, like I did. I’ve stopped going now because I was excep­tion­ally poor at form­ing even the simplest sentences.

Aliya Whiteley is — apart from being a great comedo-tagico-Ilfracombo nov­elista — study­ing for an MSc in Library and Information Management. As part of this, she inter­viewed me about the resources I used to help me research the third Saskia Brandt novel. (For those who aren’t keep­ing up, which often includes me, that’s the third one; Flashback is the second; Déjà Vu is the first.)

Can I ask — in the case of your last novel, where did you look to find the inform­a­tion you needed? So where did you go to learn a bit of Russian, read oral his­tor­ies, etc? How did you decide that was what you’d need to know?

For the Russian, I signed up for a local even­ing class. I stud­ied Russian for two years. I didn’t expect to learn it very well, but I felt ridicu­lous writ­ing a novel set in Russia without know­ing any­thing about the lan­guage. The oral his­tor­ies showed up on Amazon. The book was out of print — ‘Women Against the Tsar’, I believe it’s called — and described the lives of sev­eral women anarcho-bolsheviks in the lat­ter part of the nine­teenth cen­tury. Another source of inform­a­tion was the writer Roger Morris, who was in the pro­cess of writ­ing nov­els set in the same period of his­tory (though a little earlier). I spoke to him about oral his­tor­ies and sent him links to some websites…which reminds me, the web was a very use­ful sources of inform­a­tion. I popped into one or two for­ums related to Tsarist Russian mil­it­ary uni­forms to ask the experts ques­tions about mater­i­als, col­ours, etc. I also looked on mem­or­ab­ilia sites for clothes that had been owned by people in the time period of interest — these were very good qual­ity pic­tures with lav­ish descrip­tions includ­ing the cor­rect ter­min­o­logy (some­times in Russian as well as English), which is quite import­ant when writ­ing prose.

Is it ridicu­lous writ­ing about Russia without speak­ing the lan­guage? Try writ­ing about Russia without hav­ing set foot on Russian soil.

Feel free to check out the full inter­view. This is part one.