- David Guggenheim, author of Overwatch, has created a delicious new benchmark for all novels.
- David Guggenheim, author of Overwatch, has created a delicious new benchmark for all novels.
I read a nice quote recently in Bernard Mergen’s illuminating Snow In America: ‘As to all questions of quiddity, the answer to the riddle of identical snowflakes lies in defining the degree of similarity. The more interesting question is why we continue to seek twin snowflakes.’
I guess that’s where I’m coming from when it comes to genre manipulation and advancing the case for mixing and matching elements from different strands of fiction in order to best tell the story I have in mind. The question is not why some people want to bend genres, but why others are insistent on keeping them so damned straight.”
- Michael Marshall drops into Strand Magazine's mystery blog to muse about writing within the lines. If you agree with Michael's statements—or even if you disagree!—I urge you to RSVP to his forthcoming Google Hangout with authors Malinda Lo and Jaye Wells as they chat with moderator Amal El-Mohtar about writing genre-bending fiction.
- Richard Montanari discusses his writing with fellow Mulholland author Michael Marshall. Both of these great writers have new novels on sale this week: The Stolen Ones (Montanari) and We Are Here (Marshall).
Austin Grossman has been all over the ‘net this past week to celebrate the publication of YOU, his new novel of mystery, videogames, and the people who create them.
Check out Austin’s photo essay “Seven Myths about Videogames and the Seven Games that Prove them Wrong” on Huffington Post for Austin’s picks on some of the most influential video game narratives of the past twenty years. Austin also has an interview up with Kotaku’s Evan Narcisse about YOU, his work as a game design consultant, and more.
For a sneak peek at the world of YOU, there’s Austin’s essay up on Kotaku re: the classic games that inspired the canon (fictional!) mid-90′s game studio Black Arts. More at Black Art’s (quite real!) website.
Austin joined the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, presented by Wired.com, to discuss YOU, his first novel SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE, Dr. Horrible envy, Looking Glass Studios, and more. Finally, there’s Austin’s Polygon essay on learning to write through his career as a game designer.
Still craving more? Did you get a chance to read the Boston Globe review, the Harper’s magazine review by Tom Bissell, the raves by i09 and Boing Boing, not to mention bloggers including Bookgasm and The Review Broads? Or go pick up YOU from your favorite bookstore or e-tailer! Stay tuned–we’ll be back with an excerpt of YOU for Mulholland readers next week.
With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite MulhollandBooks.com posts from the past year!
Sophie Littlefield: So let’s get the basics out of the way first. You write, I write. You’re the much, much older east coast sibling and I’m the fun-loving west coast one. We both have kids and we both grew up with our noses in books. What else should people know about us to start off with?
Mike Cooper: We’re bicoastal now but we started in Missouri! – and in a much different time, when children were allowed freedoms that seem extraordinary to me now. My memory, perhaps unreliable, is that we were completely unsupervised after school and on weekends. The woods and fields just over the backyard fence were a place of fantastical play: ponds to swim in and skate on, the cemetery and the quarry, the derelict airport with runways like the Bonneville Salt Flats. How could we not become people who live by our imaginations?
Of course, my stories involve ruthless banksters and exploding helicopters, and some of yours have decidedly noir, even dark elements. In some ways our lives were difficult and complicated, and that’s as essential as the sunny memories.
We both came to write seriously somewhat later in our lives. In my case it was after my daughter was born – my wife and I decided that I’d be the stay-at-home parent, and what with two naps a day, I suddenly had time to try what had been only a hobby. (I took one of those naps myself, true.) I recall you publishing stories, fiction and non-fiction, for many years before you buckled down to novels. What was the impetus?
SL: I think the better question is, “What took you so long?” And the answer, of course, is fear. I’m astonished at how much I’ve given away to fear over the years. Oh well, middle age took care of that in a hurry. My first novel was tentative, limp, diluted, and derivative. But I learned something from it and from every one that followed, until I finally ended up writing a novel with teeth.
Nowadays, I seek out opportunities to be brave. Lots of extra points if someone chokes on their coffee when I propose a new project. For instance, when I first told my agent my idea for my January ’13 book (A GARDEN OF STONES, MIRA) the pitch was “Japanese internment in WWII, plus taxidermy.” I stubbornly believe there is an audience out there that longs to be challenged.
Which reminds me. Do you remember when you wrote that short story a few years ago and I read it and told you “that story’s a best-seller for sure, drop everything and turn it into a novel”? And then you spent the next few months writing and polishing and submitting it?
MC: Well, the short story sold… The full-length version never found its audience, unfortunately, although it remains my favorite unpublished novel. That’s how it goes sometimes. I’ve always written stories that I’d like to read myself, but I forget that I’m not an accurate representative of the American reading public.
SL: And then you wrote CLAWBACK.
MC: Indeed. I’d actually wanted to write a full-length Silas Cade story for a while – I’d published some short stories with him as a protagonist. The original concept was a hit man accountant. I was amusing myself there; after years in finance, who wouldn’t want to bring automatic weapons into an audit? Anyway, the character and setting were ready to go – then Wall Street cratered the world economy, and the plot practically wrote itself. (The novel’s tag line could be “Don’t bail them out, take them out!”)
My new agent – the inestimable Heide Lange, at Sanford Greenburger – liked the idea, got an auction going, and sold the book to Josh Kendall at Viking. Josh is a wonderful editor, by the way. However good the book is now, it’s a lot better for having him work it over … three times.
SL: I’ve learned to appreciate a demanding editor. I do not appreciate being let slide. I rewrote a book four times once – it was terrible; it got so I was beginning to doubt my very existence, or at least my relevance to this word-thing I’d created, which seemed to have taken on a life of its own, whose sole purpose was to reveal my own inadequacies. But that process taught me lessons which inform everything I’ve written since.
Incidentally, my editor for that book was roughly half my age. She has since shared with me that sometimes, younger authors are reluctant to work with her due to her relative lack of experience. That’s a mistake, all you aspiring writers out there: I believe you should set your sights on juice and determination, not length of time in the industry (some might argue that there’s a calcification that takes place, a loss of flexibility and innovation, from certain hoary corners).
Of course, it’s often the longest-tenured folks who control the taps for what authors want: rivers of cash and juggernaut-style promotion. So it’s a tricky balance, right? I guess my ideal team would be a fearless, energetic editor who’s still green enough not to have become jaded…and a publisher who’s unflappable, ruthless, and capable of seeing the long view. Strategic rather than reactive. And smart enough to appreciate me. With a lot of cash.
What about you? What do you think goes into the mix for creating quality fiction in 2012?
MW: Here are some things that don’t matter much: Relevance. Plot. Martial arts. And I say this having just published a plot-driven Wall Street novel with lots of action
Seriously, readers want to be entertained. To me that means heroic characters, good and bad; clear conflict over things that matter; and a constant sense of discovery. Every page should offer something new; yet everything new should fit perfectly into the story and world the author has already established.
Also, humor. Not slapstick, not zany, not absurd; just a sly wit, emerging every so often.
Finally, two things to avoid: exploitative violence against women, and bad slang (especially placed in the mouths of ethnicities and ages different from the author’s own).
Of course, all I’ve described here is what I myself like to read. As for relevance, you’ve probably noticed how little contemporary fiction deals with people’s actual lives, and rightly so. Who needs the reminder? There aren’t many authors who can make a typical office job interesting (Joshua Ferris, THEN WE CAME TO THE END, is one example). I’m sure there are several reasons you’ve written about, say, the zombie apocalypse; surely this is one?
SL: I’d say it’s not that most people’s lives are boring – it’s that everyone’s life is interesting at certain times and in certain circumstances, and the trick is to create a story that focuses on those moments, in a way that is recognizable to everyone. Most people know what it’s like to fall in love or feel terror or regret or to long for vengeance – but most of what happens in between these moments would make for crushingly dull prose.
That’s why we turn to genre – the genre elements are a cheat to get us to the place where we can talk about the truly interesting bits without a lot of distractions. The story is never the heist or the airplane crash, but why people feel and act the way they do. Stephen King’s THE MIST features a killer fog not because that fog is interesting – it really isn’t – but so that we can understand David Drayton and his relationships with his wife and son and neighbors. James Sallis’ CYPRESS GROVE isn’t really about the brutally-murdered body that turns up in a small town – yawn – but about Turner, the ex-cop/con/shrink who is pulled into the case, and his uneasy relationship with both past and present. My own AFTERTIME series isn’t really about the end of the world but about Cass Dollar’s redemption.
David Drayton and Turner and Cass are all fiction-worthy, but write about them making toast and you don’t have much of a story. Toss in some rotting bodies or carnivorous insects or zombies and we have something to work with.
Okay Mike, since you’ve got the upcoming release, how about if you have the last word? I’d love to know how CLAWBACK has changed you as a writer – what lessons writing this book taught you, what you’d like to repeat or avoid in the future.
For the first draft, that is. Although CLAWBACK is chockablock with detail of all sorts, I filled most of it in during the revisions – after it was clear what I needed. Much more efficient that way. For example, I didn’t bother figuring out every NYC location beforehand. I just imagined the settings I wanted – and then I found places in the city that fit my mental picture.
Which I think illustrates a larger point: story is all. Rhythm and character and making the world right – those are the fundamentals. Everything else is trim.
Second, first-person thrillers are much harder to plot than third-person POV. That’s advice you hear a lot, and as it turns out, for good reason. I’m deep in the sequel now, and it would make things so much easier if I could duck out into omniscient, or even third-close, for just one teeny scene. Or two. On the other hand, much of the appeal of Silas Cade (to me, at least) is his voice, and that would be diluted by other POVs.
Lastly, luck matters. CLAWBACK is all about rotten financiers and one-percenter psychopaths getting what they deserve – but I wrote it a full year before Occupy first showed up on Wall Street. The timing’s been great, and I can’t take any credit at all. Sometimes the stars align. Sometimes they don’t, as my drawer full of unpublished material proves. All you can do is write the best story you can, and try to make yourself laugh and shiver and maybe even sniffle now and then, and trust that readers will be out there.
Sophie, you and I talk often, but usually on the phone, with each other. Sharing thoughts this way and more openly has been fun! Someday we should do a joint appearance or something. Big thanks to Mulholland for giving us this platform.
The concluding book in Sophie Littlefield’s Aftertime trilogy, HORIZON, was released in January. Mike Cooper’s CLAWBACK has just been released by Viking. More at www.sophielittlefield.com and www.mikecooperbooks.com.
Apparently 1970 was THE year to be a film buff—if we’re reading this chart right, anyway.
Scott D. Parker
My son is a storyteller. His imagination overflows with great concepts and tales that only can come from a young person unfettered by adult knowledge. Be it Lego people, stuffed animals, or things he just made up, he is always telling stories, sometimes with only the school day getting in the way. There have been a few times when we've walked to school and he's telling me some important detail about something and he has to stop when the school bell rings...and, upon leaving school, he literally picks up where he left off in the morning.
His current fascination is with the game Plants vs. Zombies. For those that don't know, this is a basic tower defense game where you deploy cute plants to do battle and protect your house from cute zombies. Since our entire family has beaten the game, my boy is inventing new themed levels that he would like to see. In these imaginings, he goes all out. Zombie Smurfs, Zombie Mario, and Zombie Thomas Jefferson each attack in their own unique way, and, more often than not, there are "a trillion" zombies with which the plants have to fight. There's that rational, now-adult logical part of me that wants to say, "Dude, you can't have a trillion zombies because the plants would not stand a chance. Heck, they wouldn't even fit on the screen." I refrain, however, and allow his young mind to wander as far as it will.
All of us, dear readers, are likely adults reading this essay. (If we got some young people, hello!) Unless we have young people around (our own children, etc.), chances are we've forgotten the sense of wonder through which the young see our world. I'll admit that I, grown-up kid that I am, still forgot things until my being a parent helped me remember the glorious awe through which children sometimes see our world.
The science fiction genre has a term for that: Sensawonder, an amalgamation of "sense of wonder." In many an SF or fantasy book or movie, the hero beholds wonders beyond the imagination, be they alien or man-made. There is a bigness to some stories, an awareness by the hero of things larger than himself. We, as readers or viewers, get to experience that feeling, too. What did you think when Lucy first went through the wardrobe? Or Alice through the looking glass. Or Dorothy in Oz? Or Luke Skywalker when he saw the Death Star? Or Dave Bowman when he saw the monolith? Or when Marty McFly drove into 1955?
I’m currently re-reading the first few Martian tales by Edgar Rice Burroughs in advance of next month’s release of the “John Carter” movie. That, and my SF book club picked them. They are fun reads and, aside from the first volume, I have not read them in over thirty years. That first book, A Princess of Mars, is one of the few books that can simultaneously take me back to a time when I was ten and I can travel there without any adultness in me. That is, I can still feel the wonder I felt back then with all the stuff the intervening three decades brought to me. Oh, and the writer part of me also stays at the door way. Sure, he pokes his head in every now and then to remind me that this was Burroughs’s first book, but he discretely and quietly exits without too much fuss.
Recently, I’ve started to wonder if sensawonder is confined only to the SF and fantasy genres. Can you have it with a mystery? As an adult reader, when I page through a mystery story, my sensawonder is at the prose, the story, the structure, and the author’s prowess rather than the story itself. Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny was a remarkable book written by an author in complete command of her skills, and there were a few scenes where I smiled at the twists, but I’m not sure I experienced wonder. Same for the Boone Daniels novels by Don Winslow. They are fantastic books that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and, with The Dawn Patrol, experienced a physical reaction to while reading, but no wonder. And don’t the sensawonder only applies to children reading SF. In the past five years, I’ve read China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and Dan Simmons’s Hyperion and both expanded my mind like nothing else in decades.
Is the setting crucial to sensawonder? Most mysteries are set on earth no matter the year. The J. D. Robb books are set in the future, but they are small enough not too feel too different. Historical mysteries have for me, a trained historian, more a quality of “I wonder if [Insert Historical Person] will show up” rather than wonder. The closest I’ve come to sensawonder with mysteries is Robert Harris’s Fatherland and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, both alternate history/mystery stories, the former taking place in a Berlin where Germany won World War II, the latter set in a Jewish country in Alaska. Chabon's book was nominated for both an Edgar (lost) and a Nebula (won). Go figure.
Setting maybe is the crucial ingredient. But I still pose the question: can you have a true sense of wonder in a mystery story?
Album of the Week: Van Halen's A Different Kind of Truth.
I'm only a casual VH fan, one who did not get up in arms when David Lee Roth left and Sammy Hagar replaced him. But this reunion with the Van Halen brothers (and son!) with Roth had me curious. It is exactly like you'd expect a Van Halen album to sound. That's both a good and bad thing. A good thing that they are back together, making some great rock music, bad that it sounds like it's from 1984. I"m not complaining about the sound. I'm too busy playing steering wheel guitar and bopping my head. And, while the lead single, "Tattoo," is the song you're most likely to hear, it's a good tune, but not the best on the album. Give it a spin and see if you think that old magic is back.
Its come up more than once this week in various situations and conversations. But I’m still amazed by the “ghettoization” of Science Fiction as a genre.
One of Stuart MacBride’s most unashamedly fun novels was the brilliant HALFHEAD – a near future fantasy where the weapons all had onomatopoeic names and where he mocked the establishment quite thoroughly with even more ludicrous beauracracy and a horrific sense of social justice that proved just how savage “human” punishments could be. If I may be so bold, I found it even more fun than his Logan McRae books and was hoping that there would be more. But that, apparently, is not likely to happen because sales were less than for his crime novels.
Well, he was a debut author all over again. Because SF readers had yet to discover him and crime readers acted in a strangely conservative manner. They missed out on the fact that HALFHEAD did everything they loved in his crime novels and more. Just because the synopsis had the word “future” in it. Of course, this assumption is based on mostly anecdotal experience, but that was what I tended to hear when asking people why they hadn’t bought that one book of MacBride’s.
Is this fair?
It’s the same with Iain (M) Banks to a degree. Now, he’s established as an SF author, but so many of his mainstream fans stay away from the SF stuff as though its toxic. Why? As I heard Banks once say at an event its because it has the word “space” in it, and people are scared. They hear the word SF or space and they get weird clichéd ideas about geeky social misfits and probably odd looking aliens in rubber masks (a-la classic Trek). Or perhaps they see the endlessly complex worlds of computer games like HALO that appear incomprehensible if you’re not on the inside.
What they’re missing, of course, is that SF is a literature of ideas. Yes, it has its clichés, the same as any genre, but move past those and some genuinely philosophical and inventive fiction can be found within the genre. Philip K Dick, of course, is a prime example of an author who uses the form to do something deeper and explore philosophical and metaphysical ideas that mainstream fiction can only dream of. China Mieville** takes this to an extreme and loads his fantastical imaginings with allegory and symbolism that would make most literary writers weep with jealousy. And if that’s all getting a bit heavy for you, Alistair Reynolds writes amazingly accessible and fun adventure stories that still contain real smarts and some very witty undercurrents.
I also find it very interesting that many people who claim not to like SF often adore SF movies without realising it. BLADE RUNNER, ALIEN, ALIENS, GATTACA, THE MATRIX, these are all examples of mainstream SF movies that people don’t seem to realise are actually SF. Why is it so different for movies? And let’s not start on THE X FILES…
Earlier this year I did a library event with Ken McLeod. This was a reader’s day where readers came along and signed up to hear writers talk about one book they loved and one book of their own. Interestingly, there were no SF fans on the day. I was a little worried for Ken who is, after all, an SF writer. And yes, even people in his group had SF reservations. But by the end of the day, many of them were willing and excited to try a whole genre they had ignored due to their preconceptions of it.
I accept – nay, willingly agree – that there’s a lot of lazy, clichéd writing in the SF genre. I mean, seriously, I’ve stopped reading the genre for years at a time due to a slew of novels that just don’t “get” what makes SF special, that spend too much paying homage to other writers ideas and forget to make their own, or concentrate so hard on world building that they ignore the human element that often marks great SF. But when the genre gets it right, its more than a force to be reckoned with.
I guess we’re back to the old argument – the simple one. A good book is a good book regardless of genre. And you shouldn’t be put off just because you see the word “space” or because you expect to somehow “not understand” the conventions at play. Good SF is accessible (with a bit of work; you have to adjust yourself to the terms, in the same a reader of crime fic has to adjust themselves to the conventions and technical language of that genre) and capable of supreme and brilliant storytelling with brains and heart at the centre. Its not just for geeks. Its not just for insiders.
And it very rarely uses the phrase “warp factor 10”.
*Gene Roddenberry, talking about SF
**Who, with multiple PhD’s is as smart as a chap with three heads