Sunday, March 25, 2007

First Responses

It's always interesting, and slightly worrying, to read the first responses to a new book. They've begun to creep in for The Unquiet, and they all seem positive, which is a relief given that it is a very different novel from both The Black Angel and, obviously, The Book of Lost Things.

I suppose a couple of things have struck me about these responses. The first is that a number of readers have commented on how much shorter The Unquiet is than The Black Angel, when in fact it's almost the same length. I wanted it to 'read' fast, so in that, at least, I appear to have succeeded. It's also a more linear book, with a very particular momentum. Also, it feels less 'cluttered' to me. I think that some of my books have been, at times, a little busy, overcrowded with characters and incidents. Perhaps I was afraid of losing the reader's attention, or it may have been a function of the way that I write, which is quite organic and unstructured. It's actually much harder to write a book that appears relatively simple, or one that unravels at a methodical rate. Or, to put it another way, its easier to fill a 500 page novel with 50 characters than with five.

It's odd, but looking back it may be that The Black Angel is the odd one out in the last four books. Don't get me wrong: I'm proud of that book, and I did exactly what I set out to do with it. I wanted to write a big, sprawling novel that took in different periods of history, that was steeped in myth and religion, and I think it has a very distinct mood and tone that is sustained throughout. But, in retrospect, "The Reflecting Eye", the Parker novella that featured in Nocturnes, seems to me more and more to be an important stage in my development as a writer. (And perhaps that's true of the Nocturnes collection as a whole, although it will never sell as well as anything else that I've done so far.) "The Reflecting Eye" is tight, and (I hope) tense, yet not a great deal happens in it in the sense that there are no big explosions, no whistles and bangs. It takes its time. Even though it is less than 50,000 words long, there is room to breathe.

The Book of Lost Things also seems to me to be a tightly written book. It is no longer or shorter than it should be, and I don't think there are very many wasted words. It, too, has a feeling of momentum. It moves forward, and its moments of reflection seem integrated to me.

I suppose what I'm saying is that I can see a kind of progression there. I learned something from Nocturnes, and "The Reflecting Eye" in particular, and I can see how it has influenced the books that have followed. The Unquiet represents a further step forward, from my perspective, although I appreciate that not everyone who chooses to read it may feel the same way. People have their favourites among the books of any writer, and it may not always be the writer's best book that they choose. Other factors come into play, factors that are entirely personal to the individual reader in question, and that is as it should be, for otherwise it would be a very dull world indeed.

I don't mean this to sound bigheaded, or vain. It's just that, as a writer, I have a fear of treading water, of repeating myself or of not learning something new in the writing of a book, of not moving forward. Perhaps I feel that the momentum and progression that I see in the books is a reflection of my own slow progress as a writer. I think I'm getting a little better at what I do, or some aspects of it at least, which is reassuring. I'd like to be better at what I do. It seems a worthwhile aim to have . . .

This week John is reading

The Swarm by Frank Schatzing (it's another long book, but I'm in a long book mood at the moment. Very good, though, for anyone who has been a bit put off by its length.)

and listening to

Ash Wednesday by Elvis Perkins
We Know About The Need by Bracken

6 comments:

The Home Office said...

What I enjoy most about John writing (and John, for that matter), is his willingness not to rehash the techniques and styles in different containers. I've read all the Charlie Parker novels through The Black Angel, and feel it's the logical culmination of the series to this point. His style has evolved, but not quite in the manner one might have predicted. It appears The Unquiet will be another step on what readers may consider an unforeseen path. And I say, "Good for him."

John's right; a reader's favorite may not be the best book, just as I acknowledge Beethoven's superiority as a composer, yet consider Mahler to be my favorite classical composer. I'm looking forward to reading The Unquiet because it will be different from The Black Angel, even though that's my favorite to date. What I'm looking forward to is seeing how John chooses to explore Parker's character, as well as his own gifts.

Bravo to John for looking for different keys to unlock different doors, while still remaining true to his own vision and gifts. A lot of his peers would do well to have his attitude. (Not that he has a lot of peers; he's one of a pretty elite group.

Tom Hyland said...

“I’d like to be better at what I do”

Boy… wouldn’t we all. It seems I've spent a lifetime shouldering the same attitude. The above statement applies to both writing and… to life in general.We'd all like to 'do better'. And we’d like to 'get better' at what we do or how we do it. And the result of each effort may lie in where a person is during a certain time of their life. This block of time certainly seems to be your most creative period John. And that status deserves every bit of r├ęclame.

I just pre-ordered The Unquiet from Amazon and am anticipating that any changes of style or structure will only serve to enhance the experience of the writing. You certainly have the gift. And thank you for sharing insight into the efforts that go along with that gift. Those efforts are certainly not wasted on loyal fans and contented readers.

Josh said...

Funny thing about The Unquiet is that it is a quick read, but it never struck me as I read it that it was "fast." It kept a good pace, but never felt rushed, which I'm sure is a difficult balance to maintain.

cs harris said...

I suppose it's safe to find what works with readers and to keep repeating that, as do so many commercially successful writers. Personally, I wonder how they can bring a sense of energy and interest to what is basically a retelling of the same story over and over again. The writers I enjoy stretch themselves, take risks, keep learning, surprise me. Good post, John (as always).

Michael said...

It is funny that "Black Angel" is the odd one out. I ended up buying it after seeing it on a table at Chapters, I noticed the "CD Sticker" and then read the first few pages while I was standing there and bought it.

After I literally "flew" through it I noticed I was missing a lot of background to the characters and ended up buying all the other books you had written.

Now I am looking forward to "The Unquiet" and I am truly curious how the story and his life are evolving.

JB said...

First time writing, but after finding Black Angel, going back and reading all novels in order, reading The Reflecting Eye and re-reading Black Angel again (even better second time around!), I wanted to join in.

So looking forward to the Unquiet, and hoping that after that I can go back and re-read all the others only read once.

While I have mixed feelings were this to happen--as we all know how movies usually don't deliver the same impact or richness of a great book--is there a film version of any of these books in our future? I can only think that Black Angel would make one heck of frightening movie if done right.

Thank you for sharing your stories with us.