Monday, January 18, 2010

On Submitting


THE WHISPERERS, the next Charlie Parker novel, was delivered to my British and American editors shortly before Christmas. Well, it should have been, but the courier company was shoddy to the nth degree, and so at least one of my editors didn't receive the manuscript until early in the New Year. To cover myself, as it's due for publication in Ireland and the UK at the start of May, I gave a copy to one independent reader to check for errors, and a second copy to a friend of mine who had agreed to check that the details of military service were accurate. With a further copy sent to my agent, this meant that five people were reading the manuscript at the same time.

Delivering a manuscript is a source of mixed feelings for me. To begin with, there's a sense of relief in that I've somehow managed to write another book in the face of the usual obstacles, including, but not limited to:

1) doubts about the quality of the book;
2) doubts about the quality of the writer;
3) generalized doubts about everything not immediately connected to the book but still capable of impacting upon the writing;
4) writing another book entirely - The Gates - before embarking upon this one;
5) touring that other book, as well as the book - The Lovers - that had already been delivered and scheduled for publication in 2009;
6) other projects demanding time - short stories, reviews, newspaper articles, and the reading of other people's books at the request of writers and editors in the hope that I might be moved to offer a supportive quote;
7) eating, sleeping, and generally trying to balance living with the fact that each day begins and ends with an internal voice nagging about the book in hand.

Allied to this sense of relief, there is the faint hope that this book might be better than the last one, just as I hoped that the last one might be better than the one that preceded it, and so on back to DARK HOLLOW, which I hoped would be better than EVERY DEAD THING. As a writer, you have to feel that you're moving forward, and trying to do something different with each book. At least, I have to feel that way, although as I stumble through increasingly formulaic pieces of genre fiction as part of my reading material I start to wonder if I am not, perhaps, simply making life harder for myself than I should be. After all, isn't it in the nature of genre fiction to be generic? It's certainly in the name.

The danger in this, of course, is that one may alienate the very readers who liked the last book, and were rather hoping for the same thing again, albeit with some of the names changed, and with a bit of adjustment to the plot. THE WHISPERERS, though, is a departure from THE LOVERS, and certainly from THE GATES, although it contains one very deliberate echo of that book and, indeed, of "The Reflecting Eye", the Parker novella contained in the NOCTURNES volume of short stories. In part, that's because I feel that there should be some consistency, even across genres, to the universe of my books. After all, they come from the same imagination, and the rules applicable to one should probably be applicable to the rest.

To return to THE WHISPERERS: I think, from the start, I thought of this book as one that was almost dreamlike in its narrative, although 'nightmarish' might be a better word to use. One of my editors felt that it was fragmented, and it is, but it is fragmented in the sense that a dream may be fragmented, but contains within itself an essential consistency. There is no single character in the book who is entirely certain of what is happening, and that includes Parker himself. We flit from consciousness to consciousness, each one providing a piece of the puzzle without that individual being sure of where that piece fits into the overall picture. All are tormented by what they know, but also, in the case of the soldiers at the heart of the story, by what they have endured. It is, on one level, a book about the aftermath of war, and its effect on those who have survived conflict.

That element of the book has proved slightly contentious, and raises an interesting question about the limits, or otherwise, of genre fiction. Some years ago, the always interesting Deadly Pleasures magazine printed an article on the work of George Pelecanos, taking him to task for social commentary in his novels. It remains, I think, one of the worst pieces of critical writing that otherwise estimable magazine has ever produced, failing every basic critical test, including the one that suggests it's a good idea to critique the book that has been written and not the book that the critic thinks should have been written. Worse than that, though, it exposed the 'inferiority complex fault line' that runs through sections of the mystery community like pink writing through a stick of rock. (Witness the degree of genuflecting and grateful hand wringing from within the genre that occurs when a literary writer deigns to pen a mystery novel, and then 'fesses up to it, like the bitter, fawning Uriah Heep welcoming David Copperfield into his 'ever so 'umble' abode.) Mystery novels should concentrate on, well, a mystery. It's about the plot, dummy. Leave the social commentary to proper novels. Know your place. Another murder, please, and be quick about it.

Thankfully, there are plenty of authors out there who are happy to ignore such attempts to place strictures on their work, and the last year alone has seen Val McDermid engage with the legacy of the miners' strike in Britain, and Steig Larsson tackle the sex trade in Sweden, although Larsson (and, as a reader, I have some reservations about those books, finding them a bit long and undisciplined, but I appear to be in the minority) has a 'Get out of Jail Free' card because he is no longer with us, and also because he has become the most recent Adopted Genre Author ®, the genre writer picked up on by those who don't ordinarily read, in this case, mystery fiction because they feel that it's beneath them, are then kind of surprised by how good it can be, but don't believe that the regular stuff is usually this good and therefore don't bother to read any more of it until the next AGA comes along.

So it may be that THE WHISPERERS will be more divisive than some of my previous books, and it has been interesting to receive the responses of my editors, agent, and the two readers to the manuscript. The parts that one disliked, others have loved. Where another suggested changes, three others wanted no changes at all. Now, as the writer, it is up to me over the next week or so to consider the arguments of each, to decide what points are valid, what points are open to dispute, and where to draw the line at altering the manuscript. There will be arguments, and agreements to differ. It's what makes the post-submission process at once challenging, frustrating, and ultimately beneficial to the work that will eventually appear on bookshelves later this year.

Without such input, my books would be poorer offerings.


Wicked Prey by John Sandford


Twelve Songs by Owen Pallett
Mayday by Peter Von Poehl
Hospice by Antlers



Dana King said...

The minority who felt THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO wasn't all that isn't as small as you might think. It's interesting how many people who liked it will admit, when pressed, they liked parts of it, and have pretty much decided to pretend the rest of the book isn't there. Would that all of our writing could be seen through the same rose-tinted glasses.

McDermid's book is excellent, a first-rate mystery first, with a setting against the fallout of the miners' strike. Her social point gets made, but never at the expense of the story.

ksuicide said...

Well, I will definitely look forward to reading it when it comes out. All of your books so far are my guilty pleasures. :)


TomH said...

You've got the goods. Don't ever doubt that. And the work grows better and better with each passing.

Chances you've taken along the way have always proved correct. And with clear conscience and peace of mind.

TomH said...

As Harlan Ellison said, 'Authors serve as their own exorcists.

Anything said or done in honesty and with passion and without harm aimed at any single person or thing... .

It's called living.

OSLO said...

A very honest and insightful post. Thank you.

Astarte said...

Don't despair! Rush Limbaugh is a hate mongering hypocrite. His show is only rated the most popular because it's the only thing out there that the unthinking masses have to listen to, whereas the rest of us use multiple sources of information, scattering the popularity points. I can't stand it when I think that people from other countries are even remotely presented with the idea that people like him represent our country.

I found your blog because I loved The Gates, and came to your site looking for info on whether there will be a sequel. Please, please! I read it, immediately read it again with my daughter, and talked about it on my review blog. It made me think of two of my favorite books of all time - The Eyes of the Dragon and The Phantom Toolbooth.

I thought your post was very insightful and honest. The best writers are definitely their own exorcists. Those that aren't don't bring material that is anywhere near as compelling to the table. If a reader is going to invest herself in a novel, part of the author has to be in there as well, or it will be nearly impossible to make a real connection between the two.

Revelle said...

A very very good writer that helps me escape the droll of everyday living... 'The gate' is good fun and I don't often laugh at stories (Could be down to what I normally read?) but Nocturnes is one of my top five in life... Not one story in that did not impress me... Keep up the good work John and I hope one day to see one of your books at least made to film... Just how cool would that be...