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


Monday, January 11, 2010

On The New Daughter

Last month, as James Cameron's AVATAR seemingly swept into every cinema in the world, determined to show us what the smurfs might have looked like if they were taller and the smurfettes had proper breasts, the movie of THE NEW DAUGHTER crept out on limited release. Starring Kevin Costner and Ivana Baquero, it's based on a short story (a very short story) that first appeared in the NOCTURNES collection some years ago. I still haven't seen it, which is a pretty good metaphor for the position of the writer of the source material for a movie. Generally speaking, the novelist or short story writer upon whose work the film is based is required to do little more than take the check and keep quiet, unless, of course, he has been drawn into adapting his own work, in which case he will actually have to earn that check instead of merely banking it and leaving the hard work to someone else.

It's odd seeing something with which one is at once both intimately, and peripherally, involved make its way into the world. I wanted the film to do well, mainly for the sake of all those who were responsible for its creation. The success, or otherwise, of the film was never going to make a great difference to my sales, I don't think, given that it was a short story, not a novel, that provided the initial idea, but my brief glimpse of the moviemaking process showed me just how many people have to work phenomenally hard for a film to make it as far as the screen. Some of those involved with THE NEW DAUGHTER had worked on Polanski's CHINATOWN and Michael Mann's MANHUNTER, among others, and they applied themselves just as willingly to our little film as they did to those fine works. I wonder if, while making those movies, the crew and the producers knew how good they were going to be. I suspect that they might have had some inkling, but it could not have been more than that. History determines what is and is not of value. It requires the passage of time to allow a perspective to emerge on a book, or a film, or a painting.

Even if I had seen THE NEW DAUGHTER, I'm not sure that I would comment upon it. In a way, I feel that it's not for me to do so, and I get annoyed when I see writers either criticizing films of their work, or basking in the acclaim when those works are applauded. Bad books have made good movies, and vice versa. I'm currently reading the director Bruce Beresford's book JOSH HARTNETT DEFINITELY WANTS TO DO THIS, a diary of his attempts to get various movies made during the last decade, and some of the most interesting moments concern the tension between source material and scripts, as Beresford picks up on flaws in novels that might present difficulties on the screen but are less problematical for the individual reader. Sometimes, when it comes to movies, I think books and short stories are merely concepts, ideas scribbled at varying lengths on pieces of paper. The two art forms, literature and cinema, are so distinct that the relationship between source and film is tenuous at best. THE NEW DAUGHTER, for example, is only 16 pages long in its short story form. To turn that into a feature length film requires the addition of so much new material that only a hint of the original can possibly be discerned in the finished movie. If the film is great, it's great because a whole lot of other creative individuals made it that way. If it isn't great, then generally it's not for want of those individuals trying to make it as good as it can be. Nobody - except, perhaps, the producers of MEGA SHARK V GIANT OCTOPUS, which I happened to catch on TV recently and caused pieces of my brain to leak from my ears - sets out to make a terrible film, just as no writer sets out to write a bad book. I suspect that all creative work secretly aspires to the condition of art.

So, I guess I'll be waiting for a while to see THE NEW DAUGHTER, unless the production company sends me a DVD. As Hollywood experiences go, it has all been rather positive so far. The film was made. Everybody involved with it was a pleasure to deal with. I've made at least one good friend as a consequence of it. The film was released. Everybody got paid. By Hollywood standards, that's almost as good as it gets. The rest, to quote Raymond Carver, is gravy . . .

This week John read

BLOOD OATH by Chris Farnsworth (uncorrected proof)
THE MANAGER by Barney Ronay
THE GUARDIANS by Andrew Pyper (manuscript)

and listened to

hours and hours of the wonderful Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo talking about movies on their Radio 5 podcast. Brilliant, just brilliant . . .