So, after a break of, oh, about a week (and not even a break as such, since I spent it doing taxes, trying to learn a little Spanish in advance of the Argentinian trip, getting back into the habit of writing these blogs, and preparing an introduction for a special Scorpion Press edition of James Lee Burke's The Glass Rainbow, which caused me a great deal of stress and worry as, well, it's James Lee Burke, and I didn't want to mess it up) I sat down and started work on the next Parker book. In truth, I was rather looking forward to it. I've had an idea in mind since I finished The Whisperers, and writing Hell's Bells, the sequel to The Gates, allowed that idea time to grow and develop, so by the time I sat down and began writing I was pretty fired up.
That didn't last long: 5,500 words. It's not so much that I've hit a snag, as that I need to reconsider how I'm going to write the book. For the first time, I began writing a novel entirely in the present tense. It's also in the third person, which is fine, but part of me enjoys inhabiting Parker's consciousness, and to do that properly I should really stick to the first person. Yet another part of me enjoyed exploring how others view him, as I did in The Reapers, and now I'm slightly torn. What's the best way to tell this particular story? Plus I'm avoiding the issue by writing this piece about it, although I prefer to look upon it as writing down my thoughts. No, it's avoidance, really.
Usually, these technical aspects of writing don't give me pause. I've generally gone on instinct and, in the case of the Parker books, that's meant the past tense, first person, with a little dipping in and out of the consciousness of others. I wonder if that's cheating, though? Some time ago, an artistic movement calling itself the New Puritans (well, 'movement' is somewhat exaggerating its nature, as it was really just a bunch of young blades who'd watched rather too many Dogme movies) briefly spawned in Britain. It came up with a 10-point manifesto - every good movement needs a manifesto - which could basically be summed up as 'Keep It Simple', although as an act of public service I've reprinted the original tenets below:
- Primarily storytellers, we are dedicated to the narrative form.
- We are prose writers and recognise that prose is the dominant form of expression. For this reason we shun poetry and poetic licence in all its forms.
- While acknowledging the value of genre fiction, whether classical or modern, we will always move towards new openings, rupturing existing genre expectations.
- We believe in textual simplicity and vow to avoid all devices of voice: rhetoric, authorial asides.
- In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing.
- We believe in grammatical purity and avoid any elaborate punctuation.
- We recognise that published works are also historical documents. As fragments of our time, all our texts are dated and set in the present day. All products, places, artists and objects named are real.
- As faithful representation of the present, our texts will avoid all improbable or unknowable speculations on the past or the future.
- We are moralists, so all texts feature a recognisable ethical reality.
- Nevertheless, our aim is integrity of expression, above and beyond any commitment to form.
Of course, one of the difficulties with the New Puritanism was that it equated simplicity with clarity of expression, which doesn't necessarily follow at all, as well as being more than a little pretentious. I knew at least one of the founding members of the movement, and quite liked him, but I wasn't going to have any truck with much of what he and his friends were proposing. Apart from the distinctly ambivalent attitude they displayed toward genre fiction, which suggested that they didn't really understand what genre fiction was, or did, and, by extension, may not have been entirely clear on a lot of other types of fiction either, their reluctance to use all of the literary tools available to them smacked rather of Luddism. "Vow to avoid all devices of voice." Really? How do you propose to do that, then, as the mere act of putting words on a page in narrative form is surely a 'device of voice'? "Published works are also historical documents". Are they? All of them? Are you sure? Anyway, these are old arguments, for the New Puritanism never really took off. There were some interesting moments in an anthology of stories assembled by the writers in question, but it was hard to shake off the feeling that they would have been more interesting had they not been written according to the restrictive practices of New Puritanism.
I'm not really much for Puritanism, in any form, but when it comes to writing something of what they were proposing may have touched a sensitive spot with me. If I start in the first person, should I stick with it? Is it entirely fair, in novels that are ostensibly structured around the consciousness of a single character, and told from that character's perspective in the first person, to dip in and out of the consciousness of other characters when the central character can't possibly have that knowledge? Would my books be better if I were to restrict myself to that single viewpoint?
Hmmm, probably not. After all, there is a game being played here between the reader and the writer: Parker is my creation, my construct, and behind his voice, and his consciousness, is my own consciousness, just as it lies behind that of every character in my books. On one level, the reader chooses to ignore my presence as part of a pact agreed with the writer, or is made to forget it if the quality of the work is of a sufficiently high standard. In the end, I guess I can do what I want as long as it ultimately serves the purposes of my work. It's a 'device of voice', one of many in my books, and one of the many tools at my disposal.
Maybe I'll go back over those early words and rework them. I'll see how they sound in Parker's voice. Then again, by moving away from him, and changing the tense, I gave these early pages of the book a very different feel from anything that I've done before. They're sparser, perhaps, but also more lyrical. It may be that this voice will suit this particular book, as it's so very different from The Whisperers. It will be a brooding novel, with very little violence. But would the present tense bother readers? It takes a while to adjust to it, as most of us are more familiar with books written in the past tense, but it has its rewards.
Early days, and already so many questions . . .
THIS WEEK JOHN READ
Paul Newman: A Life by Shawn Levy
AND LISTENED TO
Common One by Van Morrison
Butterfly OST by Ennio Morricone
A Secret Wish (25th Anniversary Edition) by Propaganda