Writing

Winter is coming

Got an email from Fios at the end of June, telling us that, as thanks for being such valued customers, they’re giving us HBO for free for three months.  (No idea why we should be such highly valued customers.  We’ve only been Fios customers for three months.)

Of course, what I immediately did was download the HBO Go app to the Playstation and our Fire TV sticks, and for the past month I’ve been binging on as many episodes of HBO shows as I can.  I’ve finished all of Game of Thrones (so far) and am about two thirds of the way through Boardwalk Empire.  Next up will be Deadwood, then I’ll be moving on to the shows that have a lot fewer episodes, like The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Parade’s End.

(Incidentally I don’t recommend mainlining episodes of Game of Thrones, though it’s a fine show.  Quite apart from that da-da-DA-da, da-da-DA-da, da-da-DAAA rattling through my skull like it was the rhythm from the Archangel Network, there was also the fact that I pretty much could no longer interact with a woman without picturing her naked, and anytime I got into a dispute with someone, I developed the urge to win it by surprisingly and dramatically cutting their throat.)

Boardwalk Empire came at just the right time for me, though.  After I finished Game of Thrones we went off for a weekend road trip to Philadelphia, Valley Forge, Hershey Park and Harpers Ferry.  It involved a whole lot of history and was a whole lot of fun, but it really got me thinking again about my alternate histories set in colonial and Revolutionary America.  Those are topics that I really love but that I want to avoid writing about because I really don’t think they’re terribly saleable, so I always end up feeling like the time I’ve spent on them has been wasted.  But they had wormed their way back into my imagination by the time we got home, and I’d resigned myself to thinking I was going to be spending at least the next few weeks working on them again.

But then I started Boardwalk Empire, and that was no longer an issue.  It’s set in 1920 and manages to actually be about people who genuinely feel like they could have inhabited the 1920s, unlike most historical fiction, which (especially in TV and movies) is typically about modern people who happen to live in an earlier time period.  And it immediately refocused me on stuff I’d been working on before, set during that post-WW1 period, that I think has a much better chance of finding an audience.

We’ll see what happens when I start Deadwood.  Maybe it’ll make me replay Red Dead Redemption again.

I

Single Oh Seven: Licence to fanwank

SPOILERS AHOY for Spectre, Skyfall, Quantum of Solace, Casino Royale, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and possibly for any of the nineteen other canonical Bond films I decide to chuck in

I have a theory.  I haven’t researched it at all, so there might be plenty of other people who have theorised the same thing.  Or there might be stuff out there refuting it, or confirming it.  But it’s my theory, and I’m going to put it here.

Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Daniel Craig’s first two James Bond movies, are pretty openly presented as the first two episodes of a trilogy dealing with the discovery and exploration of the top-secret global criminal superconspiracy, “Quantum”; and the end of Quantum of Solace—in which Bond takes Dominic Greene offscreen to interrogate him, and all we learn of that interrogation is when we cut back to Greene afterward and he screams, “Okay! I’ve told you all you wanted to know about Quantum!”—clearly set the third Daniel Craig film up as Bond’s big final showdown with Quantum and whatever shadowy mastermind was running it.

I’ve assumed it was because Quantum of Solace was so underwhelming (in terms of critical response and general narrative dissatisfaction, though certainly not in terms of box office) that the decision was taken to abandon the Quantum storyline completely in Skyfall.  Narratively, Skyfall stands completely apart from its two predecessors, with no mention of Quantum.  Even the characterisation of Bond has been reversed: not only has the first two films’ “Bond is too young, hotheaded, unpredictable and inexperienced” theme been jettisoned, it’s been replaced by its exact opposite, as Skyfall is centred on Bond being too old and past his prime to carry the physical demands of his job.

So here’s my theory.  I think that when the Bond people reacquired the rights to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and the Blofeld character in 2013, they were so anxious to include them in the next Bond film (particularly given how successful Skyfall was at reintroducing elements that have been missing from the series, such as Q, Miss Moneypenny and even the 1960s Aston Martin), they were so eager to include them that they basically just dusted off the abandoned original storyline for the third Daniel Craig film and changed the name “Quantum” to “Spectre”.

This would explain why Blofeld in Spectre is essentially identical, in modus operandi, to Raoul Silva from Skyfall; because Silva would have been originally conceived of as the evil genius masterminding Quantum.  (Silva’s obsession with Judi Dench’s M fits in well here.  One thing the first three Daniel Craig Bonds did very well—I’ve raved about this many times in the past—was their extended exploration of the relationship between Bond and Dench’s M.  The treatment of the Bond–M relationship in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace makes a lot of sense if the plan had always been to subject it to the same deconstruction it gets in Skyfall even when Skyfall hadn’t been intended to be Skyfall.)

This would also explain why it is that Spectre and Blofeld don’t actually seem to have any sort of evil goal.  They have want to link up the intelligence-gathering networks of Britain, South Africa, Japan, China and five other unnamed countries, and have access to the information produced by those networks, but there’s no explanation as to what they want to do with that network that would be so much more horrible than the fact that modernday governments already have access to that information in the first place.  Mounting terrorist attacks on Mexico City, Frankfurt, Tunisia and Cape Town?  Except that those terrorist attacks were staged as a means to get the Nine Eyes network up and running, and once that goal had been achieved, there wouldn’t have been any reason to keep them going.  To avoid prosecution for Spectre’s sex trafficking and counterfeit African drugs programmes?  They seem to be doing a pretty good job of that already, considering that they apparently have already cornered both those huge markets of global crime and yet still no one is even aware that their organisation exists.

(Really, if Bond had been a bit more cooperative with Ralph Fiennes’s M and told him he’d just discovered a secret global crime syndicate who are masterminding the distribution of counterfeit drugs in Africa, M could have saved everyone a lot of time just by saying, “Don’t worry about it, 007; your wife and I already took care of that.”)

There were parts of Spectre I thought worked well.  I really liked the Dia de los Muertes imagery in the opening shot.  Blofeld’s introduction at the Spectre board meeting in Rome was a really brilliant example of “this is how we take a quintessentially 60s cinematic moment and put it on the screen for a 2015 audience”.  The Bond torture scene was genuinely squeam-inducing.

But it was also a clunky film, and its biggest area of clunkiness was its complete lack of a coherent plot.  If that’s because it’s the product of an abandoned storyline that had already been cannibalised for parts in Skyfall, well, that would explain a lot.

Another area of clunk were elements that seemed to have been included as homages or tips of the hat, but that were just tossed into the background, glided quickly past and never mentioned or focused on. For instance, when Mr. Hinx popped out his opponent’s eyes, I could have sworn that he had steel-tipped thumbnails, which I took as a reference to Jaws’s steel teeth; but his thumbs were only onscreen for a second or two, and weren’t shown again, so I couldn’t check.

Similarly, Bond first finds Madeleine Swann at an ultra-exclusive, ultra-luxurious, secluded mental health clinic perched in isolation on a mountaintop in the Austrian Alps, and that has to be a reference to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, right?  There’s no way that everyone involved in the production of Spectre can have been unaware that that’s a major part of OHMSS, particularly considering that OHMSS is not only one of the “Blofeld trilogy” of Bond films, but is also the only other Bond film that ends with Bond resigning from MI-6 and (literally) driving off to spend the rest of his days with the woman he loves?  And yet Dr. Swann’s milieu gets no special comment or focus; it’s just an exotic background like any of the many others that litter the opening acts of Spectre as they do all Bond films.

I’m a huge fan of ambiguous storytelling, but I didn’t find things like this to be ambiguous so much as I did frustrating.  Because they make you wonder if other parts of the movie are also references to previous films, or if you’re just pattern matching and there’s really nothing there.  For instance, when Bond and Dr. Swann arrive at Blofeld’s layer, and Swann finds that Blofeld has left a dress out for her on her bed in her room; Lisa was pretty sure that was a reference to Dr. No.  Or the fact that Bond’s ultimate defeat of Blofeld involves bringing his helicopter crashing down out of the sky over London—there are enough differences between how that’s realised in Spectre versus in For Your Eyes Only that I think it’s kiiiiiinda a stretch to see the two as related, unless Spectre has already been genuinely peppered with all these other moments and images from the previous films.

Anyway, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

I

Reading research

“The problem with research,” I tweeted a few days ago, “is that I’ve got a list of at least fifteen books that I don’t so much want to read as want to have already read, right now.

On reflection, I think that’s one of the two problems with research, but more on that in a moment.

It’s not to say that I don’t want to read these books; I do.  Some of them I think are going to be great reads; others will be a slog but will still be about topics I find fascinating.  (Some will be flat-out disappointing, of course.  I had one of those recently.)  But while I am also reading these books for pleasure, centrally I’m reading them to extract information or get a better understanding of something I want to write about.  Holding off on writing about it is a really frustrating feeling.

(Which makes me feel like I should pipe up and say that I don’t have any intention of finishing my research before I start writing; I’m a strong believer that that’s a horrible way to write.  For one thing, your research should never actually be “finished”.  I start writing when I feel I’m ready to start writing, and my research continues apace while I write.  But when I know there’s a lot still out there for me to get a handle on before I can write what I want to write, well, it’s frustrating.)

The other problem with research is that it’s migratory.  There are three or four different things I want to learn about, and the simple act of researching one of them can make me shift interest to one of the others instead.  Right now, I’m reading about the American Federal period.  But that could well lead to me wanting to shift back in time, as I decide to read about the backgrounds of Federal-era statesmen by reading about Colonial America instead.  Or instead maybe it’ll send me across the Atlantic, and I’ll want to research Napoleonic Europe, which had such an impact on Federalist America via things like the Haitian Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase or the War of 1812.  From Napoleon I could well end up going elsewhere in French history—I’ve been meaning to do some reading about Vichy France, for instance, for a while.

So here’s the reading list.  There are books that are higher priorities on here than others; I thought about organising it on that basis, whittling it down or boldfacing the ones I’m either really excited about or feel a really pressing need to tackle before the others.  But then I realised that those priorities change, and the book that I’m thinking, “Oh, I’ll definitely want to read that one after I finish this one I’m starting now,” could, by the time I finish this new one, suddenly find itself way further down the pile.  So instead, here they are organised very roughly by chronology and geography.

The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America by James Axtell

Pitt the Elder: The Great Commoner by Jeremy Black

Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes: French Diplomacy in the Age of Revolution, 1719–1787 by Orville T. Murphy

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman

Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox, 1740–1832 by Stella Tillyard

A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings by Stella Tillyard

America at 1750: A Social Portrait by Richard Hofstadter

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands

William Franklin: Son of a Patriot, Servant of a King by Sheila L. Skemp

Benjamin and William Franklin: Father and Son, Patriot and Loyalist by Sheila L. Skemp

Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes by Christopher Hibbert

John Adams by David McCullough

Mr. Jefferson’s Women by John Kukla

Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser

The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African by Olaudah Equiano

A Sorrow in Our Heart: The Life of Tecumseh by Allan W. Eckert

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg

American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America by David O. Stewart

The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger

The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered by Laura Auricchio

Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts

Napoleon: His Wives and Women by Christopher Hibbert

The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes: The True Story of a Forgotten Hero in Wellington’s Army by Mark Urban

The Exploits of Baron de Marbot by Jean-Baptiste de Marbot

Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century by Kate Hickman

The Courtesan’s Revenge: Harriette Wilson, the Woman Who Blackmailed the King by Frances Wilson

1812: War with America by Jon Latimer

Warships of the Great Lakes, 1754–1834 by Robert Malcolmson

Don’t Give Up the Ship!: Myths of the War of 1812 by Donald R. Hickey

Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna by David King

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel

Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler

The Lost German Slave Girl: The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans by John Bailey

Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders and Slaves in the Old South by Michael Tadman

American Slavery: 1619–1877 by Peter Kolchin

Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves by Ira Berlin

The Prince and the Yankee: The Tale of a Country Girl Who Became a Princess by Robert N. White

Damn that’s about twice as many as I expected.  And I stopped before I got to the books I recently picked up about gender roles in the American Civil War, or the aforementioned books about Vichy France, because those are just too far down on my priorities list right now.

Damn.

I

James Wilkinson and us

As usual, it all comes down to perspective.

We know intellectually that people who lived through history didn’t know what the future held for them, and we probably have no problem grasping that when we talk about moments of great crisis.  We can understand, for instance, that when George Washington led the defeated remnants of the Continental Army into hiding in the woods after the Battle of White Plains, then had them flee across the Hudson River under cover of rain and fog, that a lot of people on both sides probably thought they’d just seen the end of the American rebellion and that British rule would be restored in the colonies shortly.  And we can understand why Joseph Kennedy, ambassador in a London that was being pulverised nightly by an overwhelming German air force while the German army stood in control of all Europe from the Spanish border to the Russian, sent dispatch after dispatch back to Washington telling FDR that Britain was completely finished and Germany already had the war won—even as we smugly snigger at him for how wrong he was.

But as humans, we’re psychologically incapable of stopping ourselves from forgetting that people’s view of the future has always been like this all the time, not just in those instants when all the pieces are thrown up in the air.  It was inevitable, we insist, that once the threat of French colonies in Canada and Louisiana had been removed, once Parliament had determined on extracting revenue from the American colonies, that those colonies would revolt from British rule; but the colonists certainly didn’t think that was a likely or even a realistic outcome until fairly late on in the day.  It was inevitable, we’ve been saying ever since the East Berliners climbed over that wall in December 1989, that we would win the Cold War, that the Eastern Bloc would collapse under their own economic inefficiency.  But we never said that during the Cold War, because we didn’t think it was true.  We thought the Cold War and Communism were going to go on indefinitely; the 1984 Doctor Who story “Fury From the Deep” depicts them as still alive and kicking in 2084.  If anything we thought the Communists probably had the edge on us; you don’t come up with something like the domino theory if you think the natural advantage lies with democracy and the free market.

Of course normally when I talk about this sort of thing, I’m talking about it in relation to alternate history.  But I want to make the point that this is important to consider when looking at real history instead.  I wrote a novel set in Berlin in 1946, under Allied occupation, right after the end of the Second World War.  Read any account of that time and the one thing that comes across very strongly is just how actively uncertain everyone was about what the world would look like in the coming days or months or years.  People were uniquely conscious of how impossible it was to see into the future, both on the personal level (where had their loved ones gone, were they still alive somewhere, would they ever return?) and the geopolitical (was Hitler still alive?  Would the Russians stay in Europe? Would the Americans? Would the Allies demolish all the German cities and leave its people to live as peasant farmers for ever? Would there even be such a thing as Germany ever again?)  It’s really difficult to convey that uncertainty on the page because the reader, of course, already knows the answers to all those questions, and so doesn’t feel the tension over them naturally.

Next time I want to talk about what James Wilkinson can tell us about how Americans saw their republic and its future during its first generation of life.  But before I did that, I thought it was important to establish why and how he can tell us it.  And the answer to that is all about that magical P-word: perspective.

I

1667 words per day

I think I’m planning on doing NaNoWriMo this year.  It’ll be a fun way to mark how much more writing time I’m getting now that the kids are in school, and it’ll be a good way to focus.  Writing that much that quickly is always exhilarating.  Plus I previously did it in 2006 and 2010, so I suppose by doing it again this year I can establish a motif.

Lately I’ve been working on the Shanghai novel I used to talk about here, and I’m happy with how that’s going.  But NaNoWriMo requires something new, so both Shanghai and revisions on Zero Hour are out.  (Honestly, I’ve recently had a couple of ideas for the Shanghai book that I’m kind of happy to give a month or so to gel.)  I’m going to go with writing some alternate history and give myself a chance to flex my worldbuilding muscles in a way that writing historical novels about interwar Shanghai or Allied-occupied Berlin doesn’t.

That decided, I’ve got basically two possibilities of what to write: either I could sit down and write a manuscript for my South-wins-the-American-Civil-War novel, or I could give in to this kick I’ve been on lately about the Federalist Period and do something with a point of departure in 1787 (which is to say, a POD where the United States never ratifies the Constitution).  The South-wins novel is actually in a pretty advanced stage of planning, with a cast of characters, a solidly developed setting and most of a plot; its one big problem is that I’m simply unable to find a way that my protagonist fits into the rest of the book.  Plus (and this is a pretty big consideration) I’m very confident the book is saleable; at least, as saleable as alternate history gets.

The no-Constitution idea, on the other hand, is really just in its infancy.  I have some idea of how the world looks, but no idea of the setting, characters or plot, beyond an opening line that fascinates me.  But it’s what’s been catching at my imagination for the last couple of months, and I’ve done a lot of reading on the period and am really immersed in it right now.  Yesterday I checked a biography of James Wilkinson out the library, who’s a fascinating character who really should be better known from this period of American history.  After just forty pages it’s already prompted a number of thoughts that are almost certainly going to end up as posts here in the coming days.

I really wish NaNoWriMo were December rather than November, is what I’m saying, because then I’d jump on the idea of doing something with the no-Constitution POD.  But it ain’t; it’s November.  So I’ve got a decision to make.

I

Ports

When my imagination first gets captured, when I get that first spark of an idea that there’s a story here I want to tell, it almost always has to do with setting.  Characters and plot follow on later.

There’s a lot of things that can fascinate me about a setting.  Social class, nationalities, history (particularly its influence on the present), politics and diplomacy, custom and tradition, criminal underworlds.  Usually what I find myself wanting to explore is the dichotomy all these factors create between how the rules of how things should be and the realities of how they are, between people’s public virtues and private corruptions.  Almost always, my settings are urban.

And one type of setting that I’m particularly fascinated by is the port city.  Ports are gateways (porta is the Latin word for gate), the portals that allow for the interaction between a specific country or land and the outside world.  They’re crossroads (crossroadses?), the endpoints for routes of communication, commerce, invasion, diplomacy, intrigue, espionage.

But it’s a specific type of port I love.  It’s one that is just as alien to the country it serves as it is to its foreign arrivals.  Liverpool and London, for instance, have their own unique identities within England, but they are English identities.  Ditto the relationship between many of the world’s other historically great ports and their hinterlands—New York, Charleston, San Francisco, Hamburg, Veracruz, Buenos Aires.

But there are other ports that are not—or historically were not—of their lands.  Singapore.  Istanbul.  Alexandria.  Shanghai.  Often this is because of the mixing of locals and foreigners, whose national identities fuse and overlap and create something divorced from its origins.  Shanghai and Hong Kong, by being both Chinese and European, became something neither Chinese nor European.  Alexandria, by being both Greek and Egyptian (and later, Roman), became something neither Greek nor Egyptian nor Roman—indeed, the ancient Egyptians never considered Alexandria a part of Egypt, and the Ptolemaic pharaohs bore the title “Pharaoh of Egypt and King of Alexandria”.  New Orleans, from its purchase by the United States in 1803 until after the American Civil War, was something that was neither properly French nor properly Spanish nor properly American.

(Related to this would no doubt be my fascination with city-states, especially imperial ones.)

So I like ports where all of those inhabitants who come from elsewhere—as most of the populations of great entrepôts do—can never be truly native; only those who happened to have been born and spent their lives there can, and they, in turn, can never be truly native anywhere else.

I

The state of A Traitor’s Loyalty

Hey guys

To let you know, the publisher for A Traitor’s Loyalty went out of business at the end of last year, after having problems for a while, which means that the e-ditions are no longer available from websites.  The sites still show physical copies of the book available, which represent the remainder stock still in the warehouse, though they won’t be there long and how likely orders for them are to be filled remains an open question.

The book will be coming back into print, in electronic and physical editions.  That should happen shortly, though I don’t have an exact timetable.  Anyone who’s interested in knowing when the book will be available again should let me know.

Thanks, guys

I

Where my book at?

A Traitor’s Loyalty’s listed publication date was 1 May.  As you’ll be aware if you’re one of the ones who preordered the book, that’s been delayed somewhat.  I’ve actually now heard from someone that she’s had an email from Amazon letting her know the book has failed to arrive in stock on time, and asking if she wants to wait, or if she’d rather they refund her money.

So, first point–yes, the book is absolutely still coming.  Those of you who were good enough to preorder, I thank you for your support and ask for your patience.

My publisher, Vantage Point Books, is shutting down.  Vantage Point’s parent, Vantage Press, had been a well-established vanity publisher–that is, a publisher whom authors pay to publish their books–since long before vanity publishing got rebranded as self-publishing.  They created Vantage Point last year as an effort to move into traditional, advance-paying publishing, where it’s the publisher who pays the author for the rights to publish their books.  For whatever reason, they’ve now decided they no longer want to continue that effort, so they’re discontinuing Vantage Point.

But the books already in production–that means A Traitor’s Loyalty–are still coming out as scheduled (or, apparently, a little behind schedule).  Last week I got the final proofs for the full cover and was told that it would take about ten days after I’d signed off on them for a finished book to be produced.  So I’m hoping that the book is shipping within a fortnight.

The news about Vantage Point does, unfortunately, mean that the second book on my deal with them has been cancelled.  That’s the book for which I’d written the first draft of The Zero Hour.  But I’m looking on the bright side–I’ve still got a book coming out, I’ve still got a professional publishing credit, and I also now have a first draft that I produced in record (for me) time that, once it’s been through revisions, will be ready to be shopped.

Hopefully the next time you see my name is on the front cover,

I

As publication nears

If you’ve been reading, or if you’ve been trapped in conversation with me over the past year, you know that the publication date is fast approaching for A Traitor’s Loyalty, my first novel.  (The date is, in fact, 1 May.)  And you know that I’ve spent the last two months on the first draft of the second book on my contract, tentatively titled The Zero Hour.  And you know how excited I am about both those things.

Now, I found out today that my publisher’s going through some … stuff.  And there’s some fallout from this stuff that’s going to be affecting me.  Mostly those effects have to do with the second book, not A Traitor’s Loyalty, which is still due out on time.

However.

It’s been conveyed to me that a push on preorders and word of mouth would be a really good thing right now.  So I’m asking you guys to take a look at the book.  Just to give it a moment of your time.  Down at the bottom of this post, you can read the blurb that’ll appear on the back cover.  Maybe it’s something that intrigues you.  Maybe you know someone you think it’d appeal to.  Maybe you’ve been planning on picking up a copy but haven’t felt the need to place a preorder–if you placed one now, you’d be doing me a personal favour.

Of course, there’s a number of you guys who have already ordered it, or have already been talking about it.  You have my thanks for what you’ve already done, and, you know, feel free to go ahead and order a second copy.

Hey guys, it’s an Ian Racey first edition.  Few things are rarer than that (like an Ian Racey second edition).

A Traitor's Loyalty coverHere’s where you can order the book on Indiebound.

And on Barnes and Noble.

And on Amazon.

Twenty-five years have passed since the German victory in World War II.  Hitler has just died, unleashing a conspiracy that threatens the future of the world …

Simon Quinn walked away from a brilliant career with MI-6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, but now they have blackmailed him into returning to Berlin.  His mission: located Richard Garner, a British spy who has disappeared and is suspected of defecting.  He enlists the help of Ellie Voss, a Third Reich dissident who opposes Nazi rule but still considers herself a German patriot.

But when Quinn and Ellie discover the true reason Garner went into hiding, everything changes for them.  Now, pursued by both the Gestapo and MI-6, Simon Quinn must choose, not between his country and treason, but between the brutal Nazi leaders battling for the succession: Reinhard Heydrich, the key architect of the Final Solution, and Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS and Gestapo.  For this British spy, it is a choice that will test even …

A Traitor’s Loyalty.

Hitler said his Reich would last a thousand years.

I

Oh, just one more thing

ColumboThe-book-currently-under-the-working-title-The-Zero-Hour opens with a murder, and the protagonist is the investigator on the murder case.  Now, let me state this right out, it’s not a murder mystery–it’s not about laying out clues so the reader has the opportunity to guess the identity of the killer before the protagonist does, and (SPOILER) after about midway through the book, the investigation into the killer’s identity isn’t even what the story is about anymore. (END SPOILER)

But there’s still something going on that I’ve never really had to confront before, as an author.  There are clues laid out as to what’s going on, and those clues have to lead to two different logical conclusions: they have to add up to what is actually going on, but in the meantime, they have to add up to what the protagonist thinks is going.

Now, I know what’s really going on, so there’s a degree to which any difference between the reality and what the protagonist thinks is going on looks like foolishness on his part.  But it’s important that it not come off as foolishness to the reader–that the protagonist’s conclusions seem like legitimate, reasonable conclusions based on what he (and the reader) know at the time.  (This is less important the deeper into the book we get, as the protagonist’s judgement becomes legitimately clouded by his growing involvement in events–but as more of what’s actually going on becomes known to him, anyway, so there’s less theorising involved.)

So I feel insecure about that element of the book, and it’s compounded by the fact that ties into one of the things I think is a weakness in my writing anyway–that events or arguments that are intended to convince my characters of the need for a given course of action actually are convincing.  This is something Lisa will identify for me when she reads my drafts: “Yeah, here, where you think you’ve talked him into it?  You … really haven’t.”

So I rely on her to let me know these things.  She reads along with me as I write–I’m about four hundred pages into The Zero Hour manuscript, and she’s read up to about page three hundred.  And she’s had to put up with me walking into the room while she does so, saying, “So, how’s it going, huh, huh?  Keeping your interest, huh, huh?”, which is definitely not at all the way you should be treating your first reader.

Lisa’s had about ten years of training as a first reader, and she’s become really good at it.  (I think she’s even better at it because she doesn’t have any aspirations to be a writer of fiction herself.)  She can point to specific items on the page that don’t work; or if she can’t identify just what the problem is, she can point to a given passage and say, “Something doesn’t work here”; or, she can make a determination like, “If you want this point in chapter twelve to work, that point back in chapter nine needs to be a more convincing precursor.”

She has a couple of other elements in her reader’s skillset that I really value.  She actually points out all these things she notices; I don’t end up coming to her later and saying, “So, this bit here worked for you?” and she responds, “No, not really.”  If it didn’t work for her, she circled it and made a note.

She doesn’t get offended if there’s something she thinks should be changed, that ultimately I decide not to change.  She knows that having pointed it out means that I’ve gone back and given it another look, and evaluated any alternatives.

And she doesn’t give me prognoses, unless I ask for them–she points out the problems, but she doesn’t decide how I should go about fixing them, unless I actually say to her, “Okay, so what would fix this?”

Hmm.  I’d intended to write a post about how I hope this manuscript is making me grow as a writer, because it’s forcing me to confront something I’m insecure about.  It’s turned into me extolling Lisa’s virtues as a first reader.

I’m sure, when she reads this back over, she’ll approve.

I

Words so far: 84,548

Though I’ve taken the weekend off from the manuscript, as it was time to finally sit down and thrash out an ending for the story before proceeding any further.

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