Things I Learned Today

Today, I learned that Google has the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

Also, that some people really, really don't enjoy the experience of shopping in big chain bookstores. One can only pity the poor but honest bookseller concerned ("our music selection is really bad"), and hope that his employers can't work out who was on duty at that particular Borders on that particular day at that particular time by careful study of the article.

I feel driven, however, to think back on some of my experiences in much smaller, single-proprietor bookshops, which owe much more to Bernard Black than to some rose-tinted post-Victorian vision of a kindly old gent in bifocals with a cat sleeping on top of a mound of poetry. There never was a Golden Age of small bookshops, I'm afraid, whatever the perceived faults of the modern chain bookstores.

I particularly recall one small bookshop - and I mean about the size of your living room - which contained The Worst Toilet In The World, that had never, never been cleaned by the establishment's owner.

The owner himself was indistinguishable from a vagrant who had simply wandered in one day and plumped himself, all wild hair and unwashed tattered clothing, behind the counter in order to eat jam tarts, read dog-eared novels and shout at anyone who dared ask where anything was. Said owner was also in the habit (I kid you not) of designing helpful signs pointing to different sections of the bookshop in the form of hastily scrawled notes written in biro on sheets of A4 paper. These were then sellotaped to bits of string whose opposite ends were, in turn, sellotaped to the ceiling. As you entered the shop, the gentlest of breezes would rush in and send a blizzard of paper flapping around your head in a most disconcerting fashion.

I also learned that Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a better book than Walter M. Miller's Canticle For Leibowitz, or at least that Sam Jordison at The Guardian makes a convincing case. As Jordison himself notes in the comments following his article, "... I do wonder if part of the issue is that books get classified as 'SF' rather than 'literary fiction' because of flaws that are common across the genre... information dumping, technology fetishisation, or (as here) a lack of modulation on the 'preach' button."


The Career Novelist

If you either fancy yourself as a writer, or you're shopping your first novel around, or even several books deep into a career, you could do a lot worse than reading The Career Novelist, by American super-agent Donald Maass of one of New York's largest literary agencies. Although it's focused almost entirely on the nature of American publishing, much of the information (and the stories Maass tells about the way publishing works) is universal.

Fortunately, you can now download that book entirely free in PDF format directly from the Maass agency. I'm most of the way through it, and there's a lot to discover about the nature of modern publishing and why things work the way they do. If you're a writer like me, some of the information contained within it is pretty much invaluable.

Luckily a lot of the information is directed particularly towards genre writers, since Donald Maass does indeed represent a fair few science fiction and fantasy authors. It should be further noted that Robert J. Sawyer, a Canadian science fiction author who turns up on the awards lists fairly frequently, apparently regards The Career Novelist as one of four books essential to any would-be professional writer.


Hong Kong

We spent a couple of days in Hong Kong weekend before last, and although it was an enjoyable experience I came away from it with a particularly bad case of 'flu that left me bedridden for at least half a week upon our return to Taipei. Even now I don't feel entirely recovered. Hong Kong, meanwhile, was dirty, messy, overcrowded and faintly hostile in nature; and whoever said the food in Hong Kong was of particularly high quality should be shot. We tried the local food on several occasions, and came away disappointed almost every time. Certainly compared to what you can get in Taipei, the food was frequently badly prepared, low quality, stomach-churning gunk. And expensive, to boot (a friend of Emma's told me that after spending several days touring around Hong Kong, he wound up eating almost exclusively out of McDonald's because so much of the food otherwise was so intolerably bad).

At one point we visited a cafe apparently famous for its 'tea/coffee'. Tea ... and coffee, mixed together. I was dubious when we went in, and even more dubious when we came out; they don't mix. But perhaps I might have expected no less of a city where they design buildings according to the principles of feng shui.

So, no, I can't say I was entirely blown away by Hong Kong. Nice place to visit for a while, but that's about it, although in the few days we were there we didn't really get a chance to see nearly as much of it as we might have liked. For that reason, we may return there at some point next year, finances depending. We didn't even make it as far as the New Territories.

I finally finished revising the outline for the third Dakota Merrick book and got working on the actual manuscript, which is still very much at the early stages, but feels much improved thanks to the changes. I also got through some early designs and sketches for the cover of Nova War. Too early to show you yet, but hopefully in the next several weeks I might have a cover to post.


new writers

"John Jarrold has concluded a three-book World Rights deal for Scottish-based Finnish SF writer Hannu Rajaniemi. Hannu’s debut novel (presently untitled) plus two further books were pre-empted by Simon Spanton of Gollancz for a high five-figure sum, on the basis of one chapter."

I know Hannu through the Writer's Bloc spoken-word events that take place most frequently in Edinburgh, and others might know him through his story in the Nova Scotia anthology and a recent piece in Interzone (or maybe it's about to come out, I'm not sure which). Hannu's material, from what I've read, falls squarely in the Stross/MacLeod school of hard sf and is annoyingly clever. Annoying, because he has a PHD in maths and physics and actually knows what he's talking about. Unlike ... er ... me.

But anyway, he's a very nice chap and it's nice to see another Scottish - or Scottish-based, really - pro author in the making.


character assassination and teddy bears

Working on major revisions to Dakota Merrick book three; I decided the way the story was going wasn't the right one, so I'm taking a step back to write a new, very detailed outline (for my own benefit) of the whole book. About half of what was already written - which is from the viewpoint of a new, subsidiary character - is going to be torn out and replaced by completely new material.

I think part of the problem was I originally had a very detailed, very carefully worked-out background and plot for the original subsidiary character; I had his entire life story ready, and my intention was to tell his story in a series of flashbacks until he reached the point where his story intertwined with that of Dakota. Unfortunately, as interesting and fun as his life was to construct, I finally had to admit it had bugger all to do with anything that needed to happen in the third book. So, and not with some considerable regret, out he goes; but that regret is tempered by the knowledge that the new outline feels far more cohesive and interesting than the old one. Sometimes you know when the story is finally right, because it just feels right.

Talking of writers ... an interesting essay here, by the author of The Tao of Pooh, in which he explains his decision to abandon novel-writing altogether. One can only feel for him.

"Months pass. The Tao of Pooh is about to be printed and released. For what seems a long time, you have been dealing with a very prickly editor and a very cold-blooded publishing house. But the book-to-be reads well, and you have some hope for its success. The editor tells you that he will be visiting the Dutton West Coast sales representative at his home in Olympia, Washington -- a two-hour drive from where you’re now living -- and that he would like to buy you a dinner to celebrate the upcoming release of your book. He suggests a certain restaurant in Seattle, a forty-five-minute drive north of Olympia.

You show up at the restaurant carrying a stuffed bear made by your mother, very closely based on Ernest H. Shepard’s Pooh drawings. You meet the editor and the sales rep, and the latter's girlfriend. The editor orders a tray of cheese blintzes for the table. He tells you that the new foreign corporate owners are authorizing only $1,275 to advertise the book, and that Dutton is planning to spend the money on little ads in The Village Voice. As if to demonstrate that you the author are not the only one to suffer from the publisher’s austerity program, he shows you his broken glasses, which he has taped together as a cheap fix. By now, you are convinced that the man is not only prickly, he’s crazy.

The sales rep’s girlfriend, who says she is studying art in college, tells you that she believes it’s good for artists to starve, because poverty (which she seems to have no first-hand knowledge of) strengthens character. Having grown up with professional-artist parents, your viewpoint is somewhat different; but as the conversation indicates that your viewpoint is not of interest, you decide not to pursue the subject."

Which, along with the rest of the story, may well have many an author nodding and tutting to themselves, except after I'd read the whole thing I thought, 'hang on ... he turns up to meet his publisher with a fricking teddy bear ... and he thinks the editor is crazy?' I mean, okay, yes, the bear is fundamental to the story ... but, still, c'mon ...