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INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with Ken Liu

Photo by Lisa Tang Liu

Photo by Lisa Tang Liu

Ken Liu is one of the most prolific and highly regarded authors working in the Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF) field today. In just the last five years, he’s published scores of high-quality short fiction pieces in publications ranging from the core SFF magazines to more scholarly venues such as Nature and The Atlantic Council. He is also the only author to have ever won all three of the field’s most prestigious awards—the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards—for the same story, The Paper Menagerie (2011).

2015 saw the publication of The Grace of Kings, the first volume in Ken’s epic fantasy trilogy, The Dandelion Dynasty. Ken has also translated several Chinese SF works into English, including Cixin Liu’s Hugo Award-winning novel, The Three-Body Problem.

Ken’s first story collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, was released just this week, and the second volume in The Dandelion Dynasty, titled The Wall of Storms, is due out in October.

DC: Ken, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. Although you published your first story as early as 2002, you really burst onto the scene with a spray of astonishing work beginning in 2010, and the standing ovation is still continuing. You’re living proof of the saying that “it takes ten years to become an overnight success.” What were you doing in those years between 2002 and 2010?

KL: Thank you, Dario! Always such a pleasure to chat about writing and books with you.

For most of that decade I was involved in the practice of law, first as a law student and then as a corporate lawyer. The legal profession demands a great deal from practitioners, both in time and mental energy, and there wasn’t much room left for fiction writing.

However, I was doing a great deal of writing—papers, memos, contracts, briefs—just not novels or short stories. Yet, in a way, the practice of law turned out to be good preparation for fiction: we like to think that abstract logic and cold reason should be the primary modes of persuasion in the law, but crafting a powerful narrative—telling a persuasive story—is just as important, and perhaps even dominant. Law students are often very good at legal reasoning, but learning how to tell stories that achieve the right result for your client takes a lifetime of dedicated practice. It was the sort of experience that came in handy later when I turned more of my energy to fiction.

DC: Your short fiction can best be described as literary, precise, and intimate. How did you go from being an English major with a passion for the Western Canon to writing Science Fiction?

KL: Ha! You know, the thing is, I’ve never thought of genre fiction as standing in opposition to “literature.” As a result, I’ve never been interested in efforts to carve out some special aesthetic claim for science fiction or fantasy.

To me, all fiction is speculative because all fiction is interested in a mode of rhetoric in which the logic of metaphors is more important than the logic of analysis. What gets marketed as science fiction or fantasy are typically just works that achieve their effect by literalizing their metaphors.

The advent of Modernism has resulted in an intense interiority being read as the (sole?) mark of psychological “realism”; writers who write in the science fiction and fantasy genres, however, can still get away with stories in which the interior drama is played out through literalized external manifestations.

I view science fiction as having a perfectly valid claim on the Western Canon—in the same way that the author of Frankenstein was consciously engaged in dialogue with Milton’s Paradise Lost throughout her text.

DC: Roots, memory and identity, the sense of straddling two cultures and the need to either reconcile them or commit fully to one, is a recurring theme in your short fiction. As an immigrant yourself—I believe you were ten when you arrived in the US—is this a process you still struggle with?

KL: Struggling with narratives of identity is at the heart of the experience of modernity. I would say that resistance to the false narrative of “straddling” two cultures is definitely a recurring theme in my fiction. The notion that immigrants are somehow torn between cultures and act as the contested battleground for clearly defined and irreconcilable dueling cultural narratives from which they must choose one is simplistic, reductive, and to put it bluntly, wrong—and yet it is a notion that shows up again and again in how we discuss cultural difference.

I’m far more interested in stories that explore the ways in which all of us are defined by, but also define, the cultures which claim us, and how we negotiate the boundaries between self and society, between conformance and estrangement. As an American who claims a proud identification with my Chinese cultural inheritance, I’m particularly interested in stories that challenge the assumptions behind what it means to be “American” or “Chinese” and reveal these categorizations as attempts by the powerful to assert dominance over fluid, unstable, always-forming identities.

We live in a world that is defined by historical injustices, and it is a mark of privilege for someone to declare history to be irrelevant—the descendants of historical winners are the only ones who can afford to ignore history. I write stories that stubbornly—and perhaps unrealistically—cling to the hope that it is only by understanding and empathizing with the pains of historical suffering and accepting the burden of historical injustice that we can truly be free.

DC: As well as being an amazingly prolific author and translator, you have a wife and two young children, practice law as a litigation consultant, and write software as well. Assuming you don’t have a time machine, how do you do it all?

KL: Ah, you give me too much credit. My biggest problem is that I’m not very efficient. Almost every writer I know writes faster than I do, and context switching is expensive for me—I’m not a good multitasker at all.

I do think I’m pretty good about picking meaty, rewarding projects and saying no to everything else. I translate only stories that I’m enthusiastic about, and I write only when I think I can make an interesting, impactful contribution. When I take up a novel, as you know, I ended up writing a very big, very long book. (smiles)

DC: Given this incredible schedule, what suffers? What do you wish you had more time for?

KL: I wish I had more time to write software and play with technology! I used to be able to spend a great deal more time writing apps and simply exploring code. The combination of being under contract with a publisher as well as having a demanding day job means that I value time with my family even more, and I’ve had to give up my coding time.

Luckily, my daughters are getting old enough to be introduced to robotics and some basic programming, so I’m hoping I’ll be “forced” to do more playing under the guise of “teaching” them something.

DC: What do you do for relaxation?

KL: I play games on my Nintendo 3DS. I especially love puzzle games (Box Boy is wonderful).

DC: Your Epic Fantasy trilogy, The Dandelion Dynasty, which is a radical departure from your short fiction, has given rise to the wonderful term “silkpunk”. Can you define it for us, and tell us who coined it?

KL: That’s my term. It’s a shorthand to describe the technology aesthetic I wanted for the novel as well as my literary approach.

Here’s the tweet-sized sound bite: “War & Peace with silk-and-bamboo airships; Iliad with living books and sentient narwhals; Romance of the Three Kingdoms with u-boats.”

If you want to hear more, let me start with what The Grace of Kings is about: It’s the story of two unlikely friends, a bandit and a duke, who grow to be as close as brothers during the fight to overthrow an evil empire, only to find themselves on opposing sides of a struggle for the definition of a just society once the rebellion succeeds.

When I describe the novel as a “silkpunk epic fantasy,” I mean that I’m writing with and against the tradition of epic fantasy—as begun by Tolkien—by infusing it with an East-Asia-inspired aesthetic that embraces, extends, and challenges fantasy/historical tropes that are assumed to have medieval European or classical East Asian origins. Epics are foundational narratives for cultures, and I wanted to write a modern foundational narrative that draws as much on Chinese epic traditions like Romance of the Three Kingdoms as on Western tradtions from Beowulf and the Aeneid.

The tale I tell is a loose re-imagining of the historical legends surrounding the rise of the Han Dynasty in a secondary world archipelago setting. This is a world of politics and intrigue, of love purified and corrupted, of rebelling against tyranny and seeing one’s ideals compromised, of friendships forged and sundered by the demands of war and statecraft. There are vain and jealous gods, bamboo airships and biomechanics-inspired submarines, battle kites that evoke the honor and glory of another age, fantastical creatures of the deep, and magical tomes that tell the future written in our hearts.

In writing this book, I devoted as much care to technology as to magic, as much attention to art and writing as to war. The text is consumed with the exercise of power while also imbued with the hope that society is capable of progress. I had such a blast writing it, and I think at least that authorial joy comes through.

DC: I know that your wife, Lisa Tang Liu, worked with you on creating the universe for this series. What sparked the idea?

KL: When I was looking for a subject for my first novel, Lisa and I had many conversations about what might be an interesting tale. One day, she said, “I’ve never read a story in English that gives me the feeling of those historical dramas in Hong Kong.”

Lisa and I both grew up imbibing Chinese historical romances as our foundational narratives (she did it by watching TV dramas, and I did it by listening to storytellers on the radio). This conversation sparked in me the thought that it would be interesting to transpose a foundational narrative in one culture—the founding of the Han Dynasty, for instance—into a narrative structure built with elements adopted from both the Western and Chinese literary traditions. It had to be done in a way that felt organic, lively, distinct, instead of being just another “magical China” story that merely validated the Western gaze.

It sounded like a tough challenge, which is also a sign that it was a project worth pursuing. Lisa and I discussed how such a world should be built and what it would look like and what sort of Orientalizing pitfalls had to be avoided to thwart the expectations of the dominant Western interpretive framework. She helped me to define the language, culture, and geography of Dara until it felt like a world that could support our dreams.

DC: This enormous landmark work (The Grace of Kings clocks in at around 650 pages) is eclectic, multilayered, and daring in so many ways. In approaching this story of upheaval and revolution you chose a narrative voice strongly reminiscent of the oral storytelling tradition, which carries echoes of Homer and other classical authors; the way these are blended is uniquely Liu. I was both engrossed and awed by how well you pulled this off—you own the narrative voice in these novels. What made you settle on this narrative strategy?

KL: Thank you! I’m so glad my choices paid off for you.

I wasn’t interested in writing a “contemporary” genre novel, by which I mean a novel whose narrative strategies are deeply influenced by Modernism, with a focus on psychological interiority and tight, intimate POVs. As I mentioned earlier, I’m more interested in exploring the idea of trans-cultural foundational narratives, the logic of metaphors, and playing with epic structure and omniscient POV. I wanted to tell a story that was self-consciously engaged in conversation with both Western and Chinese literary forerunners, both ancient and modern.

I don’t believe there is only one kind of “good story.” I wanted to write something that feels as different from the contemporary genre novel as a brush painting feels from an oil painting. Indeed, in a lot of ways it is closer to something like Moby Dick or the wuxia classics—I certainly ignored a lot of “rules” of genre writing.

DC: Looking at some of the reader reviews it’s clear than not all readers have either the background or insight to appreciate what you’re doing here, with some grumbling about too much exposition, too much telling and not enough showing. Did you know you were taking a risk with this approach?

KL: (grins) Did I ever! The Grace of Kings is a departure from much of my short fiction (as you alluded to earlier), and I knew going in that the choices I made wouldn’t work for every reader. I appreciate every reader who tried my book, and if the book didn’t work for them, I can only say that I’m sorry and I hope to write a book that will be more appealing to them in the future.

But in order to tell the story I wanted to tell, it was necessary to make use of a narrative structure and adopt techniques that melded the different epic traditions I wanted to converse with. I was sailing into the unknown, and taking risks is absolutely necessary when you are interested in terra incognita.

And I’m incredibly gratified by the many readers who have written to me to tell me how much they enjoyed what I did with Dara.

DC: I know you’re a great fan of Milton’s Paradise Lost. What is it about this work that so appeals to you?

KL: I think Paradise Lost is the greatest poem in the English language. In composing it, Milton was forced to create a new aesthetic that melded the Classical and Biblical epic traditions, and elevated vernacular English to a level formerly reserved for Greek and Latin. He was building a new world as well as a new language and a new set of narrative techniques, challenging reader expectations as he conversed with the literary traditions he claimed for himself and irrevocably changed them in the process.

 This is, as you might have guessed, a project that very much resonates with me.

DC: I believe you also write poetry, but I’m not sure in which language?

KL: I only write in English. My formal schooling in Chinese ended in elementary school, and though I can appreciate poetic Chinese writing, writing in Chinese at that level would take decades of dedicated practice. If I live to be a hundred and fifty, I might give it a try.

DC: Here in the US, the climate in the core Science Fiction community has become particularly toxic in the last few years, with a brutal internecine war that has caused deep and lasting divisions within the community. Despite having strong views and beliefs, you’ve wisely avoided making enemies. Why do you think people can’t have a civil dialogue over their differences?

KL: There’s a tendency in modern rhetoric to reduce complicated, multidimensional differences into simplistic, binary oppositions. The genre community is divided along many different dimensions, some aesthetic, some political, and others even more fundamental than either. Trying to flatten all of these differences into a matter of two “sides” or “factions” is, in my view, the reason why many of these debates just involve the participants talking past each other.

I do want to note that “civility” by itself is not a virtue. It is possible to be perfectly polite in discourse while utterly disrespecting the humanity of others.

Ultimately, I’m more interested in working on projects that interest me and pleasing readers who enjoy my work. Everything else is just noise.

DC: It’s not unusual to see SFF “insiders” openly slam the genre’s hugely popular writers—fantastic storytellers like Andy Weir (The Martian), Stephanie Meyers (Twilight), and, a decade ago, J.K. Rowling—as mere popular hacks lacking craft. Is SFF a popular art form or should it be the property of a highly educated elite?

KL: I think most writers would prefer their books to be both critically acclaimed and best-selling. Personally, I just don’t find it interesting to slam other writers for their success, even if what they write isn’t to my taste.

Whenever there’s a book that I don’t like—but whose fans are passionate—I try to learn why the book is so successful. Popular books inevitably do something really well and scratch an itch for their fans. It’s fascinating to figure out what that itch is.

DC: A few unkind reviewers familiar with Chinese culture have accused you of simply rehashing the Chu-Han struggle of Chinese history in your Dandelion Dynasty series. How would you reply to these critics?

KL: I’m actually not interested in replying to these critics at all. I don’t even bother reading my reviews. Writers who argue with critics rarely come out ahead. What matters is writing another book for readers who would enjoy my work.

But I will say to potential readers sitting on the fence about trying my book that Paradise Lost is also just a rehash of the first few chapters in Genesis, and Journey to the West a rehash of old oral traditions that came before it. There are no new stories, only new ways to tell them so that we are transported to new realms.

DC: In stories such as The Man Who Ended History, The Reborn, and Ghost Days, you address some difficult themes—genocide, the destruction or assimilation of peoples and cultures. We should never forget, but should we forgive?

KL: I think we bear a responsibility towards history, and it’s our duty to construct a future that is better than the past.

When we speak of historical atrocities, it’s worth remembering that their effects still govern the lives of the descendants of perpetrators and victims. The past is not past.  “Forgiveness” is often touted as a way to lead to forgetfulness, and I’m leery of it when used in that way.

DC: Last year you were honoured at the Beijing Xinyun Awards with an award for special contribution to Chinese SF. What was that like for you?

KL: Incredible. The enthusiasm of the Chinese fans was deeply moving. I was deeply moved by how much Liu Cixin himself took the trouble to thank me, when I really didn’t do much of anything as a translator.

It was Liu Cixin’s powerful imagination and skill as a writer that allowed The Three-Body Problem to replicate its success among Anglophone readers. I hope that in the future, translation of works from Chinese into English would become so routine that no one will remember the translators.

DC: What’s the best part about being a dad?

KL: Seeing the world through fresh eyes! My daughters constantly make observations about the world that remind me how full of wonder everything around us is, and how miraculous is the universe. They’ve taught me to be appreciative of the infinite joy that fills every second of existence.

DC: Ken, thanks so very much for spending time with us. Is there anything you’d like to add?

KL: Thank you so much for having me, Dario. I love our deep conversations.

This is a pretty exciting year for me, as I have four books being released.

On March 8, 2016, my debut collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, came out from Saga Press. This volume collects some of my favorite stories as well as one previously unpublished story I wrote just for the collection.

In August, Death’s End, my translation of the third and concluding volume in Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, will be released by Tor Books.

For fans of The Grace of Kings, the sequel, The Wall of Storms, will be coming out from Saga Press in October of 2016 (and it’s bigger and better in every way, with even more intrigue and silkpunk technology!).

Finally, in November, Tor Books will publish my collection of translations of contemporary short-form Chinse SF, Invisible Planets. This volume will contain translations of award-winning stories by such luminaries of the Chinese SF world as Liu Cixin, Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, Hao Jingfang, and others.

To find out more about my plans, readers can go to my web site (http://kenliu.name) and/or sign up for my newsletter (http://kenliu.name/mailing-list/)

 

Did you enjoy this interview with Ken? Let us know with a comment!

 You can read my own review of The Grace of Kings (vol. I of the Dandelion Dynasty), here: https://dariospeaks.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/review-the-grace-of-kings-by-ken-liu/)

Don’t miss next week’s Under the Covers interview with SARA ALEXI, bestselling author of The Greek Village series, live right here on Saturday March 19!

The full UNDER THE COVERS interview calendar is here

 

 

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UNDER THE COVERS: Close and Personal with Six Hot Authors

AUTHOR INTERVIEW SERIES (March-April 2016)

A series of six weekly, in-depth interviews with six prominent and successful authors working in several distinct categories and genres. As both a reader and writer myself, I find it both fascinating and revealing to get a glimpse into other writers’ thoughts, feelings, and motivations.

What do these six authors have in common? First, they’re all terrific storytellers, which I view as the primary object of good fiction; second, each has attained a high degree of success and visibility in their chosen genre or category, including major awards and bestseller rankings on one or more lists; and third, they are all darned interesting people, with a lot to say.

This interview series digs in to find out what makes these authors tick: how each views the world, how they balance being a successful author with the demands of daily life, what drives their fiction and choice of genre, and how they found their success. In the process, I hope to interest each author’s current fans, as well as introduce them to you, my own readers.

Here are the links to each  Under the Covers interview on this blog.

March 5: Mandy M. Roth (Paranormal Romance)

March 12: Ken Liu (Science Fiction/Fantasy)

March 19: Sara Alexi (Literary Fiction)

March 26: Aliette de Bodard (Science Fiction/Fantasy)

April 2: Loreth Ann White (Romantic Suspense/Thriller)

April 9: William Hertling (Science Fiction/Thriller)

You can also sign up for my RSS feed (left sidebar)

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Sex, Magic, and Rocket Engineering: the Extraordinary Life and Death of Jack Parsons

In the course of writing a novel you come across some very interesting stuff. In fact, some of the research can be so interesting that it becomes a danger to your progress, consuming increasing amounts of time and attention far beyond what was necessary for the writing.

During the writing of my new novel, a supernatural thriller titled Black Easter, I needed to research the Waffen-SS, the legendary black magician Aleister Crowley (aka ‘The Great Beast’), and the internal workings of the Greek Orthodox Church in some depth. One particularly fascinating area of study involved life in the closed monastic communities of Mount Athos, an autonomous peninsula in Northern Greece entirely sealed off from the outside world.

Absorbing as all this material was, the most fascinating subject I came across was Jack Parsons, occultist, libertine druggie, explosives junkie, rocket engineer, and one of the founding figures of NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) right near my home in Pasadena.

Parsons (nearest on right) and colleagues preparing for a rocket engine test in Pasadena, 1936. (photo: JPL)

I stumbled across Parsons quite by accident when a friend, who knew I was doing some background research on occultist Aleister Crowley and the Thelema Lodge, mentioned him to me. After reading the Wikipedia entry on Parsons, I found a number of further articles about him and a biography. Despite being a key figure in the development of modern rocketry, Parsons’ extreme eccentricity has led to his being pretty much written out of NASA’s history.

Parsons developed a childhood interest in rocketry from reading Science Fiction. He and a friend founded a rocket research group which received National Academy of Sciences funding in 1939 to develop JATO (Jet-Assisted Take-Off) for the military. In 1942 they founded a new company, Aerojet, which just a year later became JPL.

Paralleling these material ventures were Parsons’ curious spiritual adventures. In 1939 he became a disciple of Crowley’s and adopted Thelema—Crowley’s magical teaching—as his religion. Just a couple of years later, at Crowley’s behest, he was running the Crowley-affiliated Agape Lodge (from the Greek, αγαπε, “love”, “love of man”, “highest love”) from his Pasadena home in Orange Grove Avenue.

Sex and magic were inseparable in the Agape Lodge’s rituals. Partner-swapping, orgies, and ritual masturbation in the performance of magic ceremonies were common practice, along with marijuana and cocaine use. This behaviour eventually led to Parsons’ expulsion from JPL.

Parsons’ pursuit of esoteric knowledge continued unabated. Somewhere around 1945, L. Ron Hubbard (who later went on to found the Church of Scientology) moved into the Lodge, and he and Parsons became close friends. After losing his girlfriend, Sara, to Hubbard, Parsons decided on a series of rituals he termed the “Babalon Working” aimed at bringing about an incarnation of Crowley’s Thelemite goddess Babalon on Earth. After the final ritual in the Mojave desert, he became convinced that Marjorie Cameron—a young unemployed artist who’d just come to visit the Lodge—was the incarnation of the goddess he had summoned.

Following further adventures, which included being defrauded of his life savings by L. Ron Hubbard, an unsuccessful court action, and finally unwelcome attention from the House Un-American Activities Committee, resulting in the FBI’s revocation of his security clearance, Parsons returned to occultism with a vengeance. Working in a gas station and selling homemade nitroglycerin on the side to earn money, he wrote several occult texts, including The Book of AntiChrist, in which he prophesied that Babalon would manifest on Earth within nine years and bring about the downfall of the Abrahamic religions. Parsons and Cameron separated, and she went to live in an artists’ commune in Mexico.

Parsons was able to start working again after a closed federal court hearing resulted in his security clearance being reinstated. He was hired to design and build a chemical plant for the Hughes Aircraft Corporation, but was fired in 1951 on suspicion of stealing classified company documents and spying for the Israeli government.

Parsons and Cameron, now reconciled, moved into a former coach house in Orange Grove Avenue, where he converted a room to a lab. He brewed absinthe, held parties with members of the new Beat Generation, and started a new Thelemite group. He founded the Parsons Chemical Manufacturing Company, which specialized in making explosives and special effects chemicals for the film industry.

On June 17, 1952, Parsons received a rush order for explosives from a movie company and set to work in his little Orange Grove lab. There was an explosion, which destroyed the lower half of the building and cost Parsons his life. The Pasadena Police Department investigation concluded it was an accident caused by sloppy work habits and clumsiness. But a number of Parsons’ former colleagues challenged this, stating that he was always extremely cautious in his work. One chemical engineer insisted the explosion had come from beneath the floorboards (a suggestion the police department accepted as a possibility) leading to speculation that Howard Hughes had Parsons assassinated for stealing company secrets. A friend of Cameron’s believed Parsons died in a ritual intended to create a homunculus. In the end, Parsons’ demise was declared an accidental death owing to the lack of conclusive evidence. He was only 37 when he died.

When I started writing Black Easter, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was shortly after our move to Pasadena that I began to research Crowley and the Thelema Lodge, and came across the extraordinary story of Jack Parsons. When I discovered the Pasadena-Crowley connection, I experienced a serious frisson at the very odd synchronicity. And it’s not the only the only one this supernatural novel has triggered in my life.

Truth is often stranger than fiction, and the everyday sometimes supplies characters way larger than life. Jack Parsons was one of those. It makes me want to write him into a novel somewhere down the road.

My supernatural thriller, Black Easter, will be released on December 5, 2015. Read an excerpt here.

About Black Easter

It’s Resurrection Time.

San Francisco antique dealer Paul Hatzis sells his business and rents an old house on the small Greek island of Vóunos. What he doesn’t know is that the house, which has a sinister reputation with the locals, was previously owned by black magician Dafyd Jones who—along with his seer companion Magda O’Whelan, and Klaus Maule, a seriously disturbed colonel in the Waffen SS—made a deal with the demonic, culminating in their planned bodily deaths during the final ritual in 1944.

In return for a lifetime of service on the frontier of Outer Hell, where all the demons of Hell fight a desperate, eternal battle against inconceivable powers that would consume both the human and demonic spheres, Jones and his companions will be reborn on Earth as powerful immortals…if they don’t go mad first.

As Easter approaches, Paul is preparing to celebrate the biggest holiday of the Greek calendar with his girlfriend, Elleni, and Alex, his adored 18-year old niece. But with the biblical threescore years and ten now up, the magician and his two colleagues are being called back from Hell by the ritual artifact they buried deep in the cellar of Paul’s house.

And all they need are three living human bodies…

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Win a Free Audiobook of my novel, “Sutherland’s Rules”!

MAY 1 – EVERYONE’S A WINNER! OMG.

Since the number of entrants was actually under the free codes available, everyone who entered has won. All winners have now been notified; if you entered and haven’t received an email, try looking in your spam folder. Any problem with download, let me know. Happy listening!

Spring is here, the Sun is in Aries, and life is good. In celebration, I’ll be giving away TWENTY-FIVE free copies of my audiobook, SUTHERLAND’S RULES, produced and narrated by talented British character actor Andrew Cullum–and yes, he really has played Richard III!

Audiobooks are wonderful for listening to on your commute, on airplanes, while working out, or just relaxing at home. Just download onto your mp3 player or favourite device and you’re good to go!

To enter the draw for a free copy of this terrific 9-hour audio production, JUST LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW. The winners will be decided by random draw on May 1st. Winners will be notified by email and will receive a free promo code  for an instant download at Audible.com (Audible.co.uk for winners in the UK).

Good luck!

(Note: commenting and entering will NOT get you on any lists–your privacy is absolutely guaranteed.)

Click here to listen to the free sample  and view the book description on Audible.com , or here for Audible.co.uk (UK readers)

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The Unplotted Plot

Recently I picked up a book by an author whom I’ve enjoyed in the past and which I was very much looking forward to reading. It was a big Science Fiction novel, and the author is one of those rare few who’s managed to break out of the narrow confines of SF and become a mainstream bestseller. His books, which often feature mysterious alien artifacts, are filled with wonder, his stories painted on big canvases–all stuff I love, unlike so much of today’s SF which I find either preachy, tediously dystopian, downright timid and petty, or all three together.

After enjoying the first few dozen pages, however, I found myself starting to become uncomfortable. Despite the great setup, fine writing, wonderful worldbuilding, and solid characterization, the story felt as if it was on rails. It was meticulous, precise. It was too damn plotted.

The more I learn about this craft, the more I understand how very different every writer’s M.O. is. There’s no right way to write, there’s only what works. Some people are plotters; I’m not. I write largely by the seat of my pants, but I learned some years ago–a hard lesson, the result of having painted myself into an impossible corner on several occasions where I began a story without any sort of preparation–that even a “pantser” needs some notes and waypoints from the outset.

So today, when I embark on a long work such as the novel I’m currently about, I make sure I have a few things down on paper when I begin: a good setup and a rough outline of the first few scenes to serve as a launch ramp; full notes and backstory on my principal characters, including some psychological profiles about their deeper goals and motivations; an understanding of the “flaw in the universe”, the core conflict that drives the plot; some vague notion of the development of the story; and an idea of my ending (all of which can, and likely will, change). But I don’t even attempt anything resembling a full outline.

When I wrote my novel “Sutherland’s Rules”, two authors I respect a great deal made comments (and rather nice ones) worth examining here. One told me he wished he could plot so well–which made me laugh, as all I’d done was set the characters free to act and react, then chased them around with maps, calendars, and finally stopwatches to make sure it was all possible! The second comment about the book was that I did a fine job of not telegraphing my intentions in advance; well, how could I? How was I to know what my characters would get up to from one minute to the next? All I do is watch, and write it down.

Notice I mentioned “plot” earlier, but only as a noun. The reason for this is that I don’t believe in plotting. Like Stephen King (I was immensely happy when he made this point in his book, “On Writing”), I don’t trust plotting in the sense of a detailed, premeditated outline of story events. Plot is something that occurs spontaneously, a hyperdynamic web of forces that, for me, needs to develop organically as the writer’s well thought-out and very real characters set out to win or lose their battle against each other, themselves, or that flaw in the universe the writer has conceived as the story’s central conflict. Plot, to me, doesn’t have a verbal form–it’s a noun, and another word for story.

When I read a book where the author has mechanically plotted everything out carefully in advance (the generic MegaName thriller authors that turn out several books a year are egregious examples of this), I can quite literally feel–at least I imagine I can–the poor characters struggling to break free, to have autonomy, to do something spontaneous and unpredictable, all the while screaming, “I am not a character, I am a free man!” It’s painful. It’s boring. Now, I don’t know if this is the way is the way these authors work, but their books feel that way to me–choreographed and mechanical. And that’s the kiss of death for me.

If, on the other hand, the author has done their preliminary work well, and has some clue what he or she is about in terms of craft, their characters will act like real people in a real situation in the real world rather than like marionettes on a stage set. Oh, there’ll be some tuning, and they may need reining in occasionally, but I find that’s more a question of keeping control over their time in public view rather than limiting their actions. I mean, why would you want to do that?

I think also that when some authors talk of plotting, they’re often referring to a rather different process than the premeditated, scene-by-scene working out of story events I’m grumbling about. What I think some writers do is write an initial outline that’s effectively a barebones first draft and in which the characters are organically involved as actors, and then expand that more and more; and I think this is where a good deal of misunderstanding arises as to what plot and plotting are.

My personal belief is that the time to plot is after you’ve got the first draft down. Even then, plot in its verb form isn’t the right word–I like to think of it as outlining after the fact. And the reason for this is that when you have eighty or a hundred thousand words, dozens of chapters over hundreds of pages that have taken you several months even years to write, you need to get an overview of the whole. At this point, writing a brief summary of what happens in each chapter and scene is something that I find vital to help me see what needs doing in the rewrite.

But, plot from the beginning? No way. If I can’t trust my characters to act independently, I’ve probably not done a very good job on them, have I?

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What do you think? Do you find some books just seem to be too obviously plotted? If you’re a writer, what’s your own process?

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Questioning Critique

It’s been said that a writer fluctuates between believing they’re the best writer in the world and the worst writer in the world—and in some cases, that they hold both views at the same time.

The point is well-made. When the creative faculty is fully engaged and the characters on the page writhe and pulse with life, the writer is in heaven; but when the inbuilt editor that any good writer possesses kicks in, or the work runs aground on any of a myriad possible shoals, the writer is convinced his work is crap.

Writers work in isolation. They’re very close to their work. And a piece of fiction is a dynamic, interdependent, sometimes fantastically complex web of forces and relationships. It’s therefore vital, as the work approaches its final completion, for the writer to get outside feedback.

Over the last dozen years I’ve participated in or mentored several critique groups, as well as founding one (“Written in Blood”) several of whose members are now widely published and have even won major awards. I firmly believe in the now standard writer’s group critique process.

And yet I’ve begun to see its limitations. Bear with me as I approach my point obliquely.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about my dislike of the way the publishing industry, steered as it is by suits and the pressing imperatives of the market, is increasingly adopting the Hollywood approach, where everyone gets input on the final result. I personally know of several authors whose book was turned down by a publisher because the marketing department had issues with it (sometimes just because it didn’t fit a clear category) despite the fact that the editorial team were unanimous in approving and wanting to acquire it.

My point is that when we try to second-guess, we can always, always find issues; and in addressing those issues, we end up making so many changes that we can suck all the life and uniqueness out of a work. Today, a book is first critiqued, often multiple times, before going to the author’s agent, who often initiates a whole new round of revisions; and then the same occurs at the publishing house. This in my view is why so many genre books today seem generic, formulaic, and about as exciting as the kind of art that hangs in bank lobbies and Comfort Inn rooms.

I’m beginning to think that the word “critique” itself is problematic (the etymology goes back to the Greek word, krites, a judge) and tends to slant the process towards fault-finding; “evaluation” may ultimately be closer to what a writer needs, but I’m probably splitting hairs.

Let me be clear: I do believe writers should seek critique and feedback**, and am not for one instant devaluing the formal writers’ critique group. But as we grow as writers, we need to be really sure that the type and direction of critique we’re receiving is keeping pace with our skills, and that our beta readers “get” our work and our intent. Writers need to be very aware that it’s easy to critique anything to death. Tangents and irrelevancies creep in as the well-meaning critiquer casts around to address anything which may raise a question. In this fishing process, things may be caught which materially and subtly contribute to the flavour and uniqueness of the story; and in their doubt, the writer, once alerted, removes or alters the item, and in the process diminishes the final work, bringing it closer to the ordinary.

As an example of this, imagine a Gothic, claustrophobic tale set in a remote castle. In the process of critique, one or more readers may feel that they want to know more about the world outside. What’s going on there? Why doesn’t anyone in the castle go down to the village for supplies? Where do they get their water? And so on. These questions may be fair and even relevant, but there’s every danger that an insecure writer, in attempting to address them to please some theoretical contingent of readers, begins to put in sentences or scenes or infodumps which degrade the atmosphere of isolation and claustrophobia and consequently lessen the power of the work.

Even more of a minefield is the advice frequently given in critique about adverbs, flashbacks, show don’t tell, etc.; while all the standard writing advice is founded on solid principles, it takes true maturity to understand its limits; and likewise to know how and when to break the rules.

The point of critique isn’t to make the story or book attain some theoretical ideal of perfection (ideals which are usually based on writerly dogma and oversimplified writing “rules” than anything else); the point is to end up with a publishable piece of fiction which readers will enjoy and which communicates the creator’s vision in as unalloyed a form as possible. The mature writer needs to have the self-confidence and feel sufficiently secure to say, “no: enough”.

Perhaps this is why most pro authors, or even those who are multiply published, seem to move on from formal critique groups and instead pass their manuscripts on to a very small, handpicked circle of other mature authors for beta reading, people who they know will “get” exactly what they’re striving for, and what the reader wants, rather than taking more of a scattergun approach to finding fault in the manuscript. The line may be a fine one, but it is, in my experience, very real.

To my mind, the best beta readers and editors will understand the distinction between on the one hand fully respecting the author’s intent, direction, vision, and style, and on the other, obsessing over some cookie-cutter notion of what the market wants and what constitutes good writing. The focus needs to be on two things only: what the writer intends, and what matters to readers. Nothing else.

And that’s all it ever was about.

What do you think?

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**In fact, I offer manuscript evaluation/critique and copyediting services for writers—see main menu bar above

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Theme: What it is, and Why it Matters

One of the main things that make a book resonate with the reader is theme. Often confused with plot, theme is what a book is about.

This confusion is quite apparent when someone tells you they’ve just finished a book. Ask them what it’s about, and nine times out of ten they’ll tell you what happens in the course of the book—that’s plot. So whereas the plot of “The Lord of the Rings” may be to do with a Hobbit finding the arch-enemy Sauron’s great Ring of Power, and so on, the main theme of LotR is simply the conflict between Good against Evil (there are sub-themes, such as the arrogance and temptations of power, the power of humility, and courage in the face of certain defeat). In “Star Wars,” the primary theme is the struggle for freedom against tyranny and oppression.

In order to avoid preachiness, it’s best to approach the creation of fiction with the idea of simply telling a story. If the story contains Truth—by which I mean universal human truths, verisimilitude, reflection on the human condition—it’s very likely that theme will be present and emerge organically from character and situation, without premeditation on the part of the author.

When I began to conceive my just-released novel, “Sutherland’s Rules,” I’d been thinking a good deal about aging (since I turned sixty last summer, this will come as no surprise). I’d wanted to write a kind of anti-hero, high-tech, fast-paced thriller for a while, and this idea collided in my head with my concerns about aging to create the driving idea for “Sutherland’s Rules:”

Billy Sutherland, an aging, retired dope smuggler seizes the opportunity to cash in a forty-year-old IOU given him by an Afghani hash farmer in 1971 after a deal went sour. At sixty-six, Billy can’t do it alone, and so asks his oldest friend, Christian, to help him in this crazy, illegal, and highly dangerous adventure. Billy doesn’t need the dope, and doesn’t plan to sell it: it’s all about closure to him, and not going gentle into that long good night.

When I’d let the first draft cool and went back to the book, I realized it was overflowing with theme, and sub-themes, too: aging, the need for closure, the last hurrah before night falls, loyalty, the power of friendship, intergenerational debts of honour, freedom…not quite what you’d expect from a thriller about two old ex-hippies trying to smuggle a huge load of hashish halfway around the world and into the UK without coming to the attention of fortress Europe’s police authorities and the UK’s sophisticated detection tech.

Now, I’d not set out with the aim of addressing such lofty concerns—my desire was simply to write a cracking good story and have some fun doing it. But looking at the reviews, readers get these thematic notes: one reviewer described the book as “life-affirming;” another spoke of “an interesting take on aging”; and two others remarked on the underlying, touching melancholy of these two lifelong friends on what will certainly be their final adventure.

These themes emerged, I believe, because I can’t help putting a great deal of myself into a book, and that includes my reflections on life and death and society. These things are my truths.  As a result, I believe I ended up with what I’ll call “an intelligent thriller,” as opposed to the typical, generic technoporn where forgettable characters just act out the plot, sowing mindless mayhem as they go.

So when Billy tells Christian, “And look, man, the game—our game, our life—is coming to a close. Maybe ten more good years, fifteen at most, then it’s good as over. I’ve got my exits mapped out, but I’m buggered if I’m going to die feeling I missed out”, he’s talking about what any reader who’s hit middle age—and certainly any reader old enough to remember the sixties—is very, very aware of: the final curtain coming down, the finish line clearly in sight, the end of adventure.

Theme matters because life is themed. As we blunder through this passion play, we can’t help coming to some conclusions, seeing universal patterns and currents, understanding that some things matter. When a writer puts all they have of themselves, of their Truth, into a story or novel, the reader will notice, and nod, and care.

In the words of the great poet, Robert Graves,

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.



What’s your take on this?

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