Archive | March, 2013

What Next? …or The Horror of Sequels

29 Mar

My writer friend, J Huw Evans and I talk from time to time over a coffee or a beer about future writing projects. We’ve discussed at length the folly of embarking upon sequels to novels that have yet to find a publisher (it’s high time, by the way, that something of Huw’s was published). And yet both of us have done just that. The lure of the serial… Huw has written two-and-a-half books of his fantasy-sci-fi-detective series and is considering writing the sequel to his last book as his next project. One of the WIPs that forms my current twin-pronged approach is also a sequel – only very loosely, though, set a quarter of a century later and having very few characters in common with its predecessor. It’s more of a thematic sequel, you might say. As such, I intend it to end up as a stand-alone work, that won’t require the reader to be familiar with the book that preceded it.

Sequels are common in genre fiction, as are trilogies and longer sequences. Think of Stephen Donaldson cranking out The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a fantasy sequence that eventually reached double figures. When I was very much younger, I began reading the first book. I got as far as the part where the supposed hero commits rape before I threw it across the room, never to pick it up again. Who knows, perhaps it’s still there? I read a lot of science fiction when I was growing up and novel sequences are rife in SF too. At Rayleigh public library, I stumbled upon the work of a certain Jack Vance – still alive at 96, I find – and his quartet of novels, Planet of Adventure. Each book was named after the particular alien species with which hero, Adam Reith, had to contend. Something was definitely lost in translation, though, from US to British English with the second book, entitled The Servants of the Wankh, in which subjugated humans known as wankhmen made their appearance. Ahem… Lewis and Tolkien with their fantasy sagas, Asimov with his Foundation space opera sequence – they have a lot to answer for.

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First came one, then another and another…

In crime fiction, of course, multiple volumes featuring the same grizzled detective are almost de rigeur. One has only to think of Iain Rankin, who retired Inspector Rebus in his seventeenth book only to bring him back, apparently. And then there’s Stephen King, a man who has written across many genres, throwing any number of them together in The Dark Tower series that runs in excess of 4000 pages (multiple genre fiction is a subject to which I intend to return in a future post). Although I’ve  read none of these books myself, I know that they’ve inspired devotion among millions of readers worldwide. While King’s really not my kind of writer, I can’t help but like the old boy. I’ve read a few interviews with him and he always comes across well. And there’s no doubting his storytelling skills and his imagination, a fact witnessed by the numerous diverting films that have been based upon his shorter fiction.

Sequels and sequences are less common but by no means unknown in literary fiction. After all, Hilary Mantel has just won the Mann Booker Prize for Bring up the Bodies, the sequel to her prize-winning Wolf Hall. Marcel Proust set the template for dedicating one’s writing life to a single sequence in À la recherche du temps perdu, before passing the baton onto Anthony Powell for A Dance to the Music of Time. Anthony Burgess brought back his failed and flatulent poet, Enderby four times (including from the dead for his final appearance, perfecting a Rebus-like U-turn). This was no bad thing since the poet is an inspired comic creation. Another fine game is writing the sequel to someone else’s book, such as Jean Rhys did with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in Wide Sargasso Sea.

There’s also the temptation, to which some novelists give in, to revisit a much earlier work. In recent times, Julian Barnes did so with Love, Etc., reconvening the love triangle from Talking It Over while Dan Rhodes reprised his Anthropology: And a Hundred Other Stories with another collection of relationship flash fictions in Marry Me. Perhaps most famously of all, Joseph Heller re-assembled the cast from his masterwork, Catch-22, in the late novel, Closing Time. Is it a mistake, then? Certainly, there are some literary novelists who merely replicate the same book, over and over, just as crime writers turn out formulaic books revolving around the cases of their two-dimensional investigators. I can’t help but think that there’s something rather lazy on the part of the writer in supplying, and the reader in demanding, more of the same. I’m sure it’s all very comfortable but shouldn’t the novelist be trying a little harder?

All of which leads us back to the second side to my twin-pronged approach. As I was thinking about the project upon which I’m currently working (very brief extract here), a terrifying thought occurred to me. The book could have a sequel. But it was worse than that. It might actually prove to be the first in a series of five. I found my mind rapidly sketching out the sequence. Given the time that I’m able to give to writing, such a project could tie me up for at least the next decade. Could it become my Dark Tower? Pray to God it never comes to pass…

So is it wise or unwise? As usual in these situations, the answer is ‘it depends’. Obviously, it depends as to whether the sequel is any good and whether the original book merits revisiting. Does the book move on significantly from its predecessor? Gormenghast is the perfect sequel to Titus Groan. While Peake’s world remains consistent, Titus barely appeared in the eponymous book and the second book drives the narrative forward to its spectacular climax. For the unpublished author, though, it’s almost certainly unwise. I must listen to my own advice! Another writing acquaintance has been working on a series of science fiction novels aimed at young adults and is just beginning to find out how hard it is to get work into print, three books in… There’s a consolation, though. In the era of the prequel, if you do manage to interest a publisher in taking on a later book in a sequence, you already have your next book lined up.

I feel the writing den beckoning me… Enjoy the remainder of the holidays!

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The writing den

All text and images © PSR 2013

A town in eastern Germany – but where is it?

29 Mar

Over the summer of 2007, I spent five weeks undertaking a grand tour of Europe in a trusty Land Rover (now resident in Poland, apparently). I sailed from East Anglia to the Netherlands then across Germany to the Czech Republic and down to Slovakia. From there, I drove through Austria and southern Germany to north-western France. Then it was back along the coast of northern Europe, through Belgium and the Netherlands before sailing back to England. Phew… I immersed myself in the experience rather than cataloguing it through words and photographs and so I do not have a record of all of the places that I visited.

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The trusty Land Rover sneaks into the picture up a Slovakian mountainside

There was, though, one particularly well-preserved town in eastern Germany of which I did take a few photographs. At the time, I was working on my blockbuster of a novel with a WW2 setting. One sub-plot is concerned with the destruction of the German cities and the town I’d chanced upon came to serve as an imaginative template for how such cities might have looked, before the bombing. The only thing is, I can’t remember where the town is or what it’s called…

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Eine alte Straße

So this post features more photographs and less text than usual in the hope that somebody, somewhere out there in the world will recognise it and tell me where it is. Suggestions on a virtual postcard, please… German Mike, I’m depending upon you!

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Der Marktplatz

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Und auch der Markt

I shall leave you with a short extract from my WW2 novel. I attempted to deal with the destruction rather obliquely. My reasons were twofold. Firstly, I felt that there were already plenty of words out there providing straightforward descriptions. In the course of my research, I read W G Sebald’s remarkable work, On the Natural History of Destruction. What could I add to that? And secondly, there’s a tendency for words to fail when trying to comprehend such events, and so you find yourself grasping for new ways to describe them (and failing, in all likelihood).

Razing All Features

Viewing the grid-plan of the city from above, it resembled a Monopoly board which some truculent child had kicked over in a fit of pique, having sensed that the game was turning against him. The child had scattered all the houses and hotels, up-ended the cars and killed the dogs. Firemen were dredging frantically through the rubble for survivors, turning up just the odd boot or top hat. The order of the streets seemed to have been re-arranged entirely: Königswall stood where Viktoriastraße should have been, Friedhof in the space that Hansastraße had previously occupied. The city’s infrastructure has been systematically taken apart. The electricity and the water works had been knocked out, the railway stations turned upside-down. Even the city jail had been breached.  Heaven alone knew where its inmates were now.

Joyeuses Pâques!

All text and images © PSR 2013

Experimental Fiction, Part Four: Constraint

24 Mar

Constraint in writing is nothing new. Blank verse with its strict rules on syllables per line, the sonnet with its fourteen lines divided into eight and six line stanzas (to which we shall return below), rhyme in itself – all are constraints. They distort language, forcing imagination to grow into new and potentially beautiful mutations.

The Oulipians were the masters of constraint. I’ve mentioned before co-founder, Raymond Queneau retelling the same simple story ninety-nine different ways in Exercises in Style and Oulipo wunderkind, Georges Perec writing an entire novel without the letter ‘E’ in La Disparation, translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void (the first of his works that I read, and despite the brilliance of its execution, to my mind the weakest of his longer fictions) and then putting the ‘E’s back again in Les Revenentes, where they are the only vowels to appear.

The influence of the Oulipians has been felt in the English-speaking world. The American novelist, Walter Abish has dedicated a writing career to experimentation. Alphabetical Africa takes up the Oulipian challenge. In a variant on the lipogram and the acrostic, every word in the first chapter begins with an ‘A’. In the second chapter, ‘B’ is allowed also and so on until we reach the central chapter where there are no constraints. We then travel all the way back again to the final chapter where only words beginning with ‘A’ are permitted. The Canadian, Geoff Ryman set himself the challenge of writing 253 character sketches about passengers and the driver on a London underground train, each in 253 words. Unsurprisingly, then, he called the resultant book 253. Since the chapter/sketches are non-linear, they can, like B S Johnson’s The Unfortunates, potentially be read in any order. Originally published on the Internet, its hyperlinks allowed it more easily to be read in this way. In a haiku-like manner, the 253 words force Ryman to provide an insight for us into each character with great economy. Dan Rhodes – an English writer for whom I have much time – embarked on a similar project in Anthropology, in which 101 women that the narrator has known are each described in exactly 101 words. Over a decade later, Rhodes has written the follow-up, Marry Me, which I’ve yet to read.

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Like cultivars of fruit trees…

For myself, I have always made some use of such devices and was doing so long before I’d ever heard of the Oulipo. In my last work, for example, all 158 chapters had three-word titles beginning with the same three letters in the same order (not to mention the contents listing 158 false chapter headings governed by the same constraint). Like cultivars of fruit trees, the titles branched out in curious directions. The constraint forced unusual constructions in order to express the subject matter of each chapter using that limited palette of words. So we have Rigid Adherence Forced, for example, for a chapter about a character arrested by the military police for cowardice, a title that also expresses the self-imposed rule under which I was operating. In the false contents, it becomes Regulations Astringently Followed. Then there are the 85 anagrams of the book’s title with which sections begin. It’s madness, course, but thematic reasons lie behind it. Such techniques also push your mind into territory that it otherwise might not explore. And besides, it keeps you out of mischief of the real world variety…

...the titles branched out in curious directions

…the titles branched out in curious directions

Another interesting ruse, which I first encountered in the early writings of Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood, is the buried sonnet. Here, the writer composes a paragraph comprising fourteen sentences in which a concealed canonical sonnet – taken from Shakespeare, Donne or the like – is placed. In my abandoned State of England novel, I chose Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella. In Sidney’s great work, the heroine is Stella. My leftist anti-hero, Elver Hodgkin is obsessed instead with Stalin. I leave you with a passage from it. A prize awaits the first reader to identify the sonnet buried within Hodgkin’s speech.

Elver Hodgkin is nearing the peak of another great oration, scaling the snow-capped heights of Stalinist rhetoric in a carefully scripted speech:

“Big Brother, dear comrades, defended hate, because like Marx, grown blacker in his love, with deadly shot had killed the circling dove to keep the peace in that first workers’ state. The boss refused, he feared the Marxist state, which threatened strikes, if push should come to shove: and just in case put steel inside his glove – break strikes, break skulls – where comrades manned the gate…”

As he speaks the neatly trimmed, tangerine art-beard wobbles about on his chin like an orange on the surface of a bowl of water in a Victorian party game. His right hand chops the air to emphasize each point that he makes; the left fiddles around inside his trousers. He is holding forth on the connexion between the CCCP and CCTV:

“Still the police camera is filming it, in Stalin’s brows it sees two hooded crows, and in his eyes the TV’s closed circuit. So now at you he peeps, somehow he knows, and sure enough, like Macbeth in that play, tears to shreds all that might get in his way.”

It is a pity that there is no-one to hear him in the front room of the rented house in Dog Lane.

All text and images © PSR 2013

The Twin-Pronged Approach: an Update

9 Mar

As previously reported, in the six or so months since I completed my last writing project, I have been working on two manuscripts at once, a new departure for me. The rationale was that when one project ran into the buffers, I’d be able to switch to the other instead of working unproductively and wasting my time (at which I am a genius). I’d also been unable to decide between the two projects that had pushed themselves to the front of the queue and begun screaming “write me!”. And so half a year later, how has it been going?

Through the summer holidays and on into the start of autumn, I worked on a sequel of sorts to my previous novel (there’s still a little revision to be done on this in the light of writing friends’ comments). By that point, I’d done a lot of planning and written about 15000 words. That’s pretty good progress for me since I tend to dwell upon every word that I use, to labour over the shape of each sentence and passage. As remarked before, the practice of freelance journalism enabled me to write faster but I’ll never be able to pour out words like Jack Kerouac or Philip K Dick (which reminds me of a passage in a story that I wrote…). And then as inspiration began to run dry in October, I jumped train.

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Jumping trains…

Since that time, I’ve been working on my alternative history about the recent European experience. Again, there has been much on-going planning to be done. I’ve also been integrating photographs that I’ve taken into the text (perhaps similar to the one above), an approach borrowed from one of my literary heroes, W G Sebald (and for whose widow, coincidentally, the mother of my children once kept books). I now have 25000 words and counting on this project with no sign of a halt in sight. So, thus far, the approach is still yielding dividends, but I’ve yet to jump back to the first project. We shall see what happens when we arrive at that station…

All text and image © PSR 2013