I don’t know how this post will work out. Some weeks, it’s like I’m investing so much in my creative writing that I’m tapped out when it comes to a blog subject. So, I’ll resort to talking about random stuff—hence the title.
I couldn’t finish Perdido Street Station, the China Miéville fantasy I mentioned in my last post. If you’ll go back and read the sample paragraph I put in that post, you’ll get an idea why. I really did try, but it was something like trying to go up a tall hill. You can see the end, but the farther you go, the more tired you get until, finally, you just give out before you reach the top. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t take it no more, and that’s how it was with this book.
It’s 710 pages in trade paperback, and I have no idea what the word count is. Well over 200,000, probably close to 250,000, at a guess. Possibly even more. Now, I have nothing against high word counts. After a first edit, Pipeline still clocks in at over 207,000 words—at least 17,000 words short of the amount I wanted to cut. I had hoped to get it down in the neighborhood of 190,000, preferably 180,000. And I’m considering some major surgery to get it down even farther than that. Maybe.
But we’re not talking about my novel here. I’m just trying to let you see that I have no objection to long novels. In fact, I like it when I can get involved for hours on end on a novel. I think that’s why I have a problem with short stories, because my main objection to them is that they end just when I’m getting immersed in their worlds.
Like I said in my last post, Miéville is British, which probably explains his wordiness. The sequel to Perdido Street Station, entitled The Scar, is just as big. He’s an inventive author, if this book is any indication. He combines steampunk, magic, a Dickensian setting in the city New Crobuzon, and peoples it with interesting races and characters. My personal opinion is that it’s based on London (no big surprise there), and he simply took the existing “races” there—the Indians, Pakistanis, etc—and turned them into literal races. He just gave them enough of a twist that you can’t exactly point and say, “This race in the book is the same as this one in the real world.” But that’s just a guess on my part.
The story is interesting, too, one of those that starts out minor and blows up big. I’ve always liked it when a story does that, where what’s happening has far larger implications than you think when you start it.
But every time you encounter a new setting, he has to give us a capsule history of the place. Yes, this is a staple in speculative fiction and fantasy in particular. In some ways, it’s necessary. We’re on a strange world that shares none of its history with ours, and fantasy readers like this kind of thing, thanks, I’m sure, to Tolkien’s exhaustive history of Middle-earth, the prototype of modern fantasy. Whether you like The Lord of the Rings or not, if you read fantasy, it’s there because Tolkien did it first.
I’ve lost patience with these mini-histories, though. They’re nice, and they up your word count, which helps you get the other half of what many readers want from fantasy: epic. Tad Williams, author of the wonderful Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, among others, calls it the Bloated Epic. But it’s what a lot of fantasy readers want. They want to immerse themselves in some fantastical land for weeks, months if you can pull it off. Some sf—and I’m thinking mainly of the Night’s Dawn trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton here—does the same thing.
Thanks to all this, though, there I was, closing in on the Big Finale, and I totally lost interest. I simply couldn’t do it anymore. I was on page 544, about halfway down. It was late, my eyes were blurring from reading and my brain was blurring from too many details. Miéville had spent something like a page and a half describing, in what seemed to me minute detail, an enclosed neighborhood called The Glasshouse. I was weary, tired of the weight of all these words. Great for atmosphere, but, in the end, I had to ask, “Why should I care?”
Why should I care about some quirky thing that happened in a given neighborhood? How does it move the story forward? (See my last post. Maybe there’s a theme developing here heh heh.) It’s neat that you can come up with these little details, but is it going to have some effect on the characters? If not, why is it there?
I used to complain about this kind of thing. I used to bitch because the things I’d grown up reading and loving were falling by the wayside. But in the last few years, I’ve learned a lot about what I need to do as a writer if I want to get published, and the standards have changed drastically in those years.
In all fairness, Perdido Street Station is copyright 2000. Things have changed a lot since then. As a rule, readers want you to get on with the story, not tell us little tidbits of how some old man tripped over a bottle and now the place is called Bottle Trip (I came up with that off the top of my head. I know it’s not very good).
Now, if two characters are talking about this, and it tells me something about one or both of them, that’s all to the good. Or, if this minor bit of history has an effect later in the story, and I can look back and say, “Oh, wow. Didn’t see that one coming,” then it’s fine.
So I put it down and picked up Flood by Andrew Vachss. A crime novel, and the first in a series, it’s another critter entirely.
Mr. Vachss wrote Flood in an effort to reach the general public with the message of child abuse. He wrote the book back in the ’80s, when child abuse, and sexual abuse in particular, wasn’t really on the radar like it is now. He had written a nonfiction book about it, but it had no effect outside the profession. Mr. Vachss was a federal investigator of sexually transmitted diseases and also directed a maximum security facility for youthful offenders. He is now a lawyer who represents children and youth exclusively. Since his nonfiction book was pretty much unknown, he rewrote it as a novel, but had trouble getting it published. No one believed that such things could happen.
In all fairness, I’ve only just started the book, but it’s moved a lot more in 60 pages than Perdido Street Station did in 200, and that says a lot. Especially when you consider it was written long before the current standards in writing.
Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by reading crime novels. I had to branch out, find something else. I was getting tired of all the damn vampire novels out there. I tried switching to straight science fiction, but the market isn’t friendly to new works in the sf genre (unless it’s got vampires in space), so it’s hard to find one. I started out reading Jonathan Kellerman, then discovered L.A. Outlaws by T. Jefferson Parker (run, don’t walk, out and get that book!). I realized I really like the whole LA noir thing, partly because (and I freely admit it) my daughter lives out there and it made me feel a little closer to her to read about the city. But Los Angeles is a big enough city that it can have so many different stories happen in it that I become interested in the LA noir scene for its own merits.
Anyway, the thing is, crime novels move. Even my abnormally long one keeps moving. There’s some influence from Robert Crais, in that I spend a little more time developing Lyle and those around him than some crime stories do, but that’s all to the good. Maybe that will give it appeal to people who don’t read crime. I’ve left plenty of action in it, though, because I wanted it to move.
It’s not that crime readers are any dumber than fantasy readers (or historical, or whatever), it’s just that crime, being a subgenre of mystery, demands that the story keep moving forward with very little looking back. And if you do look back, you better keep it short, and it better have some relevance to the story at hand, whether it be character development or as some form of foreshadowing. In crime, you usually know who the bad guy is, even if the main character doesn’t, and I guess that’s why I like it a little better than I do mystery. In crime, I get to see inside the mind of the criminal, and, as I’ve said before, that fascinates me.
Well, it’s probably pretty obvious by now that I didn’t know what I was going to say when I started this thing. I was going to include some bits that I’ve learned from editing Pipeline, but I see I’ve reached my limit on word count. My posts are longer than recommended because I’m only able to post once a week. I hope you bear with me on these, even the rambling ones like this one.
My fiction writing really is better organized. I promise.