Book picks of the year

I have a habit of re-reading the books I like best. A good example is Dune, for which the same paperback edition I read in (gulp) 1976 is still on my shelf and barely hanging together. Sadly the same can't be said for my copy of the first three Earthsea books, which fell apart from severe overuse long ago. Fortunately I married someone with her own copy so all is not lost.

Which books of 2009 will join this august company? I read piles of books I liked, but which will I be coming back to?

For me there are two absolute standouts...

A Trace Of Smoke, Rebecca Cantrell

The Ghosts Of Belfast, Stuart Neville

...and there are these great books, all of which can expect to see worn covers and tattered pages:

A Bad Day For Sorry, Sophie Littlefield

The Naked Olympics, Tony Perrottet

The Janissary Tree, Jason Goodwin

Secondhand Spirits, Juliet Blackwell

Nox Dormienda, Kelli Stanley

And there are these two ongoing series which I love:

The Aimée Léduc stories of Cara Black

The SPQR series of John Maddox Roberts

Wishing you all a fantastic 2010!

Gary's status update

Major revision #8 of the second book in the series went to my agent-genius Janet last night.

I'm not quite so deluded as to think my life is fascinating, but I suspect the writer-types reading this are interested in what really happens to a debut author, so here's where we're at:

My life for the last 6 weeks has revolved around book 2. I received superb editorial comments from Joanna Volpe and some fascinating insight from the interns at FinePrint (thanks guys), on the basis of which I did some serious revision. More on book 2 later after I finish with my status.

Book 1 is in production at St Martins, which means they're turning it into something which fits on a bookshelf. Over the coming months, in no particular order, everyone will agree a final title and the art department will work out a cover and I will receive galleys to check. What happens inside the publisher is pretty much a black box to me. I responded to Editor Kathleen's editorial letter months ago, and sent in a character list, author note and acknowledgements, which ended my direct contribution, so now I'm an error correction device when the galleys arrive. Kathleen has been superb about asking my opinion on covers and titles, way beyond the contractual requirement, which I very much appreciate.

Sarah the Publicist, whom I met at Bouchercon, told me that at some point I'll receive a questionnaire about marketing. I look forward to it with amusement and trepidation.

The third book is begun and the opening scenes are flowing nicely. It's set at the Olympics of 460BC and I'm feeling good about it already. There's lots of material I can use, some of it quite bizarre. Bizarre is good.

Book 2 has come out of its revision feeling strong. I can't explain the feeling, but I know when something I've written has crossed the line from merely okay to publishable. I felt book 2 fall into place beneath my hands 4 weeks ago. If you picked it off a shelf in your local bookstore and read some, it would not feel out of place. I had the same feeling with the first book, when at some point I realized what I had was good. If it's of any help to those of you editing your own ms, I got the feeling in both cases while cutting large swathes of perfectly good text to get to the core of the story.

The coming year is going to be huge. I have book 1 coming out, which means after title/cover/galleys I have a book on the shelves and a book tour and Bouchercon. That'll soak up months. In between that Kathleen will probably send the editorial letter for book 2, which means revising book 2. In between that I need to write the third, and I need to get the core of it done in the first half of the year, because the second half is going to be absolute chaos. So as of now I have three books in the air, and I'll be juggling 3 for so long as the series runs.

It's a good problem to have.

Getting inside ancient characters

Any moment now, my agent will receive a Chrissy present: the ms of The Magnesia Sanction (working title) revision 8. It waits only for the Goddess of Punctuation to weave her magic and it's on the way. Which means I have more time to write posts.

Beverly Jennings, during the most recent Roman Mystery Book Chat, made this interesting comment:

I think no matter how hard an author tries, you couldn't completely put yourself in the mindset of an ancient Roman.

I'm sure Beverley's right, but lacking a time machine it's not a testable assertion.

Can I duplicate the mindset of an ancient Roman Greek? Maybe not, though I think I'd have a better chance than most.

A lot of the trick in my view is forgetting. Forgetting 2,000 years of history and culture, and immersing yourself only in what the people of the time knew, read, heard and thought.

For example, you can search the ancient sources as much as you like, and you will not find one word suggesting slavery is anything other than a natural condition.

Christian morality has to go, especially Christian sexual morality. Pericles was considered weird in his own time because he was so besotted with Aspasia that he didn't go to perfectly respectable orgies.

The mediaeval concept of chivalry has to go. That's more than you might think; an awful lot of modern manners derive from chivalry, in particular the social rules for gentlemen and ladies, and the concept of fair play.

Women can't own property, they are property.

Beauty matters.

National patriotism is not a concept. The order of loyalty is to yourself, your family, and to your city.

A very deep understanding of the human condition, far beyond what most people today can manage, because the Greeks experienced life in a fast-forward sort of way. They lived lives which the modern office worker can only dream about (though the dream might be a nightmare). Wild reversals of fortune are the stuff of life.

They believed in luck.

Their Gods are reality. Diotima gets excited about the subject in Magnesia Sanction:
"Can you really look around you, and tell me Love and War and Lust and Death don’t rule our lives? Wisdom and chaos and motherhood and the madness of wine and the beauty of music, they and the seasons and the sun are what we Hellenes worship, and anyone with the wit to open his eyes can see they’re as real as a smack in the face."
The Greeks demanded personal excellence. They had nothing but contempt for anything less, but praised the excellent in extravagant terms, even if the subject was an enemy.

You have to keep in mind that DNA has not changed in a mere few thousand years. The same diverse human nature we see today is exactly the same spread among ancient peoples, from morons to geniuses, the deeply compassionate to the remorselessly self-serving, the lazy to the energetic, the modest to the arrogant, the cowardly to the brave, and all the while the majority are in the middle of the bell curve. The difference between then and now lies not in the nature of the people, but in the way the culture directed their natures.

My stories begin in Athens at the very birth of western civilization. By definition it means we're starting with something which is not western. In fact Athens would have been recognizably Asian or Middle Eastern in mindset. As the series proceeds (the Publishing Gods willing) we see western ideals actually being invented.

Voice in Ancient Mystery

The amazing Irene Hahn hosts a regular online discussion group covering Roman mystery books. I attended the most recent and had a lovely time. If you're interested in ancient mysteries then this is a good place to meet like-minded people. Personally I found it educational (and useful!) to hear what obviously knowledgable people thought of the books they'd read.

I confess every time someone said something positive or negative about a book, I instantly ran my mind across my own work to see if I got a tick or a cross. Someone mentioned they didn't like to see, "OK." In 2 minutes I'd done a global search across three manuscripts and confirmed I was clean. Phew!

Yes, the paranoia of a debut author knows no bounds.

One thing in particular which came up I thought I'd comment on: appropriate voice for characters speaking thousands of years ago. How do you make it sound credible? It's a tough problem. The options are:
  1. Write everything in Attic Greek. This scores points for accuracy but limits the print run to single digits.

  2. Write everything in a manufactured old tone, to give the feeling it was spoken long ago. This inevitably ends up sounding faux-mediaeval, faux-Shakespearean, or faux-epic-fantasy. Worse, the old tone is no more accurate than modern vernacular, because people just didn't speak like that.

  3. Go for totally modern colloquial English. This gives the image of Socrates walking into the room and saying, "Hey bro, watcha doin'?" No. Although in some ways it would be more authentic than the fake old tone, because at least we are saying in current English what was spoken in current Attic Greek. The problem is, colloquialism associates the speaker with a modern cultural grouping which is entirely wrong.

  4. Write more formal English avoiding anachronisms and anything which associates the language with modern culture. This is the way forward.
There are people who've already had to tackle this problem: translators of ancient texts. In particular I think quality translations of Aristophanes are a good model, such as the Penguin edition, because he is utterly irreverent, very funny, and highly colloquial in his own language. So for a good example of how to do it right, read translations of Aristophanes.

By that logic, is "OK" okay? Personally I wouldn't use it, but instead I use "Alright". I can't actually think of a reason why "OK" should be banned, it just doesn't feel right to me.

Dorothy Dix and the Expository Lump

The title sounds like an unpleasant experience at Hogwarts but is in fact something I'm noticing in my own writing as I edit.

My blog posts have reduced in frequency because I've been deep in edits for Book 2, working title The Magnesia Sanction. (The title will change before it sees production). I'm at major revision #8, and I think This Is It, The Final Version. Of course I thought the same for revisions 2 through 7, so what would I know, but in any case I've printed the entire ms and am pacing back and forth in my office, reading the whole book aloud. I find reading aloud essential to

a) get the flow and rhythm right; and
b) find redundant words which I don't need.

BJ Muntain warned me to drink enough so my voice doesn't go hoarse while reading 305 pages. Never fear, each lap takes me past the beer fridge.

What I'm noticing as I read is all my expository lumps are preceded by a Dorothy Dixer.

Wikipedia, which as we all know is never wrong, tells me Dorothy Dix was an early agony columnist in the US. How her name came to be associated with faux questions in the Australian parliament I don't know, but it is nevertheless the case that when an Australian Government minister wants to make a set-piece speech during question time, he arranges for a colleague to ask a totally fake question which allows the minister to produce his prepared speech. This is a cheat, but they do it all the time, and such a fake question is called a Dorothy Dixer.

Expository Lumps are a (relatively) benign cancer which must be excised for the good of the book. One character goes on and on telling another character something they probably should already know. The real target is the reader, who certainly doesn't know whatever is being explained. This is the author's dodgy way of delivering information direct into the reader's brain.

Expository Lump is a particular disease in science fiction. As you know, Captain, the hyperdrive works by folding space into tiny packets of... followed by two pages of exposition. Expository Lump is also a threat in historical writing. As you know, Pericles, the Athenians hold their meetings at the Pnyx, where the people vote...

As you know is the time-honoured method for introducing an expository lump. (If you're a writer, this would be a good moment to do a quick global search on your own ms.) I don't write as you know. Instead, one of my characters asks a really dumb question, purely so another character can tell the reader something.

Yep, that's a Dorothy Dixer.

Incredibly, I don't notice when I write these things in the first draft, but when I read aloud they stand out like a sore thumb. The good news is, the ensuing expository lump is almost never required. My readers, who are much smarter than me, can work out an amazing amount purely from context. When I find an expository lump I remove the lot, then stand back to see if the text still makes sense. Usually it does. At worst, it might need a sentence or two. The other trick which works is to change the scene setting or some other passive element of the story to deliver information by implication.