Monday, November 28, 2011

The self-indulgent writer

Where does writing what you know or the art of the telling detail become self-indulgence? Sometimes, it's obvious. The whisky drinker who slips in a reference to his favorite single malt, the car aficionado who lovingly reels off the model and year of the hero's vehicle, the movie fan who references a film or (worse!) describes a character by comparing him to an actor.

I've been convinced for a while that an author whose main character smokes is himself a smoker or former smoker. For instance, I've just started reading Eleven Days by Donald Harstad, who is a former cop, and his first-person hero, a cop, describes himself as a "heavy smoker." This may be an important element of characterization or even plot, but it seems at first blush to be a self-indulgent expression of defiance ("you gotta problem with that, this is the way cops are").

Sometimes an author seems to be indulging in a personal fantasy. In The Essene Conspiracy, S. Eric  Wachtel is a bit too meticulous chronicling his hero's high-living lifestyle, reflecting either, one is tempted to think, his own fantasy or even his own fantasy-come-true. In The Sound of Blood, Lawrence DeMaria endows the female antagonist, Alana Loeb, with almost superhuman qualities of sexiness and cleverness, stretching the reader's suspension of disbelief.

It is not a coincidence, I think, that it's easier to find examples of self-indulgence in self-published books. Part of an editor's job is to ruthlessly cut and trim the author's self-indulgent flights of fancy. This was my experience with Gold, where Dick Marek callously cut out some of my slips, and in The Grand Mirage, where Jerry Gross marked whole passages for elimination (it was always my choice, but I generally followed his recommendations).

When it's not possible to get that kind of editing -- and that may be as true today for mainstream publishing as well as self-publishing -- it is up to the writer to exercise some self-discipline and rigorously ask himself whether certain details are necessary to plot or characterization. The line is not always clear, but the writer who crosses that line is detracting from his own effort to immerse the reader in this fictional world with these often jarring and irrelevant references.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Does size matter?

One of the questions about ebooks is how long should they be? Often the product description specifies that this ebook is a "full length" novel and gives the equivalent in page numbers. This leads one to believe that other ebooks may not be as long as your traditional printed book.

Is that important? Has length historically been determined by the constraints of printing and commercialization which don't really apply in ebooks?

There's no question that a printed work of 90 pages, traditionally called a novella, can be satisfying to read. But are we conditioned to believe that the development of plot and character that unfolds in 300 pages is the norm?

Authors had an incentive before to write long because it took nearly a year to get a book in print. But now authors can publish their own works in intervals of months, or even weeks. There are no physical or commercial constraints on length.

Why don't ebooks automatically give the print page equivalent? It would seem that is easy enough to program. Apparently you can't go by file size because formatting and compression will give wildly different numbers of kilobytes. For instance, Castle Cape, an ebook I'm currently reading, is supposed to have 370 pages in print, but the ebook file size is given as 495 KB. My book, The Grand Mirage, at 304 pages in print, has a file size of  834 KB.

As a freelance journalist, I'm accustomed to thinking of length in terms of words. Mirage is a little over 80,000 words, whereas my earlier thriller, Gold, weighed in at 72,000 after I had it scanned and converted to Word for re-issue. My friend Jim Bruno said he is aiming for 90,000 words in his new Cuba thriller.

There is a certain discipline to writing long. It forces the author to elaborate with descriptions, to step back and slow down the pace of the plot, adding details to characterization and richness to the overall narrative. It would be easy to slap a bare-bones novel into e-print, charge 99 cents for it, and caveat emptor, but a more finished product might be more satisfying for both author and reader.

In any case, I think in principle I will shoot for the 70,000 to 80,000-word range, longer if the spirit moves me, perhaps shorter if the book feels done.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Q&A on writing

Several of the questions in a recent interview I had with Norm Goldman at Bookpleasures touched on writing techniques. Here are some of the excerpts (see the full interview here):

Norm: What was your creative process like when creating your most recent novel, The Grand Mirage?
Darrell: I first came across the intriguing story of the Baghdad Railway in a history of Deutsche Bank, which I covered as journalist. It seemed to be a fabulous adventure in an exotic world. I found that I had assembled whole bookshelves of works about the history of the Middle East and wanted to recreate a world that has vanished in history but lurks in our subconscious. Then it became a challenge to scour contemporary journals and letters for all the telling details of this world, while the amazing resources of the Internet produced numerous images to help visualize it. ...

Norm: What do you believe is required for a character to be believable and how did you create Richard Leighton, 9th Baron Leighton in The Grand Mirage?
Darrell: Making up a British lord is a particular challenge because everyone of them has been painstakingly recorded and you find that many of the good names have been taken. I wanted the hero to be an aristocrat so that he would have the intellectual and financial resources to be a true gentleman adventurer and able to play his role as an unofficial spy for the government. After that, like all characters, he had to be someone the reader cares for. It's important to delve into his emotions, explore his backstory, show his thinking. At the same time, in an historical novel like this one, you want to avoid anachronism. So, for instance, Leighton does not condemn British imperialism -- he is part of it -- though his love of the Orient leads him to have some doubts.

Norm: Did you know the end of The Grand Mirage at the beginning?
Darrell: What I have found both with this book and my earlier thriller, Gold, is that you start out with a vague idea of the arc of the plot, put your characters to work and see just where they take you. So while I knew generally where things would end up, I didn't anticipate all the twists and turns until they actually developed in the writing. This is one of the wonderful things about creating a work of fiction. ...

Norm: Do you believe you have already found “your voice” or is that something one is always searching for?
Darrell: I'm not sure I'm looking for "a" voice. I'm happy with the voice in both my novels, but I don't think it is the same. There may be some common sensibilities, but the voice of a contemporary financial thriller -- the style, the language, the pace -- is different from that in an historical thriller like The Grand Mirage. At some point, I may want to write a police procedural that would have yet again another style and voice. ...

Norm: Do you have any suggestions to help our readers become a better writers? If so, what are they?
Darrell: I think it's important to pay attention to the role of language in writing. Plot, characterization, often research are all important, but the writer should revel in the language itself, play with it, use it as a vital part of the overall package. One of my favorite writers at the moment, Simon Mawer, says a writer should be like a sculptor working in the marble of language, shaping it to portray the reality we see.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Publishing myth

I never really understood why book publishers need nine to twelve months to get a book into print. They act as though it's such a careful and meticulous process that anything less would result in an inferior product. The idea is that by the time the book finally does see the light of day it has been proofed, and checked and is ready for prime time.

So I was quite surprised when I was proofing the scan of my 1989 novel, Gold, so that I can reissue it when Penguin gets around to reverting the rights to me, to find that there were more typos in the original version that needed correcting than there were from the scanning. On the one hand, scanning has clearly improved, and the service I used, Blue Leaf, must have up-to-date equipment. But the fact that there were more than a dozen typos in the original was really kind of shocking. I don't know whether my book got a particularly sloppy copy edit and proofing (and of course I got a copy of the uncorrected proof myself for review) or whether it is easier in fact to spot errors on the screen because of the wiggly red lines under misspelled words.

In any case, I'd like to think there are fewer errors than that in the novel I self-published last month, The Grand Mirage, which got two proofings from two separate pairs of eyes and still got out in a month.