Writer, Broadcaster

Tag: Roger Zelazny

The Great Bookshelf Tour: Second Stop

Yesterday I began a virtual tour of my main bookshelf, because I know that’s what these troubled times call for: knowledge of my bookshelf. (Take that, out of touch celebrities! Nonsense from an out-of-touch ordinary person).

Moving on from where we left off yesterday (John DeChancie’s Starrigger) brings us to another of my personal favourites: Megan Lindholm‘s Wizard of the Pigeons. I love this book of a homeless man who may or may not be a wizard, or who may just be mentally ill, whose life is beginning to fray at the edges. I love it despite the book’s deeply flawed ending. It’s as though Lindholm abruptly decided “I just need to end this sucker” and then turned what had been a fascinating, evocative, poignant tale into an action thriller belonging to a completely different, rather inferior book. But don’t let that put you off: it is a testament to how terrific the rest of the book is that the ending doesn’t completely undermine it. A conceit from this book has informed much of my life since having read it: that we all possess little bits of personal magic. I have three myself that I have always been able to count on, which I would divulge, but then they might go away. And it’s when your personal bits of magic go away that your life begins to fray. Megan Lindholm, incidentally, is rather more popular now writing as Robin Hobb.

Next up, On a Beam of Light by Gene Brewer. This is Brewer’s follow up to K-Pax, which I first discovered as a movie starring Kevin Spacey. Not as good as K-Pax, it’s still worth a read to see where the story goes, but may not survive the next great purging of the bookcase. Where is K-Pax on my bookshelf, you might ask? I probably gave it to someone. I give a lot of books away, because I believe that they’re better served in the hands of other readers, rather than simply languishing on a bookshelf somewhere. And I never loan books: I give them away. That way my friends don’t have to worry about getting the book read and back to me. They can take their time, deciding which book to read next, and then reading the book I gave them when the time is right, so that it can be properly enjoyed.

Roger Zelazny. I first heard of Zelazny when my roommate at the time, one Paul Darcy, shouted at no one in particular, “You bastard!” and slammed the book he’d been reading shut. It seemed Zelazny had finished his book on a cliffhanger. Paul explained to me about the Amber series, which I immediately read (Paul has rarely steered me wrong. Did I say rarely? I mean never.) My favourite Zelazny book, though, is Lord of Light. It is said that Zelazny, who died too young at 58, never quite fulfilled his promise, never quite wrote the magnum opus expected of him. They are wrong. That magnum opus is Lord of Light. A book, legend has it, conceived around a terrible pun buried deep within (it may be true; the pun is there, all right, as terrible as the book is brilliant).

Stephen R. Donaldson. This guy’s one of my favourite authors. You either love him or hate him. My first exposure to Donaldson was Lord Foul’s Bane, of the Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series. I found it in a bookstore in Summerside, PEI, read the first three pages, was immediately captivated. Took it home, read as far as a certain infamous scene, and then bit it as hard as I could and threw it across the room. Or at least, thought about doing that (Paul Darcy told me he did that once reading a Margaret Atwood novel). I persisted, read the rest of the series, and recently reread them. I consider that first series genius. So genuinely character driven, all hinging upon the protagonist’s psychological make-up.

Sitting atop these books are two by Jack Campbell. I haven’t read these yet. The novel I’m trying to write right now (when I’m not procrastinating by writing lengthy blog posts) is pure space opera, so I’m reading the competition to make sure I’m up to date. Campbell is supposed to be good at space battles using real universe physics, something I’m interested in incorporating.

That’s that shelf. I ask again: what’s on yours?

Other Stops on the Tour

A Creative Process

I wrote the first words of the novel that eventually became A Time and a Place in July 1988. I made the final correction to the manuscript about a week ago, in April 2017. So technically it took me almost twenty-nine years to finish the novel.

I hasten to add, I haven’t been working on it all that time.

I wrote a few pages by hand in 1988, then put it aside until 1993, when I found those pages, decided they possessed a certain merit, and promptly wrote the first three chapters.

Then I made the classic beginner’s mistake of trying to get those first three chapters exactly right, revising them endlessly, never really making any progress, frequently distracted by other projects.

Finally, during a labour disruption where I work, I found myself with extra time to write. So did I work on my novel? Heck no! I started a blog about the labour disruption. I posted daily, revising minimally, and by the time the labour disruption was over two months later, I discovered that I had written over one hundred pages of reasonably respectable material.

I realized that if I tackled the novel the same way, I could have the whole thing written in six months. So I did exactly that, refusing to revise even a single word until the first draft was complete. A mere three months later I had the entire first draft written, close to one hundred thousand words.

And then spent the next several years perfecting it.

Which was fine. I wasn’t in a rush. I’d written the story out to the end, so I knew where it was going, more or less. It was just a question of making the journey there as smooth and compelling as possible. The final draft bears little resemblance to that first draft, which was a map without any roads. It showed me where I needed to go and some of the forests, rivers, and mountains in the way, but I still had to hack, swim, and climb my way to get there.

The initial idea was simple: a young man messes with powerful forces beyond his control, frightening those closest to him. I originally envisioned it as a short story. When I discovered those first few pages five years after having written them, it wasn’t the idea that I found compelling, it was the tone—a certain tongue-in-cheek quality. Both the idea and the tone have matured considerably since then, but they’re still discernible in the finished product.

One of the reasons it took so long is that I didn’t have a whole lot of time to write. I had a day job and an active family life. Mostly I wrote on the Go Train commuting to work, but I trained myself to be able to write whenever and where-ever I could: art galleries, cafés, swimming pools, doctor’s offices, wherever I could steal a little time with my laptop.

Where most of A Time and a Place was written

While others sat on the Go Train completing their crosswords and Sudokos, I was consumed with my own gigantic puzzle, using pieces (sentences, paragraphs, chapters) that I’d fabricated myself out of words. Gradually the puzzle grew more complex, the plot and characters more compelling, to me at least. At night I would lie in bed mulling over this or that thorny knot that I’d inadvertently written into the story, trying to figure out how to untangle it. Then I would fall asleep and allow my subconscious to do the heavy lifting. Sometimes the answer would present itself the next day. More often than not it required a whole lot more contemplation and revision.

I was constrained by rules I’d imposed upon myself, some borrowed from writers like Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty), others from editors like Thomas McCormack (The Fiction Editor), and yet others from well-thumbed copies of Writer’s Digest. Never use a word other than said to carry dialog. Never use an adverb to modify the word said. The birds flew, not the birds were flying. Err on the side of conflict. Show don’t tell except when doing so would take all day. Avoid clichés. They’re not for everyone, these rules; not even me, necessarily. They were just guidelines for this particular novel. And I didn’t always follow them.

I drew inspiration from the works of others, most consciously from writers like Edmund Hamilton, Dr. Paul Linebarger (a.k.a. Cordwainer Smith), Roger Zelazny, and H.P. Lovecraft. There’s some Stephen R. Donaldson and William Browning Spencer in there, too. Friends helped. Over the years, I’ve read much of A Time and a Place aloud to members of the Saturday Night Scribes, an informal writing group I’ve been privileged to be a part of for many years. Without their enthusiasm for A Time and a Place, I would not have finished it. Friends and family have read bits and pieces of various drafts, sometimes yielding useful feedback, but mostly it was their encouragement that I cherished.

Roger Zelazny, a favourite author. Go read Lord of Light. Now.

When I finished writing A Time and a Place, or, more accurately, when I thought that it was done, that there wasn’t a single change left to make—that it was, in other words, perfect and unassailable—two skilled and caring editors dissected it with surgical precision. Arleane Ralph and Dr. Robert Runtè astonished me with their discoveries. Flaws blindingly obvious when they pointed them out: logical inconsistencies, grammatical errors, confusing passages, or worse, boring passages, and other ghastly errors too numerous to mention.

This feedback did not bother me at all. I welcomed it, as it was all about making the novel better. I challenged some of the suggestions, but implemented most of them, ultimately rewriting two and a half chapters.

So you can see, A Time and a Place was not exactly dashed off. It was about as easy as threading a wrought iron chain in one ear and out the other. Still, writing it was usually my favourite part of any day. Probably it took me so long to finish because I loved writing it so much. Had I not finally received a deadline, I’d be tweaking it still.

Whether all that time and effort has resulted in a novel worth reading remains to be seen.

© 2020 Joe Mahoney

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑