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Fri, 10 Feb 2006

Frogs and trilogies

Quiet, isn't it? Yes, I know, I haven't been updating my blog recently. That's because I've been busy writing — half the first draft of a novel in the past six weeks, another 20% to go, and then another novel. (It's not my fault: if you folks didn't buy them I wouldn't have to write them ... and if you believe that, I have a very attractive Victorian railway bridge to sell you, just up the coastline from here.)

Anyway, in addition to being busy with work, I've got to make a trip to the US next week. (It's a business trip, honest. Go on: point to where I said I would shun the shores of that continent forever. Yes, astute convention-going SF fans may spot me at Boskone — where do you think I'm doing business?) I've also got a trip to Dublin next month. And a trip to London the month after that, with a week in tropical Glasgow sandwiched in-between (for the Eastercon). I'd be right on top of the day job if I wasn't taking all this time off for travel, honest. In fact, the incessant travel has led me to buy a five-year old computer, just because it's a sub-notebook so tiny that I can type on it on the tray table in economy class. Yippee. (Not.) It's CPU is half the speed of my new mobile phone's, although it has slightly more RAM and a much friendlier keyboard. Technology marches on ...

One of the things I've been grappling with lately is the long haul — coming to terms with the difference between writing a couple of linked novels, and writing a series, a huge, articulated structure in which individual books are mere chapters. This is because I'm currently wrestling with plot octopi and setting serpents down in the mire of the fourth Merchant Princes book. Back in the dim and distant days of late 2001, I originally figured I'd write four of them: four fat, self-contained novels expanding upon a common setting and background idea. No plan survives contact with the enemy, though, and big, fat, fantasy yarns are not entirely fashionable this decade.

The first book, "A Family Trade", suffered the fate of many a stage magician's assistant: its truncated torso was followed into print by "The Hidden Family", and the second book, "The Clan Corporate", became the third in the series. Moreover, I'd originally intended "The Clan Corporate" to be a 750 page doorstop. The book of that name that's coming out this June is a svelte, shapely 300 page novel — unlike its predecessors, I got the signal about how long it was to be before I got my teeth into it. However, it's not the second planned big fat book from 2001 — it's the first third of it, the first installment of a trilogy within an ongoing series. And you know what? I've never written a trilogy before.

A common complaint about the trilogy as a literary format is that the middle volume tends towards flab. Book one establishes characters and setting, and puts them in jeopardy or starts a plot-related ball rolling: book three resolves conflicts and brings thematic closure, but the middle volume just seems to keep rolling that ball along. From inside the belly of the beast, however, it's a very different picture. One of the necessities of any dramatic plot is an increase in tension between the initial situation and the climax. The middle volume seems to drag only because it is, in the terms of the memorable boiling frog, turning up the heat under the critters. By the end of the middle volume the heat ought to be just barely survivable, leaving the readers in no doubt that in the next book the frogs are going to start hopping. But for the frog-boiling bits themselves to be memorable ... well, it's like watching a kettle, isn't it?

(Incidentally, the folk tale — that if you put a frog in a cool kettle and apply the heat gently, it won't notice the water temperature rising — is apparently untrue. But it's a neat metaphor for gradual intensification of stress, so I'm going to keep using it as such.)

Back to the topic in hand. I'm currently boiling a frog, or several frogs, in a middle-volume kettle. And to keep it from getting too monotonous I've spread out the omniscient viewpoint (which spent most of "The Clan Corporate" watching a single individual) until it's time-sharing between half a dozen pivotal players as they gradually discover that their world — or rather, worlds — are not as they thought they were. And that's another headache, because broadening the scope of a story from the personal to the political brings its own problems of pacing and insight. The first three books were personal, the portrayal of one woman running head-first into cultural and economic structures that proved increasingly difficult to deal with. Now I'm trying to demonstrate how her impact has reverberated through those structures, and there's no way to do that from a single constrained viewpoint. So in some ways the story is mutating (as of book four) into an entirely different type of beast.

'Twas ever doomed to go this way, I think. A brief confession: I've always been uneasy with the Fantasy label that was pinned on "Merchant Princes" from the outset. "Fantasy" carries a lot of baggage with it — expectations of an essentially romantic or pre-modern world-view, or at any rate of a weltanschaung that is not compatible with the technocratic ideological underpinnings of early SF, or even the Enlightenment-rooted humanism of more recent strands within the field. It seemed to me that what I was trying to do is very much more at home in the science fictional tradition, because I'd set out to explore the way in which certain technologies might dictate the structure of a society that employs them — or even to handicap its development. Which is essentially a job that requires a disruptive story arc, one that does not return to the eternal status quo ante — one of the characteristics of SF.

Luckily for me, as of the latest round of book contracts, I'm no longer required to describe the series as Fantasy™ every time the subject comes up. Having shed one label I'm in no hurry to grab another for it, and you're welcome to keep calling it fantasy for as long as you think the hat fits — but you can take this as advance notice that the series may well take some wild swerves in the near future.

And therein lies my hope for avoiding middle-volume-of-trilogy boredom: just when you, gentle reader, are settling down to knit yourself to sleep beside the simmering kettle, I'm going to let off some firecrackers and fill the bathtub with brightly-coloured machine parts.

If nothing else, it'll be interesting to see which way the amphibian jumps, won't it?

[Discuss Writing]

posted at: 23:43 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Missile Gap
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The Jennifer Morgue
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The Clan Corporate
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The Hidden Family
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The Family Trade
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Iron Sunrise
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The Atrocity Archives
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Singularity Sky
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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
Futurismic ]
Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
August 2003
July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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