Daily Archives: February 7, 2008

Zoe’s Tale Follow-Up Q&A

Answering some questions I’ve gotten in the wake of finishing Zoe’s Tale, in comments here at Whatever:

Alan Kellogg asks: “What about revisions and rewrites?”

To date I’ve not had to do any significant revising or rewriting once I’ve turned in a novel, and Zoe is no exception to this: PNH sent me notes on things he wanted clarified, and I duly clarified in the text, but the overall change in the text was minimal, and it had no effect on the direction of the story. I sent in all the changes last night; the text is now, I assume, off to the copyeditor (we will know it’s been received when we hear the screams upon the winds).

This is less a reflection on my utter brilliance (alas) or my status as a writer who sells so well he no longer has to sully himself with dealing with editors (ha!) as it does with the fact — as I’ve mentioned here before — that I do a substantial amount of revising and rewriting as I write, and before I turn in the work. I’ve discussed this before, in the context of how computers can make the idea “drafts” obsolete:

Here’s an interesting fact: All my novels to date are first drafts that weren’t outlined in advance. Why? Because the computer makes that possible. I can edit on the fly as I write so many of the major tasks of additional drafts of a book (polishing of the text, sanding down plot lines, etc) occur as I go along. The rewriting I’ve been required to do for my novels (so far, at least) has been minimal because by the time I write “The End,” most re-writing has been done as I went along. I suspect it’s not accurate to call the draft I send to my editors a “first draft”; it’s more of a “fractal draft,” in that it incorporates several waves of on-the-fly editing, emanating backward from various points in the text, terminating at the point of completion.

Doing this sort of “fractal draft” would not be impossible on a typewriter (or on a pad of paper), but it would be difficult to the point of distraction, which is why writers did have second, third and subsequent drafts of their work. Drafts are an artifact of the technology. Now, I’m aware that many writers still make two or more drafts even though they use computers, and I won’t gainsay them for doing so — the writing process that works for you is the writing process you should use. But I’m glad I don’t have to do that, and I’m glad I work on technology that allows me to write in a manner that is both comfortable and natural to me.

Mind you, and also as I’ve noted before, if PNH came back to me and said “we have a big problem here,” I would revise and rewrite. I like that I haven’t had to do it so far (it makes me feel shiny and competent), but I like putting out good books more, and my experience with PNH has been such that if he said to me there was an issue, well, you know, he’s almost certainly right. Dude won a Hugo for editing, you know. May have a clue what he’s doing.

To be clear, none of this should be implied to disparage writers who turn in manuscripts and then do a chunk of revising off of editorial notes. I know a number of very excellent writers who turn in books and say to their editors “now help me fix it!” — i.e., they very much look forward to the editor’s involvement at that stage. And they should, because that’s what works for them. For me, I prefer it the other way, and so far, I’m happy to say it’s worked, in no small part because my communication with PNH is good enough that a lot of potential issues are sanded down before they even get into the writing.

Erik asks: “Regarding The High Castle, how is that coming?”

It’s fine; I have a couple things on my plate before I get to it. But I’ll be getting to it soon; it’s going to come out in early ’09.

Neil asks: “any amusing end of project rituals?”

Aside from sleeping? No, not really. I was going to buy something stupid and expensive, but then I remembered that there was nothing I really wanted to buy, and anyway not having a regular income means spending only when you have money in hand. Stupid fiscal responsibility.

One thing I did do, that I often do at the end of a writing process, is make a couple of print-on-demand copies of the manuscript, so I can have a printed and bound copy of the text to read and refer to (I don’t have a printer, so I don’t have a physical copy of the text). You’ll recall I auctioned off one of the bound copies of The Last Colony last year in order to benefit the Mike Ford Book Endowment, and that did pretty well; I’m likely to do the same thing this year with Zoe, although probably with a different charity as the beneficiary. I’ll let you all know about it when it happens, obviously.

htom asks: “Book tour in the fall?”

A full-fledged book tour seems unlikely, I would think. Tor just gave me one last year, and I suspect they have other authors they might want to promote, too. I’m game for doing whatever appearances Tor wants me to do, but I suspect it’ll be trade shows and one-off appearances rather than a full tour.

Any other questions? Feel free to ask them in the comments.

Quick Review: Watershed, kd lang

It is such:

kd lang’s voice: Continues to be a force of nature.

kd’s song selection: eh.

Which is a bit of a bummer, because I’ve been a huge fan of lang’s recent albums, dating back to Invincible Summer, not just because of her voice but because the songs (both original and covers). They’re not doing it for me this time ’round. Which is not the end of the world: such is lang’s voice that I would happily hear her sing a phone book. But just once. I enjoyed listening to Watershed just fine but am not particularly motivated to hear any of the songs here a second time. Well, there’s always the next album.

The Big Idea: Philip Palmer

Hey look! Another “The Big Idea” feature! See, now you can tell they are really here to stay on Whatever: we’ve had two of them.

In today’s installment: Philip Palmer. Palmer is a novelist, with the new and ambitiously all-over-the-place space opera/comedy/pirate adventure Debatable Space. He’s also a been screenwriter for several British television series, put together original radio plays, and teaches writing. Or, as he likes to put it: “I see myself as a glamorous hyphenate. Writer-writer-toolazytogetaproperjob-writer.” Hey, it’s a nice gig if you can get.

Given his multiplicity of experience, is it any surprise that Palmer’s Big Idea for Debatable Space is “more is more”? I now cede the floor to the author, to give us all the details.

PHILIP PALMER

I have been a screenwriter and screenwriting tutor for many years, before finally wising up and becoming an SF novelist. And one of the great rules for screenwriters is expressed by the wonderful phrase, ‘Less is more.’ If is a line of dialogue is too long, cut it, because ‘Less is more.’ If the pace flags, cut some scenes, even your favourite ones, because ‘Less is more’. And if an actor can convey an effect with a glance or an expression, cut the line or the speech, just have the actor’s facial expression; because ‘Less is more.’

For the screenwriter, the phrase means much more than ‘be economical’, or ‘don’t forget to trim away the boring bits’. It embodies the whole philosophy of screen grammar, and connects up vitally with the other great adage, ‘Show don’t tell.’ This is because in the limited confines of a hundred page script, a screenwriter has to be like a poet, expressing much with as few words as possible, implying more than saying.

And also, screenwriters have to write for actors; and part of the art of acting is how to distil, to convey a great deal without doing much. I always love the process in rehearsing a drama when an actor – it’s always the really good actors who do this – will say, ‘Do I really need to say this line?’ Because the actors know that to cut the line is to improve the power of the lines which remain; less is more.

This phrase haunts me; in my boxing gym, my trainer has a big sign on the wall saying, ‘Less is more’. (Though he has been known to say, ‘Not that much less, Palmer.’)

This phrase is not, however, my guiding principle as a writer. My guiding principle is a phrase which is the big brother of ‘Less is more’; it’s the much less famous adage, ‘More is more.’

‘More’ in this context doesn’t mean more padding, more verbosity; it doesn’t mean redundant phrases or tautologies; it doesn’t mean annoying repetitions; it doesn’t mean annoying repetitions; sorry! But you get the point.

‘More’ in this context means ‘extravagance,’ ‘abundance’, ‘generosity’. A TV drama like ER for instance wonderfully embodies the principle of ‘More is more’. In comparable British hospital dramas, two or three or sometimes four medical stories are stretched out over fifty minutes or an hour. In ER they may have as many as a dozen different medical stories in a single forty minute episode – tragedies come thick and fast – great medical stories are established then casually thrown away, to make way for the next great medical story.

And as a result of this abundant and frenetic storytelling, ER manages to be both hugely exhilarating and far more reflective of real life in a hospital (where it’s all about dealing day in, day out, with case after case after case…) This is what I call generous storytelling; unlike the miser dramatist (the kind who uses one tea bag to make three or four cups of tea), the generous storyteller just keeps the ideas flowing.

But ‘more’ also means more variety. Great TV dramas like ER and The Sopranos and The West Wing and NYPD Blue – all shows which were a huge influence on me in my TV writing career – range in style and tone from comedy to drama to farce to tragedy and back again. These shows have one liners that British sitcom writers would kill for; but they have subtle and brave character arcs too.

‘More’ can also mean more genre. It’s easy enough to come up with an idea for a supernatural TV drama in which demons are fought. But – to cite one of my pre-eminent examples of the ‘more is more’ credo – in Buffy the Vampire Slayer we have two genres, simultaneously, almost mating within our TV set. It’s a high school drama; and it’s a vampire horror drama. We have locker room scenes; we have vampires being killed. We have teenage angst; we have best friends becoming evil. We have a cheerleader story; we have demon dimension stories.

Firefly plays the same double genre trick. It’s hard to do – it means riding two horses equally well – but when it’s successful, there are few things in drama more exhilarating than a genre hybrid. High School Reunion meets Hitman Movie – welcome, Grosse Point Blank. Horror meets SF? – yes, you too have seen Alien.

‘More is more’ is quite clearly the guiding principle of Debatable Space. I love space opera, but I know it’s a genre in which it’s hard to be fresh and different; so I welded it to the biographical narrative of the character of Lena. Judging from blogs and the reaction of friends, some readers like the soap opera elements but could do without the Lena strand; other readers (who tend to be those less steeped in SF) love the Lena stuff and the dark digressions, but aren’t as excited by the battles. But there are also some – these are the mad fools who I care about most of all – who really like the fact the book attempts to do many different things all at once.

Variety is the key ingredient in a ‘More is more’ piece of writing. Peter F. Hamilton, for instance, writes especially long novels; but the reason he embodies ‘More is more’ is because in, for instance, his double-novel Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained, he writes a space opera and a detective story and he has a great erotic love story in there too, and he does funny as well as sad as well as epic.

‘More is more’ is a banquet with many courses with appropriate wines, not a stonking great McBurger with a bucket of Coke.

Sometimes, of course a simple story well told is best of all; sometimes less really is more in all respects. But I rebel against the impoverished imagination and ambition of some of what passes for popular fiction and TV and film drama; and it’s in that spirit of rebellion that I set out to write a book full of ‘moreness’.

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Visit Philip Palmer online here. And read an extract from Debatable Space here.