Friday, January 30, 2015

Life Imitates Art

Readers of technically sophisticated science fiction are, I assume, accustomed to having life catch up to the ideas in their favorite books, even if it takes decades or centuries. Typically, the final form of the invention, be it a submarine (Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) or Dick Tracy’s watch, does not exactly match the writer’s initial concept. Some ideas seem so far-fetched and difficult to achieve that we would be foolish to hold our breath waiting for them: a Dyson sphere, for example. Others are flat out impossible, as Lawrence M. Krauss had great fun demonstrating in The Physics of Star Trek

But that is by the way. The job of science fiction writers is to imagine potential futures, not to create them.

Although I have written two novels classified as science fiction and a third that blends contemporary graduate student life with a computer-generated literary/historical world, I never expected life to catch up to my imagination, especially within ten years of my developing the original idea for Dreamlife Productions and its Scarlet Pimpernel game. So I was first amused, then astonished, to hear that Microsoft had developed a new virtual reality headset that allowed users to manipulate their environment (by smashing the coffee table in their own living room with a hammer and watching it fragment before their eyes while remaining quite untouched in reality, for example). Three days later, the New York Times declared virtual reality “on the verge of taking off” and announced that “the virtual reality content race has begun.” What happened?

Now, the virtual reality of the present is not the seamless, wireless, instant-transmission-to-the-brain process described with minimal detail in The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel. It involves clunky headsets and in some cases a smartphone that serves as a screen. At best, the experience resembles a three-D movie up close and personal; Microsoft is so far unique in overlaying virtual reality on actual objects within a room and allowing users to act on those objects. It will be a while, I’d guess, before we can follow Ian and Nina into our favorite novel and feel every minute as though we are caught up in a story world where we can interact with and influence the developing plot. But it’s a beginning, and we have reached it surprisingly fast.

This image, although now available on the Internet, is © 2006 C. P. Lesley.

I created it in Photoshop as part of the original cover for The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel using public domain images from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Winnowing

In “Indie Publishing: Boom and Bust” the novelist Deb Vanasse, quoting fellow-writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch, notes that “the gold rush is over.” Their point is that the days when a beginning author could throw up an e-book (well-written and well-edited or not), manipulate the algorithms by distributing thousands of copies for free, and still make money have ended. The big publishers are in the game now, and they too have learned the power of free and discounted e-books. In addition, because e-books never go out of print, the supply side of the market is expanding faster than the demand side, and we all know where that leads. What the future holds, no one can tell, but it seems fairly certain that a winnowing will take place: either unsuccessful authors will choose to leave the arena, or readers will push them out by favoring traditionally published books—or at least high-quality self-published and small-press books.

Now the winnowing among authors no doubt deserves a blog post (or ten) of its own. Today’s post is actually about something else, based on a comment that Alix Christie made during my interview with her last week for New Books in Historical Fiction. We were talking about the long-term effects of the shift from print to e-book publishing, and she asked me if I’d noticed that print books are becoming more beautiful. In a sense, of course, I had. I even wrote a post on “The Beauty of Books” in November 2012. But until Alix mentioned it, I hadn’t really thought about books becoming more beautiful.

As soon as she said it, though, I knew she was right. The 75-cent copies of Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland that I devoured in my misspent youth were not beautiful, although sometimes they had nice cover pictures. Their mass-market successors, although they cost ten times as much, are not beautiful either: cramped text on a page. It’s easier to read those books on a Kindle or an iPad, where at least you can adjust the font type and size and see clear dark type against a white screen.

No, the beautiful books are the hardcovers and trade paperbacks. The publishers are separating their products from generic, customizable e-books by showcasing the design capabilities of print—not so much winnowing the market as creating two distinct sectors within it.

Christie’s own debut novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice, is a good example of this trend: the book is gorgeous, as befits a novel about the invention of the five-hundred-year-old technology that the authors and publishers of e-books are doing their best to supplant. The book has large initial capitals on the chapters that look like printed versions of a manuscript book, as well as the kind of heavy rough-edged paper that I used to find in nineteenth-century tomes on the dusty shelves of university libraries, their pages uncut until I came along with my metal-edged ruler and peered at text not seen since it left the letterpress 150 years earlier. The cover combines a portrait of the three main characters in the novel—Johann Gutenberg; his financier, Johann Fust; and Fust’s adopted son, Peter Schöffer—with a stylized color image of fifteenth-century Mainz. The cover shows to advantage on an e-reader, too, if it’s a color tablet, but the design of the text is lost except in PDF format, which is not an e-book so much as an electronic rendition of the print. If you’re trying to read fixed-page-layout PDFs on a tablet, you might as well indulge yourself with the pleasure of turning physical pages.

There are two directions in which this post can go. The first and most obvious is to underline the importance for indie (self-published, coop, and small-press) publishers to take the question of beauty seriously if they wish to see their stories in print. Indie writers rely on print-on-demand technology, which is not suitable for mass-market production, so their print books must compete with trade paperbacks. The alternative is to focus on e-books and forget print, but that means abandoning the hefty chunk of the market that still prefers books on paper. Some of these readers own e-devices but have returned to print because they find it a more satisfying experience. Writers who can’t balance these competing demands are likely to find themselves among the “winnowed.”

But Alix Christie makes another important point as well. Winnowing threatens not only writers but print books themselves. Gutenberg’s Bible was a manuscript produced by machine; fifty years passed before Aldus Manutius shrank books down to something that would fit in a pocket, turning them into everyday objects that many people could afford. At the moment, writers and publishers aim to turn e-books into computerized versions of their print counterparts. “Enhanced editions” with trails of hyperlinks leading to pictures and explanations and online videos offer one alternative, but the flitting hither and yon interferes with the sustained attention that draws a reader into a story world, disrupting the emotional attachment that is the reason most people read fiction in the first place. Something else is needed. I don’t what it is, but I agree that when we find it, print books will join manuscripts as rare and precious relics of a long-forgotten past.

I may not live to see that day. I’m not even sure that I want to. But it is going to be one interesting ride.

Image: Jean Grolier in the House of Aldus Manutius (1894), via Wikimedia Commons. This picture is in the public domain in the United States because of its age.

And in a sad farewell that is associated with the broader topic here of the upheaval in publishing, I found out this week that Folium Book Studio, which we have used to obtain ISBNs and work with the e-book versions of all the Five Directions Press books to date, is closing its doors as of March 2015. Not sure what happened: perhaps it was an idea ahead of its time, in that older e-readers often could not handle the fancy formatting. But it is a service that we will miss.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Untold Story

There are many reasons for writing historical fiction, starting with a simple love of the past and extending to practicalities (so much easier to keep a mystery going in the absence of DNA evidence, cellphones, and even the presence of trained and dedicated professional investigators). Writers can give “voice to the voiceless,” as someone (alas, I don’t remember who) noted on Goodreads, referring to all the poor and downtrodden, many of them female, whose stories don’t make it into the official record. The majority of the population in any given century belongs to this group, so it’s a massive and worthwhile undertaking, although an absolute bear to research. But the information deficit is what makes these stories well suited to fiction; where data fail to materialize, the imagination takes over.

My Legends of the Five Directions novels also present an untold story, even though most of the characters are highborn. Due to frequent fires and wars, the lack of a developed educational system, and a general indifference to documentation until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—and then primarily for practical matters of governance such as taxes, land allocations, and military musters—few written sources have survived from Russia before the Time of Troubles (1598–1613). As a result, historians expend a good deal of effort on untangling which of the extant documents offer useful information and what we can reliably conclude from them. Historians enjoy this kind of exercise, which is essential, of course, but for the world as a whole it can make for dry reading. In Legends, I try to distill what is nonetheless a quite considerable body of information into a series of authentic but fictional portrayals of a lost world. Novels allow me to fill in the blanks; I strive to keep my inventions in line with the known facts (although occasionally I goof), but I don’t feel the need to suppress every tiny detail that I can’t verify from the sources. Whenever possible, my characters are my creation. But even those who bear the same names as people mentioned in the history books reflect my invention of everything from their thoughts and speech and personalities to their physical appearances: most of the portraits that have come down to us were painted much later and at times in distant lands.

Alix Christie, in her fascinating debut novel Gutenberg’s Apprentice—the subject of this month’s interview at New Books in Historical Fiction—tells yet another kind of untold story. Her characters once existed, although she has had to reconstruct their personalities as best she can, and some elements of their lives have been revealed by advances in what we might call the technology of history: the ability to identify different inks in printed quires of the Gutenberg Bible, for example. The long-held belief among scholars that Johann Gutenberg singlehandedly invented the printing press has begun to crumble in the light of new evidence. (For more on the story behind the novel, see Christie’s wonderfully informative website.) But in Germany, too, the ravages of war, fire, and time have wreaked havoc on the archival record. Although the technology raises questions, the documents that could provide the answers have disappeared. Again, the situation is perfect for fiction.

And the story itself is tailor-made for a novel: three men, each with his own goal—sometimes overlapping, sometimes in conflict—drawn together to serve a purpose the importance of which they cannot yet conceive, forced to depend on one another to complete their project, but often at odds as to the best method by which to achieve the end they all seek. The one thing we know for sure is that the joint enterprise ended badly, in a bitter court battle that shattered their partnership. Yet together they produced the printed book—a creation that reordered the world they knew to an extent unequaled until the computer arrived half a millennium later.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

From sixteenth-century Venice we move back a century and travel north to Mainz, Germany, where a “madman” named Johannes Gutenberg has invented a radical new method of making books. Like any technological genius, Gutenberg needs venture capitalists to finance his workshop and skilled craftsmen and designers to turn his ideas into reality. He finds a financier in Johann Fust, a wealthy merchant and seller of manuscript books. Indirectly, this relationship also brings in a new craftsman when Fust calls his adopted son, Peter Schöffer, back from Paris, where Peter is making his name as a scribe, and forces him to become Gutenberg’s apprentice.

Like many people in the early days of printing, Peter is initially repelled by the ugliness and the mechanical appearance of books produced using movable type, an invention that to him seems more satanic than divinely inspired. But Fust will not release Peter from his apprenticeship, and the young scribe is soon learning to man the press and cut type as Gutenberg embarks, in secret, on the creation of the massive Bible with which his name will henceforth be linked. As he works, Peter too comes to appreciate—and in time to enhance—the beauty of printed books. Publication, though, takes longer and proves more difficult than anyone has expected. As the process drags on, tempers fray and tension rises, quire by quire.

Alix Christie apprenticed twice as a letterpress printer, and her experience informs and enriches Gutenberg’s Apprentice (HarperCollins, 2014). In this interview, we also talk about the ongoing transition from print to electronic books, what will tip the balance, and how our understanding of the first great technological revolution in books may prepare us for the second.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Empty Throne

As Bernard Cornwell’s millions of fans can testify, HarperCollins released the latest of his Saxon Tales (no. 8) in the United States three days ago. Of course, readers in the UK and Australia have had The Empty Throne for months, which is nice for them. But for us here in the USA, it’s been available only as advance review copies (ARCs) until now.

One perk (actually, the main perk besides having the chance to chat with a bunch of fascinating and informative people) of hosting New Books in Historical Fiction is that publishers send me books for free, either because I ask for them or because the publicists hope I will like the novels enough to request an interview. One book I received unsolicited was Bernard Cornwell’s The Pagan Lord, the previous Saxon Tale. It had to arrive unsolicited because, although I knew who Bernard Cornwell was, I’d always rather assumed that his books were more Sir Percy’s cup of tea than mine. I’ve read a lot of books set in wartime, of course, but generally not books told from the point of view of a warrior. But since my Daniil and Ogodai are warriors—as almost all male aristocrats at the time were—I thought it would be good for my writing as well as a wonderful coup for New Books in Historical Fiction to read this book and interview Bernard.

As it turned out, I loved the book. I read several others earlier in the series and plan to read more. And I very much enjoyed my conversation with Bernard. Skype was not on its best behavior that day—in fact, it’s never behaved worse—but Marshall Poe, editor in chief of the New Books Network, did a great job of fixing the flaws. For more about the interview, see “There’s Always Been an England?” Or just listen to and download the free podcast by clicking on the link earlier in this paragraph.

As a result, I was delighted to receive a copy of The Empty Throne. Bernard’s publicist and I decided that it would be more effective to wait for a few more books in the series to come out before we schedule another interview, so instead I have reviewed the book on (as CJP), BookLikes, and Goodreads and linked to the review on Facebook, as well as other social media. I won’t repeat that review verbatim here. Instead, I’d like to focus on one element of the story that I find particularly effective. That is Cornwell’s handling of his hero’s advancing age.

Elizabeth Peters, the mystery writer whose death I memorialized in “The Sands of Time,” once said that if she’d known how popular her heroine Amelia Peabody would become, she would never have mentioned her age in the first book (I’m paraphrasing—these are not her exact words). Amelia was thirty-two when she met her husband Emerson, who was a few years older than she, in 1884; and by the time Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun almost four decades later, readers did have to suspend disbelief to follow Peabody and Emerson through their escapades on the Western Bank. I structured my Legends series as I did in part to avoid that problem (not that I have anything like Elizabeth Peters’ readership, but one can hope); even if it does continue, as I’m beginning to think it may, past the original five books into a short spinoff series, it still won’t extend over more than ten years in time.

But Cornwell’s series is different, in that I suspect the author knew from the beginning that he would follow his hero Uhtred into extreme old age. Cornwell’s larger story traces the formation of a united England out of seven warring kingdoms, and however fictional Uhtred’s life, it follows a historical timeline that was set a millennium ago. When Cornwell decided to start The Last Kingdom (Saxon Tale no. 1, due to become a blockbuster BBC miniseries someday soon) with Uhtred as a ten-year-old in 866, he could predict that his saga must cover seventy years or so. Even Uhtred, the mightiest of mighty warlords, may have a hard time swinging his sword Serpent Breath at eighty.

The Empty Throne is where we begin to see how Cornwell plans to handle that problem going forward. The book opens with wording almost identical to that of The Last Kingdom: “My name is Uhtred. I am the son of Uhtred, who was the son of Uhtred, and his father was also called Uhtred. My father wrote his name thus, Uhtred, but I have seen the name written as Utred, Ughtred, or even Ootred.” And with that third sentence, an alert reader understands that this speaker is not the Uhtred of The Last Kingdom, whose father could not read or write, but another with the same name. The whole first chapter is told in the past tense, as if the speaker’s father were dead, and reveals this new Uhtred to be a true chip off the old block, to borrow a cliché.

It’s a clever device, and it works. The son can swashbuckle to his heart’s content, while his father, true to his character, ignores a serious wound in his struggle to protect and promote the Saxon cause. And as readers, we have to wonder whether at some point Cornwell will pull the rug out from under us and retire the older Uhtred altogether, leaving his son to supervise the final unification of England. In this sense, the title is a double play on words: the empty throne is not only Alfred’s but also potentially Uhtred’s. The introduction of a new narrator creates uncertainty, uncertainty creates tension, and tension pulls readers into the story. What else, in the end, does a novelist want?

I hope Uhtred the Elder makes it to the end. Like so many others, I have become rather attached to him. But I tip my imaginary helmet to Cornwell, who has been and remains a master storyteller. And you can bet I’ll be standing in line for book 9.

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Checklist, Round 3

So, as I wrote last week, I met and at times exceeded my goals for last year, some of which I had rolled over from 2013. What’s next?

Obviously, I want to continue to post weekly on this blog and conduct monthly interviews for New Books in Historical Fiction. Last year, we galloped across much of the globe: Afghanistan, England from the Saxons to Austen, Italy, Russia, the Wild West, ancient Egypt, Spain—even the far reaches of the eighth-century Silk Road. This year starts out with Germany and Gutenberg, then zips off to medieval Scotland, first-century Israel, Colonial America, an alternative medieval universe, and beyond. I already have more books than slots, which is a wonderful place to be.

Although last year’s challenges were fun, I don’t think I’ll sign up for any this year. Between the NBHF books and group reads on Goodreads and research, I have a full plate as it is. Pile on to that, and reading starts to feel like a chore, instead of the escape it has been since the day I learned to recognize the letter A. And having published five books in the last three years, I probably will not have a new one in 2015, unless The Swan Princess goes so much faster than expected that I can bring it out in December. Five Directions Press is set to expand, though. Production will soon begin on Courtney J. Hall’s Some Rise by Sin, which should be ready by the end of January. With luck, we will add a couple more titles, and perhaps a new author, in 2015.

My main goal is to write—part of which involves clearing more time for writing than my current schedule allows. Otherwise, I waste half my weekend getting back up to speed, only to crash into a ditch when Monday arrives. Two hours a day would be ideal, with more on weekends. Three days a week would be a good alternative. We’ll have to see what the market provides. Last year it took away income without freeing up time. Let’s hope that 2015 proves better in that regard.

So, not necessarily in order of importance, and not including the truly vital parts of life such as family and friends, my goals for next year are to:

  • find more time to write, without having unpaid bills;
  • use that time to finish at least the rough draft of The Swan Princess;
  • copy edit and typeset books and maintain the website for Five Directions Press;
  • read twelve books and interview their authors for New Books in Historical Fiction;
  • maintain this blog on a regular weekly schedule; and
  • learn more about marketing—the weak link in most authors’ education, and certainly mine.

Shouldn’t be too hard, right? After all, I would do most of these things anyway. Except for the marketing, I even enjoy them. So let’s see how it goes. As usual, I’ll be back at the end of the year to report how I did.

And in the meantime, Happy New Year. May 2015 bring peace and prosperity to you all!

Image created by me in Adobe InDesign, using clip art from MS Word.