O BA MA

There are different ways to write books.

I have a thirty page outline for a novel entitled The Hourglass, and I tried to be methodical about it: I outlined the major features of the plot, went into some detail about sub-plots, which are key in holding a story together, and worked through the names of the principal characters—the goodies and the baddies.

Ken Follett writes that way, first producing a kind of short story that contains the bare bones of a book, submitting the text to triage, making changes, and then fleshing it out.

I’ve written five pages of The Hourglass, written them again, and I still don’t like them. Somewhere it the middle of that—last May, to be precise—I stumbled across the diary of the first voyage of Columbus and decided to write a short story around it called Clear Eyes.

I began in a fairly haphazard way—no outline, just some general thoughts. One of the nice things about digital books is you often get extra materials—bits and bytes are free, paper’s not. It now happens also in the world of scientific publication, where journals provide supplemental materials that enhance the articles they publish.

The final Elmore Leonard book I read this month is called Cuba Libre, and I think it’s fair to describe it as a historical novel centered on the Spanish-American War. At the back (as if digital books had backs!) Leonard is interviewed by Martin Amis.

I was delighted to find Elmore Leonard used exactly the same unstructured approach I chose for both The India Road and Atmos Fear. So much of what he said made perfect sense to me, including minor characters who grow into major roles in a story, and others who write themselves out.

By the time I read the interview, I had about fifty clean pages of Clear Eyes, with several characters already shifting in importance compared to when they started out. If that happens to your characters, then the same occurs with the sub-plots which depend on them—and to an extent that will shift the central theme a little bit, but you shouldn’t let it move much. What is clear is this book will no longer be a short story.

The other thing I enjoyed is Leonard’s assertion that baddies are so much more interesting than goodies—I couldn’t agree more. If you go down that road, the trick is to make sure that in the end, your readers are satisfied the outcome was fair; in Cuba Libre, the main character is an unreformed bank robber, and although there are indications by the final pages that he will be an upright citizen, it’s by no means a done deal.

In Cuba Libre, the hero has an associate called Charlie, and I’m sure Leonard had high hopes for him at the start. However, as the novel progresses, it’s obvious Charlie’s getting in the way of the action, rather than helping it—about as much use as a steer on a heifer, you might say—so the author bumps him off, but in a way that heightens the hero’s desire for revenge and the reader’s ache for justice.

Atmos Fear is chock-full of evil-doers. Americans, Arabs, Chinese—you name ’em. I sometimes felt bad about that when I was writing it, because I just couldn’t get interested enough in the good guys. There aren’t many goodies in the book, and they’re boring to write about—where’s the tension in perfect marriages, going to sleep at nine every night, and scrubbed children delivered to school in the family SUV?

In an early draft of Atmos Fear, there was a passage about the new U.S. president, where a Chinese politician is joking about the name: o ba ma literally means oh father mother! Or: what have I got myself into?

This was around the time the U.S. satirical magazine ‘The Onion’ published a piece called ‘Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job‘, explaining the work was so terrible there was only one other applicant.

By the time I cleaned up the book for publication, any references to existing personalities were gone, but the book does mention the Sunni political support for a black president—all imaginary characters, of course.

Risk: a board game on world dominance, for two to six players.

Risk: a board game on world dominance, for two to six players.

There’s no doubt Obama is one of the goodies—his conduct in family life, moral rectitude, and obvious belief in a fair and equitable world are in stark contrast with the other characters in his novel. With him on the side of the angels (if you excuse the pun) are Angela Merkel and David Cameron: from a novelist’s point of view they’re as interesting as the sex life of the inside of a ping pong ball.

On the flip side there are some great baddies, led by Uncle Vladimir. Some were written out, like Chavez and Gaddafi, but there’s still Assad, baby Kim, and a host of others. Somewhere along the border between Goodstate and Badistan sit Berlusconi, Zuma, Netanyahu, and the bizarrely-named iron man El-Sisi.

I heard Obama just before Labor Day, and despite my admiration for what he represents, here is a good man totally lost among a coterie of geopolitical psychopaths. It’s just not possible to use reasonable argument, or promote social well-being and gender balance, when dealing with people who view the planet as a giant game of Risk.

Of course it all started with Bush’s excellent adventure, which left America with debts it can’t afford, dictators it can’t stomach, and a growing unease about its role in the world.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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