In ‘Seveneves,’ this blows up … and everything changes. (NASA)
Last week, Neal Stephenson released his latest novel, a big-thinking plot about the end of the world and a possible new start for the human race. Seveneves
is another doorstopper of a piece, so in that sense right in line with just about everything he’s written since the 1990s. In many other ways, however—particularly in being a return to full-fledged science fiction and also curiously (for him) devoid of humor—this is an entirely new direction for the author of Snow Crash
My take on the book and the arc of Stephenson’s career can be read at The Millions.
You can read the first couple dozen pages of Seveneves at Stephenson’s site here. This is how it starts:
The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. It was waxing, only one day short of full. The time was 05:03:12 UTC. Later it would be designated A+0.0.0, or simply Zero…
A casualty is readied for transport from the front line during the battle for Guadalcanal. (Library of Congress)
For this Memorial Day, a reminder from one of our great novelists of warfare and what it does to the men who take part in it, willingly or not:
This book is cheerfully dedicated to those greatest and most heroic of all human endeavors, WAR and WARFARE; may they never cease to give us the pleasure, excitement and adrenal stimulation that we need, or provide us with the heroes, the presidents and leaders, the monuments and museums which we erect to them in the name of PEACE.
That’s from James Jones’ The Thin Red Line (1963) which follows the battle for a fictitious Pacific island and draws heavily upon Jones’ combat experience during World War II. Although his dedication shows a tongue planted firmly in cheek, the novel that follows is one of the deepest felt, most bruising things a man ever put to page.
So, your book is done. Awesome. Now you’ve got to make sure it gets sold. It’s not an easy thing these days, with thinner marketing budgets, digital clamor, and thousands upon thousands of books blooding the marketplace every year. As many authors have discovered, getting your book noticed often falls on their shoulders, even if they were lucky enough to be picked up by a real publisher.
Social media marketing helps, among other things. But all that time spent marketing your way takes away from the job at hand: writing. As Jay McGregor writes for Forbes, self-published author Mark Dawson decided to risk doing the thing that is often recommended but is nevertheless hard to do: Give it away. That’s just what he did with The Black Mile, a heavily researched historical thriller.
There was the good news. He “sold” tens of thousand of copies over a weekend.
… he was immediately presented with two problems. The first was that he’d made no money whatsoever from The Black Mile, a book he’d poured hours of research and travel into. The second was that he had no follow-up book for his new fanbase to dig in to.
Now, Dawson is a self-publishing machine, making a living writing, selling, and promoting his work. Of course, a lot of that is possible due to exciting new self-publishing technologies available from a host of companies.
But it still boils down to writing a good book to begin with. You know, the kind of thing that people snap up 50,000 copies of over a weekend. Next, be prolific. Very, very prolific.
Once upon a time, you could stroll to 84th Street on the Upper East Side, ring the right doorbell at the right hour of day, and find yourself in a magical little place: Michael Seidenberg’s Brazenhead Books. Technically a rent-controlled apartment, Seidenberg ran the secretive book-stuffed space as a hybrid literary hangout, multipurpose salon, and (occasional) bookstore.
Like all such ephemeral joys, Brazenhead is coming to an end, a victim of its increasing popularity and an itchy landlord.
Jessica Loudis wrote about hanging out at Brazenhead for Aesop:
It’s not mandatory to bring a bottle of whiskey to Brazenhead Books … but failing to do so could be considered bad form. That, however, is as far as formalities extend … Business comes through word of mouth. After being greeted at the door, strangers strike up conversations that trail off once a desirable acquisition is spotted and then stay for hours, squeezing into narrow rooms teeming with classic paperbacks and pristine first editions. Seidenberg is former puppeteer and street book salesman. Last time I went to Brazenhead—having visited only once, a year earlier—he told me he had been expecting my visit, as I had made a cameo in his dream the night before.
Thomas Mann; he wrote.
In his essay for the Times on whether or not being a writer is a job or not (as opposed to a calling, hobby, or what have you), Benjamin Moser comes down very firmly on the side of, well, maybe.
He knows what it is: Grueling, exasperating, time-sucking, unavoidable.
He knows what it is not: Easy to define or easy to do.
Then there’s this:
“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” Thomas Mann said; and it is good that no beginner suspects how torturous writing is, or how little it improves with practice, or how the real rejections come not from editors but from our own awareness of the gap yawning between measly talent and lofty vocation. Fear of that gap destroys writers: through the failure of purpose called writer’s block; through the crutches we use to carry us past it.
It gets easier, of course. For some of us, at least. But easy or hard, there is rarely a choice in the matter. As Moser says, writing is simply what one does. Whether or not it’s a job is in the end irrelevant.
There are book lovers who don’t care about condition, they will take books in any kind of format: split-back hardcover, old 50-cent Bantam paperback with yellowing pages slipping out of the binding. It doesn’t matter: just gimme.
Then there are the book collectors, many of whom are still book lovers, but who are also entranced by the physical thing itself, the heft and weight of the paper and the delicate tracery of an embossed slipcase from the previous century.
You would think the latter type would be slipping into obscurity. But according to the Wall Street Journal (and they should know), book collecting is still a strong business in the ebook age:
Take JT Bachman, a 28-year-old architect with Rockwell Group in New York. He gets his news from digital sources but prefers printed material when reading for pleasure and says he has become a recent convert to book collecting. Mr. Bachman says he has about 100 new, used and out-of-print titles on his shelves, including the architectural tome “Herzog & de Meuron: Natural History” by Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog, and plans on buying more.
Of course, it’s best if one doesn’t get into the business looking to actually make a quick buck:
Annette Campbell-White, the founder of venture-capital firm MedVenture Associates, in Emeryville, Calif., says collectors should be driven by their interest in books, not by the prospect of financial gain. “I wouldn’t encourage anyone looking for a quick profit to turn to book collecting,” she says. “If you make money, it is incidental.”
It’s safe to say that whatever else one thinks about Edgar Allan Poe—besides inventing the mystery story and giving sneaky people in Baltimore something to do for many years—his mastery of setting and mood is unassailable.
So when Poe, in The Philosophy of Composition, decides to proffer some ideas on writing, it’s best to listen up. His advice has less to do with inspiration or imagineering than it does with planning, plotting, and mapping the whole thing out beforehand. Not one for winging it, Poe. That’s how you end up with The Fall of the House of Usher, or The Raven, which he dissects in detail.
A couple highlights:
Figure out the ending — “Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen.”
Keep It Short — “If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression — for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed.”
What Poe doesn’t say, after all this, is: If you don’t have a story worth telling, none of this will mean much of anything. But it’s worth remembering.
(h/t: Open Culture)