Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Gene Doucette Discusses his novel IMMORTAL

This below is a guest post by the author of the novel IMMORTAL that I discussed in my previous post here on January 18, 2011. 

Of course I know he didn't intend to write an Action Romance or any kind of romance.  I understood what he was doing, and I intended to make it clear that he did achieve that objective.  My discussion and dissection of his novel is a writing lesson for those attempting to do something entirely foreign to Doucette's genre.  I believe readers of this blog who love Romance and perhaps are writing Romance will find reading IMMORTAL to be a worthwhile experience simply because it is so far away from the Romance genre.

My personal reading tastes are broader than my readership's, or the intended readership for my professional review column.  In fact, you might say I'm a professional reader.  Nothing that is well written will fail to rivet my attention.  I am a lifelong devotee of fanfiction.  I even love badly written or "Mary Sue" fanfic! 

At the end of his guest post, Doucette asks me a question.  I shall answer.  I highly recommend that you read what he says here carefully. 

--------------GENE DOUCETTE---------------

I’m not certain how to begin a response to a critique that simultaneously describes Immortal as a chore to read and as something that could not be put down.

But I will try.

I’m going to start with the bottommost point, which is that this story should not belong to Adam the immortal narrator, but to Clara, a character that appears in roughly 1/4 of the book.

There are many things I could say about this suggestion, but to begin with the most obvious: it’s not her story, and I’m not interested enough in telling her story to build the novel around her.  What I was interested in—what I am still interested in—is what it might really be like to live through the breadth of human history.  If I wanted to tell that story through the eyes of a twenty-something year old college student, I would have written a different book.

(Read about what kind of book Immortal IS at http://genedoucette.me/immortal )

The description for that hypothetical book would have been “pretty young college student discovers an immortal man, and is pulled into a secret world of intrigue and danger.  And she may be falling in love…” I expect the most common response to the description would be either, A: “oh; another one of those” or B: “is that the new Twilight book??”

This holds no interest for me.

Lichtenberg seemed to want me to write a different kind of book entirely, but this is not a romance, or even a love story.  It’s also not about the moment in the life of a very old man in which he found his One True Love.  It isn’t that the love story was given short shrift, it’s that there is no love story, triangle or otherwise.  There is sex, and there is sexuality, but in this part of the life of my jaded protagonist, he is not coming across a One True anything.  Or, to be more precise, he has come across several One True Loves in his lifetime, but this is not one of those times.

Adam is of course capable of love, and of caring about the people around him.  Despite his age, he is very much human and very much a part of the human race.  That means, like anyone, he has defense mechanisms to protect himself that leave him emotionally closed off much of the time.  He is also not particularly good at talking about his feelings—unreliable narrator—so his actions are sometimes more telling than his words.

(Some words from Adam:

So knowing what this book is not—a romance about a girl helping a sexy but mysterious immortal man—let’s talk about what it is.

As much as is possible I tried to put myself in the position of someone who had actually lived through history.  I used “magical” characters because they made his history more interesting, and because the idea of playing with fantasy tropes and then stripping away all of the magic to see what was left appealed to me.  But at the very core of it is Adam’s voice and his experiences.  I had to make a number of discrete decisions and forced definitive limitations on myself—for instance, writing an action novel in first person is a real pain in the ass—in order to tell the story.  I also had to decide what KIND of person, and personality, would be capable of living that long without dying accidentally or on purpose.

(One of my biggest beefs with the modern “romantic vampire” character is that they all act like twenty year olds.  I think it’s perfectly possible for a person whose personality is stuck somewhere between Act III and Act V of Romeo and Juliet to become a vampire, but I find it incredibly unlikely for them to have survived beyond a couple of decades.  It is not a survivor ethos.)

And so Adam’s personality—which Lichtenberg has lauded—is the result.  A sarcastic, sometimes unpleasant, very clever man who tells the story of his life with a Raymond Chandler-esque bitterness.

(What others have said about Adam: http://genedoucette.me/media/ )

More generally, I find the points about convention and structure to be a bit strange.  Why would I take my unconventionally structured, unconventional story and turn the whole thing around so that it’s about a different character, has none of what makes it compelling—the narrator’s voice—and jam it into a structure that so very many other novels already adhere to?  At some point it stops being THIS novel and becomes someone else’s novel, and we’re about three steps past that.

(My discussion of genres: http://genedoucette.me/2010/10/07/on-genres/ )

“You have a lovely cat,” Lichtenberg seem to be saying, “and he would be even more perfect if he was a horse.”

Some other points:

--Adam’s unlikability.  Lichtenberg comments that I have given myself an uphill battle in attempting to tell a story from the perspective of an unlikable character.  My problem with this is I don’t think Adam’s unlikable.  I never have.  He is complicated, bitter, and drunk through much of the first part of the book, but I don’t believe him to be unlikable.  Yet this is not the only place I have seen this comment, so I don’t know what more to say about it than “all right, but you still liked him enough to keep reading.”

(I discuss his apparent unlikability more in: http://genedoucette.me/2010/10/22/mary-sues-and-assholes/)

--Drinking.  I thought the comment that Adam was unlikable specifically for enabling two college students by buying them alcohol was very telling.  The implication being he’s buying for minors and that they would not have otherwise had access to alcohol.  We are talking about COLLEGE here; this is a preposterous suggestion.  There is also nothing in the text whereby Adam “keeps them drunk”, nor does he ply them with alcohol.  He is not recklessly manipulating mortals into drinking with him; he’s drinking with mortals who are inclined to drink as well.  As he says on multiple occasions, his preference is to hang out with bar drunks and college students.  It’s a social thing.

A larger point would be that, again, this is a man who has lived an incredibly long time.  It is only in the last hundred years or so that alcohol has developed a (deserved, I admit) stigma, and he was drunk for most of them and probably didn’t notice.  In earlier times—one need not go back far at all, actually—drinking regularly and in large quantities was very common.  His interest in drinking is perfectly in keeping with his character.

--Murder.  It was hard to tell whether the “gritty realism” point was a critique or merely a comment, but I thought it worth pointing out that if one establishes a character that began life as an African tribesman sixty thousand years ago, one has to reconcile oneself with the fact that the character is a murderer.  And again, look at the historical record of the human species: the remarkable thing is not that Adam has, can, and will commit murder to protect himself, but that he hold the lives of anyone other than himself to any degree of esteem.  The idea that all life is sacred is a very new concept.

--The third act.  I disagree with the suggestion that the switch from past tense to present tense is jarring and unnecessary.  I think it’s fundamentally necessary if only for the obvious fact that the italicized sections at the beginning of each of the chapters in the rest of the book are all in present tense.  More centrally, I find that the present tense makes the action in the final act much more palpable and direct.  You already know, in every other part of the book, that Adam survives, because he’s telling the story from a safe distance.  In present tense, while Adam is still narrating, some of that safety net is removed.  It was something that began as a logical decision—because of the chapter pieces—that became what I consider a happy secondary result: a more gripping ending.

--Saving the cat.  It should have been obvious to anyone reading the prologue—in which Adam recounts a time, eons ago, when he hunted and killed a large cat—that I’m thumbing my nose at this convention as well.

--Convoluted, expository lumps.  I’m not really sure what to say about these comments.  It’s a story about an immortal man told by an immortal man, with small historical tales nested inside of a larger present-day story arc.  It’s not convoluted; Adam just has a lot to say.

Lichtenberg pointed out that there were things Adam talked about that she didn’t need to know, using the Egypt flashback as an example.  The point of the novel was NOT to solve the overarching mystery of who is after Adam—which is revealed roughly the halfway point anyway—or necessarily even how he escapes.  It is ONE point, but it is not THE point.  THE point is, he’s an immortal man, he has some stories, and he’s sharing those stories.  The Egypt passage was pertinent because it was on the subject of why he has trouble trusting women, and he’d just been put into a situation where he didn’t know if he could trust the woman he was sleeping with.  It was a pertinent story, because it was a developing characteristic of Adam, and Adam IS the story.  (And as a spoiler aside, the discussion of cultures revering men as gods is pertinent to Hellenic Immortal, the second book.)

In conclusion, I’d like to steal one of your points: look at the title.  This book is called Immortal because it is about the immortal man telling the story.  He may be complicated and some readers may not like him, but this is first and foremost a character study of someone who is, in my mind, an anthropomorphic representation of mankind.  (And I mean man- not humankind.)  The book has its digressions and its discursions, it may be messy at times, but it’s a compelling, interesting story that is difficult to put down.

So let me throw this back to Jacqueline Lichtenberg: in our past discussions you have lauded the idea of innovation and finding new ways to tell stories in fiction.  You have been handed a book that ignores very nearly every convention yet manages to be addictively readable, and your response to this is to suggest what I think is a tired, conventional story I couldn’t even imagine WANTING to write.  You clearly enjoyed the read.  Why are you back-tracking?
----------END GENE DOUCETTE'S GUEST POST------------

Why am I "back-tracking?"

Of course, it doesn't seem that way to me. I would never do such a thing.  I am all about the future, not the past.

You executed the "form" you chose for this novel perfectly (the pre-chapter inserts from captivity; the joining of the two plot threads.)

You applied that form expertly to the story you wanted to tell.

My judgment is (and there's a lot of taste involved in this) that the story you wanted to tell doesn't fit the form you chose.  I see an artistic mis-match. The virtuoso performance of the writing art does not hide the major problem - passive hero, hung hero, lack of plot-movement. 

I found the "couldn't put it down" appeal because I'm me, but I'm a very rare type of reader.

I judge that because of the artistic mismatch between form and story, the readership will be more limited than the story deserves.

I feel more people would be drawn to (reread and search for sequels) this character if the form matched the story artistically.

So to solve that problem which many beginning writers have and can't cover up the way you did, (and to demonstrate to writing students some points I've made previously) the writer either changes the form or the story -- or possibly both.

Switching the POV is one way to do that with dispatch and economy, to do it in a way that a commercial writer who is writing for profit (i.e. more than minimum wage) would prefer.  But you can only do that way before you start to write, preferably before you "have the idea for the story."

Yes, of course shifting makes it a different story and changes the genre.  In fact, that's a standard exercise in writing class - change genre by changing pov.

However, the book the reader reads is not the book the writer wrote.

The "can't put it down" story for me was the story of the young girl utterly caught up in the "affairs of wizards" and falling in love with this Immortal guy.  (title would still apply perfectly from her POV -- that's ALL she can see; that's become her whole life.)

That "become her whole life" effect is the core effect of Romance Genre.

From her point of view it's a Romance.  If you're not a Romance fan, reader or writer, small wonder you don't think that would be interesting, or that the novel would be utterly unique in the anals of commercial fiction.

If I wrote this story about this Immortal guy from that young girl's point of view (and from her POV the other woman is an arch rival and a threat) there would be nothing, absolutely nothing, about the resulting novel that could be described as "tired" or "conventional."  Ask my fans if they'd expect that it would be tired or conventional coming from my hand.

But of course if I wrote the novel, the Immortal guy would have a totally different character. So the novel I want to read is the one you would write from her point of view.

When one writer reads work by another writer, they rewrite it in their heads to be their own.

And the brutal fact is that all readers do that too, sometimes without knowing it.

The book the reader reads is not the book the writer wrote.  I learned that from Marion Zimmer Bradley who always quoted it from one of her mentors, and I don't recall who (which irks me).

It's no doubt something her mentor learned from someone else.  It's forever true.

Writers don't do the innovating in the storytelling field.  Readers do.

So thank you for giving your readers a glimpse of the inner workings of your mind as you crafted the first book in this budding series, IMMORTAL.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg