Posts Tagged ‘Rosicrucians’
After several weeks of focusing on the new house, this blog, and a few interim projects, events are finally starting to pick up on the writing front. It’s been a month since I delivered City of Exiles, the sequel to The Icon Thief, to my publisher, and I’ve just heard that my editor finished reading it the other day. Advance word is very positive, but there will always be notes, which I’m expecting to receive soon. At that point, I hope to have the rewrite done within the next few weeks, with the goal of delivering the final draft shortly before Thanksgiving. Two days after that, I’m heading off on a vacation to Hong Kong and China, so this month is looking to be pretty intense.
In the meantime, things are moving at a nice clip with The Icon Thief, the galleys of which went out to a handful of advance readers last week. My author page on Facebook is also up and running, so please drop by when you have a chance. Finally, and perhaps best of all, an advance book trailer for the novel is now online. Authors and editors seem divided on whether a trailer adds any value to a novel’s marketing campaign, but it was a lot of fun to put together, and I hope to share another one with you soon. (The music, incidentally, is Claude Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral, which is meaningful in itself: Debussy, according to certain sources, was a Rosicrucian. But that’s a story for another day.)
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.
—T.S. Eliot (not Emily Dickinson)
One of the toughest things for any writer to learn is that what you find personally fascinating may not be of equal interest to your readers. It’s so hard a lesson, in fact, that many writers never figure it out. This is the real reason why most political or religious fiction tends to be pretty bad: it isn’t because the ideas are wrong, necessarily, but because the writer’s faith in his own message leaves him incapable of making the tough decisions that fiction requires. And this applies to personal experience as much as to political conviction. Many of us start writing to express ourselves and the things we care about, but we’re just too close to the events of our own lives, and the subjects we find important, to see them with the proper objectivity. David Mamet, in On Directing Film, is harsh but fair:
A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.
This advice is so unlike what we’re often taught as writers that it’s worth emphasizing how strange it is. From our formative years onward, we’re told to write what we know, and implicitly encouraged to tackle subjects that we find personally meaningful. A writer who advances straight from creative writing courses to the standard MFA program and teaching career may never think of fiction in any other way. Yet I strongly believe that the best writing is achieved through a stance of objectivity, and even detachment or indifference, toward the underlying subject. It’s only from such a position that you can make the hard choices to cut a scene, to revise a plot point into a drastically different form, or even to abandon a project entirely.
In short, you’re often the last person capable of judging whether your work is of interest or not, unless you’ve consciously chosen a subject about which you can afford to be objective. A few examples from my own work might be relevant here. My first novel, The Icon Thief, has an important subplot revolving around the Rosicrucians, an alleged secret society founded in Germany in the years following the Reformation. I chose to write about them partially because, in spite of the recent surge in conspiracy fiction, there hasn’t been a major Rosicrucian novel in decades. And soon after I began researching, I realized why: the Rosicrucians aren’t especially interesting. But it was my original indifference toward the subject that allowed me to survey the available sources, pick out the best parts, and come up with a story that is—hopefully—engaging to an outside reader.
And whenever I’ve tried to write about a subject that was actually meaningful to me, the results haven’t been very good. Over the past three years, I’ve submitted six stories to Analog, and they’ve bought five. The five successful ones were written rather coldly, almost from scratch, with an eye toward finding an interesting subject and turning it into a salable story, while the sixth was inspired by a topic that I find personally fascinating—the concept of deep time, as symbolized by Yucca Mountain and the Clock of the Long Now. Not coincidentally, it failed to sell at Analog, or anywhere else, and an anthology in which it was supposed to appear unexpectedly fell through. And while I can blame a number of other factors, I suspect that by starting with a subject I wanted to talk about, and some ideas I wanted to share, I wasn’t able to shape the narrative with the ruthlessness required to tell an interesting story.
So does this mean that a writer needs to work without passion? Not at all—except that the passion should be focused on the act of writing itself, and not the underlying subject. There’s plenty of room for irrational enthusiasm in a writer’s life, which isn’t a career that a truly rational person would ever attempt, but that exuberance needs to be set aside once the time comes to consider the work in progress. It’s a difficult balancing act, but a crucial one, and the easiest way to achieve it is to seek out subjects for their storytelling potential, not their inherent interest or importance. And the biggest surprise? Over the course of writing a story, you’ll grow to love these subjects, too, and they’ll ultimately become part of your life after all—but at the end, not the beginning.
Back in February, my editor emailed to say that my publisher was holding an art meeting soon to discuss the cover for The Icon Thief, which at that point was still known as Kamera. He invited me to put together my thoughts on possible designs, as well as some comparable covers, and, obsessive that I am, I obliged with a memo of nine long paragraphs, complete with illustrations. (I thought briefly about including a quick mockup I’d put together in Photoshop, but thankfully refrained from doing so.) The response to my ideas at NAL was very respectful, but I had no way of knowing what the result would be, or how much input I would ultimately have in the process.
In my memo, I noted that the novel has three major plot elements: Marcel Duchamp, Russia, and the Rosicrucians. (If I haven’t spoken much about these topics on this blog, it’s because I want to keep the plot a surprise, although I expect I’ll be posting more on these subjects as the publication date approaches.) Among the corresponding images I proposed were the exterior of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Duchamp’s Étant Donnés is located; an overlay of some Russian text; and the rosy cross. I also included images of a few covers that I thought were comparable: An Instance of the Fingerpost, Foucault’s Pendulum, The English Assassin by Daniel Silva, and The Messiah Secret by James Becker (the latter two of which, like my own novel, are published by NAL’s Signet imprint).
After that, I didn’t hear anything about the cover for months, until last week, when I received the rather remarkable image that I posted yesterday. Looking at it now, I’m gratified by how much of my input was reflected in the final version, accidentally or otherwise, and how many of the novel’s themes are visible in one form or another. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is here, of course, as well as the red cross of the Rosicrucians, along with some Russian text—evidently a stock photo of an old manuscript, but still gorgeous—visible in the background. Above all, the title of the novel is beautifully rendered. (Incidentally, the meeting where the cover design was discussed was also where the subject of a possible title change was first raised, a fix I now wish I’d made years earlier.)
As for the other symbols, they were chosen more for their visual impact than anything else, although they contain subtle messages of their own. The cherub on the upper right looks ahead to House of Passages, the second installment in the series, in which cherubim of a very different kind play an important symbolic role. On the upper left, we have a view of Peles Castle in Romania, which doesn’t figure in the story yet, but may have a role to play in the future, as the action of the series moves ever eastward. As for the red cross…well, this is an extremely important symbol, and its true significance won’t become clear to readers of the novel until almost the very last page. For now, though, you’ll have to wait a bit longer.