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Notes on The Dragons of Manhattan

by John Grant

Back in the Spring the Editor of the international journalism/op-ed site Blue Ear (www.blueear.com) asked me if I'd be willing to write my next novel, The Dragons of Manhattan, as a serial for the site. If so, he'd be willing to commission it.

Like a fool, I agreed, and he did.

I started writing the novel in the middle of June 2003, and episodes started to appear on the site on the first of July. By the beginning of August the first 38,500 words or so of the novel, comprising Book One, had been written and serialized. Blue Ear took its annual couple of weeks' holiday in August, and so, with a sigh of exhaustion, did I. Although the site's now back in operation again, I've extended my own vacation from The Dragons of Manhattan until the first week in September, to give myself time to get everything ready for and go to this year's World Science Fiction Convention, being held in Toronto (one of my favourite cities, though I'm not sure I'll have time to see all that much of it).

Before the novel started its serial publication, I posted on Blue Ear a set of fairly informal notes for the benefit of those Ears who'd never even thought about what a novel-in-progress might look like. What's reproduced below are those notes.

Incidentally, the folk at Blue Ear and I have prepared a rather natty-looking PDF of Book One, and it's available for free from the site (just go to the URL and look around for the PDF symbol). Do be warned that the text in the PDF is still in draft form -- I'm saving the editing until the book is finished...


Preamble

The prospect of writing The Dragons of Manhattan as a serial novel is obviously terrifying -- for many different reasons. Some of these reasons are pretty obvious: I'm committing myself to writing about 5000 words each and every week for several months, which is a very difficult schedule -- more difficult than, for example, 20,000 words a week, because then I'd simply regard it as a full-time job.

But the most important reason why there's a whole lotta trepidatin goin on in my study right now is rather different. As other Ears who've produced novels will confirm, it can be hard during the writing of a novel to keep one's confidence buoyant about the merits of the enterprise. In fact, to judge by my own experience, it can be pretty difficult to get through the writing of even a short story without a few periods of mental crisis during which you're convinced the whole enterprise is a waste of time, the fiction you've conceived is such rubbish that it was idiotic to start writing it in the first place, everybody's going to hate it, and anyway you daren't let your mother ever catch sight of it because she's going to be appalled that her darling child could commit so much sex and bad language to paper.

And that's when you yourself are the only person who's seen the work-in-progress. You, as writer, at least have the knowledge to pull you through that, even though everything seems a bit of a shambles right now, the completed work, if it even just remotely approximates to your grand vision of it, will be a thing of wonder and delight.

What I've let myself in for is allowing other people to view this novel while it's still in the making. Some of those other people are going to dislike it -- inevitably, because there's no such thing as a fiction that everyone likes. Some are going to loathe it. Some are -- possibly worse -- going to be bored by it. And many, at any particular moment, are going to be puzzled as to how what they've read so far can possibly be leading to anything worthwhile, because of course they can't turn the page to find out.

It's gonna be tough. I may have to stop reading my daily Blue Ear Digest...


Potted History

But enough of such whingeing and special pleading.

I first came up with the idea for The Dragons of Manhattan two or three years ago. I was working fiendishly hard at the time on editing a bunch of books by other people (one of which won a Hugo Award last year, but that's by the by), so when the notion for a new novel popped into my head -- where it joined lots of other novels-to-be that I've not written yet -- there wasn't a lot I could do about it. It did have a special appeal for me, though, because I guiltily grabbed an hour here and there for myself over the space of a week or two to get down the first few pages, just as an aide memoire to myself for that later halcyon moment when I'd find myself gazing out over the tranquil vista of a few weeks free from other commitments so I could do something just for me.

A year passed. I stuck those few pages up on my website, and the occasional visitor to that cobweb-strewn URL took the time to drop me an e-mail saying yes, this is jolly fine, when are you going to get your act together and write the book? Soon, soon, I replied.

Another year passed. By this time my wife Pam was getting mighty restive, which, as all who know her will attest, is not something that can easily be ignored -- it tends to max out seismometers all across the land, for one thing. I'd chatted with her about The Dragons of Manhattan when first I'd had the idea, and I'd let her see my experimental pages -- indeed, she was the tech wizard who'd transferred them to the website. From the very outset she'd loved the concept, and reading my draft pages had cooled her ardour not one whit. After a couple of years on my doing nothing about it but "still, er, working up my ideas, dear", she was muttering dark thinks about Lysistrata.

And then Ethan Casey, Editor of Blue Ear, came up with the idea that Blue Ear should have a serial novel.

I thought about this for quite a long while -- all the worries outlined above (and, believe me, I had plenty more where those came from) -- before I nervously proposed The Dragons of Manhattan. Bless him, but he said yes.

Bless him, because this means that now, having committed myself, I've got to write a novel that, in a better, less mortgage-driven world and with a stronger-willed author, would have been written a couple of years ago. And bless him also because I've now been able to pacify Pam.


The Novel

So what is this novel, The Dragons of Manhattan? What's it all about?

The first bit of it that came to me was a really silly conspiracy theory. It seems to be a human characteristic to blame not just catastrophes but also human failings on some outside agency. That agency can be a god, a devil, the worshippers of either, people with different political beliefs, faceless automaton-like bureaucrats, people of different skin colour -- you can take your pick, so long as it's not our fault. If there's not an obvious non-human entity to blame for the miseries we inflict on each other, we invent one. At the heart of any good conspiracy theory is someone to blame. Theism, in all its diverse forms, can be regarded as the granddaddy of all conspiracy theories.

And there's a dilemma in our perception of the world, and of the human species. Most of the people we meet or otherwise interact with seem to be just like us: friendly average folk who want nothing more than to, you know, get along and have an enjoyable life. Yet when we look at the world around us, and at the history of our species, we see that it's marked not by goodwill and amiability but by sheer human viciousness.

Which, of course, cannot be our fault. The real explanation -- one of them, anyway -- could be that we have a habit of becoming dependent on psychopaths rather than the virtuous to lead us and make decisions for us; since psychopaths enjoy having power over their fellow human beings, and since they are often exceptionally good at manipulating said fellow human beings into becoming dependent upon them (vide Hitler, and his able lieutenant, Goebbels), there's a vicious circle: a vicious circle of viciousness. But to accept that notion necessitates acceptance that humans like us are to blame. So we need an outside agency to be our scapegoat.

In the conspiracy theory that popped fully fledged into my brain two summers ago -- and I was completely sober at the time, I assure you -- the scapegoat was the ancient, immortal dragon species, whose members, with the advent of Homo sapiens, had decided to go into hiding by shapeshifting themselves into human form and living undetected among us. They'd then discovered how easy it was to rule us, especially because of their immortality and even more especially because of our tendency, op cit., to boost psychopaths into positions of power over us.

OK, so it's dragons who initiate and wage wars, dragons who manipulate the economy to starve millions, dragons who stir up human hatred as manifested through racism, antisemitism and all the other patently spurious reasons we clutch to ourselves like security blankets to permit us to loathe each other.

Covert dragons, because you can't tell Them from Us.

A good, paranoid piece of conspiracy theorizing.

Now this particular conspiracy theory is noteworthy for one characteristic above all else.

It's silly.

That, of course, gives it no particular distinction among human belief systems. But, while you can get a lot of people to believe in something perfectly quasi-rational -- such as that the earth is hollow and escaped Nazis live inside it, popping in and out through holes at the poles from time to time piloting UFOs -- it's unlikely (I hope) that you'd gain many adherents for my dragon-centred conspiracy theory.

Its silliness made me grin. Well, waste not, want not (the fiction-writer's prime rule): could the theory be used as the basis for a satire?

Yes.

And thus The Dragons of Manhattan was born.

Of course, it's kind of handy for a novel to have a plot -- and preferably, in the case of a novel by me, several. Not to mention subtexts -- I go a bundle on subtexts, as any of my sparse readership can tell you; indeed, I often get so involved in the interest of the subtexts that I have to remind myself about this plotting thing.

Well, one way of deriving a plot is to wait for the right characters to come along, throw them together, and see what happens.

Just at that moment, into my head popped a useful-looking character. He was somewhere in his mid-twenties, a smartass to the point I wanted to wring his neck on sight, adolescent so far as his view of women was concerned, egocentric to a fault ... and physically a somewhat unappealing little prat. (We'll eschew the stale jokes concerning novelists always writing about themselves, hm?) He was also stuck with the kind of name people tend to get legally altered at the first possible opportunity -- lemme see now, "Norris Gonfalcon" seems appropriate, at least to start with.

What would Norris Gonfalcon -- whether or not he's ever realized it -- most want to be, with all that smartassery, egocentricity, unreconstructedness and stuff? Well, most of the P.I.'s in a certain brand of hard-boiled pulp detective fiction are compulsive smartasses -- I'm convinced that's why they spend half their time getting beaten up, not because they're treading on the baddies' turf; convinced, too, that this is how pulp fiction got its name ... Besides, Norris is convinced he's the brightest person on the planet, so of course he'd be able to solve mysteries that would baffle others.

OK, so Norris's secret desire is to be a gumshoe. I'll give him a background in book publishing, because that's something I don't have to think about; besides, it allows me the opportunity to satirize publishing, which is something I'm extremely well placed to do.

It's a good idea, if one wants to get a plot rolling, to start with something extremely improbable -- something totally strange, outre, bizarre (plenty of synonyms, too) ... So what's the most unlikely thing that could happen to ghastly Norris?

Yup. The most fabulously sensational women in creation picks him up in a bar.

Since the clients of gumshoes have a habit of being...

Yes, this all begins to fit in rather well. She hires him to investigate the greatest mystery of them all: how come it is that human society is run by ... well, what are they, because humans surely wouldn't do all those dreadful things?

There's a lot more to the main plot than this, obviously; but that's where it gets started.

Subplots are kinda fun, too.

I'm not quite sure why, but I hit upon the notion of using a structure for the novel that I first came across used by the writer John Brunner (who in the last few years of his life would become a friend of mine); John had lifted it in turn from an earlier writer, John Dos Passos. Rather than having a simple progression in the narration from Chapter One to Chapter Two and so on 'til the end of the book, this mode of tale-telling works with different segments, which can be thought of as the building-blocks of the tale but which do not necessarily take the form (or formality) of chapters. The segments are classified into different categories, and each category follows its own logical progression -- perhaps, but not necessarily, chronological.

John used this structuring technique in such novels as the astonishing Stand on Zanzibar and the even more astonishing The Sheep Look Up (recently republished by BenBella with, by astonishing coincidence, a quote from me on the back) to build up an amazingly complete, amazingly convincing and amazingly absorbing depiction of an environment -- a world, if you like. What marks both those books is that, by the time you're halfway through reading them, you have to slap the side of your head to remind yourself that you're living in this world, not the one John created.

My purposes in using the technique for The Dragons of Manhattan are slightly different. To be honest, I'm not yet sure what the main one is -- I decided to adopt the mode because of instinct: it "felt right". But I know what some of the minor ones are. One is as a tip of the hat to the friend I lost in 1995 -- a man who wrote his fair share of pulp but who at his best was one of the great under-recognized writers of the 20th century. Another was that it seemed useful to deploy in a novel designed to be read serially: with readers seeing only a relatively small chunkette at a time, conventional means of characterization and scene-setting weren't going to be possible -- I couldn't have a ten-page flashback about Norris's childhood, explaining why he's become the twisted, unlikeable character he is (actually, I've come to love him, but that's by the by), because that would be about three episodes. Likewise, a relishing word-portrait of the Manhattan rooftops on a spring morning wasn't going to be possible, either. Using relatively small, somewhat disjointed segments, however, I could maybe build these things up in the reader's mind from lots of different, scattered components rather than presenting them in a solid blurt.

On second thoughts, maybe that is the main reason I chose to use this structure...

The novel's set in the USA, and almost exclusively in the region around New York. (There's a sizeable secondary venue in northern New Jersey, for you fans of the pastoral.) This would seem to indicate that I should write the book in US English, rather than my native UK English -- or real English, as it's better termed. I'm reasonably fluent in US English when I need to be, but it's something I have to think about. Writing a novel for serial publication is not an exercise during whose execution I wish to run more risks of getting bogged down than I have to, so I decided that, while the eventual print version of The Dragons of Manhattan will probably be translated into US English, the serial will be written in "transatlantic" -- that is, using shared vocabulary and style wherever possible, but with UK English as the default if I get stuck. (The decision was finalized when my assiduous inquiries revealed that there's no one-word, casual US term for the UK word "washbag".)


More Whingeing

In a few days' time you're about to find offered to you something you may never have seen before: a novel in its rough-draught state. Oh, sure, I'll be editing each "episode" as I go in order to get rid of the worst horrors, but...

One of my practices when writing fiction is to do a lot of revision of earlier text while I'm writing later bits. Sometimes this'll just be a matter of realizing I could have done something better; sometimes I decide I'm unhappy with a character's name or physical characteristics or something; sometimes an idea strikes me for a bit of plot that I really like, and so I rush back to insert the necessary precursors in the earlier parts of the book -- to make it all look deliberate and planned, you see. The trouble in this instance is, obviously, that the earlier bits will already have been published, so I can't readily change them.

Well, actually, I can -- and doubtless will. Only you won't see those changes, so you may find there's the occasional little surprise in the later parts of the book -- that character you'd been thinking was a Britney Spears clone may prove instead to be more like Hulk Hogan, or whatever. My apologies in advance for all such stumbles. (I'll try not to make them a matter of the Great Detective announcing in the library to the gathered cast that the murderer is someone you've never encountered before.)

Aside from that rather major point, please remember that, in letting you read my creation in this draught form, it's rather as if I'm presenting myself naked to you for your ridicule -- well, feels like that to me, anyway. Please keep your derision to yourself: stifle those sniggers, and if you have to collapse in hysterics of mockery please leave the room and do so in the corridor. That's only good manners.


An Exclusive Special Blue Ear Offer Further to Curry Favour

As a postscript:

The book will have lots of bit characters in it: spear carriers, walk-on parts, cameos -- dignify them how you will. While the names of major and sometimes minor characters are generally very important to me (I don't know why), my mind doesn't seem so bothered about what the minor figures are called. If any Ears would like to be immortalized in The Dragons of Manhattan, they may merely offer me plenty of cajolement -- flattery by the bucketload is a recommended method -- and I'll try to fit their names in somewhere.

Ears who wish to be one of those spear carriers who meet a gratuitously ghastly fate should cajole especially hard.


© John Grant 2003.
This first appeared, in slightly different form, at Blue Ear, where The Dragons of Manhattan is serialised.

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