MNC Book Report: John Dee, Richard Deacon

This book wins, hands down, the prize for Coolest Piece of Random Trivia Discovered While Researching This Novel. (The downside is that the trivia in question appears a few pages in, and seems to have dominated the author’s thinking for the remainder of the text.)

The trivia is this. Elizabeth loved to nickname the people around her; Walsingham, for example, was her “Moor,” while Burghley was “Sir Spirit.” Three men in her reign got nicknamed “Eyes.” The first was Leicester, who signed his letters with a little glyph: two circles with dots inside, representing (of course) eyes. The second was Hatton, who ended up being called “Lids” to distinguish him from Leicester; he signed his letters with dotted triangles instead.

The third was John Dee. His special sign for his nickname was two circles guarded by a mark Deacon describes as “what might have been a square root sign or an elongated seven.”

The book then obligingly shows you a picture of the mark, and yes: it looks like “007.”

I have no idea if Ian Fleming knew this, but Deacon doesn’t miss the chance to draw the connection for his readers. And this sets the tone of the book; while the last bio of Dee I read emphasized his scientific and magical work, this one runs with the idea that Dee was an intelligence agent in service to the royal government.

I’m not entirely certain what to do with Deacon’s claims. He’s not as good as he might be about telling you the basis for his conclusions about Dee’s activities, so I can’t be sure when the missions he outlines are things we definitely know happened, and when they’re educated speculation. That Dee occasionally passed information along to Walsingham and/or Burghley and/or Leicester, I can believe with no problem, but Deacon’s biography more or less positions that as the overarching purpose of his life. Dee, according to him, refused jobs he might have taken because they would have limited his ability to engage in intelligence work. His trips overseas were as much for spying as for anything else. And the angelic conversations . . . in Deacon’s view, Dee’s work with Kelley is most easily explained by assuming that much of it was used as a cover, a ciphered means of passing information to those who could act on it. Who would look for intelligence reports in the middle of one of those?

Um. I’m not sure what to do with this. Certainly there seems to have been at least one occasion that an angel informed Dee of something in cryptic terms, Dee passed the report along to the authorities, and they subsequently discovered Spanish agents attempting to burn down the forest which supplied timber to the royal navy, under conditions which matched the cryptic message of the angel. I’m not sure I buy into the thesis that spying was such a major focus of Dee’s work, though.

I’d have to read more about Dee to say for sure. But the nice thing about this research is, I’m doing it for a novel, not a dissertation. Which means I can appreciate Deacon for the details he gives, and discard his overall point if it doesn’t suit my purpose.

Edited to add: Hah. A footnote from Peter J. French’s John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus:

“Richard Deacon’s book, John Dee: Scientist, Geographer, Astrologer, and Secret Agent to Elizabeth I (London, 1968) does regrettably little to establish Dee’s true importance. In a rather sensational way, Deacon portrays Dee as ‘a roving James Bond of Tudor times’ [not, so far as I’m aware, an actual quote from that book — me], the master of a massive espionage system. He considers the ‘Spiritual Diaries’ a form of enciphering used for spying purposes. Deacon’s argument is tenuous at best, and his book is riddled with factual inaccuracies.”

I guess I’m glad I only read selections from it. But it’s good to hear someone else evaluate that thesis and find it to be kind of bunk.

. . . can I pull it off?

On August 9th, I’m taking a trip to Dallas.

My current pace of work puts me neck-deep in the Giant ‘Splody that is the end of the book right around the time I’m supposed to be out of town. While this is what I have a laptop for, those are not the ideal conditions under which to be finishing a novel.

Nor is it ideal to take a lengthy break from writing said novel while in the middle of the Giant ‘Splody.

To this awkwardness, I can see only one solution:

Finish the book before I go.

. . . which I think I can do. Maybe. It will mean I’m even more head-munched over the next two weeks than I would be otherwise, but the bright side is, I could then relax while in Dallas, take a break, and come back refreshed to polish it up and get it to my editor. These are Good Things. But they are Good Things that would require me to work at something like pace-and-a-half to double-pace from now through August 8th.

I think I can do it. Maybe.

I’m going to give it a shot. (Yoda, get out of my head.) I know almost everything that lies between me and the end of the book, which is the usual metric for whether or not I can safely speed up. This should be feasible, right?

If you don’t hear from me again, please come find my headless corpse in my office and give it proper burial.

I would have posted this earlier, but LJ and the lack of power and so on. Y’know.

If you were one of the people who hated the trailer for The Dark Is Rising, I invite you to clean your palate as I did, by re-reading the book. (It’s this month’s recommendation.)

Thank you!

I’ll go crazy posting “Thank you!” responses to everybody who congratulated me on the ring, so I’ll do the lame thing and say “thank you!” here instead. I am very pleased by my new sparkly, and am glad other people like it, too.

Now we just have the rest of the wedding to plan, ne?

We all use the English language, but . . . .

This has been brewing in my head since Scalzi posted his “advice to young writers” thing a while back, wherein the first two points were 1) your writing is crap and 2) that’s okay, we all started out as crap and got better. (Insert, of course, a brouhaha from people who never read past the “your writing is crap” line to see what he meant by that, and how it wasn’t half so offensive as they assumed.)

I had an apostrophe (I think you mean an epiphany, Swan) epiphany after reading through Scalzi’s advice and the responses to it.

If I hand you a paintbrush and tell you to paint the tree outside my office window, odds are you will suddenly feel awkward and clueless and utterly inadequate to the task. Even the physical experience of using a paintbrush isn’t that familiar to most of you, and it would take a lot of practice to get to the point where you could do anything good with it.

If I sit you down at the piano and tell you to play me a piece of music, all of a sudden you realize you have ten fingers, and now you’re asking them to behave independently and simultaneously in a way that is not at all like typing on a keyboard. And again, you would need practice before you could play much more than “Chopsticks.”

If I put you in front of a computer and tell you to write me a story, suddenly everybody thinks they can do it.

I think it’s easy for aspiring writers to assume they can do this because, after all, isn’t it stuff you do every day anyway? We all know how to hold a pen or a pencil and use it to form letters. Most of us, these days, know how to type. And we all use the English language. Isn’t that what writing is?

Yes, but.

There’s an undiscovered world inside that “but.” My epiphany was that I think a great many people fail to perceive the degree of craft that goes into telling a story. They see words on the page, but they don’t see the skills that are required to decide which word will be more effective, how to structure a sentence so it’s grammatical but doesn’t sound like every other sentence you’ve put down, how to get a paragraph to flow so the impact arrives at the right moment, how to build suspense and then resolution into a plot, how to reveal character through telling details instead of just telling, how to create images in the readers’ minds that will stay with them long after the book is closed.

Not everybody, of course. Some people look at a book and say, “I could never do that.” Some people start trying and immediately realize the difference between what they’re doing and what Admired Writer X did. But I’ve seen a lot of writers who, at least when they start out, seem to think there isn’t a learning curve with writing, just like there is with anything else.

Or maybe they just think their learning curve all happened in elementary school.

A common truism among writers goes something like this: you’ve got a million words of crap in you, and what you’ve got to do is write them. Only then can you get to the good words. What this translates to in non-literal terms is, writing takes practice, just like everything else does. One might as well say you’ve got a million notes of crap in you, and once you’ve played them all you can start being a good pianist. Etc. The point is, few if any of us get to skip the practice stage, and if it looks like someone has, they probably just did their practice out of sight. Me? I wrote my million words of crap when I was a teenager, because I already knew I wanted to be a writer. Someone who makes that decision at the age of forty just has a later start, is all.

But it has to be mindful practice. It has to be critical. Banging out dozens of short stories, each one replicating the mistakes of its predecessors, won’t do you any good, any more than banging out notes on the piano without concern for what they sound like will make you a better pianist.

The practice is necessary because, until you reach the point where you have the basics down, you’re going to have a hard time getting to the finer aspects. To continue with the piano analogy — because it’s one I have personal experience with — so long as you’re having to think consciously that a note printed on that line is a D, and you need to stretch your hand X far to form a sixth, and this is where middle C is, issues like interpretation and expression are Right Out. Likewise, you need enough unconscious familiarity with word choice and the formation of sentences and the punctuation of dialogue that your brain can devote itself to higher thoughts. It doesn’t mean you’ll never pause to think about those more basic issues, but they won’t be eating all your attention anymore.

You know how to use the English language, yes. But do you know how to use it well? Do you know what to do with it?

What we do isn’t half so easy as it looks.

proof!

This post will get buried in the deluge of Pottermania tomorrow, but I’ll never hear the end of it if I don’t put it up soon.

Folks, I’m getting married.

That’s been true for a year and five months now, but at last, two months before the wedding, I have the traditional proof. Ain’t it pretty? ^_^

The central stone is courtesy of Apollo Diamond, a company run by family friends of kniedzw, my soon-to-be better half. Djimon Hounsou’s son was not harmed in the making of this engagement ring.

book! (again, sort of.)

80K on the nose. It’s a meaningless benchmark, when you get down to it — the lower limit of what one can generally sell as adult fantasy, but not the lower limit of my contract — but it’s a nice round number, and the point at which I start feeling like the book will end sometime soon.

Where by “soon” I mean “in another thirty thousand words or so.”

I can see from here to the end of Act Four. Most of Act Five has fallen into place in my head, except for a few things involving Deven. I’m chugging up the last long slope of the rollercoaster; once we crest the top of that hill, it’s going to be a downhill charge from here to the end.

Probably. I’ve been known to be wrong before. But it doesn’t feel like I’ll be wrong.

I’m in the middle of the second incredibly delicate conversation with Elizabeth. At least this time it’s a conversation with Elizabeth, instead of a conversation at Elizabeth like the last one was, damned canny close-mouthed queen that she is. The rest of Act Four will go something like this: oh crap, I think we were wrong; a tricky conversation with a personified natural landmark; oh holy shit were we wrong. Then on to Act Five, and Blowing Stuff Up. (feyangel, you may consider that an unintended tribute to BSU Pyrotechnics.)

I just wish I could figure out that one last piece of Act Five.

Authorial sadism: We’re in the part of the book where I lose track of it all. But aside from what I did to Suspiria, I think my favorite is probably the bit where Deven and Lune realize how different their two Courts are. Or, y’know, having to talk at Elizabeth, instead of with her.

LBR quota: We’re never without all three these days, but rhetoric was at the top of today’s menu, with the other two as side dishes.

christ.

Quoth Mrissa, on her own work: “Any minute now the last third of this novel is going to hunker down and make breakfast out of most of my grey matter.”

Quoth me, in response: “You know, that perfectly encapsulates the current state of my life.”

I go to sleep, and I’m thinking of this book. I wake up, and I’m thinking of this book. Leave me unattended for five minutes, and where does my brain go? I can only break out of it by scheduling other things: there’s X-Files watching on Sunday; I’m going to go do that. (But if there’s a crazy person in the episode, my hindbrain is taking notes for Tiresias.) There’s D&D on Tuesday; I need to remember to switch gears. (And it’s a good thing Lessa’s so easy a character for me to play, or that wouldn’t work.) HP7’s coming out soon; I’ll be spending most of Saturday reading it. (If it takes me too long, will I quit so I can get my writing done, or just pull [another] all-nighter?)

The last time I remember a book eating my head so thoroughly, it was the first one I’d ever written. It was (and is) an urban fantasy set in Canada (no, I don’t know why; that’s where the book wanted to be), and during the home stretch, kniedzw would look at me periodically and say, “you’re in Canada, aren’t you?” Now it isn’t Canada; it’s the sixteenth century. It feels like my brain has taken up permanent residence in the story, and is only coming out occasionally to visit the twenty-first century, rather than the other way around.

I’ve got a theory for what the similarity means, and I hope it’s true. Writing that first novel was a watershed for me. I consider it my transition from apprentice to journeyman work; I’d acquired all the basic skills, the last one being the ability to finish what I started, and after that I was qualified to earn a day’s wages as a writer (though it took me some time to actually do so). I’m not going to claim MNC is my transition from journeyman to master — that shift is yet in my future — but I think, I hope, this is another watershed for me, another transition to a higher level of skill. It feels like it, when I’m not wallowing in Standard Writerly Self-Doubt, but it’s hard to judge how sharp and white and straight its teeth are when it’s lunching on my brain. (Oh yes, it’s getting not just breakfast, but lunch and dinner out of me.) It’s the best explanation I can think of for why none of the six novels I wrote in between, including Doppelganger and Warrior and Witch, ate my head this badly.

Or at least it’s the explanation I like best.

So if I’m staring off into space, or I don’t answer e-mails, or seem otherwise to be Not Quite Here, you’ll know why. I’m in Canada the sixteenth century. And since I probably have another thirty thousand words to go, I won’t be coming back any time soon.

um.

Point A: I have stubbornly refused to miss a day of writing since the beginning of June.

Point B: It is a long-standing principle of mine that the day is not over until the sun has risen or I have slept.

Point C: Check the time-stamp on this post.

If A, and B, but C, then . . . I’m a bloody idiot, is what.

MNC Book Report: The Aquarian Guide to Legendary London, ed. John Matthews and Chesca Potter

As the presence of the word “Aquarian” in the title might suggest, this book ranges from fuzzy-headed neopagan pablum, to fairly well-researched archaeological and folkloric history, to a random dissection of a William Blake poem, depending on which article you’re reading.

The middle category is, of course, the one that was the most useful to me. There isn’t a terrible amount in here that was utterly new, but it helped reinforce some stuff I already knew, and offered a vareity of tidbits (like the London Stone, or the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow, or a reminder of the existence of Walbrook) that I’m smuggling into the novel where I can. I wish the article on “London Leys and Lines” had been more useful to me, though. Alas, it failed to present me with the kind of sacred/mystical geography I was hoping for.

The other thing of use in here is the bibliographies attached to (most of) the articles. If I ever write that London novel that’s in my head (which, given the research it would require, I don’t even want to think about right now), I’ll have some good leads on books to pick up.