Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Craft of Mosaics, Part 1

So, in their third semester, every student of the MFA program at the University of Southern Maine gets to do some sort of "project". I chose to do a craft paper on mosaic novels, under the gentle tutelage of James Patrick Kelly. It's about 49 pages, total, and I'll be divvying it up over the next couple days. Footnotes are here:


     When I was working on my second published novel, MAZE, I had to grapple with a structure that was uncommon in the craft books: the mosaic novel. Craft books do not embrace unconventional or experimental narrative structures, dedicated as they are to early-stage writers. ELEMENTS OF FICTION - BEGINNINGS, MIDDLES, AND ENDS by Nancy Kress does not devote a single paragraph to the concept of a mosaic novel, despite the author of the book having written a gorgeous example of the form: NOTHING HUMAN. STORY: SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING, by Robert McKee, classifies experimental structures with non-linear plots as outliers in the form of narratives, for instance Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail, where disjointed scenes together form something wholly strange and unconventional. Stephen King’s seminal text ON WRITING does not mention interconnected stories, nor does the author really write them. The Gotham City Writer’s Workshop speaks more to the short form of fiction than the act of interconnecting the short fictions into larger work. In short, an absence in craft books exists in methods of dealing with Mosaic Novels.

My only true guidebooks on the form were the examples I could glean from the published mosaic novels I found. This includes some of the seminal texts of recent literary history like THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES by Ray Bradbury, THE ORPHAN’S TALES: IN THE CITIES OF COIN AND SPICE by Catherynne M. Valente, THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY by Thornton Wilder, ACCELERANDO by Charles Stross, and CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN by Jeff VanderMeer. Reaching outward in the published fictions, numerous texts that merit the definition of “Mosaic Novel” exist, with little written about the Craft of such creations. With this paper, I will attempt to create a series of methods that can be implemented by writers interested in constructing their own Mosaic Novels, or near-mosaics.


For an artist to work with a defined form, the label of the form must first have meaning. Thus, before a discussion of the craft of mosaic novels, a clear set of definitions is necessary. The word “mosaic” implies what happens with the form. A mosaic piece of visual art will be a series of broken tiles or glass pieces cemented together in such a way that a shape emerges from the tiny individual, colored pieces.

Before the form of novel was called “Mosaic”, it was called a “fix-up”. (Bowes). This name implies exactly what happened during the creative process, and comes from A.E. Van Vogt. Various short stories with similar theme, setting, plot, or characters were “fixed” by the writer or editor to transform the short pieces into one, complete, novel-length work. Take, for example, the previously mentioned THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, by Ray Bradbury. Each of the stories was independently published in a magazine, and then “fixed up” to make a complete story about a setting after an editor suggested this to Bradbury over dinner. (Donaldson-Evans) At the time, this was a common way for speculative fiction authors to create published novels out of their short stories.

This method was not the case in Jeff VanderMeer’s modern classic VENISS UNDERGROUND. “Veniss was always going to be in three pieces, and was originally all in first person, but the second section felt too distant. Writing the second person was the part that worked. A first person section, a second person section. The third person section was very dramatic, and in first [person] would be melodramatic.” (VanderMeer, Phone-call) This element that firmly plants the piece in the mosaic tradition, by fragmenting the character of the narrator into multiple divergent and dissonant point-of-views, each with different narrative plots, was a discovery during the writing process, not an intentional act. A hallmark of the “fix-up” tradition was publishing individual pieces independent of the whole in magazines. In the case of VENISS UNDERGROUND, only the first section was sold individually, to Interzone. (“Quin’s Shanghai Circus", Interzone #124)

Between the two extreme examples of MARTIAN CHRONICLES and VENISS UNDERGROUND - the first composed and published as a series of unrelated short stories before becoming a novel and the second being composed initially and intentionally as a full-length novel with short story publication as an afterthought - countless other examples of books intentionally or unintentionally fragmented into mosaics exist. The definition can be imposed externally after publication by critics, or imposed early by the author. Authors can stumble into them accidentally, or know their work as a mosaic even if others do not agree. Literary criticism is always a discussion, and there is always room for interpretation. The fragmented nature of the stories, wherein one or some element of fictional storytelling – character, plot, setting, or theme – is broken between the different sections of the narrative, is the definition, not the original intent of the creator or the method at which the book came into print. With that basic continuum of a definition in mind, it is important to note that there are likely as many ways of writing a mosaic novel as there are authors writing them. Any attempt to codify techniques of the form will be incomplete as long as new mosaics are being created. However, some simple examples of elements that became the firmament upon which the mosaic fictions were planted would be useful.

Generational texts often rely on members of the same family for their mosaic qualities. NOTHING HUMAN by Nancy Kress, for example, follows four generations of the same family during the course of an alien encounter. First an uncle raises a niece that has been genetically modified by aliens. The niece takes over as point of view character inside the alien ship that eventually abducts her. Then, a friend who stayed behind picks up the story as she steps into the role of adoptive mother of the niece upon her return home. The niece takes over again as an adult dealing with the return of the aliens in the breakdown of human society on earth. In the last section, one of her own genetically modified human children narrates their survival beyond events that would destroy natural humans. In this mosaic piece, the author is given a first-person perspective upon narrative events that extend beyond one lifetime. Many mosaic novels approach the work from this perspective in science fiction, as magnificent changing forces operate upon human society over a long period of time. Keeping the different sections connected matters in the creation of a unified novel. In the case of NOTHING HUMAN, the characters often appeared in sections they did not narrate. The events of the world were consistent across the different narratives. And, the aliens appeared on more than one occasion, operating in the same callous, immature, and supremely powerful manner in the end as they did from the very beginning. Writers of mosaics are wise to rely, like a good television show, on recurring characters, and the sort of build-up to a “season finale” climax, when the global catastrophe feared in the beginning finally, eventually occurs. Despite the fracture of the characters into a mosaic, other fictive elements remain the same, acting as the cement that holds the mosaic together.

ACCELERANDO by Charles Stross, another generational text, follows a family forward in time through a Vinge-ian Singularity, and beyond. Beginning with Manfred Macx, and ending with Sirhan Macx, the connected short stories follow the expansion of humankind from life quite nearly as we know it, with only a minor thrust forward in communications technologies and human interfacing, and continue to follow this family over the course of three generations of the family spinning off into the stars. Family members appear and disappear as the stories tumble forward, as well as consistent problems involving all the different iterations of Incorporated AIs, both human and inhuman. In Stross’ case, the robotic cat, Aineko, is the constant, and a moving force in the various stories. In fact, the cat parallels the projection forward of human technologies into a transcendent state, literally embodying major themes of the many short stories. In the beginning, the cat is barely cognizant of its own existence. In the end, the cat is revealed to be the hidden moving force of the text, driving nearly all the events of the story either overtly or subversively. Reviewers and interviewers compared Aineko to C3PO from Star Wars, created in Episode 1, who then appears in all six of the Star Wars films as a participating observer. (Anders, 2004) By adding an heirloom handed down between the generations that mirrors the theme of the stories, the sense of a novel rises out of the individual stories in the thematic cipher’s rises. The farther along one reads, the more one feels like one is reading a novel instead of a short story collection. Aineko along with the theme of independent, incorporated AIs are the thematic glue that hold the stories together, beginning as innocuous tools for brilliant minds and rising in power and influence until the independent AIs convert our entire solar system into a giant computer. As writers of fiction, embodying the “Cement” of the mosaic with a narrative element, like Aineko embodying the theme of ACCELERANDO, is highly recommended to create the sense of a novel out of the various fictive tiles. In television programs characters are often used this way, as well, as recurring characters become talismans of themes, like the mysterious smoking man in the X-Files, always in the shadows, occasionally stepping onto the stage to move the plot toward the ultimate destination.

A related method, and a classic one – perhaps the easiest - involves a shared setting as the unifying force of a mosaic piece. Looking for the glue that holds the disjointed pieces of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, for instance, leads one directly to the way humans interact with Mars. That’s the theme of the book, it would seem, and it is directly related to the force of the setting. Mosaics settled upon a single location - CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN, for instance – ease their themes across by relying on place, and whatever symbols and landmarks that mark the space. In these cases, the change that occurs over the course of the fiction is rooted in landmarks with a physical location in space, and elements of setting that place the stories inside a know-able timeline. For VanderMeer, the Borges Bookstore, the Living Saints upon street corners, and the ominous mushrooms extending down and down into the vast underground below the city, among many other landmarks and setting elements – the university, the opera hall, the corporations that war on the streets – root the reader firmly into a specific location, and aid the reader in locating their relationship between the fictional moment and the historical setting. The various concatenations and representations of forms, broken and whole, in VanderMeer’s modern classic, ranging from graphic novel to scientific article to the footnotes of a journal article, all wrap around certain realities of the city: the food economy has a strong presence of freshwater squid, including an annual festival; there is an omnipresent fungal presence rising up from the underground; there is a collective guilt about the greycaps; the fungal cloud of the city seems to give everyone an edge of madness that touches everything the city does. The consistent setting unites all the madness and strangeness in all the pieces of story that extend over a long period of time in the history of the city, telling the tale of the city from birth to death. Much like THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES by Ray Bradbury, though the setting is consistent, it is not static. This is the important element, as writers, to take away from the concept of a setting as the narrative cement: the setting is not static. The city of Ambergris is on a trajectory beginning with the ominous silence and pressing forward over the course of insurrections, wars, assassinations, riots, corporate espionage, peaceful times, dangerous times, and everything in between, until it will finally flood and die. VanderMeer’s Ambergris, like Bradbury’s Mars, feels alive because despite the familiar landmarks and names, the city is never the same from one story to another. Each piece of fiction or meta-fiction or graphic fiction tells the story of what the city was like at one particular moment in time. The reader walks away with a strong sense of what the city will become, when the floods rise with the greycaps and there is no Ambergris anymore, and no one to tell stories of Ambergris.

When character is the consistent element, not setting and not theme, a good example to keep in mind can be found in the Sandman graphic novels of Neil Gaiman and the various artists he worked with over the course of his graphic novel masterpiece. Neil Gaiman often spoke of creating Sandman as a way of merging all sorts of dissonant styles, characters and forms into a post-modern grab-bag of narrative (Boucher, December 2008). By doing so, he created a mosaic novel, whether he meant to or not. Morpheus tumbles in and out of the stories, occasionally a main character and occasionally a shadow waiting to swoop in from the eaves when he is finally summoned. Like most good characters in a novel, he changes from the beginning when he is a force for cruel vengeance to the end when he is merciful. In the early stories, he abandons a former lover in hell as a petty act. In a later encounter with her, after experiencing more of the mosaically-connected stories that operate in his life and his periphery, Morpheus releases her soul to be reborn, and falls in love with her again. He acts mercifully towards his own son, halfway through the stories, continually becoming less-vindictive and less-severe as the stories progress, and the people whom he encounters touch his life in meaningful ways, until he accepts his own death to create a new Morpheus more-capable of serving the needs of the world, white and not black, light and not dark. Showing the themes of change and self-creation across all the different characters leads up to a final act of accepting that theme: Morpheus’ death and rebirth from black to white, world-weary and tired to young and new. As writers, the thing to learn here is how to approach a mosaic when the glue that holds it all together is a character. Morpheus, like Aineko, embodies a theme that plays out in all the stories of the mosaic. Morpheus also experiences a character arc across all the events that touch him. Death, his sister, remains unchanged, immutable to her nature, and a character like Aineko, representative of a major theme of the book. It is not her mosaic. It is his, because he is the force that experiences growth and change. Despite the notion that mosaic cement is a hard, rigid, binding element, extrapolated from the fact that such novels are named after mosaic works of visual art, in terms of fiction, writers are well-advised to ensure that their narrative concrete embodies an arc of change, whether that element is a theme, a setting, or a character. (I exclude plots from that short list with the understanding that a plot, by its nature, requires an element of progression and change.)

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