Late last year I enrolled in the AHWA Mentor Program, and was assigned to Jason Fischer. It turned out to be a stroke of extremely good fortune, and it has been an incredible experience so far. As I have gotten to know Jason I have discovered that he is not only a supremely talented writer, but an incredibly supportive and perceptive mentor – plus an all round great guy. He does have his faults, such as an addiction to puns and an obsession with extinct megafauna, but don’t hold that against him.
Here, sit back and bask in the warm and nourishing glow that is Fischerianism as he dispenses his wisdom and takes us through the art of the fix-up.
The Sum of the Parts – The Art of the Fix-Up/Mosaic Novel
I’ve recently published my first novel “Quiver” – and I cheated. How, you say? Well, I didn’t plagiarise, I didn’t get a ghost-writer, and my plan to harness a warehouse full of monkeys with typewriters was problematic at best.
What I did do was follow a long-standing tradition of my chosen genre – I wrote a fix-up novel. This is a longer work, repurposed from several shorter works that have already been published, joined to new material and absorbed into a longer narrative. The term itself was coined by legendary science fiction author A. E. van Vogt, and according to Wikipedia “the name comes from the modifications that the author needs to make in the original texts to make them fit together as though they were a novel.”
In other ways, Quiver is also a mosaic novel. With each instalment I was writing a novel by stealth, expanding on the setting, bringing in new themes, characters and problems. An easy way to gauge if a work is a mosaic novel is to hold it up to the Canterbury Tales – separate works contributing to a larger body of connected work.
Quiver began life as several episodes in the “After the World” series, pulp zombie novellas that were published circa 2009 through Black House Comics. Perhaps I was always writing a novel by stealth, and I returned to the same characters with each instalment, showing where they had travelled to, introducing new locations, new conflicts and goals.
When publisher Baden Kirgan suggested printing a collection of my After the World novellas, I flagged the idea of presenting these as a new work – a novel showing my protagonists journey from start to end. I tried to segue the novellas more smoothly, address inconsistencies, and make it less of a collection, more of a connected work. I’d like to think it worked, while still keeping some of the feel of the original works.
As with all writers, I stand on the shoulders of giants. There are so many great examples of the fix-up/mosaic novel in SF writing, many of which are my personal favourites. When cobbling together the fragments that would become Quiver, I always had an eye on my bookcase. Here are some of the books that influenced my decision to work on a fix-up, and a new volume that’s definitely worth tracking down.
The Dying Earth series by Jack Vance
I am an absolutely Jack Vance fanboy, unashamedly so. When I read the Dying Earth books, it felt like a switch had been flicked in my brain. His colourful picaresque works are set in a bizarrely cheerful post-apocalypse, where the sun is about to blink out and the decadent human race is determined to enjoy itself into the darkness. It’s been classified as “a slightly connected series of stories” as well as a novel in its own right. This work has proven so influential on the genre that it launched its own sub-genre of “dying earth” stories, and you might even recognise huge chunks of Vance’s work in the magic-system of Dungeons and Dragons.
While Vance’s stories originally began as loosely connected works in the same setting, the series grew to showcase recurring characters and an over-arching storyline. For a post-apocalyptic setting, it’s absolutely hilarious from start to finish. Cugel the Clever is the rogue to end all rogues, and damned if I’m not just talking myself into re-reading the whole series. Definitely check it out!
The Gunslinger by Stephen King
While later volumes of the Dark Tower series are true novels (and the series itself grew and gained monstrous life, each tome thicker than the last) the first volume “The Gunslinger” was a true fix-up novel. Roland Deschain’s story began as a series of short stories published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, based in part upon a poem by Robert Browning. So this is in equal parts a homage, a self-referential fun project for King, and a work that grows from a tentative beginning into something much more than the original short stories. Ultimately he linked many of his own longer works into the series, and wrote himself in as a character. Nobody else could have pulled off this ambitious project, and it all grew out of a fix-up.
Pavane by Keith Roberts
Originally published as a series of short stories in Science Fantasy magazine, this fix-up is also a solid alternative history worth of Harry Turtledove. I shall now quote the gods of Wikipedia who can summarise this book better than I: “Comprising a cycle of linked stories set in Dorset, England, it depicts a 1968 in which the Roman Catholic Church still has supremacy; in its timeline, Protestantism was destroyed during wars that resulted from the aftermath of the assassination of Queen Elizabeth in 1588.”
We have a world of semaphore towers, secret technology, and a structure so neatly organised and foreplanned that it makes me feel like an absolute novice. Highly recommended.
Midnight and Moonshine by Lisa L Hannett and Angela Slatter
This is a newer work, by two of my favourite Australian authors. Hannett and Slatter have collaborated on a true mosaic novel, a series of interwoven short stories knitted into an overarching story arc. It’s an absolute pleasure to read, and we follow the story of one of Odin’s raven companions and the lives she touches, from the Old World to the Deep South. There is such an amazing back-story to this work, where Ragnarok only touched the gods, and each story is its own standalone piece, while contributing to the forward motion of the narrative. Not a wasted word here, folks.
I get the feeling I could easily re-read this collection and get something new out of it every time. The authors have planned this book to hold a lasting resonance. Not only will it collect a swag of awards (and it will) but I think this is a milestone in their careers that people will talk about for years to come.
So, you’ll see that the fix-up/mosaic novel has quite the legacy in science fiction, and the promise that, as an art-form, it will continue long into the future. Personally I think it’s a great tradition, and an indicator that many of us in Genre-land start out on writing shorter forms, and while many go on to write novels, some of us look to our shorter works with a handyman’s eye, binding them with glue and spit into something much stronger than the individual pieces ever were.
Jason Fischer is a writer who lives near Adelaide, South Australia, with his wife and son. He has a passion for godawful puns, and is known to sing karaoke until the small hours.
He attended the Clarion South Writers Workshop in 2007, and has been short-listed in the Aurealis Awards, the Ditmar Awards, and the Australian Shadows Awards.
Jason won the 2009 Australian Horror Writers Association (AHWA) Short Story and the 2010 AHWA Flash Fiction Competitions, and is a winner of the Writers of the Future contest. He is the author of over thirty short stories, with his first collection appearing soon from Ticonderoga Publications.