Of course, Carrie proves that you can have commercial success before one million words, but that’s different than hitting your stride in terms of mastery of craft. I’m early enough in this process that I can see and feel my own improvement from piece to piece. I’m still learning all the crap they never teach you in school, like how stories need to be structured, how to pace scenes, or how to make characters engaging. You know – the little things that actually make a story enjoyable rather than literary. As a writer, you can learn about these things from books, but you really only learn how to do them through trial and error during that million-word cycle.
I enjoy studying Carrie to see Stephen King when he was still in that learning phase. You can hear his narrative voice getting stronger and see some of his tricks starting to emerge. Early books can be like that, which is why this week I’m recommending The Lightcap by Dan Marshall.
The Lightcap is Marshall’s first novel. He’s a 33-year-old IT support geek, also from Portland, and a lot of his disdain for the cubicle world shines through in this sci-fi story about a guy named Adam who runs a team of superstar tech engineers. In the future, America has been fragmented, privatized, and commercially exploited to death. Just about everyone uses a head-worn device called the Mind Drive to control their electronic devices. Adam and his team become guinea pigs for version 6 of the Mind Drive, code-named Lightcap. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that the control aspects of the Lightcap turn out to be bi-directional and that the people who own the technology have some very unpleasant plans – plans that Adam finds himself trying to stop at all costs.
I hope The Lightcap turns out to be Marshall’s version of Carrie. He does a lot of things right and several things wrong. Like Tolkien, Marshall spends an inordinate amount of time on world-building, especially in the book’s first half. Some chapters could be almost entirely dropped without hurting the story at all, but then we would lose the gritty, stale, worn-down depth of this near-future Marshall has painted. His characters are fairly wooden, and there are a couple of deus ex machina moments that might leave you with one eyebrow raised. But maybe this can be forgiven in a sort of first novel trade. You give up some of the mechanics in exchange for some really fun, thought-provoking ideas. Is our government getting bought off by private interests? Maybe. Would we rather think commands than type them with our thumbs on tiny screens? You bet. Marshall does a riveting job with extrapolating the scary and annoying aspects of today into an all-too-plausible and alarming tomorrow. I found the world of The Lightcap intriguing, and I suspect you will, too.
For $3.99 on ebook, give The Lightcap and Dan Marshall a try. I expect we’ll be seeing more and even better things from him on his march to one million words.