Friday, 29 February 2008
Once I got to the website I was even more intrigued. As you will see if you follow the link, the Book Fiend’s Kingdom has been set up to raise money for Adults with Autism, a charity which exists for the benefit of the group of people its title implies.
So far so good and I thought, well done this lady, she’s done her research and found an author with a background in autism.
But then I read the list of other podcast interviewees (quite an illustrious list, which includes MNW’s own Len Tyler) and thought again. Maybe she had just read Testament and liked it?
Or maybe she’d liked the book and thought ‘oh my goodness – involved with teenagers with autism – two hits for the price of one’?
Whatever the reasoning, I’m delighted even to be considered for an interview which will sit in a list with the likes of Jilly Cooper, Charley Boorman and Alison Weir.
And if it helps raise money for adults with autism, I’m all for it.
Beats shaking tins any day.
Thursday, 28 February 2008
Despite my misgivings, I did manage to write something futuristic which was different but which stretched me and made me think about words and language in a slightly different way.
Because it’s such a short story I found myself adopting the language and techniques of poetry more than those of novel-writing which was interesting.
For instance, I found myself using a lot of repetition to create an effect and form a framework from which key details could hung.
Paragraphs were like stanzas, with recurrent themes.
There were a lot of triads, with this pattern tying themes and events tightly together.
I realised, as I was going through three versions of the story to get to the one I’ve ended up with, that, working with so few words, I had to angle everything in the story to the final line or two. There was no time to faff about, I had streamline everything so that it tunnelled down to the inevitability of the last word.
I know, I sound as if I’m writing a 75 word story not a 750 word story but I’m a novelist. I don’t have that focus and precision which natural short story writers have.
If I was to compare it to interior design I’m more maximalist than minimalist in terms of prose style.
So, has this foray into short fiction taught me anything. (Apart from ‘don’t ever do this again’?)
Having to write to a word count – well, actually a minute count – has made editing a much more vital part of the writing. Whilst in a novel you’re concerned to use the best words, and not to over-use words, in a story this short, every word has to earn its place, to move action or build effect. Though, being me, this has not resulted in a stripped-down style wihout adjectives or adverbs but in a more stylised approach to the material.
All this would make more sense if I could quote from the story but I figure I should give Radio Kent first dibs, so I’ll put a link up once it’s signed, sealed, delivered and I’ve recorded it.
Meanwhile I’m off to the day job today so need to put my autism hat on as we’re having an editorial meeting about a non-fiction publication which my boss and I have put together at work. More anon…
Wednesday, 27 February 2008
In it, he says:
If you’re a writer, a learner- writer or a journeyman, there’s one certain way to know if you are, in fact, half as good as you hope to be, or think you are.
How much are you enjoying yourself while you write?
This is also a certain way to know if a writer — any kind of writer, but especially an author of fiction — is really good.
It’s also the biggest (if most obvious) secret in the whole writing game. When a writer is hugely entertaining herself, she’s likely to be entertaining you too. On the other hand, if you’re the one writing, and you’re labouring, groaning inwardly under the sheer weight and unwieldiness, the difficulty of your own creation, you can be quite, quite sure that’s exactly how it will read. Badly. Heavily.
Interesting, but is he right? Certainly, I enjoy myself most when the writing flows and I know I am putting words together in the best way I know how; when metaphors and images just spring to mind without having to be sought for; when characters say things I was not expecting them to say but which turn out to be exactly the right thing for them to say at that particular moment. Sometimes, I am just so excited by this kind of thing that I have to get up from my desk and walk around – I literally cannot contain all the excitement generated in me and have to let it out.
But that’s not to say that when the writing flows it’s always good. Sometimes my writing flows because I am being self-indulgent and – of course – that, too, is enjoyable. Often this self-indulgence has to do with expressing my own thoughts and feelings and not those of the pov character and – for me at least – this tendency has to be expunged with ruthlessness bordering on the fanatical. I am most certainly not here to write autobiography or to indulge in some kind of sub-genre self-analysis or therapy. Sometimes, at the end of an hour or two’s writing when I have barely lifted my fingers from the keyboard I will feel a lot better, I may even have enjoyed myself, but I have a pretty shrewd idea that when I come to read that passage the following day with my editing hat on it will end up marked and deleted. Or just left in the directory and a new file with the same name plus ‘2’ appended.
I don't think enjoyment as a test of good writing isn’t infallible. You have to know what kind of enjoyment you're talking about. The enjoyment of hitting a rich narrative seam? The enjoyment of chiming perfectly, for a whole day, with your pov character? The enjoyment of a particularly poetic or elegiac passage which is needed, just there, in your book? That is the kind of enjoyment, I guess, that Leon de Kock is talking about. But there’s also the enjoyment of letting off steam, of over-identification, of letting your characters have conversations you should have had and never did. And those are bad enjoyments for a writer. Well, for this writer, at any rate.
So what about his other implication. Is all slogged-at writing necessarily bad? Presumably, it depends on the slogging. I assume that when Mr de Kock talks about ‘labouring, groaning inwardly under the sheer weight and unwieldiness, the difficulty of your own creation’ he isn't talking about the entirely legitimate and wholly necessary labour of craft but about those times when it just ain't working folks.
And yes, unwieldiness is deadening. I have deleted sentences, paragraphs and chapters because of it. In fact, one of the things I have learned, over the years, is that if a sentence/paragraph/chapter proves incredibly difficult to write, it probably shouldn’t be there. It's hard to write because, subconsciously, you know it doesn't belong in the flow. Take it away and work out what really goes there instead.
Which is my signal to get back to the w-i-p and the elusive current chapter…
Tuesday, 26 February 2008
It worked. I managed to get significantly into one of those set piece chapters that you know from the beginning of the book are going to be there. I had three abortive attempts to tackle it and finally found my way in via the pov character’s camera, hence yesterday’s cryptic remarks about single lens reflex cameras (SLRs).
Anyway, the short story. I went in to the Canterbury studio last Monday to do a brief slot on Dominic King’s show to talk about the ideas which had been sent in by Radio Kent listeners and to discuss how I was going to approach the write-up. Except we couldn’t get a decent line in to the studio where he broadcasts from – the sounds on the line between Maidstone and Canterbury were those of a good-sized symphany orchestra falling down a very long set of stairs. Repeatedly. Fortunately for me, a radio journalist happened to be at the studio sorting some stuff out on his own account and he saved my bacon by suggesting – when I was on the phone in a panic to Dom’s producer, Steve – that we do the interview from his car where he has a whole – well, set of kit for tapping into radio stations and doing live interviews on a microphone instead of a telephone which was my other option. So we stood in the carpark at Canterbury Christchurch University, with this very nice man – Graham Cooke – holding the microphone whilst I juggled my pieces of paper and spoke fairly coherently, given the circumstances, to a man sitting in a studio thirty miles away. Thank goodness it was neither windy nor raining.
People can be very nice and, just in case Graham Cooke or anybody who knows him reads this blog, I would like to say thanks to him for being very nice indeed.
Anyway, Dominic King’s parting shot was – How long do you need to write the short story? Give me a fortnight, I said and… well, I think that’s where we came in at the top of this blog.
I rather rashly said I’d write the story up in futuristic mode as the suggestions which had come in along those lines seemed the strongest to me. There were a few historical pitches too but, somehow, they just didn’t grab me as much, despite my penchant for writing historical stuff generally.
Maybe it was the opening I’d used – although it doesn’t pin anything down as to time or place (apart from the Garden of England – the brief was to have a story set in Kent, after all) I know what that opening scene really represents. Now the truth comes out. You see, I was struggling horribly to come up with an opening few lines for this story until I thought ‘Kent – Garden of England’. And then I remembered watching the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and his fellow players doing their warm-up before a match. It’s pretty much as described – the field they were on was a v. tired university playing field at the back end of last summer and the sky was an I-might-rain-on-you-any-minute grey. They are a fit bunch, the Kent Open Ultimate Frisbee squad, muscles and sinews everywhere and, of course, they were all dressed alike, in their Kent Ultimate kit. But the ‘Garden of England’ at the end of the piece which, I imagine, everybody reads (and I certainly did, on air) with a note of defiance was actually spoken – in totally camp tongue-in-cheek spoof – as if your maiden aunt had breathed it as she was going down with an attack of the vapours. By, I might add, the tallest and sinewey-est of the young men. After a really testosterone-hyped, adrenalin-pumping chant, hearing him end with a fluffy pink ‘Garden of England’ was hilarious.
So, as you might imagine, historical references are hard to graft on to what is, in my mind, a very contemporary scene.
But I think I need to try. Because, on today’s showing, I haven’t a hope of producing anything sensibly futuristic. And certainly not in 750 words….
Perhaps I should give Aliya a ring...
Monday, 25 February 2008
I started this blog quite unashamedly as a marketing tool – anything to get my name and that of Testament out there and in front of people – but that was before I got involved with reading other people’s blogs extensively and commenting on what they had written. In fact, it wasn’t until I had a blog of my own that I realised how important it is to comment rather than just ‘lurk’ as I had done, for the most part, on the blogs I read.
I’m somewhat surprised that this feeling of belonging matters to me so much. Because I’m not a joiner, not a group person really. I’m more of a one to one person. But therein lies the joy of blogging – though you’re talking to lots (hopefully) of people – you can have one-to-one discussions through the comments box.
I shall be eternally grateful for Matt Curran’s establishment of the Macmillan New Writers’ collective blog where all the writers published under the MNW banner can post comments and interact with each other. It’s put me in regular touch with several of the other MNW authors and made me feel that writing is not such a solitary activity. Hearing about the neuroses, trials and tribulations of the others is, paradoxically, a great help. And the writerly discussions which frequently pop up are not just interesting but stimulate me to think in more depth about how I do what I do.
One of the MNW writers, Roger Morris, has been reflecting on the whole business of publicising one’s work and has concluded that the best thing to do is simply to write – and write the best books you can – and leave the rest to the bookbuying public. I’m tempted to agree with him but that doesn’t mean I’m going to abandon this blog. Because blogging has now moved on for me from being a marketing tool to being the place where I have my equivalent of water-cooler conversations, my sounding-board, my ranting space and my ‘hey, how’s it going’ space.
As a reader, I know I appreciate authors’ websites and blogs, but they are usually useful once I’m already a fan and so don’t function, necessarily, as a marketing tool. I’d be extremely happy if people who’ve read Testament were to find their way here and join in the conversations I’m having.
Sunday, 17 February 2008
We had been intending to take in the National Portrait Gallery on our way back to Victoria as the B is a pretty accomplished artist and protraiture is one of the big demands at GCSE. But, first, we had to go and do homage to some serious basses (as in electric bass guitars, in case thre is any confusion) in Denmark Street, where virtually all the shops are guitar shops and some sell nothing but basses.
We never got to the NPG, instead, in several shops, I had the quite extraordinary experience of sitting and listening to my son improvise on the kind of guitars which we couldn’t possibly afford to buy for him. Why was it extraordinary – don’t I hear him play all the time? Yes, but as he pointed out, yesterday he was able to do things which his own, rather basic (no pun intended) bass simply isn’t capable of. And it was noticeable not only that he did things I’d never heard him do before but that what he did with each guitar was different. Each different guitar brought out different elements of musicality in him.
It occurred to me, as he was playing, that although writing is a very different activity, it has something in common with this improvisation. In the same way that each instrument, with its own possibilities, conjures different musical themes and ideas from the Bassist, so different plotlines and characters draw out very different kinds of writing from me. And as his improvisations would, given time, take form as tunes and compositions, so the instinctively different voices which follow characters and plot need honing and editing until they are right.
But no honing or editing for me for a few days. I’m going down to see my parents in Wales this week. So, expect me here when you next see me - there’s no internet where I’m going…
Friday, 15 February 2008
I’m reasonably used to public speaking, having done approximately a million training sessions for teachers and teaching assistants when I was working in primary schools as an NHS speech and language therapist but, as Louise, the bookshop owner said, it’s a different kettle of fish when you’re talking about you and your book. In fact, it‘s such a different kettle of fish as to make it a can of worms…
The audience, however, couldn’t have made it easier if they’d tried. If they weren’t interested they faked it well, they laughed at my jokes, asked sensible questions (not any of the 10 things…) and raised interesting points, both about my writing and about how it relates to that of authors who choose similar themes.
One thing was particularly interesting. We were talking about a particular author and one member of the audience said ‘Yes, I know the story rattles along but x doesn’t write very good English.’
As we dissected this comment, what emerged was an interesting discussion on what ‘good English’ is.
In England, our education system teaches us that good English was written some time ago by people we now refer to as ‘The Classics’ – anyone from George Orwell and EM Forster backwards. With more of an emphasis on the nineteenth century the further up the Eng Lit school curriculum you go (the Ultimate Frisbee Freak has just finished reading Wuthering Heights for A level, for instance) you could be forgiven for thinking that the best English was written in the nineteenth century and it’s all been downhill all the way ever since. And, therefore, that nineteenth century prose is what Good English sounds like – long sentences, somewhat archaically phrased, including words we don’t necessarily use any more and probably – by today’s standards – needing a bloody good editing.
Of course some of today’s authors seem prosaic and terse by comparison. Today’s vernacular – which lies at the root of every novelist’s voice – is vastly different (spot the Austenism) from anything the nineteenth century had ever heard.
It was then that I realised why I find writing in a historical voice easier – it’s so much easier to sound ‘writerly’ when you’re adopting a historical voice because you are allowed not to sound modern, you are allowed (in fact, positively required) to sound dated and a little bit poetically prolix.
Louise commented that she thought I’d enjoyed writing the historical strand of Testament more than the contemporary. I don’t think enjoyed is the right word but, despite the ton of research which was necessary, I did find it easier in the sense that the voice I used was easier to come by than any kind of convincingly literate-but-modern voice for the twenty-first century strand.
And if the voice comes more easily to me as a writer, I wonder if the story actually flows from that? Certainly, when the flow is good, I think it’s easier to uncouple the rational mind and write from the subconscious where all good writing (in my case, certainly) comes from.
So, I was asked, is there anybody whose prose style you admire who writes the kind of books you like? I thought for a bit. ‘Sue Gee’ I said and then added ‘But particularly when she’s writing historical novels!’
What do the other historical novelists out there think?
Thursday, 14 February 2008
Before doing a speaking/reading gig in Sandwich last night, I asked Louise Vance, the owner of the lovely Sandwich Bookshop who were my hosts, if she thought there was anything I should bring along.
‘Notebooks you used when you were writing the book, or that sort of thing’, she said. Crikey, I thought, I wonder where all the original notes for Testament (then called Toby) are. Not to mention the horribly scruffy but indispensible map of Salster which I drew and kept adding to and adding to as I wrote.
So I ventured into one of the deep, dark, dusty, built-in cupboards in our bedroom where we put things we’re not going to need on a daily basis and I went through my writing archive to find what I needed.
Writing archive. Ahem. Do not think nice, neatly-labelled filing system. Think piles of dusty envelope files with cryptic runes on the front like ‘nts fr MH’ ‘vsn2 HW’ ‘corresp. Toby’.
Right, to understand what I’m about to tell you, you have to understand that I have been writing, more or less constantly (with the odd hiatus of a couple of months here and there whilst having children, a couple of years around breakdown of marriage where I had to negotiate a re-entry to world of full time work) for twenty years. That means I started when I was twenty five – before I had children. Everybody knows your brain goes to mush when you have kids. Whether or not it ever quite recovers is, of course a moot point. Anyway… the point is, I discovered things that I had no memory of having written. Short stories (not bad, not brilliant) radio plays (slightly better) and notes for a radio play which I apparently never got around to writing – or if I did I’ve archived it somewhere else. It’s all in my handwriting and in the unmistakeable type of the dot-matrix printer which we had in those days (ie just around the time we moved from having to load our ‘word processing programme’ on to our BBCB computer (RAM 32k – yes, that is kilobytes, not megabytes or – God forbid that we’d even contemplated such memory in those days - gigabytes. I used to have to chop short stories up into chunks of about 500 words and save them on to disc (6.5 inch floppy disc, when they really were floppy) before writing the next bit!) from cassette tape. Yes, cassette tape. You’d start it loading from your tape player (ie the one you played music on pre-CDs) which you plugged in to your computer via some prehistoric-looking cable, go off and make the tea and come back to see if the programme had loaded. And all it did was turn your computer into a typewriter – you even had to hit Return at line ends!!)
Oh my goodness, altogether too many brackets in that paragraph. Not to mention exclamation marks. Actually, the whole computer technology thing is something I will be forever grateful to my ex-husband, John, for. Without him, I suspect I might have been quite a Luddite and never tapped in to the amazing possibilities of computers. As it is, I’m a total techno-freak nethead and covet nothing so much as an iPhone. Sad, but true…
Anyhoo. It all made me realise what an immensely long time I’ve been writing and being rejected and sending my stuff off to critical services and agents and publishers and being rejected and writing some more and being rejected and writing another thing and being rejected. And did I mention being rejected…?
Throughout these many years I could see my friends and family thinking ‘when’s she going to get the hint? It’s not going to happen!’ They never said so in as many words but I knew that’s what some of them were thinking. That or ‘Oh, nice for her to have something to occupy her time while she’s at home with the kids.’ This was not, you have to understand, the attitude of my nearest and dearest who have, always, demonstrated a touching faith in my ability to – eventually – write something which was not ony tolerably well put together but which people actually wanted to pay money for.
Did I find what I was looking for? Yes, the original notes for Testament (I think I should call it The Book Formerly Known as Toby) did finally emerge, though I failed to find the box of index-cards with my research on them with the dividers made out of cut-up cornflakes packets. (Shut up! We were poor!)
And I found the precious map of Salster. I always remember it as having more on, but a lot of it is just blanks with ‘housing’ written on or ‘park’.
And I found my very first working folder. The thing which started this whole writing malarkey off in the first place was a competition for ‘young people between 18 and 30’ to write a radio play. I’ve still got the photocopy which somebody kindly made me of all the rules and sumission guidelines.
I didn’t win. I’m not even sure I got more than the standard ‘Thank you for entering, the standard was very high, on this occasion you were not successful’ kind of line. But it was the start of the rest of my life.
Wednesday, 13 February 2008
Anyway, on with the review.
It’s so well known amongst my reading-buddies as to be a joke that if, at page 60 in any given book, I would quite happily see all the characters mown down by a machine gun, I stop reading said book. You see, I get involved with characters – I have to like the people I’m reading about.
Or so I thought until I read Aliya Whiteley’s Light Reading. Her main character, Pru Green is not a likeable person. She seems to go out of her way to be unkind, even – or possibly especially – to her best friend, Lena. I’m always telling my children people who are that unkind are usually deeply unhappy and – hah, I do like being right! – so it proves in Pru’s case. But I’m getting ahead of myself….
So, given that she is unpleasant, and Lena’s not much better, why did I not only read beyond page 60 but scurry through the whole thing?
Because Aliya Whiteley has written a highly successful book. A highly enjoyable book. A book which must have been horribly difficult to pull off. Because I think black comedy is difficult to pull off. I mean, is it just me or is 99% of ‘black comedy’ actually just groanably bad comedy about stuff people don’t (shouldn’t?) actually find funny? Neither funny nor really black, it usually just feels as if it’s missed the mark, only with added misery.
But Light Reading is that rarest of beasts, a truly good black comedy. It’s funny. And it’s pretty dark, both in terms of the mystery at its heart, and the psychology of the two central characters. Not to mention Allcombe and pretty much every resident thereof. Not for nothing does the strapline on the Panmacmillan site say ‘Welcome to Britain’s most sinister seaside resort.’
Aliya says (can’t remember where, but either on her blog or when I met her in Cambridge) that she finds it difficult to reconcile herself to Light Reading being classed as a crime novel. And it’s not by any means bog standard crime fiction. Think Rosemary and Thyme meet Edgar Allen Poe. With bad detecting.
Has Aliya set out consciously to subvert the genre? (Cool, v. professional writer-type question, huh?) I don’t think so as I very much get the impression that this novel is entirely character driven. In fact, if you read the interview with Aliya over on the Macmillan New Writers blog here, she says that she wrote the book around Pru, who started out as a character in a short story called Spitting Wasps (ouch, you really wouldn’t want to be Pru’s boyfriend – check it out) and created Lena as her foil.
And she’s created a brilliant double-act. You don’t just want to uncover the mystery at the heart of the book (did child star Crystal Tynee really commit suicide and, if so, how does it relate to the deaths of both her grandmother and her mother’s cat?) you want to uncover the mystery of Pru. Why is she as she is?
You know why Lena is who she is – she’s into self-analysis and analysis of others, she tells you the whole time. But Pru has about as much to say on the subject of her past as your average garden slug.
I wonder – has Aliya managed to pull off the black comedy thing because sci-fi/fantasy writers always look at life from slightly left field? They’re always thinking of what’s beneath the real, the ordinary, the given, and wondering what life is – or could be – really like?
In the interview on the MNWriters’ site, Aliya says of Light Reading ‘Mainly it's about sex and death. Actually, it's completely about sex and death.’ And it is. But it’s also about female friendship.
How not to do it is shown quite clearly by the self-serving hypocrisy of the RAF wives with their utterly grim, depressingly aimless, gin-drinking, cake-eating and back-stabbing. But what might be possible is shown in the Pru ‘n’ Lena double act; what their friendship might have become had Pru been able to accept Lena’s clumsy but heartfelt offering of genuine understanding is glimpsed in one of the darkest scenes in the book.
There are crimes in Light Reading (why it’s called Light Reading is the only question I was left with at the end of the book – I have a nasty suspicion that I’m being thick and that the answer is really obvious) but that doesn’t mean that it’s a crime book.
Detecting (of a highly dubious quality) takes place but that doesn’t make LR detective fiction.
There is the aforementioned sex and death – but it’s not erotic. In fact the sex in LR is quite deliberately and magnificently unerotic. Boy George’s famous line ‘I’d prefer a nice cup of tea’ springs to mind as never before.
What Light Reading is is a highly successful novel, written with a light touch but deep understanding, about people.
The events may pull you along, but it’s the people who make you want to know what happened.
Tuesday, 12 February 2008
Monday, 11 February 2008
As anyone who’s read the FAQ section of my website will know, the published version of Testament is the third major re-writing of the book. It has a completely different contemporary strand to the first two versions, whose contemporary stories were completely different from each other. I kept re-writing because people persistently liked the historical thread more than the modern one. And, in my heart of hearts, I knew they were absolutely right to do so.
Looking back with the wonder that is hindsight, I can see why the historical strand was better. Setting the thing five centuries ago automatically achieved the necessary distance between me and the characters. I couldn’t write sloppily about their experiences by thinly disguising my own – they were separated from me by gulfs of knowledge, culture and expectations of life. I had to work very hard to get inside their minds and, for me, the harder I have to work, the better the result. I’m always very suspicious when a character comes to me too easily as it usually means I’m actually just writing about me. Of course, it may also mean that I’m horribly burdened with protestant work ethic and think that nothing that comes easily is worth doing but I don’t think so. I’m fairly sure that I managed to slough off the PWE a while back.
Setting Testament in a fictitious city was always intended to save me research time. It wasn’t necessary to the plot that the college should be built in a real place so I felt entitled to set it somewhere of my own devising and save myself endless research into the minutiae of what medieval Oxford or Cambridge was actually like. But, with the decision to set the book in Salster came other advantages which I hadn’t anticipated. For a start, it meant that I could play the ‘what if’ game. What if Oxford and Cambridge hadn’t been the only two universities in England for six centuries? What if the church hadn’t kept a stranglehold on learning in England? What would a medieval city look like now, what traditions would it have, what elements of ancient and modern would co-exist and how successfully? All those questions came into the writing of Testament and made it immensely richer. Inventing the tradition of the Fairings was one of the things I enjoyed most about the whole book and when, in the final version, I was able to make it integral to the climax of the book I think I knew that I’d finally found the right story to tell.
But setting the book in a fictitious city also gave me the necessary distance from the world my characters inhabit. I don’t look over their shoulders and think – ‘oh, I know where you are, I’ve walked down that street a dozen times, nice isn’t it?’ Instead I had to look through their eyes and see what they saw, in the way that only they could see it.
Testament as it is now is the book I always intended (and wanted) to write. I just kept getting in my own way. So I suspect that I’ll always regard writing about what I know with suspicion – it just makes things too easy and I need to work hard if what I produce is going to be any good.
Saturday, 9 February 2008
But with writing work, paid work, SAD, the talk on Thursday and this today I am now exhausted so the Other Half and I are going to unplug the phone, curl up with the DVD/HD and watch all the things we’ve recorded this week. Kevin McCloud and Gareth Malone here we come…
Friday, 8 February 2008
So what were my ten things?
I think I’ve mentioned before my aversion to the question ‘where do you get all your ideas from?’ but that isn’t the worst of it by any means. No, I think the most teeth grindingly irritating thing people say to an author is ‘I’ve always thought I could write a book.’ Now, I’m pretty sure I mentioned this somewhere, or maybe it was David Isaak over on his blog but anyway, I remember his answer to whatever comment I made. It went something like ‘I always want to ask them what they do and then say ‘Oh, yes, I’ve always thought I’d like to do a bit of neurosurgery. If I could be bothered.’ I’m heavily paraphrasing because my memory’s rubbish, but that was the gist.
So that was one of the things I said to my captive audience who looked slightly sheepish, most of them presumably, at some point, having said this. The other eight (I'm excluding 'where do you get your ideas' above) were, in no particular order:
What is your book about?
Aaargh!! Buy the book if you want to know the plot! Don’t ask me to summarise it, I don’t do short fiction. If you want to know what it’s really about (themes etc) I say again, BUY THE BOOK!
Listen to this (event which happened to them, their great-aunt Mabel, their neighbour, their dog, their dental plaque…) it’d make a great book.
No, it wouldn’t. It might make a tolerable short story. But a book…? I mean, have they read any books?
Are you going to write another one?
Aaargh! As if any publisher is going to take on a one-book wonder. As if I would put myself through all the agony, heartache, rejection and pain that writing novels entails if I felt I had any other raison d’etre whatsoever. Yes - I have already written four – while I have breath in my body I WILL ALWAYS BE WRITING ANOTHER ONE!
Do you base your characters on your friends?
No. I don’t know my friends well enough. I know my characters from the inside out, I live inside their heads. Do you know your friends that well?
Is it going to be made into a film?
Why do people assume that you would want your book made into a film (I mean, have you ever seen a film worthy of the book it’s based on?) Even if film rights are bought, they are seldom exercised. And anyway (see below) authors know startlingly little about the fate of their book once it belongs to a publisher.
How many copies have you sold?
People universally appear to think that you will know this. They obviously feel that there must be some clicky-counter somewhere which tells you, down to the last second and the latest copy, how your book is doing. I don’t even know how many copies of Testament there are, never mind how many of them have induced people to part with their cash!
Going to be the next JK Rowling are you?
Aaargh! I think I am on record, though probably not on blog, as saying that nobody is going to be the next JKR. Harry Potter is a phenomenon the like of which we are extraordinarily unlikely to see again in our lifetime. He is unique, a work of imaginative genius. No, I am not, sadly, going to be the new JK Rowling.
That’s your money worries sorted then!
I don’t even know whether people are being funny when they say this. When I tell them how little authors make, how I would seriously be better off if I worked on the till at Sainsbury’s, how anybody who goes into writing to make money is a fool, initially people are disbelieving and then they flip to outraged (hopefully on your poverty-stricken behalf). Then they look at me as if I’m a bit deranged and ask me why I bother then.
Thursday, 7 February 2008
ANYway. The email said ‘Joanna Trollope was my guest on todays programme, we played her the writers room stuff and she reacted…’ And the subject heading was ‘I think you might like this Alis’. Oh yes, I liked it!
Anyway, with the wonders of modern technology, I’m going to try and put an MP3 link in here so that you can see what Joanna Trollope had to say about the beginning of the short story I wrote for The Writers’ Room. Here it is.
I am hugely chuffed by Joanna Trollope's kind words as I’ve always been an big fan of hers. Somebody I know once said of a mutual acquaintance that ‘she’s the sort of person who’d rather read Joanna Trollope than Anthony Trollope’ intending for us both to have a cackle at this other person’s expense. But I spoiled her fun by saying ‘Actually, so would I.’ I own every book Jshe has written since The Choir and have loved them all - some more than others, obviously but you know what I mean.
I don’t know why people are so sniffy about her books – you know, the whole ‘aga saga’ thing. Is it just the usual British tendency to try to throw stones at success? Dunno, but I find a huge amount to admire in Joanna Trollope’s books. Apart from the pages virtually turning themselves, I mean. For instance, I think she writes men very well and very believably. OK, I know I’m not a man, but they just ring true, I know men like the characters in her books. And, of course, her women just walk off the page.
She also does meticulous research. This was most evident to me in Next Of Kin, a quite dark novel for her, about a dairy farming community. Since I come from just such a community, it was spooky to see how very much she had managed to see under the phlegmatic, just-get-on-with-it mentality of farmers to the anguish and desperation which often lies beneath.
Similarly, a friend of mine who’s married to a vicar said she could barely read The Rector’s Wife because it was so reminiscent of her own youthful experience – the having no money, parishioners watching critically and commenting on every single thing the poor wife did. Claustrophobic doesn’t begin to cover it.
Anyway, I feel even more chuffed than before that I have been invited to do this stuff on the Dominic King show as he has such illustrious guests. JT today and, the last time I was on I followed Conn Iggulden of The Dangerous Book for Boys fame.
BBC Radio Kent. It’s the place to be!
Wednesday, 6 February 2008
Many congratulations to my fellow MNW author, Eliza Graham for getting her novel Playing with the Moon on to the shortlist of World Book day’s Books to Talk About – books which reading groups would enjoy reading. I voted for her as I’m sure readers’ groups would enjoy it – in fact I shall prove it by getting my reader’s group to read it when it’s my pick next.
I was going to do a review of it anyway, after its success, but a) I’d need to re-read it as anything I read more than a month ago is so hazy in my mind (no matter how impressed I was with it) that I couldn’t possibly offer more than a comment on whether, or how much, I enjoyed it and b) it’ll be a more interesting review if I put in the other readers’ comments. Despite the fact that my fellow groupers keep waiting for me to say interesting, insightful and erudite things they usually have a great deal more of all three to say than me.
Reviews are definitely the flavour of the day here chez Bizarre. I’ve just been sent a bound manuscript (funny how we all still use manuscript when in fact they’re typescripts now) copy of The Suicide Shop after Scott Pack over at Me and My Big Mouth offered ten to the first readers to ask, on the condition that we would blog about the book if we enjoyed it. I’m thirty or so pages in and racing away because it has incredibly short chapters. Actually, as it’s a v. short book it would look silly with long chapters – it would only have about four.
Will I enjoy it? Not sure yet as it’s slightly to the right of The Adams Family and the Little Shop of Horrors in both tone and content but as an idea it’s very interesting. It’s always said that good, happy people are just basically not very interesting in books or, alternatively, come across as unbelievable but Jean Teule (the book is translated from French by Sue Dyson, aka novelist Zoe Barnes) manages to bring a whole new light to the dilemma by making everybody else in the book so professionally black and miserable that little Alan (all the Tuvache children are named after famous suicides, you’ll have to guess who Alan is) is a very welcome ray of sunshine: He manages to be interesting because joie de vivre is so unlikely in this household and, as to his believability, well, put it this way, Teule has placed him in a family which sells suicide in the way that other shops sell knickers. We’re not in Believabilityville here.
I’ll blog about it some more if I decide, on finishing, that I enjoyed it, or – the other criterion for bigging up a book – admired it.
I know, you just can’t wait, can you…?
Tuesday, 5 February 2008
Five minutes later: OK, so somebody seriously wants So Many Books, So Little Time. Every time I up my bid, their maximum trumps it. Oh well, now I’m pinning my hopes on the others. It would have been nice to take a photo of me wearing SMBSLT next to the tottering to be read pile, but hey ho ebay could take over your life if you let it. (As could reading other people’s blogs, btw…)
Anyway, the reason I brought up this mega badge auction is publicity. It’s always much on the minds of recently-published authors, especially those who are not household names and, as somebody recently remarked in their blog (sorry, whoever it was, I didn’t make a note of it, but cheers for the observation anyway) authors these days need two entirely different personae – one reclusive, creative and bloody-minded one (my words not the poorly-identified blogger’s) to do the writing and another bouncy, hello-look-at-me one to sell the books.
And, though I may just be speaking for myself here, I get the impression that most writers are not look-at-me types. If we were we wouldn’t be content to spend day after day sitting with only a laptop/pad of paper and a pen for company.
In this context, I'm reminded of the telly programme about Joanna Rowling which was on over Christmas. Am I the only one who thought how uneasy she looked as she turned up to the premier of one of the Harry Potter films (I assume it was last summer’s The Order of the Phoenix) in comparison with the huge-smiled, sleekly dressed stars of the show who were almost visibly purring at all the attention? It wasn’t that JKR didn’t look the part – she looked fab – she just also looked as if she’d like to be pretty much anywhere else on the planet at that precise moment.
So how do we who do not have premiers to attend do the publicity thing? I guess we all secretly hope that we won’t have to, that we slide the book out there into the public domain and, in a very short time indeed, without obvious effort or planning it will be the holy grail of publishing, a word-of-mouth success. Hmmm. Well how many books do you know that that is true of? Apart from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone which, I gather from the word on the streets and no research whatsoever, Bloomsbury did not overly hype on first publication. Like, they didn’t hype it at all. (Please feel free to put me right on this if you are in the know…)
Blogs are publicity. I’m sure all of us who are writers secretly hope that people will be so captivated by the engaging personality which comes over from our witterings, so impressed by the erudition of our occasional forays into criticism, so generally impressed by our over-all spiffingness that they will hit the bookshops in droves and create a demand like a tidal wave for our books. And it may. But let’s not all hold our collective breath because that would a) be bad for our capillaries and b) have no effect whatever on sales.
My sister-in-law, wonderful woman, who read Testament in manuscript and loved it so much she wrote me a letter telling me why, suggested that we should all wear t-shirts on launch night (and beyond) saying ‘I am a Tobyite’ (this will only make sense to you if you have read the book, or at least read the stuff about Testament on my website) and, as one of the themes of Testament is belonging to a community, I guess that kind of t-shirt declaration might work. I just didn’t quite have the bottle to carry it off.
How about the rest of you writers out there? Do you think about publicity, or do you leave it to your publisher’s marketing department? Have you come up with any whizzo ideas for getting your book noticed?
Or shall I just get some badges done?
PS - just found the reference to the split author thing it's here at notes from the slushpile.
Monday, 4 February 2008
Drat, drat, drat. As if the to-be-read pile wasn’t already threatening to engulf most of the known universe (sorry about the hyperbole, been reading Bill Bryson) I just had to follow the link from Aliya Whiteley’s interview on the Macmillan New Writers’ blog to the first three chapters of her new book Light Reading. I had already had a quick look at it last week when we were in Cambridge with Faye and thought it looked very much like my cup of tea but I hadn’t sunk three chapters deep into it.
I wanted to read it before. Now, I want to read it now, today, preferably this minute and to hell with all the problems with my own work in progress.
The characters have snared me and I wonder if the short-story writing which Aliya does and which I have been moaning about here (not hers, my own inability to do same) helps in the almost instant creation of character. We’re barely a dozen pages in to the book and already I feel like I know Lena and Pru. Little details quickly add up to a feeling of depth and these RAF wives are already real to me.
Add to that the definite flavour of the ‘dark side’ which has already developed (I’m not sure how without going back and analysing the text, but it’s there) and I’m hooked. The kind of Royston Vasey undertone which Allcombe had already acquired in Aliya’s first book Three Things About Me is clearly going to be a bigger feature in Light Reading (which has got to be an ironic title).
Anyway, I shall be off to Wottakars later in the day after I have tortured the w-i-p until it confesses and shall curse them roundly if they haven’t already got a copy of Light Reading.
If you don’t regularly read the MNW writers’ blog, do go over and have a look here at Aliya’s interview which will take you on a link to the book.
Thank goodness I’ve almost finished (without pulling too many rib-muscles) The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, because – unlike lots of bloggers – I’m not good at having more than one book on the go at once. Random Acts of Heroic Love will just have to wait…
Saturday, 2 February 2008
Of course, I said.
No problem, I said.
Delighted, I said…
…and sent the email
Except… I don’t write short stories.
Not for the last sixteen years, at least.
I did once upon a time. Like most beginning writers I was under the mistaken impression that short stories, being short, were easier than novels or other more extended forms. Which is not a particularly logical thing to think when taking anything but word-count into consideration. It’s like saying that it must be easier to win an Olympic 100 metres than a marathon.
Of course a marathon requires more stamina but no less training or basic athletic ability.
I was, as people are prone to do when looking at any creative endeavour, confusing effort with talent.
I have no basic talent for brevity. Testament is not a short book. Shorter than it was before I put my editing hat on and deleted 75% of the lovingly-bestowed but annoying-to-read adverbs, pruned sentences which basically reiterated what I’d said in the previous line only with different words and cut whole chapters which, though beautiful, did not add much to the story, but still not short. (Arguably, one of the beautiful but value-added-less chapters remains, but I left it there so that readers would have a few pages of lovely meaninglessness to recover from what had just happened. And, in my defence, there are a few lines which move the plot forward. )
But I digress.
Brevity. It is not me. For a few years a decade or so ago, I had a column in the local diocesan newspaper (ie one that’s given out free to all churchgoers in an attempt to make everybody feel that they’re part of the diocese instead of being all parochial. And, obviously, I use the word parochial there literally…) I had 500 words to say something ‘relevant, to the point and witty to the person in the pew’ as my original brief said.
For the first couple of years I invariably wrote 1500 words and had to exercise my frequently-called-upon skills in precis to get it down to 500. After a while it gradually shifted down to around 750 but I never produced a piece which I didn’t have to hack mercilessly until it said the one thing which I was supposed to be saying instead of digressing, musing and just, frankly, embellishing.
Anyway, short stories. As you will have gathered from the foregoing, they are not my natural habitat as a writer. Nor, as a matter of fact, as a reader, though I always feel that is something of a deficiency in me.
So what am I to make of the fact that I must produce a short story which, when read aloud (as they are going to tape me doing, before adding music and fx) is no longer than 5 minutes? Mr King reckons that this is ‘about 882 words’. I make it closer to 550/600 as I’m sure that, in my short story writing days all those years ago, when I was trying to write to the BBC’s short story slot (15 mins) I never got above 1650 words. I don’t read aloud particularly slowly, probably the opposite in fact.
I’m due back on the show on the 18th of Feb to talk about the suggestions people have made about where the story should go and, then, they’re giving me a week or two to write the story before going back and recording it.
Just as the synopsis for Testament seemed to take longer to write than the whole blasted book had, I suspect I shall be writing and re-writing this short story for days and days. I’d start writing it now but it would be just my luck for a brilliant suggestion to come in on the day before I have to do the round-up of submissions, so I’m possessing my soul in patience. But there is already one particularly good suggestion which I’m letting quietly stew away in the back of my brain…
Friday, 1 February 2008
But, generally, a couple of hours of book dusting, furniture removals and swearing over electrical equipment and old houses with an inadequate supply of sockets and I was good to go.
And, so far, the writing seems to be flowing better in the new space. I knew something had gone wrong about seven chapters ago and now I’ve discovered what and why and I’m in the process of rectifying things. I’m hoping that, once this glitch is sorted, I’ll be able to crack on with the last major section of the novel because I’d really like to have a first draft by Easter. That would mean that I might stand a fighting chance of having something to show Will, my editor, by about September.
Except I’m scared. Because he might not like it.
‘When’s the next one out?’ people have begun to ask.
‘When I’ve finished it and when Macmillan have decided whether they want to publish it’, I say, trying to be all breezily professional and up-beat.
They look astonished. ‘But once you’ve got your first one published, that’s it, isn’t it? Sorted? You can write what you like after that?’
I wander off to weep quietly somewhere, unobserved.