Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The fate of Not One of Us...

Last week on Juxtabook’s blog, I wrote an article which talked about getting the email that all writers fantasise about – the offer to publish your work. This week, I find myself writing about the email that all writers dread, the one that begins with all the things your publisher really liked about your book but whose second paragraph begins with the ominous word ‘However…’. That’s when you know you’ve failed to pull off the difficult second book.

Now, bearing in mind everything I said in that piece for Juxtabook nobody would expect the decision not to publish Not One of Us in its current form to be anything but thoughtful, considered and taken with due concern for my future work as an author. Nor was it. But, despite the extent to which the right words can soften the blow, reading Will’s kind comments and perceptive criticisms it was abundantly clear to me that, although there were good things about Not One of Us, overall it didn’t accomplish what I’d set out to do.

But all is not doom and gloom. Quite the reverse. This blog post has been a difficult one to write, not just because I didn’t want to admit to failure (though obviously that came into it) but because I’ve been mulling over how to convey my state of mind vis a vis my writing at the moment without seeming falsely bright eyed and bushy tailed.

So, what is my state of mind? Well, having read the fateful email whilst I was cooking supper after getting home from work one day last week, I spent the rest of the evening in a bit of a slough, trying to find it in me to disagree with the difficulties Will and his colleagues had found with Not One of Us (and failing) and just basically being pissed off that I’d spent a year working on a project which part of me knew I should have abandoned with the previous unfinished version of the book a year ago. The following day (after waking up and thinking ‘bugger, it wasn’t a dream’) I re-read the email and realised two things.
1) Though my judgement as to whether the whole novel hung together had clearly been wrong, I had known which bits really worked and Will’s email had agreed with that judgement – he had flagged exactly those elements.
2) Two (and this arose directly out of 1) Not One of Us had not played to my strengths as a novelist.

Later that same day I spoke to Will on the phone and, as a result of our conversation, I made a decision. Well, two decisions, actually, but let’s take them one at a time.

Firstly, I decided that I had allowed the essential fascination of the split time narrative – the ability both to write a historical narrative and then to have contemporary characters play with it, interact with it, reflect on it – to seduce me into writing, as Will put it ‘a novel about history rather than a historical novel’. The things I find most fascinating about history – how it affects us today, how we peer into the mists but can’t possibly see it as it really was, how we interpret the fragments that have come down to us in myth and document - are the things that lead me off the path of narrative and into something which becomes more about the idea than the story.

And that brings us to the second decision which is that my next book is going to be a straightforward historical narrative. No contemporary strand, no batting back and forth; I’m just going to maroon myself and my reader in the fourteenth century and see what we make of the people and situations we find there.

Various agents, readers, friends and relations have told me for years that they thought that this is what I should do (write historical novels, not maroon people in the fourteenth century) but I’ve ignored them. I don’t honestly know why, except that a) I’m not good at doing what other people say I should and b) I felt that it was a bit presumptuous for me, a non-historian, to produce fictions which basically said ‘I know all about this’.

So what’s changed?
Well, even the most determined go-er alone eventually realises that an opinion expressed so often and by so many different people is unlikely to be completely mistaken. And writing historical fiction of the split-time variety has shown me that you don’t actually need to know everything, you just need to be convincing about the bits you choose to shine a light on. After writing Testament there are still a million things I don’t know about life in late fourteenth century England but I know a great deal about the things I chose to spotlight – masons and building, the Lollards and the relationship between church and university.

And something else has changed as well. Or perhaps I should say that I’ve made a resolution that it’s going to change. Like many writers I am reticent to the point of paranoia about letting another living being see my work whilst it’s in progress. I don’t discuss my work with anybody and I don’t let anybody see it. I’m not a member of a writing group of any kind. Basically I DON’T ASK ANYBODY’S ADVICE. (See comments on not being good at doing what other people tell me, above...)
And this has to change. If I’d shown Not One Of Us to Will at an earlier stage a lot of wasted time and effort might have been avoided. Either I would have acknowledged that what I was trying to do was too ambitious and abandoned it or I would have changed the focus and done something different with the central idea.

So… I have agreed with Will that I will send him a synopsis of the book which is germinating - sprouting, growing madly - in my mind and that we will discuss the progress of said book as it goes along. In other words I will bite the bullet and show him the thing. I may not like it but I have come to the conclusion that it’s a necessary discipline. It would be nice to go all literary and say that I just want to be left alone to write the books I want to write but the simple fact is that I want to be published. And, however many times I heard, prior to Will’s offer to publish Testament, that ‘it must be so rewarding to write’ it frankly isn’t rewarding if nobody’s reading your stuff. For me, writing is not its own reward. I want an audience.
So it seems sensible to show my stuff to the man who gets to make the decision as to whether I’ll get an audience somewhat earlier than the moment at which I type THE END so that he can point out to me when I’m wandering totally off the point and losing my audience in the long grass of my own preoccupations.

And, contrary to what you might think, these realisations and decisions have left me feeling astonishingly energised. I can’t stop thinking about the new book (working title The Black and The White), about the central character and his predicament. Everything I do or see seems to spark off some new train of thought, some new avenue for research. (By the way, speaking of research, if anybody knows any good books on the history of charcoal burning in Britain, more particularly in the medieval period, please let me know.)

Far from feeling daunted at the thought of confining myself to the fourteenth century I’m feeling liberated. I can think more purely about the story and less about the historical echoes. There won’t be those jumps out of one century into another when I look at the prose and wonder why I can’t mirror something of the quality of the historical voice in the present day narrative. I’ll be able to immerse myself and my reader in another world.

Of course I’m annoyed that my own mistakes mean that I’m not going to have a book published next year. People keep asking me ‘when’s the next one coming out?’ and having to tell them that NOOU hasn’t made the cut isn’t quite the conversation I’d hoped for about the fate of my next book.
Of course I’m cross with myself that the characters of whom I’ve become so fond aren’t going to be there on the shelves for other people to get to know.
Of course I’m cross with myself that – even if all goes astonishingly well – there’s going to be a gap of more than four years between Testament’s publication and the next one. Not good for building reader loyalty.
And I suspect that people are going to take my enthusiasm for work on The Black and The White as a smokescreen behind which I’m attempting to hide NOOU’s failure. But it’s not. I’m quite honestly very excited every time I think about the new book. Probably more excited than I’ve been about writing since I got the idea for Testament. And that’s a good feeling.

Wish me luck…

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Playing away...

Just in case you all thought I was being horribly lazy about getting blog posts up here recently, I have been working on a long-ish piece about being published by MNW for Juxtabook. In lieu of anything going on here today, you can find the piece here.
More news on current writing projects chez Bizarre soon.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Piracy or Publicity?

What are writers to think of this article about the increasing practice of pirating books on the net? Do we all start scouring the web-waves for examples of our books being hi-jacked by those who don’t want to pay, or should we, as Cory Doctorow says at the end of the article, be thankful for the publicity it gives our work?

I had a discussion with Son Number 1, better known to readers of this blog as the Ultimate Frisbee Freak, the other day about the Pirate Bay trial where various Swedish e-facilitators were found guilty of copyright theft/infringement. His opinion was that a) it put the word about bands, films and games ‘out there’, b) that many of the people downloading stuff from the site were probably kids who couldn’t afford to pay for the stuff legitimately and represented an untapped audience that would grow up to – possibly – become paying fans, c) that fans will always want the real thing (the CD, the DVD) partly because d) the ripped off copies are usually sub-standard for various technical reasons.

I don’t know what to think. (A state of affairs I find increasingly common. I thought one was supposed to get more dogmatic with age, not less?) For published authors, few of us are making enough money not to care that some people – who might otherwise buy our book – are downloading it free simply because they can. Yes, yes, I know that our primary reason for writing is that people will read our books and, clearly, that is what is happening with the pirated copies and yet… having had the validation of a publishing contract, we also now feel that, as well as wanting people to read our books, we’d quite like people to actually shell out money for them. We’ve put in the hours, our publishers have put in the dosh, it seems unfair that some people should benefit, gratis, from these investments.

But then there’s point a) above. We all – apart from those authors who are sure-fire big sellers from the off – want to be ‘word of mouth’ successes. Well, once the initial burst of publicity is over, maybe the best kind of word of mouth now has an e-component? Maybe where we once relied on recommendations passing from mouth to ear, we now need to see free copies being downloaded and a ‘buzz’ created on the forum or comments trail of many websites. Because if c) above is correct then that will translate into actual, hard-copy sales.

What do you think?

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

I have just read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski.
Now, I read a lot of books and I’ve never read read anything like this. I was captivated almost from the first page and the presence of Edgar, the central character, kept me engrossed all the way through.

Unique, then. But it’s a very hard book to categorise. Or even describe. At one level it’s a book about a boy and his dogs. The Sawtelles breed and train (boy do they train!) their very own breed of dog. I am a resolutely cat person and even I wanted a dog of my own by the end of the book.

At another level it’s a psychological thriller but to try and categorise it in that way would do the book a great disservice.

At yet another level it’s a coming of age novel. Or a weird road-trip with dogs...

But none of these begin to sum up The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

I think, possibly, it’s a book whose main preoccupation is communication. Edgar is mute - not deaf, just mute. For some reason he simply cannot speak or make any vocal noise. So he signs, even to his dogs. But his silence seems to be more deep-rooted than a simple anatomical difficulty with voice production – his mother describes him as a silent, inward person and the reader gets the impression that his most effective communication is all non-verbal.

The book is also very concerned with the way in which people communicate the things they know. And how they know what they know. Edgar has an almost telepathic kind of information-exchange with his dog, Almondine (who gets her moment as a viewpoint character) and both he and his mother effect a kind of non-verbal communication with their dogs which seems not simply out of the ordinary but almost supernatural.

And this sense of the supernatural keeps cropping up. There is communication from beyond the grave and psychic communication from a lesser, but very vividly realised character. In a book that works hard to present us with the nuts and bolts of the dog-trainer’s art, which goes into a great deal of historical detail about the development of the Sawtelle’s method, which presents a very unforgiving and unromantic view of a small rural community, this kind of excursion into the realms of the unknowable shouldn’t work. But it does. And that makes The Story of Edgar Sawtelle a strange, memorable and unusual book.

But, oddly, I think the thing that stays with me is the American-ness of the book. There is a certain kind of North American novel that conveys, in its language, its symbolism and its characters the vast emptiness of the continent, the lonely, self-sufficient independence of rural life, the ultimate significance of the questions about life that are inspired by vast prairies and endless skies. It’s difficult to be bogged down in trivia when your insignificance in the universe is demonstrated to you every night by the very visible presence of a billion stars.

In many ways, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle shouldn’t work.
But work it does. I loved it.