Notes & ramblings about writing
Another Award for Paradise Girl!
September 4th, 2018
Paradise Girl has received a B.R.A.G.Medallion. B.R.A.G. is an acronym for Book Readers Appreciation Group, an organisation that has brought together a large group of readers, both individuals and members of book clubs, located throughout the United States and in ten other countries around the globe.
Books are read by a panel of readers who award marks out of 5 for plot, characters, dialogue, style, chapters, copy editing, content & structure, formatting, cover and title. Paradise Girl received 5/5 in every category except one, making a total of 49 marks out of a possible 50 (the only 4 awarded was for the cover).
The readers said,
‘This was a very nuanced apocalyptic story. It took a deft hand to write such believable and sympathetic characters. I felt their pain and their loneliness with out being crushed by an unrelenting tragedy. I am ready for another book by this author.’
‘This was a really good story and I would most certainly tell my friends it is a book worth getting. The author has a wonderful gift for conveying the emotions of his characters and there are enough twists and turns to keep a reader up all night. Thank you for letting me read this amazing book! ‘
‘This is an excellent book well told. I enjoyed the diary format and found the dialogue witty and appropriate. The story is at times crushing but very believable. I highly recommend this book for B.R.A.G.Medallion. My only concern is its genre. Although it is about a young girl, I think it is just as interesting for adults. I wonder if it would get more attention in a broader genre.’
‘Really enjoyed this book. The ending was a surprise!’
Thank you to everyone who has read Paradise Girl. If you haven’t got around to it yet you can get it from Amazon for 1.99. Further info here https://tinyurl.com/ybbphld9
Keep an eye on my Facebook page, my Twitter feed and website for news about Aftershocks, the follow-up to Paradise Girl – COMING SOON.
The First 50K Words Are the Easiest!
July 4th, 2018
I’m working on Aftershock, the follow-up to my novel Paradise Girl.
In a couple of previous blogs I’ve talked about how when I came to write Paradise Girl I did it as a ‘pantster’, working with an overall idea and shape but basically making it up as I went along. Because Aftershock is a follow-on I already had some of the characters and the general situation, so I it seemed best to plan the whole thing carefully first. I therefore became a’planner’ and wrote a detailed 10K word synopsis complete with beginning, middle and end. I used some of what I’ve learnt from the excellent (and highly recommended) Into the Woods by John Yorke to ensure a well-shaped narrative structure. I thought that this would be a good opportunity to compare and contrast the two approaches to writing, because at heart I’m a pantster, but that sometimes means I waste time by going up blind alleys; being a planner might be more efficient.
I’m 50K words into Aftershock and I’ve now got to the hard bit! You see, I know how it’s going to end – I even know what the last sentence will be (spoiler: it contains a 4-letter word!) – but I have to get the reader to that point. The story has unfolded, all the cards are on the table and it’s time to start resolving things. The problem is, how do I tie up the loose ends most effectively?
It’s the old ‘show’ v. ‘tell’ issue. All the creative writing books you read, and all the editors you listen to, and from what I hear all the creative writing courses too, stress the importance of showing (i.e. giving the reader the evidence which will enable them to construct the narrative for themselves), rather than simply telling.
Showing is good. It involves the reader, but better still it makes them think, and this means that each one of them becomes a partner in the creative process. When I did my English degree the course stressed the central role of literary criticism. In other words, the writer sits on one side and the reader on the other with the text between them. Both make an input, and although there are broad parameters, the detail of the outcome is different for each reader, and it probably includes things that are new to the writer too. The act of reading, therefore, becomes a creative process.
Take Hamlet, for example. Shakespeare could presumably have had Fortinbras (or whoever else might be left standing at the end of the play!) explain to the audience exactly what had gone on. Why Hamlet delayed his revenge, what had motivated Claudius and Gertrude (there are hints that it was more than simple, raw lust), whether Hamlet knew what he was doing when he stabbed Polonius, and so on. All these and many other questions could have been resolved in that way, answered by the author. But the play would have been poorer and would also have lost much of its magic. And a lot of critics would have been out of business too!
However, telling is good too. Agatha Christie solved the problem by getting all her major characters together and having Hercule Priorate explain to them – and therefore to the reader – who had ‘done it’, why and how. Conan Doyle did the same, with Holmes interpreting the events of the story for Watson and telling how he’d solved the puzzles they presented. It’s an approach that gives the writer the opportunity to make clear exactly what has happened in the story (so the reader doesn’t miss anything) and how they want them to see it (so there are no misunderstandings). Many other murder mystery and thriller writers, and a lot of ‘Victorian’ writers of all genres, adopt this method. It’s economical with words, it’s clear, it helps the reader understand what’s gone on (look for those ‘ah ha’ moments) and, when well done, it leaves everyone satisfied. Best of all, it not only wraps things up neatly, it does it quickly too.
A story is, after all, something you narrate. Children will clamour for you to tell them a story, not show them a story (unless of course they’re wanting to see a video). The trouble is, adult and YA readers are not children, and we’ve all read books which are facile and tedious because there’s too much telling. In the hands of a master (or in the case of the venerable Agatha, a mistress) telling can be very effective. However, giving the reader the raw material to reach their own conclusions holds greater power. The downside is, it takes a lot of doing and requires a lot of words. As an illustration, I could tell you the moon is made of green cheese (telling); or I could send my hero, an astronaut, on an expedition there to bring back samples which are then analysed, and you could drop in on a conversation about the lab reports (showing). The latter would be more interesting; it would also be harder to write and it would take a lot more words.
So 50,000 into Aftershock, I feel that really I’m just starting, and the hard part lies ahead. Now where’s that plan?
Planner or Pantster?
May 30th, 2018
A regular discussion among writers is about the best approach to the long and sometimes daunting business of writing a novel. When you sit staring at the blank sheet or screen with 70,000 words ahead of you, what do you do?
Some say that best route is to plan everything very carefully. Stephen King and Dan Brown are reputed to be writers who do this, and there are many others. They are the planners. In the opposite corner are those who say that planning stifles creativity, and the best thing to do is sit down with an idea, start writing and see where it takes you; in other words, fly by the seat of your pants. These are the pantsters.
I’m not a natural planner, mainly because I’m always impatient to get on with the story. I wrote ‘Paradise Girl’ as an out-and-out pantster. I had the idea of the unstoppable virus and the heroine forced to face it alone. She and her twin brother had already come to me in an unfinished (and probably never to be finished) story I’d been pushing around for a while. I had one or two scenes in mind, but I had no idea how the tale might end. I needed a location, and could find none better than a house like my own, about five miles further on from where the back of beyond finishes! Thus prepared, I gave it a push and let it roll.
‘Pantstering’ is hard work. All novel writing is actually, as those who have tried it know. But I mean in this case particularly so. The pantster often goes up blind alleys and has to retreat; additional ideas arrive, and sometimes even new characters appear. These and the fresh plot elements they bring often force the pantster to go back and rewrite scenes already done.
I wasn’t going to write a sequel to ‘Paradise Girl’, but the book has gone well enough to persuade me there’s sufficient interest to make one worthwhile, so now I am. It’s called ‘Aftershock’ and I’m 33,000 words in (a little under half way). This time I decided I’d do some serious planning before launching into the first draft.
I spent two months thinking about the characters, the plot and possibilities. This was easier than with a totally new novel, because part of the heavy lifting had already been done: some characters and the back story already existed in ‘Paradise Girl’. I made lists, mind-maps and charts on A3 sheets.Then I spent another couple of weeks writing a 10,000 word synopsis of the plot.
An online contact suggested to meRandy Ingermanson’s ‘Snowball Method’ (you can get his book on Amazon). It’s an intriguing idea and offers a formula for taking a broad idea and developing it in various ways until it’s a viable script.
The time I spent on planning is paying off very well as I write ‘Aftershock’. There was one period when I went off piste and strayed away from my plan. I found the plot wandering along different lines and soon ran into problems. I realised what had happened and yanked it back, which was easy because I knew where it should have been. And actually it was a relief to get back to the track I’d prepared.
I love the fizz I get when a new idea comes up, and that still happens. The last stage in the Snowball Method (penultimate stage, really, because the final one is to write the novel) is a detailed scene by scene list. I never did this and I think if I had I would have found it too constricting. For example, a couple of characters have appeared who weren’t in my original synopsis, and one of them has led to an incident and interaction which I think is effective. If I’d already worked out each scene in the finest detail that wouldn’t have happened, and I think to do this would for me stultify things and take away much of the adventure of writing. To be fair to Randy, he makes it very clear in presenting his Snowball Method that you don’t have to buy in to the whole package and it’s up to the individual to find the bits of it that work best for them. His approach has certainly helped me in establishing a structure which supports an exciting (I hope!) narrative arc.
So I think I can say that I’m now a definite ‘plantster’. Of course, there are another 40,000 or so words to go and it could all yet fall apart. The first draft should be done by the end of June, at which time I’ll be looking for beta readers to let me know it they think it works. Any volunteers?
Getting Undressed in Public
February 24th, 2018
Writing is a solitary business. I know there are pairs and groups of writers who have been and are very successful, but mostly it’s something that people do on their own. And in the early stages it’s very private. In my own case I become so absorbed in the world I’m creating that it can take precedence over the real one; as I work on my story and characters I miss things that are going on around me, fail to hear what’s said to me, forget things.
Writing can also be self-indulgent. When I began to seriously write fiction I didn’t consider whether anyone would read it. I didn’t have a reader in mind, neither did I have a genre. I wrote what I wanted to write because I wanted to write it. So when people asked me who would read my book and what the genre was, I was at a loss. However, once I’d finished my first novel I wanted to show it to others. To be honest, what I really wanted was for them to tell me it was brilliant and just what the literary world had been waiting for. I gave it to family and close friends, and – bless them – that’s more or less what they did say. But they would, wouldn’t they? I mean, when you show your baby to someone you’re close to they’re going coo and tell you how lovely it is, even if it looks like a goblin!
So you have to go further. You get published, and you brace yourself to see how people who don’t know you will respond to your baby. This is the bit that somebody (it might have been Mark Twain) likened to taking your clothes off in public. You stand naked on the platform and wait for people to say which parts of your anatomy they admire (if any!) and which they deplore. The most you can hope for is that their assessments will be honest, and for the most part I think they are.
I waited in an agony of anticipation for the first reviews of Paradise Girl, and I was delighted when they came in at four or five stars. However, one of them didn’t (more than one, of course, but one I want to talk about). This reviewer disliked my book because she ‘didn’t get on with’ (her phrase) my heroine, Kerryl. The problem for her was that Kerryl develops a warped image of her own body which triggers anorexia. Now this choice wasn’t just a gimmick on my part. Here’s a young woman who sees her family and friends die and is left completely alone. How would she respond to the intolerable psychological impact of that? My view of her is that it might emerge in some sort of self-destructive behaviour. Anorexia fitted my view of Kerryl because she has a history of eating disorder and it seemed a more likely outcome than other sorts of self-harm. I intended that it should kindle compassion for Kerryl, but in this case it didn’t, it provoked irritation and exasperation.
I wanted to explain this to my reviewer and get her comments on how else I might have handled it. Could I have made Kerryl say or do things which would have evoked a more sympathetic response? So I messaged her through Goodreads to explain why I’d created Kerryl in that particular way. Big mistake! My reviewer complained that responding in this way made her feel uncomfortable. And another Goodreads user took exception to my action, saying that in contacting a reviewer I had ‘broken the contract between writer and reader’. She said that she had not read Paradise Girl, and because of what I had done never would!
I’m a big fan of BBC Radio 4’s The Book Programme. I love the interactions between James Naughty and authors, the questions that come from the audiences and and the discussions that arise out of them. I thought the same thing might happen on Goodreads. I wasn’t trying to say or imply that my reviewer was ‘wrong’. I was brought up in the FR Leavis school of literary criticism, where intelligent reading is regarded as a creative activity in its own right and there is no such thing as a ‘wrong’ interpretation. Maybe I expressed myself clumsily in what I wrote to this reviewer – well obviously I did because it didn’t lead to the outcome I wanted – but it did make me think about Goodreads groups, and to realise that many of their members don’t want to communicate with writers; they want to communicate with each other.
Like almost every writer, I am sincerely and immensely grateful to anyone gives up their time to read my work. I am even more grateful if they take the trouble to say what they think of it. However, it’s a shame if it stops at that. There are exceptions, but for the most part reviews on Goodreads or anywhere else don’t lead to a discussion of the work. I know there’s the opportunity to ask an author a question, but comparatively few readers do, and to be honest the questions are usually fairly banal (‘When’s your next book due out?’ ‘Do you plan to write any more books about the yak strangling festival in Panama City?’ etc.).
It’s a shame. Reviewers are good. Reviewers are five star, even when they award we writers fewer than that. When they do, it would be great to be able to explore with them where the author’s intentions have come unstuck. That would help the writer to grow, and it would turn Goodreads into a wonderful vehicle for discussing of the craft of writing, one from which we could all learn.
P.S. The statue at the top of the page isn’t meant to be me. However, if I was going to get undressed in public it would be good to look like him, rather than like the guy below.
The Novel is Dead
October 21st, 2017
The novel is dead. Or so people have been saying for decades. In the pre- and post-war heyday of the silver screen it was the movies that were going to kill the novel. Then it was TV that was set to finish both the novel and the film industry. What these predictions failed to take into account was that both these media rely on being supplied with a constant stream of original stories, and novels are a dependable source of these.
The novel is an almost perfect medium. It’s portable, accessible, flexible, not dependent on time, and does not require any other participants – although sharing through book groups and clubs can enhance the experience of reading. And it’s democratic. Many many more people can write a story than can paint a decent picture or compose a piece of music.
The novel is not dead, but some of the elements that have sustained it are dying. We are experiencing a revolution that in the long term may be as dramatic as the invention of print. The traditional publishing model requires a publisher to be confident of sales before taking on a book. Estimates vary and information is hard to collect, but it’s been suggested that, with the exception of the big name blockbusters, the typical sales for a new, traditionally published novel number fewer than 500 copies in the first year, less than half that in the second, and a mere trickle thereafter. First year sales of self-published fiction may be as low as 50 copies.* Figures and contracts vary and the price of print, like any other commodity, rises and falls, but generally a print run of 1000 will allow a publisher to break even only if three quarters of them sell. That means that many books lose money, and that makes publishers choosey. Very choosey. ‘It is very easy to acquire a book. Much harder to publish it successfully,’ says Jamie Byng of Canongate.
One outcome of this is the rise of the agent. By accepting only books that come through agents, publishers rely on somebody else to do the initial sifting and – they hope – pick out the winners. However, the agent too will only make money if they can place the book. They are in a position to pass on only a tiny handful of the manuscripts they receive, and that means there are an awful lot of disappointed authors. Almost in parallel with the growth in the role of the agent has been the expansion of self publishing. Of course, I’m not suggesting that it’s only authors who can’t get a deal with an agent or publisher who self publish. There are many reasons for taking this route, among them the greater control that self publishing brings, or the higher per unit return, or perhaps disenchantment with the whole agent/publisher rigmarole.
Back there I used the word ‘manuscript’. However, for most people the term is a misnomer. Literally the word means ‘written by hand.’ How many of us do that? Almost everyone I know writes on a computer, and in many cases that’s directly onto the computer, without any storyboards or notes first. In an earlier blog I talked about how easy the physical process of writing has become compared with what it was for authors in the past. My latest novel, The God Jar, is 99,000 words. That’s reasonably hefty, but alongside your average 19th century tome it’s a baby. Many 19th century novels were lengthy. Think, for example, of War and Peace: 587,000 words and there were, we are told, nine (yes, nine) drafts, all written out by hand! The fact that the mechanics of expressing ideas in writing is so much easier today than it was for Tolstoy and his contemporaries is one reason why many more people are doing it. Another is that there are simply more people around who are capable of writing. Higher education is more widespread. At college or university people become used to setting out their thoughts in essays and dissertations. Writing is something they’ve practiced and are competent at. My father was a clever man, but he was an electrician and had never been required to undertake an extended piece of writing. He certainly had plenty of ideas (he was a great reader) but would have found a 100,000 word novel beyond him. Today there are many more people for whom that’s not such a challenge. Please bear in mind, I’m talking quantity here, not necessarily quality.
The other aspect of writing that’s easier is getting one’s material out into the world. It was only six months from sending my novel Paradise Girl to Matador that it appeared on sale in our local bookshop, a period which included editing the text (not manuscript!), final tweaking, typesetting, cover, printing, preparation of eBook files, as well as all the bibliographic stuff such as allocation of an ISBN and issuing an AI sheet. Put this alongside the experience of my wife, who at the same time was working on a book on neuroscience** which took almost two years to progress through the systems of a traditional publisher – and that was without having to find an agent; it would have taken even longer if she’d had to do that first. And of course, anyone who opts for Amazon KDP rather than the route I took could get their book out even more quickly than I did.
Data is difficult to come by, but according to the Publishers’ Association there were about 160,000 books published in the UK in 2014. This refers to all books, fiction as well as non-fiction, and includes re-issues. It’s not clear how much of this is new fiction, but estimates range from 10,000 to 25,000 (or even more) – and that’s just in the UK! It’s also estimated that the average person reads from 1 – 5 books in a year (this excludes the wonderful book bloggers, who devour fiction like crazy and keep us all going; it’s ‘normal’ people). And while the number of novels appearing is increasing vastly, the number of readers is static; that makes them hard to find. So it’s easy to write (so long as you have something to say), easy to publish, but harder than ever to get read.
Does this sound a depressing picture for writers? I think not. I believe that instead of being a form in decline the novel is today more vigorous than ever. As Jenn Ashworth (A Kind of Intimacy) has said, ‘More books and more people talking about books is always excellent … you’re never going to get me to say that people reading and writing and publishing is a bad thing.’ I agree. The novel is in rude health, but times are changing. Those who can move with them and work in the new environment will flourish. Those who cannot will not.
** Featherstone, Sally; Making Sense of Neuroscience in the Early Years, Bloomsbury, London. 2017.
September 12th, 2017
I’m glad you’re here! The connection between us is a special one. A writer exposes him or herself when they write. Who was it who said that no-one ever wrote a novel that was not autobiographical? Having a stranger read your work is a bit like letting them into your bedroom to rummage through your drawers. This post is meant to help our relationship by looking at what writers do, what readers do, and making a few suggestions so we can continue to enjoy each other’s company.
Do we need readers?
It seems odd now, but when I started writing I wasn’t much bothered whether anybody read my work or not. Yes, it would be nice to turn out a blockbuster that won prizes and topped the best seller lists, but really it was that I wanted to see if I could complete a book. I’d done a degree in English, when I’d dissected and studied plenty of novels. Could I write one myself? Could I sustain a story and develop characters over three hundred pages or more? I tried, and when I’d finished my novel it suddenly became important to me to have people read it. And of course, I wanted to know what they thought.
Family and friends always like what you write. I mean, they’re not going to tell you your baby’s ugly, are they? So for objective opinions pretty soon a writer has to go further afield. That means your book has to be put in public places where readers can get hold of it and leave their judgments – which are also public.
Ratings ratings ratings
The first thing browsers will see is how many people have rated it and the average number of stars they’ve given it. Thank goodness, the ratings system is skewed towards the positive. Of the 5 stars available, only one option, a single star, means the readers thinks the book awful. The others range from 2 stars (OK), through 3 (enjoyable), to 4 stars (great) and 5 stars (brilliant). Most readers, bless ‘em, award 3 stars or more. Their responses are honest, impartial and show the reader’s reaction to the work, and that’s helpful.
Reviews are important
Even more helpful than ratings are reviews. Like all writers, I’m very grateful to those readers who take the time and trouble to write something about my work. That includes those who don’t give me as many stars as I think I deserve(!). An author’s job is to communicate. Nobody sets out to write rubbish, so if a reader responds negatively it means that communication has failed. The author has failed to get across the ideas/views/impressions/effects they were aiming for. It’s essential for a writer to know when this happens, and even better if the reader/reviewer can give some pointers as to why. Similarly, when things work it helps the writer to know what they’ve done well. I write reviews myself, which appear on my Goodreads page, on Amazon, and also here on my website.
Suggestions for readers/reviewers
- Please don’t assume that what a character thinks is the same as what the author thinks. For example, one reviewer took me to task because in Paradise Girl one of my characters (Kerryl’s mother) says that Muslim women wear the hijab because ‘their religion makes them do it.’ Now I know that’s not true – head covering is a cultural thing, nothing to do with the Quran. I was writing what the woman I’d created said, not what I think, because that remark was consistent with her character; in fact it was based on an actual conversation I overheard. That’s not the same as expressing my own view. It’s surprising how often this happens
- Please don’t base your judgement of the book on whether you like or dislike a character. I recently read a book where the heroine is a total bitch (The Girl Who Cried Wolf). I didn’t like her and couldn’t find any saving grace in her. I was tempted to lower my rating, but Bella James, the author, had drawn her very well – consistently and convincingly – and the book was well written. So I gave it 5 stars, despite it’s obnoxious protagonist. Please concentrate on the skill (or lack of it) with which author has portrayed the character. I mean, you wouldn’t dock stars from The Merchant of Venice just because you don’t like Shylock, would you?
- Please do put your review aside for a day before posting it. Sometimes a hasty judgement works in the writer’s favour, sometimes not, but things often seem different when you come back to them and it may be a more honest (and therefore more helpful) view after a bit of reflection.
- Please do contact the writer if you have questions or if there are things you’d like to have explained. Almost all writers can be contacted through Goodreads, and many of us have websites and publish our email addresses. You might have to wait a long time for a reply from one of the big names, but the rest of us aren’t so busy (!) and we love discussing our work with our readers.
Memos to self – lessons for a writer
- Paradise Girl came out last February. I waited on tenterhooks for my first ratings and reviews. The opening bunch were overwhelmingly positive – 4 and 5 stars – in fact I’m pleased to say they still are. However, there inevitably came a day when I got a 2 star review. I felt as though I’d been kicked! It seemed that all the great reviews didn’t matter and it was just this one that counted! The first lesson, then, is to remember that you can’t please all the people all the time, and some people either just won’t get what you do, or if they do they won’t like it. Look at some of the big hitters, writers you admire. You’ll be surprised how many low ratings they’ve been given.
- The second lesson is ‘don’t answer back’. Soon after that 2 star rating another reader criticised my book. I didn’t agree with what she said (obviously!) but I thought she’d made some interesting points that were worth discussing, so I messaged her on Goodreads. Another reader (not the original reviewer) took umbrage at this and castigated me, saying I had no right to reply and doing so I’d ‘broken the contract between reader and writer’. Well, if I had it’s a contract that’s been broken at every literary festival I’ve attended, which surely exist partly so readers and writers can talk together. However, better to be safe and avoid responding, even if there seems to be something worth exploring.
Every writer is flattered and honoured when people take the time and trouble to read their work – or they should be. Even more so if the reader takes the trouble to write a review, either praising the book or helping the author by suggesting things they could have done better (and sometimes a bit of both). So thank you, readers. Without you most of us writers wouldn’t exist.
My Writing Journey (part 4): the WSI
July 23rd, 2017
Anyone who gets seriously involved in writing (and by that I mean is looking to finish a work and get it published) will fairly soon come across what I have termed the Writers’ Support Industry (WSI). It seems to be mainly associated with fiction, because although I was a publisher of non fiction for ten years I was not at that time aware it existed. Some of what’s offered by the WSI is very helpful, some less so, and some of it is downright dodgy.
Let’s start at the positive end with the helpful services. My first novel was ‘The Poisoner’s Garden’. It’s not been published yet, so don’t rush off to Amazon looking for it! When I’d finished it (or thought I had) my family and a few of my friends read it. They were kind enough to say it was wonderful, brilliant, right up there with Dickens and Tolstoy. Well they would, wouldn’t they? Naturally I was delighted with this response, but I needed an objective view. That’s when I became aware of the WSI, or this aspect of it. There are a number of companies that offer to assess your work. They send it to a reader, who writes a report on it and gives an opinion on its suitability for publication. One of the major players is Writers’ Workshop. They forwarded my ms to a published author in the genre I was aiming for, and a couple of weeks later I got the report. The reviewer (Philip Womack – ‘The Broken King’, ‘The Double Axe’,’The King’s Revenge’) did a brilliant job. I was amazed he came back to me so quickly, because his reading was thorough and sensitive, and his comments and advice extremely useful.
I was so pleased with the help I’d had from Writer’s Workshop, including some thoughtful (and free!) guidance from its boss, Harry Bingham, that I went back to them with a draft of Paradise Girl. This time it was Sarah Vincent (‘The Testament of Vida Tremayne’, ‘The Gingerbread Wife’) who did the review. Her report was superb – thoughtful, sensitive, perceptive, encouraging, and she at once put her finger on what was then a key weakness – which by taking her advice I think I’ve managed to correct. It’s such a help to have terrific authors who have been through the mill themselves assess your work, and I’d certainly recommend this process to anyone, even though it costs.
Writer’s Workshop isn’t the only player in this game. The Literary Consultancy and Cornerstones offer similar services for around the same money, and there are others too. All these companies say that if they think your work good enough they’ll help you find an agent. I took Writer’s Workshop up on this and sent my work to some agents they’d suggested, using their name. To be honest, I don’t think it made much difference. Of the two agents who showed an interest, one was through Writer’s Workshop and the other wasn’t. So being referred by one of these companies might get your work seen by an agent more quickly, but it’s not a guarantee of success.
Another aspect of the WSI, and in my view a slightly exploitive one, is the offering of sessions called ‘Hook an Agent’, or ‘How to Land an Agent’ or similar. Often they involve a one-to-one slot when you can pitch your work to a real, live agent. These affairs tend to be for a whole day and can be expensive, especially if you have to travel to London (where almost invariably they are held) and even more so if you have to stay the night. I’ve been to a couple of them (neither organised by Writer’s Workshop, I hasten to add) and been less than impressed. I met an agent at only one of them, and she obviously hadn’t read the material I’d submitted, but I went on about that in my last blog so enough now. My gripe with offerings like this is that new writers are usually so desperate to sign up with an agent (because that is pretty much the only way to get taken on by a big publisher with the marketing heft to shift their book) that they’re easy prey. There’s a definite gullibility on their part (what Coleridge might have called a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’!) which is taken advantage of by some of the providers in what their advertising implies: come on our course and you’ll be taken up by somebody who’ll get you a book deal. I must be clear that none of the organisations I’ve mentioned above claims that attending one of their courses is guaranteed to get you noticed by an agent.
There are other courses and conferences run for writers, by the above and by Arvon, The Guardian, and more, on writing technique and aspects of publishing. The only one I’ve experienced is a two-day conference on self-publishing run by The Literary Consultancy, which was helpful.
Once you’re published – traditionally, independently or self – you come into contact with other elements of the WSI. Your aim now is to get noticed – on Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook, Amazon, Apple Store, wherever and you’ll be assailed by people offering to help you do that. Some of them are lovely. They give honest reviews and they blog, and if they think your work is worth it they’ll promote it. Some of this is free and sometimes there’s a charge, but it’s all decent and above board. However, there are others, who will sell you good reviews, boost your number of Twitter followers and click you up the Amazon ratings list, all in return for payment. For me, this is the dark side of WSI. I use (and rate) Goodreads and I value the reviews I see from its members, even when I disagree. All right, some of them wouldn’t get many marks as lit. crit. essays, but they are fair and honest and written by enthusiasts. Besides, Goodreads is an excellent place to meet readers and see what interests them. This is what a healthy writing environment should be, not one where your number of 4 or 5 star reviews or your place in the Amazon hierarchy depends on what you pay somebody.
As always, the views expressed here are my own. I’d love to know if you agree or not, whether you’re a reader or a fellow writer. Next month I’ll talk about reviews and reviewers: what’s a helpful review and what isn’t, what’s permissible and what’s not, what’s fair, and try to suggest some basic principles for reviewing.
P.S. In case you’re wondering what happened to ‘The Poisoner’s Garden’, the answer is that I sent it to several agents, and although there was mild interest nobody took it up. It’s a bit ‘Game of Thrones’-ish but I tried to make it different by casting the hero as a wimp who loses his wimpishness as the story progresses. I think he does, but the problem is that at the start he’s not a very attractive character. I decided it needs rewriting but by that time I had got interested in writing something else, so it’s waiting on my back-up drive for the day when I’ll get round to it again.
My Writing Journey (part 3): Agents
June 18th, 2017
A few miles across the moor from where I write this blog lies Haworth parsonage. There, more than 150 years ago, three enormously gifted sisters produced novels and poems that were monumental in their passion and originality. Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë wrote their works by hand, page after laborious page, with a quill pen, by lamplight, bent over the table in the cold dining room. When they’d finished their manuscripts they parcelled them up and sent them to London publishers. They couldn’t do that now. No major publisher will accept any fiction that doesn’t reach them through an agent.
Agents are now the gatekeepers to publication. They are the people who act as the first filter on the vast amount of fiction produced every year, and they are the people who draw up the long list from which publishers choose what will reach the public. There are small, independent publishers who’ll take a punt on a new manuscript from an unknown author, and it’s possible to self-publish either through Amazon KDP or a company such as Troubador, like I did. But these channels have little clout and rarely raise a ripple in the huge pool of new fiction published each year. Does anybody, anywhere, know of an independently published writer who’s work has been reviewed or featured in a quality Sunday newspaper? The Bookseller? Front Row? I thought not. In publishing, as in many other things, it’s who you know that matters, and the major publishers have routes into high profile promotion that others do not.
So what does a literary agent do? The short answer is that they take manuscripts from authors, select the ones they think will be successful and place them with publishers. You can see the attraction in this for publishers. The system saves them a lot of work and costs them nothing (an agent is paid by the author from their royalties). Publishers constantly grumble about their overheads (though many of them could reduce these substantially by moving out of London), so a no-cost way of dealing with new material which an experienced judge thinks will sell is very attractive to them.
What’s wrong with that? you ask. Several things. It means that agents are the regulators of the public’s taste in fiction. They go for what they think the public will read, and so most of them are unwilling to take a risk. It’s understandable. Placing a book with a publisher takes time and hard work, and the agent gets nothing until the book is accepted. So they look at what has sold, what they think will sell, and the result is a lot of sameness in the bookshops.
Now the agent system has some strong positives. There are clearly some very good agents – for evidence of this you have only to look at the number of authors who make a point of thanking their agent in their acknowledgements, many saying that they could never have got their manuscript into a publishable state without their agent’s help. Some authors and agents form strong friendships, which continue for many years. And we have to remember that agents are very busy people; they receive hundreds – maybe thousands – of unsolicited manuscripts each year. They have to trawl through these as well as looking after their existing clients. Nevertheless, I think that the current system has many drawbacks – for authors, publishers, readers and for the agents themselves.
I’ve submitted my work to agents without success, so you could say that what follows is sour grapes, but I think not. I’ve talked with other authors who think the same as I do, so here are my gripes.
The all-powerful role of the agent as gatekeeper works against innovation, encourages writers to ape what’s currently in vogue, and stifles creativity. If the Brontës had had to rely on agents their work would probably never have got into print because their material was not in the then current fashion.
Trying to interest an agent is a slow process. It’s not unusual for an agent to take three months to respond to a manuscript. Most want to know if you’re submitting to other agents too, the implication being that they will be less interested if you are (one or two even admit this). The time scale means that an author can bring his or her work to the attention of only a handful of agents in a year. J.K.Rowling was accepted by (I’m told) the 16th agent she tried. I don’t know how long it took her but I would be surprised if it were less than three years. That’s a long time for an author to be touting their work, and if it was in vogue when they started it probably isn’t later.
Some agents, by no means all, have an air of careless arrogance. In my experience only a minority have the courtesy to acknowledge the receipt of a submission. If the work is rejected the nicer ones will give a reason or two, maybe tell you that your manuscript has merit but it’s not for them, and wish you luck elsewhere. However, a substantial number don’t even bother to tell you their decision, simply saying you should assume that if you haven’t heard from them in x weeks they’re not interested. Agents call the collection of manuscripts awaiting their attention the ‘slush pile’! Now a lot of it may well be rubbish, but to apply the blanket term ‘slush’ to work that people have laboured over for years, before they’ve even read it? Really? As another example of agent arrogance, one, advising authors on the content of the letter which should accompany a submission, says the supplicant should ‘think of it as a letter of application for a job’. Again, really? Who’s working for who here? Surely it’s the author that’s seeking to employ the agent, not the other way round. What’s that phrase about power going to the head?
In short, the choke-hold that agents currently have on the literary world works against the democratisation of authorship and against creativity. Of course, you can point to many agented authors who defy this assessment and are brilliantly original. I’m talking generalities here.
Not long ago I had a conversation with a former literary agent about the difficulties I was finding trying to find somebody to represent my work. His response was very much off the record (he still works with publishers) so I can’t name him. However, he said my main problems are that I’m a white, Caucasian male, and that I’m too old. This man is not racist or elitist, in fact he’s a devoted Guardian reader, but the point he was making is that my CV is too uninteresting (the word he used was ‘average’) to stand out from the crowd. I would be in with a better chance if I were from an ethnic or cultural minority, or LGBT (well, perhaps not the ‘L’!). He suggested that my prospects would be better still if I were a woman. We had an entertaining few minutes discussing whether I should submit under a female name, and musing on how, if I did, it would be redressing the balance because the Brontës (and other women) were forced to pretend they were men in order to submit their work. Lastly, the age thing. My friend pointed out that it usually requires a lot of work from the agent to get a manuscript into a state where a publisher will consider it. Therefore agents are ideally looking for young writers who will produce a lot and whom they’ll represent over a long period. An older writer, who may have no more than two or three books in them (or maybe even just one), is not an attractive proposition. Nobody can say this openly because it’s discrimination. I simply report what somebody with experience of that world said.
Of course, having written the above I realise that I’ve probably blown any chance I might have had of ever getting an agent to represent me! If so I’ll have to live with that, and continue to self-publish. Paradise Girl won’t reach as many people as it might if a mainstream publisher had handled it, but I’m truly grateful to those who have sought it out and read it, and even more to those who have told me, directly or through reviews, that they think it has merit. And after all, the whole business is about readers. Isn’t it?
My July blog will discuss what I call the ‘author support industry’; that is, those who operate on the periphery of writing and publishing by evaluating manuscripts, offering access to agents and guaranteeing exposure through social media.
My Writing Journey (part 2)
May 5th, 2017
My first novel, Paradise Girl was published at the end of January. I say first, but actually it’s the third one I’ve written. The real first is called ‘The Poisoner’s Garden’.
I’m more of a plotter now, but to begin with I simply had a vague idea that I wanted to write a story about a hero who started out as a wimp but grew a spine as the book progressed. I also wanted the reader to come to it with no knowledge or preconceptions about the context, so I decided to set it in a totally imagined world. Nevertheless, I didn’t want it to be science fiction, so that implied an alternative or counter-factual reality. The hero would belong to a privileged family. He would be failing to live up to the expectations of his ambitious father, disliked by his step mother, hated by his half brother. That seemed to me a good recipe for conflict!
As I spilled out the words the thing got longer and longer, with new elements, threads and plot twists occurring to me as I wrote. At around 140K words I stopped. It was obvious that I was producing more material than one book could take. It would be a trilogy. I pared down the manuscript, took the story to an ending that I felt was a good resolution but would also lead the reader into book 2, polished it, and sent it to Writer’s Workshop for a critical reading.
The reader, Philip Womak, responded warmly. I’m grateful to him for this because here was an independent, published and successful author telling me I could write! I also appreciate the improvements he suggested. He thought my work would appeal to a publisher and he recommended that I seek out an agent. Now I have mixed feelings about agents, which I’ll share in part 3 of this extended blog, but it’s enough for now to report that my search – over two years – resulted in some mild interest but no success. The general response (from those who took the trouble to respond at all, that is) was that they thought the writing had merit but that ‘it wasn’t for them’. Meanwhile I had finished the second book of the trilogy, and called it ‘Exiles’.
I had a chat with Harry Bingham at Writers’ Workshop, who confirmed what I’d already concluded: if 16 agents had rejected the manuscript of ‘The Poisoner’s Garden’ it was unlikely that the 17th or 18th would rush to accept it.
Time to take stock. I had completed the first two parts of a trilogy – two novels, each of around 100K words. The second volume of a trilogy isn’t much use without the first (OK, there are exceptions, I know), so there didn’t seem any point in hawking ‘Exiles’ around agents. Meanwhile the idea for a totally different novel had come to me. I put aside ‘The Poisoner’s Garden’, ‘Exiles’, and the notes for the third volume of what was now called the ‘Leopard’s Bane’ trilogy, and started work on a new book, ‘Paradise Girl’, which I finished in about nine months.
Back to the Writers’ Workshop. This time my manuscript was sent to Sarah Vincent, a writer whose work I admire greatly. Sarah’s critique bubbled over with enthusiasm (since publication she has kindly repeated her judgement in a 5 star review on Goodreads) and she, too, recommended I look for an agent. So I tried the agent route again. This time I approached six, with the same response as before. I have a theory why that might be, but you have to wait until part 3 of to find that out.
When I started writing ‘The Poisoner’s Garden’ I wasn’t really interested in publication. Sure, it would have been (still would be) nice to see it in print, but it was writing it that was important to me. I never thought much about an audience. However, the more I wrote the keener I became to have people read my work. If I was not to spend the next two years waiting for agents to respond, and maybe even then not getting anywhere, I had to self publish.
I spent some time looking into possibilities. My wife and I had run our own educational publishing business for about ten years, so I knew many of the ins and outs of the trade. Amazon KDP seemed to be the quickest and cheapest option, but the quality of the material emerging through that route seemed to be very variable. I didn’t want my work to look home made. I wanted a company that would do most of what a traditional publishing house would do, and to a high standard. There are a few of these in the UK and more in the USA, and some of the latter offer what look to be very good deals. There are also a few on both sides of the Atlantic whose main object seems to be to squeeze as much money as possible out of their authors. In the end I approached Troubador and asked for a meeting at their Leicestershire office. They have a very businesslike set-up and went through with me in detail the services they can provide, the various options and their costs. They were also very honest about what they thought it was worth spending money on, and what not.
I took out a contract with Troubador, and I’m delighted I did. They did a brilliant job of editing, cover design and production. They’re nice people to work with, and they don’t just wash their hands of you when your book is out.
Self publishing is a long slog, and I’ve had to spend a lot of time getting stuck into promotion and marketing. However, I understand that’s nowadays expected even of an author who’s with a traditional publisher. Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads became daily companions, and I lost all sense of shame in talking about Kerryl Shaw and the awful situation she faces in ‘Paradise Girl’. If you haven’t yet read it, you should!
In the third and final blog in this series I’m going to look in more detail at the world of the independent author, the role of agents, and the whole ‘writer’s support’ industry.
My Writing Journey (part 1)
April 17th, 2017
At the recent launch of Paradise Girl someone asked me, ‘How did you get into writing?’ I can’t remember exactly what I answered, but it’s a question I’ve thought about a lot since. So here goes. I’m not going to talk about how I came to write Paradise Girl because I covered that in my last blog. Rather I’ll deal with the processes of getting into serious writing, my experiences since, and particularly how I ended up self publishing and what’s involved in that. There’s a lot to say, and to keep it manageable this will extend over more than one blog.
Begin at the beginning. Although I was an early talker (I’m told) I was a late reader. I can remember the penny suddenly dropping when I was 8, and all those funny squiggles on the page at last making sense. I began to read everything, practicing my new skill everywhere.
Despite this slow start in the subject, English became my favourite. I was from a bookish home and at school I developed a talent for written expression. My essays (called ‘compositions’ in those distant days) always got good marks. I wrote stories and anecdotes and contributed to, and then edited, the school magazine. I owned a lot of books, but of course (and I’m afraid it is ‘of course’), being a boy I was much more interested in non-fiction than in fiction. Kind relatives sought to encourage me by giving me copies of classics, but I preferred to read about planes, ships, spaceflight, real adventures. I’m ashamed to say most of the fiction went straight on to my shelves, where it remained. Only recently I disposed of a copy of Ivanhoe, the gift of an aunt, which had never been opened (I did read the work in the end, but not that copy). I didn’t pick up the habit of reading fiction widely and critically (essential for any writer) until later.
At college, where I studied English, I was one of a bookish group whose members met, drank coffee and talked endlessly about what they were going to write. My recollection is that we all spent much more time talking about writing than actually doing any. I started a couple of novels and got a few thousand words into them before deciding they were no good and binning the manuscripts. The problem was that I had not yet found a voice, which meant that what I produced was a pale pastiche of what happened to be impressing me at the time – John Fowles, Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, William Golding, Graham Greene. The pattern was consistent: I didn’t write much, and what I did write was poor. This continued in the years immediately after leaving college, when I was a teacher in the East End of London.
I didn’t write much because there was always something getting in the way – work, marriage, family, the need to take on a second job, always something. I set myself targets but they never worked. ‘I’ll get up at 4 every morning and write a thousand words before going to work’ was a particularly misguided one. The problem with self-imposed targets is that they are just that: self-imposed. That means that unless you have a will of iron, slippage is inevitable. A thousand words a day became a thousand words a week, or even a month, and on a cold winter’s morning the duvet was far more attractive than the writing desk. Failure to meet targets produces guilt, and I suffered from that, too. The result of all this was that although my passion for reading remained, I drifted away from writing. I had lots of ideas (I’ve never experienced writer’s block, at least not yet) but they remained stories I told to myself and they stayed inside my head. It was more comfortable that way.
This phase lasted many years, prolonged by the fact that in the late 1990s my wife and I started our own business. For ten years we worked 80+ hour weeks, and when we were able to take holidays they were spent inert on a beach. Reading was a welcome release, but there was certainly no energy or inclination for writing. That didn’t come until we disposed of our business and ‘retired’. Suddenly I had the luxury of time.
Now I’m well aware that there are people who manage jobs, households, children and other dependents, elderly relatives, pets, friends and still find the time and energy to write. I have enormous admiration for them, because I couldn’t. The downside for me is that I’ve come to writing late. And now I’m doing it, I can’t think why I ever did anything else!
In my next blog I’ll tell you about my first serious efforts (two longish novels, so far unpublished), my experience of literary consultancies and agents, why I decided to self publish – and what I’ve learnt from all this.
How I came to write Paradise Girl
March 16th, 2017
I’m lucky to live in a converted farmhouse overlooking the Calder Valley. The views from the house are spectacular, and I spend far to much time each day simply gazing at the scenery. Although the house is on its own land and not close to any others, there’s always some activity to see and hear. Perhaps there’s a tractor working on a neighbouring farm, a train passing along the valley, vapour trails, a helicopter, an emergency services siren, movement on the opposite hillside. There’s always the distant hum of human beings going about their business, so even here you know you are not alone.
In the middle of summer 2013 there was a communication from the electricity company warning that the power would be off for a few hours so they could prune some trees that were interfering with the overhead cables. The chosen day was still and hot. I worked on my laptop until the battery ran down, then took a cold drink out into the garden. I settled on a bench and looked around, and it struck me: I couldn’t see or hear any movement. None at all, except for the silent revolution of the wind turbines on the opposite hill. The distant chainsaw of the tree trimmers had gone silent. There were no signs of life anywhere, not even a sheep bleating, a cow lowing or the barking of a neighbour’s dog. It was as if the valley and all around it had gone into a state of suspended animation.
I had a thought. Suppose there was no one else. Suppose all the other people near me had disappeared – perhaps run away, been taken by aliens, or felled by some deadly virus. How would I know I was alone? How would I cope entirely by myself? What would I do? How would I survive? Could I?
The idea for Paradise Girl was born.
The heroine and hero of Paradise Girl, the twins Kerryl and Lander, had been in my head for some time. I was working on the plot for a novel based on organ harvesting in which they would feature, but it wasn’t going well and so they were hanging about in the background, twiddling their thumbs. They pushed forward, keen to be at the centre of my new story.
It was then a matter of deciding how it might be that there was no one else left, what might have happened to create such a tragedy. Around that time an outbreak of ebola was raging in Africa, and there was daily news of the fear and suffering experienced by the people exposed to it. So a virus seemed to be a possible answer, a highly infectious one which defied preventative measures because it constantly mutated.
I imagined a house not unlike ours, and Kerryl and Lander and their family moved in. It remained to tell the story of how the infection spread from its point of origin to this tiny corner of the world, what might occur on the way, and what might happen when it got here. Their friends and family would all fall victim to the disease, and then so would they. But what if by some fluke one of them was immune, perhaps the only person anywhere who was? It would be a version of the Robinson Crusoe story, a tale of a character in total isolation, exploring how fear, loneliness and the removal of everything which until then had supported their lives, affected them. Kerryl, or Lander? I decided it should be Kerryl, although I also decided to keep the survival of Lander as a possibility.
Right, so Kerryl is alone and the story is how she got to be in that predicament, how it impacts on her and what she does. It’s obvious it can’t just be her, though. Stories need characters; she needs a Man (or Woman) Friday. Enter Adam, but not a real Adam, a phantom friend she creates in her imagination.
The last major decision was how to tell the story. It couldn’t be in the first person, because a reader would want to know whether or not Kerryl lives through it, and if she were narrating it that suspense would be lost. Also, with very few characters there’s not much opportunity for dialogue, and straightforward narration would get tedious. The answer was for her to write a diary. She could describe the events and what she makes of them in the first person, and the matter of whether or not she lived through it all would remain a question until the end. There used to be a fashion in the 19th century for telling stories through letters and diaries, and I liked the idea. I included some media reports and texts too, to offer a little variety.
All that remained was to write the book.
Writing is Easy
February 22nd, 2017
Writing is easy.
Well it is, isn’t it? Of course, I mean the physical process, not the creative one. Developing the theme, plotting, developing convincing characters and expressing all this in a way that will capture readers is as taxing as it must have ever been. Bringing a novel from concept to finished volume demands dedication and hard work, and involves riding a roller coaster of emotions. This has always been so. But the act of getting those words down has surely never been easier.
I’ve just read Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. As an aside, I’m ashamed to say that until I did so I thought Villette must be a person, not a place! It’s a long book, in the 3 volume tradition of victorian novels. If you visit Haworth Parsonage you can see the room where Charlotte and her sisters worked. It’s easy to imagine her sitting at the table in the lamplight, writing page after page in longhand using a quill pen. Same for Dickens, and Thackeray, and Hardy, and Virginia Wolf, and every writer up to the advent of cheap and portable personal computers in the last 25 or so years. Yes, before that there were typewriters, but I did try writing with one of those once and found it hopeless, far more cumbersome than writing by hand.
If you want a vivid illustration of the sheer labour that must have been involved in writing some of the great novels of the past, consider ‘War and Peace’. It’s over half a million words and even in an edited version runs to more than a thousand printed pages. Leo Tolstoy’s wife copied out the manuscript nine times as her husband revised it. Yes, nine! Think of the time and commitment there. An even more dramatic example is Proust’s ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’, which weighs in at 1,125,000 words! All written out by hand. Even those writers who devised their own shorthand for the drafts had to produce a fair copy at some stage; perhaps only to find, as the Brontës did with their first attempts, that no publisher was interested.
I contrast these efforts with my own experience writing. I sit at a keyboard and I am able to cut, paste, alter, spell-check, dip into a thesaurus, check a word meaning, reorganise, with ease. If a passage doesn’t work I can put it aside on a clipboard and address it later. If I want to re-order the chapters I can. I use Scrivener, which makes all this sort of thing a doddle (highly recommended, by the way, if you don’t know it). There’s an upside and a downside to this. The upside is the democratisation of creative writing. The downside is that with the process so easy there’s an enormous amount of fiction about. That makes it harder for all of us to get our work noticed, whether we self-publish or are trying to interest an agent.
I acknowledge that there are still writers – and some very good ones too – who hate the computer and prefer to write out their work longhand. They tell me they value the physical connection they have with the paper. Some feel, too, that it gives them a better link with their readers, and as a result they find their experience of the writing process more intense. I take my hat off to them. For the rest of us, writing is easy.
What ‘Additional Facts’ Really Means
January 24th, 2017
We are privileged to be witnessing the birth of a new world view. It is nothing less than a revolution in how we are expected to respond to events and interpret them as true or false.
Until January 20th, 2017, a statement about something that had happened was boringly binary. It was fact or it was fiction. There was no other option. On that significant Friday, however, a further possibility emerged. Kellyann Conway and Sean Spicer, acting for their newly inaugurated President, told us that there is not only ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’; there is a whole, new, previously unrealised classification, which they termed ‘additional facts’. These are facts which cannot be demonstrated or proved – indeed, sometimes the dull, old-fashioned approach that we are used to actually denies them – but are true because somebody, preferably somebody powerful, says they do. Those who question these additional facts’ are to be threatened, bullied, ridiculed, pilloried. One of the preferred avenues for doing this is Twitter.
No doubt in time the category ‘fiction’ will no longer be required. There will simply be ‘facts’ and ‘additional facts’, and ‘fiction’ will disappear altogether because it will no longer be needed. Damn, and I’ve just published my first novel!
What’s What in Regulars
January 4th, 2017
People have been taking me to task about my short stories. I say on the 10 Minute Tales page that the free story will change from time to time. However, readers point out that Regulars has been up there for several months. OK, fair cop. I’ve been on the verge of replacing it a few times, but each time I’ve had a question or comment on it and so decided to leave it there for a bit longer.
These are some of the questions from readers, and my replies.
Q. Who exactly is the narrator of Regulars?
A. None of the characters in Regulars is named, so there are no clues there. Nevertheless, there are some facts that can be deduced. The narrator is youngish, certainly younger than the other characters. He or she is in the town (also unnamed) on a sort of pilgrimage. There is reference to a partner, Chris, whose home town it was and who always promised to take the narrator there. The narrator refers to the visit as ‘a last rite’, so is Chris dead?
Q. Is the narrator male or female?
A. This, too, is ambiguous. The partner who’s mentioned is called Chris, so could be either male or female. However, even if that was established it wouldn’t help nail the gender of the narrator. They are very interested in the wedding and they are dieting, which might suggest a female. However, the old woman takes a fancy to them, which might indicate that it’s a young man. Other male indicators are the interest in the car and an occasional brusqueness in the tone. It’s for the reader to decide.
Q. The old man joins in the conversation, so how can the cafe owner not be aware of him?
A. It’s true that the old man says quite a lot, but the only character to respond to him is the narrator. If you read the dialogues it’s clear that the cafe owner and the old woman, his wife, don’t react to him, and the reason for that is they don’t hear him.
Q. What’s the story about?
A. The main theme is coming together and parting. The three (or four) people in the cafe meet for the brief period of the story but disperse at the end. The narrator and Chris have been a couple but now no longer are. The old woman and her husband were married, but he has died. The characters watch a wedding, two people making a formal commitment to being together. Finally, the old man makes a poignant comment about parting and loss: ‘There’s only one thing you can be sure of … It’s that one day one of you will reach out for the other, and they won’t be there. That’s all. Till then you make the best of it you can.’
Thanks to those who sent me these (and other) questions. I’ll leave Regulars online until January 13th, then I’ll post a replacement.
Is Anybody There?
November 8th, 2016
Most creative activities involve other people. Music, drama, painting, sculpture, dance generally either demand collaborators or benefit from them. Writing is different. Linda Grant wrote in The Guardian that writing is ‘an act of severe, intense solitude’. She was referring to the physical process of writing.
She is absolutely right but it goes further than that. Writing involves much more than putting words on paper. That’s actually the last stage in a journey that may have begun many weeks or months, perhaps even years before. A piece of fiction starts with an idea: a character, a situation, a feeling, a simple plot line. This hooks itself in the brain, where it lodges. It irritates. It nags for attention. Sometimes within a few days it evaporates and no more is heard from it. If it stays it settles down. It can’t (and won’t) be left alone. It accrues resonance and meaning and it grows, and it demands attention. Knots of words, skeins of description coalesce around it as it emerges into something that can be put on paper.
All this is unsociable, even though some of it may take place in company. Family and friends learn to put up with it. ‘Oh take no notice of him/her, they’re just thinking about their book’ is something a writer will often hear when they’ve failed to register a comment, answer a question, perform a requested activity.
So the writer, whether actually writing or just thinking about what they are planning to write, spends a significant amount of time in a dream world, disjointed from people. Which is strange, because people are the writer’s raw material. And they are also the readers.
What’s It All About?
August 8th, 2016
The first thing that most agents, publishers and booksellers ask when they hear you’ve written, are writing or planning to write a novel is, ‘What’s the genre?’
It’s a fair question. Genre defines readership. Publishers want to know what the market is, who is likely to buy a book; booksellers want to know whether to stock it and which shelf to put it on, Amazon wants to know whereabouts in the Kindle Store it goes. And for some writers it’s a simple matter. They have made their careers by writing a particular style of book – for example, Stephen King, John Grisham, E.L.James – so a reader knows what to expect when they pick up one of their titles. Some become so associated with a particular genre that in order to branch out and create something different they need a new persona. When J.K.Rowling wanted to write some crime stories she brought them out under the name Robert Galbraith.
For some of us, however, it’s not so simple. We don’t sit down at our desks and say, ‘OK, I’m going to write a horror story,’ or ‘Now I’ll do a crime thriller.’. Instead we get ideas for a situation, a plot, a character and we start to work on those and see where they lead. Sometimes following that trail takes us to a place very different from where we began, or what we expected.
I don’t find it easy to say who my writing is for. Unlike Kerryl Shaw, the heroine of my novel Paradise Girl, I don’t have a particular reader in mind. In fact when I completed my first manuscript (The Poisoner’s Garden – so far unpublished) I had no idea of the genre – to be honest I hadn’t even thought about it – until Philip Womack (author of The Darkening Path trilogy) said he thought it was for young adults.
Kerryl is 17, so the obvious slot for Paradise Girl is Young Adult, or perhaps New Adult (a genre more common in the USA than here, intended to extend to a slightly older group than YA). However, my so far limited readership extends from teenagers, through college students, through adults with families to baby boomer retirees, and all have told me they have got something from it.
The people I hope will read and like my writing are people like me. No, let me rephrase that. The people I hope will read and enjoy Paradise Girl are … people like you!