Search Results for: reading

All about reading groups and writing groups – Ep12 FREE podcast for writers

In this episode we’re spanning the entire spectrum of the book-reader continuum. What makes a good writing group? What makes a good reading group or book club? How do you organise such a group? How do you find a group that suits you? Should authors visit book groups or does it cramp everyone’s style? We have the answers!

Mu co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell.

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

 

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Are you a writer? Don’t neglect your reading – guest post at Writers Helping Writers

writershelpingIt’s always a struggle to find time to write. If you’ve got a book in progress, it’s tempting to spend all your free moments on it. But don’t sacrifice time that you would usually spend reading. It’s a false economy.

Similarly, don’t fear that your reading is going to influence your work to a detrimental extent, or that you might end up copying ideas. The chances are you won’t. Your book is much bigger in your mind than anything you read, or watch, or any conversation you overhear. Any influence will be minor by comparison with the huge amount of work you’ve already done.

But if you stop reading while you write your book you might lose touch with the way prose tells stories, and you won’t be using your ideas to their maximum potential. We do many things on instinct, and those instincts are learned unconciously. Reading feeds our muse and our technique.

Today I’m at the wonderful Writers Helping Writers site, run by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi of Emotion Thesaurus fame. They’ve devised a series of writing lectures this year and have invited various coaches to be regular contributors, and I’m honoured to be on their list (note that nice award they have from Writer’s Digest). And because I wrote the piece as the year was turning, my mind was operating in resolution mode. If I was to identify a change that I’d urge writers to make, what should it be? Many of my author clients would do their work a world of good by reading more, but it’s  job to persuade them. So here’s my persuasion. Do hop over.

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Reading vs watching and The Night Manager – why I prefer the book

51qdfvUxcdL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I recently watched the BBC’s adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager, and of course went straight to the novel afterwards. I thoroughly enjoyed the TV adaptation, but I’m loving the novel more.

You might think that’s an obvious thing for a writer to say. But I’d like to think about why.

Let’s put aside certain practicalities. Obviously the book had to be reshaped to translate it to TV, and updated for 2016 (technology, current world events, making a key character female).

That’s not what I want to talk about; I’m interested here in the medium of delivery. The watching senses compared with the reading ones. Why do I find reading the novel is more special than watching the show?

Books are interior

A key difference is the organisation of Jonathan Pine’s back story. In the TV version this is streamlined into simple chronological order, but the novel shuffles the material to us in digressions. A character makes a remark and Pine is taken back to an earlier event. At first this seems quite digressive, but gradually you’re bedded more deeply into Pine’s buried layers, his stifled memories and his slow awakening into a new man.

415sjZHeUVL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_This interority is something that’s difficult for TV or film to achieve, although Krzysztof Kieślowski is a notable example of a writer-director who does. But usually, watching makes us outsiders. So the BBC’s Night Manager is an adventure story – and a gripping one. The novel is that too, but it’s also more secret, troubled and private.

Characters and reality

Somehow, I’m finding the characters on the page are more tangible than when they are played by actors. Le Carré’s descriptions seem more potent than seeing an actor physically embody a person. In a film, a character comes to you complete – with hands, voice, expression, stance, clothes. In prose, a character usually appears in fragments. Those fragments are the magic.

For instance, describing Richard Roper’s charm. An actor could play charm, but a writer can pinpoint the essence of that charm – and make us notice something about how charm works:

He let you know that you could tell him anything, and he would still be smiling at the end of it.’

The author is not a camera giving head-to-toe details; he is a judging, communicating intelligence who can show us what it’s like to be in a person’s presence, at a given moment. It gives you experience as well as observation. Describing Roper’s girlfriend Jed:

Her wit and language have a hypnotic draw. There is something irresistibly funny to everyone, including herself, about the convent-educated English voice enunciating the vocabulary of a navvy. “Darling, do we actually give a fart about the Donahues?” ’

Could a camera or an actor ever express that, and so precisely? And this, when Jonathan Pine is increasingly troubled by the siren Jed:

He watched her in fragments forced upon him. A chance view of her entire upper body in her bedroom mirror while she was changing…’

How would a camera say ‘forced upon him’?

I find this to be a wonderful paradox. A good writer can make a character more alive in your mind than a flesh-and-blood actor can. An actor seems to give just physicality. No matter how closely a camera observes their face, it’s happening at a distance. But a writer is inside your intellect and your feelings. With a well-turned line they can they give you the experience of being with a person – or indeed of being them. You’re passing a door, arrested by a glimpse of a girl undressing.

Feeling perceptive

The cleverness of a good author makes you feel a bit ennobled, better with words yourself. More intelligent, perceptive. Words are far, far more fun than watching.

Take a bad toupee. (Go on, you know you want to.) Le Carré describes it as ‘like a black bear’s paw’. Isn’t it far more fun to read that description than to see a bad toupee in a picture? In a million years, would you have thought of that line? When you read, you share the mind of someone who does.

And this.

Women with chiselled faces they never had when they were young, and tucked stomachs and tucked bottoms … but no surgery on earth could spare them the manacled slowness of old age as they lowered themselves into the pool…’

A good writer knows how to go ‘straight to the switchboard’.

Stop – isn’t that an excellent line? It’s not mine, it’s le Carré. A phrase used by Roper’s security guard when describing a technique of interrogation.

Interrogation. That’s a difference I should also mention: how you contribute so much of a book’s experience from your own grey matter. The pictures, places, sounds, significance. For Franz Kafka, books were ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’.

Your own pace

And here’s another difference I like. You take a book at your own speed. Dawdle as long as you like over a page, a paragraph, a phrase. In a movie you obey the director’s clock, or the editor’s. In a book, the author sets the pace, of course, but you can adjust it. Linger over a passage you like. Skim the parts you don’t.

51NAwF7BkIL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_I hadn’t considered how important that was until Husband Dave and I read the same book simultaneously. We found we had two copies of William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms so we did them in tandem, like a real-time book club. It was fun. We could say ‘I didn’t like the bit where…’ or ‘I’m hoping the character won’t do such-and-such’. I was aware, though, that I was reading to a schedule, so I didn’t let myself linger or dawdle as usual – and I felt rushed.

Reading a book you enjoy isn’t, actually, a hop from this word to this then this, like watching subtitles on a movie or the lyrics prompt on karaoke. It’s not a linear trot through the page from top to bottom, in order. If you want, it can be more like snakes and ladders. You can check a fact or a character name. Wander back to enjoy a favourite fragment again. You can take a book in your own time, your personal journey.

I love reading Nail Your Novel

Ultimately, a book plays with your mind more, yet belongs to you more as well. Perhaps that’s it.

Tell me your thoughts.

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Reading revolutions: serialising a novel – interview at the Malaysia Star

serialmalayYou really know you’re in a world wide web when an email arrives from a journalist on a newspaper in Malaysia. Elizabeth Tai contacted me for a series she was writing called reading revolutions. She’d seen that I had originally released my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, as a four-part serial on Kindle, and wanted to ask me how that worked and why I did it. We talk about pros, cons, cautions – and tips I’d give to anyone considering doing the same. Come on over…

And in the meantime, tell me: where’s the furthest-flung place you’ve had a surprise email from about your work?

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The courage to be yourself – help me build my reading list

What novels can you recommend about having the courage to be an individual?

My MC in Life Form 3 is the odd one out. He is in a regimented world that crushes originality. He begins to get an inkling that there is something much better than his monotonous life.

Life Form 3 is the story of his fight to come alive.

(Forgive the vagueness, but I’m keeping the lower-case about under my hat until I’ve got a draft that’s mature. And if those precocious italics are all Greek to you, my previous post explains all.) 

Anyway, I’m trying to read as much as possible that tackles these questions – whether YA, MG or adult fiction. I’m particularly interested in stories that show a boring, grinding world without putting the reader into a coma.

And so I throw the floor open – can you help me build my Life Form 3 reading list? What novels would you recommend?

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Critiquing a friend’s book… how do you tell them it doesn’t work?

I’ve had this interesting question from Jan.

A friend has finished drafting her first novel. She asked me to proofread before she sends it to agents. I explained she would up her chances if she got it edited too, so she asked if I could do that.

I’m reading the manuscript and have found what I feel are fundamental issues. For instance, I’m 57 pages in and nothing dramatic has happened, I still don’t know the theme of the book, or what any of the characters are driving towards. There is a lot of description, but I haven’t been able to discern its purpose.

I really want her to have the best chance, so how do I essentially ask her to rewrite from scratch? She’s proud of the manuscript; (she should be, she wrote 92,000 words and had the dedication to stick to it). I’m trying to work out the best way to approach the things that need fixing without making her feel like I’ve torn down her baby. What should I do?

Ahhhhhh, Jan.

I sense you feel this is an unusual situation. It is not.

With developmental editing, especially of a first novel, it’s not unusual for me to (gently) tell the writer they need to completely redraft.

First, let’s assume your friend chose you because you like her kind of book. That’s important. A reader who loves a racy plot in a weird special world won’t want the same things as a reader who loves the quiet ordinary, told in poetic clarity. One person’s paint drying is another person’s delight. So let’s assume she knows your tastes, and you know hers, and all is aligned.

Assuming that, you’re looking for exactly the right things. You’ve responded as a reader who should like the book. You don’t think she intends you to feel that nothing has happened, and that it seems to be aimless. You’re not engaged or curious, though you are eager to be.

Still, she’s written 92,000 words. And now you’re going to tell her to do it all again. How do you do that without apparently dismissing her achievement?

Writing is rewriting

Tell her that rewriting is normal. If she hadn’t heard of editing, she probably doesn’t know this. First-time writers are often so relieved – and rightly so – when they type ‘the end’ that they think the work is done. If they have heard of editing, they imagine a brief tidying of spelling and grammar, and perhaps a nifty rewording along the way. Far from it.

Jan, tell your friend it’s not unusual to need several goes at a manuscript before it’s ready for readers or an agent. Most first drafts are rough. Here are posts about a slow, multidrafting writing process. Some books need to find themselves as we write. I did 23 drafts of the novel I’ve just finished… Sometimes we add layers as we understand better what we’re trying to do – and that polishing is part of the joy. Sometimes, though, it streams out fast. We’re all different. Sometimes, we’re even different from book to book.

Writing is many skills

Here’s another thing to tell your friend. Writing is many skills and you can’t learn it all at once. Tell her she’s taught herself some excellent lessons already – persistence, finishing, a routine that allowed her to complete the book. Also description. Even if the description is not effectively used, she’s had to vividly imagine the scenes and the story world, and that’s a necessary skill.

But there are numerous other aspects to a good novel and now she has to learn those. How to structure a plot. How to create characters who are individual and filled with life. How to give information without beating the reader around the head. How to direct the reader’s attention and emotions.

Some are reasonably obvious. Some are so subtle that you don’t notice them unless you know to look for them. And they all have to work together, all at once. See my previous point about layering and redrafts. Those are the arts she now needs to learn.

Her book is not rubbish

Might she think you’re telling her to abandon that book? Not at all. Until she knows about these craft points, she doesn’t know the potential that’s in her idea. She doesn’t have to ditch this story; she now has to learn how to do it justice. To write the same book, but much better. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t, but she won’t know that until she tries.

Also, she’s not the first person who’s had to be told this.

We’ve all been through it. See How exactly do you learn to write professionally. Is she missing these craft skills because she’s never taken a course? See Can writing be taught. And should she feel foolish because she wrote a book without knowing how to? An editor wouldn’t think that. Look at Why your editor admires you, and why you might not realise this.

Oh yes. And we all get nervous about feedback. How to prepare for comments on your book manuscript.

Thanks for the end credits pic fliegender and the burning page pic ubhape2.com

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, including my own (much drafted) third novel, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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How to – and how not to – run an online writing community. And publishing post Covid. Interview with literary agent Peter Cox of @Litopia @agentPete

You’ve seen the posts here about Peter Cox’s writing community Litopia – the home of Pop-Up Submissions, where manuscripts are critiqued live on air by writers, readers and a chat room. Sometimes the guest critic is me! I’ve always been impressed with the show. For a start, it looks amazingly slick. But underneath that is a genuine love of books and reading, who value writing that is done well.

On one of our pre-show chats Peter remarked: ‘someone should write a piece about literary communities. I’ve made every mistake in the book.’

Someone definitely should, I said.

So here we are. We also talk about the publishing world post-Covid: what might publishers be looking for? What do readers want? Can that question even be answered yet?

But first, Litopia.

Roz Tell me about Litopia. What is it, how long has it been running, how big is it now? What made you set it up?

Peter Litopia has been going for decades.  It’s by far the oldest writers’ community on the net.  We’re probably due for our silver anniversary round about now.

Originally, I was an early member of one of the oldest virtual communities online, the WELL.  This was an odd collection of folk, many of them connected to The Whole Earth Catalog, who thought it would be fun to set up an intentional community in cyberspace.  People such as Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and Howard Rheingold.

Roz I’ve never even heard of that. I just googled it and found it stood for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link. I love that. It’s so retro-futurist. (Retro-futurism, You heard it here first.)

Peter Looking back, the WELL was always quite cliquey.  If you didn’t happen to be in with the cool crowd, who smoked a prodigious amount of dope by the way, then you weren’t really significant in the community.

It was a wildly optimistic time.  People naively believed that computers would democratize the world.  “Access to tools” was the mantra.  “The Future” was an exciting place – and most of us believed we were already living there.  The horrors of venture capitalism, Facebook and creeping state surveillance and control weren’t even on the radar.

From my experience on the WELL, I thought it would be exciting to establish a community just for writers.  Most writers already had computers.  And I felt there was an unmet need for social contact that legacy organisations such as the Society of Authors could not fulfil.

Roz I’ve mainly come across Litopia in the Pop-Up Submissions show. For those who don’t know the format, it’s a Dragons’ Den for writers. Five manuscripts are critiqued on air by you, two guests and the observers in the chat room. It’s a brave thing to do live online. We’ve all encountered the ugly sides of social media, but you’ve managed to create a civilised and constructive tone. At the same time, the show doesn’t pull its punches. Everyone’s there because they want to see honest criticism and they want to learn. How have you achieved this?

Peter Thank you, Roz.  That’s the tone we want to strike, and I think we mostly do.  Obviously, our choice of guests such as you is important 😊  But seriously, I like writers, always have done.  They are unusual people, not always well-suited to the mundane world.

Roz Totally. Writers – and other creatives – look into cracks that others don’t even notice. They ask questions that can’t easily be answered and aren’t necessarily of practical use, but nevertheless seem to make life a little more worthwhile. We often think we’re on our own, too. At school, I was always interested in the wrong things or the unusual angles. I didn’t realise that this was characteristic of a particular profession. I thought I just didn’t fit. (I’ve written about that here – I write because I’m totally unsuited to anything else.)

Peter Writers definitely see things a bit differently, and thank heavens for that.  They challenge and expand our own definition of what being human means.  A world without writers would not be worth living in.  So they need our support and encouragement, but also, our honesty.  When you write, you necessarily lose much of your objectivity, and that why (most!) writers need honest feedback during the writing process.

Roz Yes – and I want to briefly talk about that. We lose our objectivity because we have to commit so much to the work. We have to believe in it, spend the time to get it right, often making themselves vulnerable. I never forget this when I’m giving critical feedback to writers. The text they give me represents a huge investment of faith. (I’ve talked about this before: Why your editor admires you.)

Peter I know.  I think it’s a great privilege to work with a writer at that kind of level.  What we can do on Pop-Up Submissions is to give some objective feedback, but not in a destructive way.

Roz What mistakes did you make with Litopia in the early days? And even in the later ones?

Peter A great many!  A few years ago, HarperCollins set up something called Authonomy, which didn’t last long, and I believe cost them a few million.  It really is not nearly as easy to set up an online community as it might appear.

The first I mistake made was not charging anything for it.  I carried all the costs.  This was a huge mistake, because people expected me to provide more and more – and got angry if they didn’t get what they were expecting.  I think people are beginning to understand now that the net has the same economics as any other part of life.  If Facebook is free to you the user, that’s only because they are ruthlessly mining your data and selling it at a vast profit to shadowy third parties, including people like Cambridge Analytica and the security services.  Are you really comfortable with that?  Personally, I’d prefer to pay a modest amount for membership of a site like Litopia, and forgo the creepy surveillance!

Roz So Litopia has evolved into its own beast… How does that compare with your original idea? Would that original intention have been possible, do you think?

Peter We evolve by reaction.  Everyone has access to me and can suggest whatever they want.  Some things are not going to be technically possible, but many are.  We’re quick to seize the technical opportunity.  Some technology is surprisingly cheap and under-exploited, that area is always of interest.

Roz I have to mention the technology. This show is seriously sleek. Many video-podcasts are essentially like watching a Skype call – a screen split between two or three speakers. Litopia is like a high-budget TV quiz show. All the presenters appear to be in a studio, behind a massive desk. Scoreboards pop up, manuscript excerpts appear with voice-over readings. There are snapshots of the discussion in the chat room. Drop-ins of writing tips from previous guests. A moody black-and-white section. There’s some serious video-fu in this show.

Peter Pop-Ups is evolving as much as any other part of Litopia.  We made the (difficult) transition from audio podcasts to live video a few years ago.  The bar for good video is much higher than for decent audio.  Increasingly, we rely on our members to keep Pop-Ups going, because it is a complex beast.  Our guests are booked from New Zealand.  Our live scoreboard is operated from Spain.  All our fabulous narrators are scattered over the globe.  It all somehow comes together live every Sunday.

We have a strong ethos of mutual help, which is far more important that any single piece of technology.  If a suggestion fits with our ethos, and is technically possible, then we’ll do it.

Roz Are you a writer as well? How did you end up as an agent?

Peter I fell into writing when a publisher suggested I should write a book for them.  It quickly sold 100k copies and became a UK number one bestseller. That hooked me.

Then I met Linda McCartney and wrote her cookbook, which was also a no 1 bestseller and sold millions of copies worldwide. I was generally dissatisfied with the representation I had, sacked the first agent, got another one, sacked that one, got a third one, sacked them and finally came to the conclusion that I could actually do it better myself.  I went to the US in my early days as an agent. New York publishing was far more exciting than here in London.

Roz I’m interested to know how NY publishing was more exciting… And seriously, many of this blog’s readers are in the US. Do you see much difference between the tastes of American and British publishers?

Peter Well rather paradoxically, NY publishing has traditionally been rather more conservative, rather more risk-averse than the Brits.  So you often have to sell a project somewhat harder.  The upside is that if one publisher wants what you’re selling, others are very likely to, as well.

There is still an insular quality to NY publishing that is rather frustrating.  However, the fruits of success are so very much bigger than in the UK.  New York is a rather flatter society than London meaning that it’s really not difficult to get a meeting with the top people in a company.  Access is a bit easier and doesn’t depend so much on “the network”.  Also, there is a real appetite for success, whereas in the UK, some parts of the business are still run on rather old-fashioned lines – I quickly grew fed up of being told rather smugly by certain London publishers that ‘publishing is not like other businesses, you know’.  Actually, it is!

Roz Have you noticed any changing trends in the kind of manuscripts people are sending you?

Peter Very little non-fiction, which is a pity.  Powerful non-fiction is the backbone of publishing.  I love polemics.  Escapist fiction is on the up and up.  Depressing teen dystopia is done for the moment, we’re already living that nightmare thank you very much.  Anything that gives us hope and inspiration is well received.  Big ideas with a strong voice are money-makers.

Roz What changes have you noticed in publishing since the pandemic started? Any words of advice for authors who are hoping to find a publishing deal?

Peter It’s very similar to what happened post 9/11.  I happened to be in front of the towers when the second plane hit, although I only saw the fireball, not the plane itself.  Immediately, they closed all exits from Manhattan island.  Everything went into “lockdown”.

It took many months for publishing to raise its head again and to figure out what sort of books they should be acquiring, and that’s where we’re at now.

Roz Authors wonder about it too. Some of us came to a standstill, wondering what to write, what could possibly be relevant in a world that had changed so much.

Peter Publishers are scratching their heads and wondering what sorts of books readers will be buying in nine months’ time. Any writer who can confidently answer that question will immediately have our attention.  Over to you, writers!  😊

Find Litopia’s site here, submit your own manuscript here, follow Litopia on Twitter @Litopia and follow Peter on Twitter @AgentPete

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org.. And what have I been writing these past months, indeed years? This.

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How to write a sequel – and when not to. Ep 40 FREE podcast for authors

When we recorded this, sequels were a hot topic in bookworld. Go Set A Watchman, a sequel to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mocking Bird, had just been released. Many people were curious but also dubious. The top FAQ on Google is ‘Is Go Set A Watchman worth reading?’

So when does a book deserve a sequel? When is one book enough? When do you add something worthwhile and when do you outstay your welcome? And actually, if you’re au fait with Ms Lee, you’ll know that the Watchman/Mockingbird situation isn’t as straightforward as book/sequel. Mockingbird was originally created from the back story of Watchman, at a publisher’s suggestion. Complicated. But one book is still derived from the other, so as far as we’re concerned, that counts.

My co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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‘What you do with difficult ideas is turn them into art’ – an interview with Mat Osman @matosman

My guest today, Mat Osman, is now on his second artistic career. You might already know him as a founder member of Suede, who are touring again, and now he’s published a debut novel, The Ruins.

I was drawn to The Ruins because of its musical DNA. Musicians are one of my enduring interests, as you might know from My Memories of a Future Life and my series The Undercover Soundtrack. I’m not finished with musical souls either – there are plenty in the novel I’m finishing, Ever Rest.

As you might expect, Mat’s novel The Ruins has satisfying musical ingredients. It also poses intriguing questions about identity and a sense of self. The main characters are twins, Brandon, a rock musician, and Adam, his reclusive twin brother. When Brandon is assassinated in bizarre circumstances, Adam is dragged into his unfinished business. But it’s more than that. The novel is exquisitely aware of primal bonds – the bonds of twinhood, motherhood and the mysterious, transcendent bond of music itself. Anyway, I’m thrilled that Mat agreed to be interviewed. (My review is here.)

Roz Mat, I’ve said writing is your second artistic career. Is that strictly true? Did music come first or writing?

Mat As a career it was definitely music. I wrote in school but that was mainly because you had to, and from the age of about 12 I was obsessed with music and bands. That life is so all-encompassing that, although I read obsessively (all those plane journeys, all those hotel rooms), I really didn’t consider writing. But when the band split in 2003 I worked for a while as a journalist and I found that I loved to write. I did mainly non-fiction; I edited a London guidebook and wrote about art and travel but I also started to write short stories. It was a way of getting certain odd ideas out of my head. I’d wake up thinking ‘what would it be like to live in a house where everything was just as it was in the 1950s’ and take it from there. One of the advantages of a life in music is that you get used to the concept that what you do with difficult ideas is to turn them into art.

Roz So The Ruins is your first published novel – was it the first manuscript you finished?

Mat Yes and no. The Ruins sprang from those short stories. I did what I think a lot of first-time writers do – cobbled together a few of my best stories that seemed to fit into the same universe and called it a novel. It was a horrible Frankenstein’s monster of a thing, and I cut 90% of it, but it meant that I’d started, and that’s just about the hardest thing.

Roz The novel is brash and flamboyant and fun, with music, rock-star parties, high living and lowlives, twins, Las Vegas casinos, gangsters, a murder. It’s also highly sensitive to the characters’ inner emotional lives. It’s the kind of novel that can operate on several channels, depending on how the reader’s mind is tuned. I’ve seen some reviewers describe it as a story about identity. What I most enjoyed was its examination of deep attachments, how they’re never predictable, never static and have to be formed on their own terms. Adam’s connection with his twin Brandon; Brandon’s connection with his girlfriend Rae and his child Robin; Adam’s connection with Robin and with Rae. What were the main curiosities for you?

Pic by Theo McInnes

Mat I think at its emotional heart it’s about how one wants to be loved: by one person, entirely and deeply, or by millions of people, but in a shallower way. Especially nowadays there’s this constant pressure to have thousands of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ and Adam is just kicking back against that idea.

The twins thing originally came about because I wanted to write about what would happen if you you could go back and choose the path not taken. Adam gets to see what being selfish and outgoing would have brought him. Brandon tries to be a sober and careful man. But also I have twin nieces and they were a constant inspiration – I love watching the way they are almost forced apart by our expectations. One has to be the smart one, one has to be the funny one, etc. etc. and as they try to fit into those roles they grow to be different from one another.

Roz The blurb mentions that the novel is set in 2010, when a volcano eruption put the world on hold. Does that indicate you began work on it that year? I’m certainly a long-haul writer – the book I’m finishing has been in transit for six years. The idea is even older – from a short story I wrote about 25 years ago. I could have dashed the novel off quickly, but my initial idea didn’t satisfy me. I felt it held a much bigger resonance and transformation – and I needed to discover what that was.

I recognise – I think – similar layers in The Ruins. Are you also a slow-burn writer?  (PS If you dashed it off in just a year, I will flounce out in a jealous huff.)

Mat It took about three years from me thinking ‘this is a novel’ to finishing it, but there were lots of cul-de-sacs and dead ends along the way. I’d had in mind to set a book in that time period for a while. The sense of being stuck while the world falls apart adds a layer of tension to the whole story.

Roz Did you have a process?

Mat I started without a process and found I needed one if I was ever to get anything done. If I was at home I wrote in the Map Room of the British Library. It’s hard-core researcher world – lots of beards and sandals – and I couldn’t even open Twitter or Facebook for fear of lowering the tone. On tour I wrote in hotel rooms. I use a program called Cold Turkey Writer which doesn’t let you use your laptop for anything else until you’ve done a set number of words. I regularly curse it but it got me used to the idea that you just write, every day, and I wrote very long and then cut a lot. And then my publisher cut more.

Roz Did you mind that the publisher cut so much?

Mat I don’t mind it – even the pieces that got cut were useful, I was thinking about the characters while I was writing. At first I hated the idea that there were something like 60,000 words that didn’t get used. Now I just think of them as back-story.

Roz Who were your influences, literary or otherwise?

Mat It’s hard to know who actually influences you and who you just like. But among the writers I love and was reading at the time this lot were definitely part of its world: Michael Chabon, Michel Faber, Patricia Highsmith, JG Ballard, M John Harrison, Muriel Spark, Thomas Pynchon, Raymond Chandler, Jennifer Egan, AM Homes and China Miéville. Lots of films were an influence too – especially Performance and Mulholland Drive.

Roz Another signature element is, of course, the musicians in the band. I want to discuss their connection through music. Away from their instruments, they’re chafing, squabbling. When they play music, they find a place of respect. It’s still a battlefield, but it also straightens them out and unifies them. It’s even ennobling. We feel that music is a personal quest and at the same time, a very scuffed marriage.

Mat Anyone who’s seen the Suede Insatiable Ones documentary will know the truth: most bands only really communicate through music. Most musicians put the very best of themselves into their music which is why often people are disappointed when they meet their heroes. They’re meeting the 100% grumpy, insecure, tired, petty, cruel person rather than the 10% of themselves that they save for their art.

Roz I also loved your sense of the bizarre. When Brandon walks on the frozen lake. The party with the beached chandelier and the red swimming-pool. The half-built complex in the desert where Rae lives with Brandon. Kimi with her electronic voicebox, which becomes a strange musical phenomenon. The couple who live on the boat in the field of bluebells. You make them totally believable. Were any of these from real life? Of course, I might be doing you a disservice by asking you that, as the fiction writer’s job is to make things up….

Mat The frozen lake is right where it says it is in the book – in Tahoe City behind a diner called Rosie’s. I stay there a lot and use it as a short cut. But of course that’s in mid-winter! The half-built complex is based on a spectacular photo-essay on this abandoned real-estate project where they’d cut into the hillside but gone bust before the houses were built. The boat has its origins in Derek Jarman’s house in Dungeness, similarly close to a nuclear reactor. The voicebox and the pool of blood? No idea where they came from.

Roz I saw in another interview that your original title was Control. What led you to The Ruins? Control must have been a suitable title in its own way, though. Can you talk about that?

Mat Control felt, in a strange way, too accurate. Much of the book is about control and I realised it was a title that described without adding anything. Whereas The Ruins felt more oblique but somehow more informative. It was almost called This Is What You Get Instead Of Love but it just looked too ungainly on the page.

Roz Tell me about your path to publication and how you met Repeater Books.

Mat I went all around the houses to end up where I started. Tariq who runs Repeater was the first person to read it. I wanted someone who I trusted to tell me if it was worth pursuing and luckily he liked it, and offered to publish it. But then I went away and got an agent and went through meeting publishers because I wanted to make sure Tariq wasn’t the only person in the world who thought it was any good. I had offers elsewhere but there were certain things – I got to design the cover – that only Repeater were prepared to offer. And they’re fantastic people who love books, which helps.

Roz What are you working on at the moment? Is it similar or are you trying something else?

Mat I’m writing about The Blackfriars Boys; a troupe of Elizabethan child actors who were taken from their families and made to take part in these very satirical, very adult, plays and masques. I wanted to write something that was way outside my field of reference to get a sense of not falling back on my own anecdotes and stories. It makes it a lot slower but there’s something really rewarding about having to invent every little moment.

Roz Are there are any consistent territories or themes you’re drawn to?

Mat The new book has a lot about London. And about how making art changes a person. So there are recurrent themes.

Roz Is there anything you’d do differently with this next novel?

Mat I swore I would write smarter; make fewer revisions and stick to the plot, but I’m finding that’s just not me. I have a mind that loves digression. I have to write out these odd side-alleys only to cut them later.

Roz Does music help in your writing process at all? I know writers who build soundtracks to evoke characters, settings or a general writing mood (hence my blog series, The Undercover Soundtrack). I know others who say music is too distracting and they must have silence. I’m both. I find music infuriatingly distracting. If I can hear builders playing the radio in my street, I find it unbearable – so unbearable that I can usually persuade them to turn it off (hell hath no fury like a writer who believes their work is being spoiled). But that distraction is perversely useful if I’m dithering in a first draft, looking for a way into a character or a scene. I put on music and a battle begins in my mind. I’m trying to ignore the music and concentrate, like swimming against an opposing current, which brings instant focus because I can’t be distracted by anything else. Meanwhile, the music is colouring every thought. An interesting tension emerges. It can’t be builders’ radios, though…

Mat I usually play music when I work, even on headphones. There’s a certain kind of instrumental music that works for me: repetitive but not too energetic. People like A Winged Victory For The Sullen and Bohren Der Club Of Gore. With The Ruins I played a lot of the music the characters listened to as well, just to check the mood. There’s a playlist of every track mentioned in the book at Spotify.

Roz You set The Ruins in 2010, in a time of interesting world crisis. You’ve published it in perhaps the strangest, most disruptive crisis we’ve seen so far this century. Any thoughts? There must be months of plans that have had to change…

Pic by Theo McInnes

Mat I managed to squeak in most of my readings and Q&As before the lockdown, which I’m so grateful for but I’m disappointed I never got to do any of the big literary festivals because a) years of music have made me a feedback junkie and I miss hearing what people have enjoyed about the work, and b) there are so many writers who I admire who I’ve never met.

Find The Ruins here and connect with Mat on Twitter here @matosman

And speaking of novels in progress, here’s how Ever Rest is doing

 

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Ready for the red pen – how to prepare for comments on your book manuscript

I am at a nail-biting time. I’ve just sent the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest, to its first critical readers in the outside world. Soon I’ll receive their notes.

I’ve been through this process many times, obviously. I know roughly what to expect – both from my own experience and my experience mentoring and editing. It’s inevitable that:

  • some parts will be overcooked
  • some will be undercooked
  • and hopefully some are just right.

After six years working on this novel, I’m eager for comments so I can finish it properly. But that anticipation also comes with trepidation. I’m a perfectionist and I hate delivering a less-than-perfect performance. This first reading is a thoroughly necessary process for any writer, but also a nerve-racking one. Do we ever get used to it?

I asked a few author friends how they handle this sensitive time.

Carol Lovekin @CarolLovekin is the author of three Welsh Gothic novels, Ghostbird, Snow Sisters and, most recently, Wild Spinning Girls. Like me, she’s a writer who takes her time, excavating a book to find the real bedrock of the story – as she described in this wonderful blogpost.

‘My first experience of structural edit feedback was brutal reality disguised in kindness. One of the things my first editor told me was, ‘Your writing is lovely; the problem is, there’s too much lovely.’ In other words, we’re dumping a lot of this. Descriptive writing is my forte. It felt utterly heartless. Once the edit was done however, I barely recalled those passages I’d sworn were my ‘best bits’ and the result was mind-blowing. Janet encouraged me to defend my words when it felt essential, and crucially, when to acquiesce and trust her wisdom. She taught me how to be a better writer and I return to her training over and again, specifically to that comment about the ‘lovely’. You will do your best editing when you draw on the criticism, good and bad, from previous books. It’s a privilege to be asked to rewrite until you bleed superfluous words.’

Find Carol here.

 

Peter Selgin @PeterSelgin is a novelist, memoirist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, artist, editor and associate professor of English at Georgia College & State University. You might recognise him from this recent interview.

‘These days, I’m happy to be read closely by anyone, and realized that to have any reading, let alone one that is close and careful and comes with thoughtful responses however critical, is a gift. Yes, praise feels good, but so does respectful and constructive criticism, even when the criticism is large or global, still, I see it as a gift: someone has given me and my work their time and effort. The only thing that upsets me is when someone asks to read a manuscript of mine and then says nothing, or worse, doesn’t read it. This is, to my mind, an unpardonable sin to commit against a writer (especially when committed by a fellow writer, who of all people should know better). I can’t imagine having an author send me their work and then ignoring it or letting it sit for weeks and months. Of all responses we can possibly get to our works, none is crueller, more damning than silence. The silence says (my translation): your work is so egregious I cannot bring myself to comment, or worse: I could not bring myself to read beyond a few pages; or worse still: I didn’t bother to read your work at all, having anticipated its badness. For me, a verdict of, “I read every word of your [book/story/essay] and suffered greatly each one” is preferable to silence. Well, I’d say to myself, —at least they read it!

Find Peter here.

Marcia Butler @MarciaAButler is the author of the memoir The Skin Above My Knee and the novel Pickle’s Progress. (You might remember she wrote an Undercover Soundtrack about her memoir.)  Now in the final stages of edits to her second novel, Oslo, Maine, due out in March 2021, she says her process for getting reader feedback has changed.

‘I’m much more selective about readers in general and because of this I tend to show my work less and less. Most importantly, I trust myself more. I’ve realized I don’t need a lot of people to put eyes on my writing. But those who do, I select carefully.

‘In January I sent this novel to three people. Two were authors who have published numerous novels. This fact of being published is important because they’re wise to both what a book “should be” and the winds of the industry. The third was a dear friend I’ve known for 40 years who reads a ton. I knew he would be honest and thoroughly professional with me. They all came back with written comments. I also had conversations with all; one talk was lengthy.

‘The main thing I look for is consensus on what is not working. Confusion in the plot. Timelines that need correcting. Characters not nuanced enough. Things like that. If two of the three mention the same problem, I know it is real and must be addressed. Happily, all of them said it was 90% there, which of course, is lovely to hear. However, I don’t in any way take praise as a reason to relax. Praise simply means I’m on the right track. I have since gutted the thing. The plot is the same, but I have changed literally every sentence and even some character arcs. I’ll continue to work intensively until submission. That’s another thing I’ve learned over the course of three books. I try to get my novel in as complete a version as humanly possible when I submit to the publisher. Then his or her edit suggestions tend not to be as heart crushing. (Been there.)

Find Marcia here.

Mat Osman @matosman is now on his second artistic career. You might already know him as a founder member of Suede, who are still touring, and he’s now published a debut novel, The Ruins. He says his background as a musician prepared him well for editorial comments.

‘As a musician you’re entirely used to the idea of collaborative art. Albums are made by a group of people, constantly altering and improving and rewriting and trying things different ways. I found with the novel that I actually missed that feedback. I think I came to the editing in a completely different state of mind from most authors. Musicians (and especially producers) can be pretty brutal so I’m used to being told ‘God, that was absolutely useless, try it again without the boxing gloves on’. So an editor saying ‘We need to make these cuts and changes to make it read better’ feels very unthreatening to me. I have a friend who is a film editor and it’s a fascinating process to watch – they cut and cut and cut until everything that’s left is doing a job.

Find Mat here. Pic by Theo McInnes.

Claire Fuller @ClaireFuller2 is a novelist and short fiction writer. Her longform works are Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons and Bitter Orange.

Now on her fourth novel, Unsettled Ground, she uses a writing group for feedback as she goes.

‘I share parts of the novel I’m working on every month. That does make sharing the whole novel easier because I’m used to getting feedback. Two or three friends from that group will read the whole novel, and before I send it to my literary agent. (And I’ll read theirs when they’re ready.) When their comments come back, I always feel a moment of anxiety – what if they hate it? But of course the comments are always mixed: some bits are working, other bits not. Then I have to let the comments sit for a day or two to digest them and let my emotions calm before I can look at them dispassionately and decide which ones I want to act on.

‘My agent is my second reader, and we usually meet for lunch to go through what she thought. If she books somewhere nice, sometimes I’ll think she must be happy with it, or if I’m feeling particularly insecure (when aren’t writers insecure?), I’ll worry that she’s taking me there to break the bad news! It’s never as bad as I think, and actually I like editing more than writing first drafts, so I’m happy to get feedback.

Find Claire here.

Me again.

As Claire says, it’s never as bad as we think.  And her point leads me to a final tip.

To get into the criticism-improving frame of mind, I decided to reread the feedback I had for Not Quite Lost, my last book. I meant to re-appreciate how helpful it was, how it showed directions I’d never otherwise have noticed. (Like Marcia, I gutted the book again afterwards. I’m a very thorough self-editor.) In so doing, I made an important discovery. In my memory, one reader found a big flaw, and I recall feeling embarrassed, because I’d made her read a misconceived mess. Now, reading her email again, I realised she was praising most of the book. At the time, I hardly saw. So that’s my tip. If you have been through this process before, dig out the critical reports you received on previous books. You’ll see how helpful they were – and you also might be surprised that they were positive and supportive too.

I’m still biting my nails, though. Wish me luck.

 

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’d like to know more about my creative life, including the full Richter scale of collywobbles about letting my manuscript loose, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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