Posts Tagged defining literary fiction

Getting to the truth about strong women and troubled teenhood – novelist, playwright, essayist, writing coach Martha Engber @MarthaEngber

Martha Engber is a wordsmith in multiple ways. You’ve met her briefly – when she asked me to write a piece about my horse. Her most recent release is a YA novel, Winter Light, but that’s just one aspect of Martha’s art and work.  So here she is in full – editor, playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, writing coach, journalist.

Roz What’s the core Martha, your recurring themes, the character types you’re most interested in? And where did they come from?

Martha I grew up in a nuclear family of two older sisters, a mom and a dad. My mom strongly believed women should be independent financially and in action, a sentiment with which my dad agreed. As such, my sisters and I mowed lawns, played to win, stood our ground in arguments and otherwise always believed females can do almost everything males can, other than pee standing up, which I’ve since learned females more talented than myself can actually do.

Roz I can see this will be a fun conversation. Sorry, you were saying…

Martha So running through all of my stories are girls and women such as 15-year-old Mary Donahue in Winter Light, i.e., strong in the way of strong females.

Throughout life I’ve been annoyed, no end, by cliched women characters who act like men with boobs. They talk tough, they fight like ninja, they’re brought into stories to be tortured or killed as a means of providing male characters with that final burst of motivation to win the day.

Roz Give me the better version…

Martha Women are awesome at working together. They’re flexible both emotionally and creatively. They’re willing to help one another and ready to try, and try harder, and try harder once again using all available resources and every ounce of passion and intelligence. And no, they don’t hate men. Quite the contrary: they work with males, while at the same time always angling to create new paths for moving forward.

My next book, for which I’m seeking a publisher, is about two young Native American women warriors of opposing tribes. How they challenge one another can only be described as very female.

Roz Tell me about Winter Light.

Martha It’s a story about what I witnessed in high school during the blizzard year of 1978-79. The characters are dealing with alcoholism and addiction.

Roz How did you ensure the details were correct? For instance, the alcohol and addiction aspects wouldn’t be handled in a 2020s way.  

Martha I used my yearbooks and memories about fashion and music, and research to refresh myself regarding the politics and cultural events of the time.

Roz I love the post you made on your Facebook page, about your protagonist’s cherished concert T-shirts. And this, her playlist. Why was YA the most suitable approach?

Martha Actually I had no intention of writing a YA novel. I wrote a literary story.

I grew up when there was no “YA.” My favorite books were those that didn’t pull any punches: To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, The Outsiders, Lord of the Flies. Such stories left me with lots to think about and opened my eyes to the strife others suffer.

Both as a teenage reader and as a writer, I hated the idea of an author dumbing down a story for me in order to make parents feel less vulnerable to problems that take place somewhere within all families.

While I didn’t witness alcoholism and abuse in my nuclear family, I heard and could see those harsh stories taking place almost right next to me. Stories that weren’t cute or cliched or focused on a sweet teen romance. Instead, they involved brutal truths about our species, that if we’re abused and unhappy, we pass on that misery and ugliness. Only those who are strong, smart and get a helping hand rise to overcome their lot in life.

Initially I was disconcerted to learn my story would be categorized as YA, just because of Mary’s age. But I’ve since been encouraged by two facts:  50% of YA readers are adults, and many contemporary YA books take on tough topics, such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

Roz You describe your work as literary. There must be a hundred definitions. What’s yours?

Martha Thank you so much for asking! Over the years, I’ve honed this definition: a story for readers who like to puzzle over human nature.

Roz You have another novel, The Wind Thief.

Martha The story literally arose from the fact I love winds of all kinds: breezes, gusts, headwinds, tailwinds, etc. I began to imagine winds as sentient, with different personalities and motives. I gave that belief to the main character, Medina, who allows that fantasy to envelop her in an emotional cocoon to protect her from a tragedy she suffered when she was a girl.

The research was fascinating, which is one of the reasons the book took me 10 years to write, though honestly, I seem unable to sufficiently plumb the depths of any story in a shorter time period. I typically work on a story until I don’t see even one more connection I make or one more angle from which I can view the characters’ actions.

Roz I love this. I’m also a long-haul writer. You’ve also been a journalist, with hundreds of credits in the Chicago Tribune. Any specialities?

Martha I enjoyed writing medical stories, since science is so fascinating. I also enjoyed the features that took me on one adventure after another. I’ve toured a haunted hotel; spent time talking to ice fishermen in sub-zero weather; met Imelda Marcos, the infamous Filipino First Lady who accumulated a vast shoe collection; and witnessed amazing dance and music troupes that include the Kodo Drummers from Japan.

Roz I’m envious of those experiences. What rich ore for your work. Speaking of rich ore, you’ve distilled your editing knowledge into a book on character development. Why characters?

Martha Characters are the story!

If writers develop their characters properly and let those characters lead, those protagonists will write an exciting plot.

Most readers only know if they like your book or not. If you were to question them closely, though, they’ll comment first and foremost about whether they love your characters, meaning they find them consistent, believable and admirable.

Like most writers, I failed at most of my initial characters. Then I realized throwing readers a lot of details about characters tells a lot about them, but doesn’t give readers what they need most, the one detail that explains how a character ticks. And that’s the concept of Growing Great Characters From The Ground Up.

Roz What writing craft question are you most commonly asked?

Martha At the beginning of workshops I ask participants what questions they’d like to have answered, and this is almost always on the list:

How do I find my protagonist’s motivation?

That leads directly into character development, which ends up looking like this:

character’s defining detail —> what they’re most afraid of —> what they’re motivated to do (run away from that fear!)

The plot consists of pushing them toward that greatest fear by placing ever bigger obstacles in front of them until they run straight into their worst fear. Boom!

Roz The arts are something we never truly master. There’s always more to learn. Even if we’re also teachers. Where do you do your learning?

Martha I think creative brains are like bottom-feeding fish: we’re constantly sweeping up every morsel for possible nutrients.

Biggest problem-solving moment: in semi-sleep just before I wake up. Most significant moments of enlightenment: while deep into editing a scene in which the characters are only inches away and I can see and hear and feel them.

Greatest generation of ideas: art museums –

Roz Me too. Museums and galleries are like drifting through a beautifully curated dream.

Martha … and the journeys of other creatives, especially podcasts like Hidden Brain and documentaries like My Octopus Teacher that explore how humans think.

Roz So what’s your writing process at the moment? Does it change from book to book?

Martha I continue working until the story gets less terrible.

Seriously, every story begins as a huge pile of dung. Then it’s a matter of using my shovel to find that stupid, irritating, tiny, brilliant gem within.

My writing life would be a lot simpler if I stuck with one style and genre. Instead, I write poetry, experimental short stories, journalistic/opinion/personal essays, historical fiction, etc. But I like that variety, and understand each story deserves its own shape.

Roz What are you working on at the moment?

Martha A memoir. Only within the last few months have I managed to wrestle the damn thing to the ground. What’s emerging is a poetry-prose hybrid that captures my personal upheaval. While not perfect, the story now has its own quirky, appropriate dwelling.

Secondly, I’ve started a book for writers based on my workshop regarding show vs. tell, and what a misconstrued piece of advice that is.

Roz Oh, it is. I explained it in one of my books and an author wrote to me and said: thank goodness, I’ve never understood it before.

With editing, journalism, workshops and running an author career, how do you find time for your own creative writing?

Martha Juggling time commitments is so tough! I want to do everything before I croak, which makes me busy, indeed.

I most likely have undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which means I have a high need to move. I do so every day: hiking, biking, running, surfing, etc. Energy expended, I can then sit down to think in an orderly manner. I’ve followed that behaviour pattern since I was a kid: dance around, then write.

Creative writing is my zen, meaning the deep place I go to meditate on life. Once I’ve taken in information about the world through my other activities, that writing time is when I get to chew on the ideas and pull out every possible nutrient, whether for a poem, short story, book or other project.

In a good day, I’ll get two hours of creative writing, one-and-a-half hours of marketing and one hour of writing planning (workshops, new story ideas, submissions). That allows me the other hours to work out and train my clients. I’m also a fitness instructor and personal trainer.

Roz Tell me about that. I’m also a gym fiend. (And guys, you can find Martha’s fitness blog here.)

Martha Woohoo!

Roz Body Pump, running, dance, horse riding…

Martha It sounds like you and I need to work out together sometime! After this pandemic, come visit.

Roz I used to suffer from RSI but discovered that the more exercise I do, the fewer problems I have with shoulder, wrist and back pain. Also, it’s an utterly necessary complement to the world of imagination and words. Of course, I think about work while exercising. Nothing stops me thinking. But the thoughts come differently when my blood’s up. If I’m chewing on a story problem, I take it for a run and I find a solution that’s more aggressive and daring than if I sat at a desk… I found the midpoint of my last novel that way. (Here I wrote about writing and exercise.)

How about you? How does fitness professional Martha merge with writer-journalist-editor Martha and how are they different?

Martha The beauty of a creative brain type is that creativity sweeps across every moment of my day. Every choice I make, whether going for a run, making chocolate cake or mapping out a story, are all just variations on the need to squeeze out every possible moment of enlightenment.

The trick to accomplishing that goal is to daily move amongst a healthy swirl of activities, because each feeds the other.

The body is very much a chemical lab, and each body represents a unique mix of chemicals. No matter your capacity for movement — people are different in what they can do — some type of movement is necessary to circulate blood and oxygen to the brain so we think better and have the energy to create.

And when we create, we make the world a better place.

Roz We do. Thank you, Martha.

Find Martha’s website here, her blog here, and tweet her @marthaengber

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. 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 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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Literary fiction – do we need a new term?

A review in The Times of Milkman by Anna Burns, which has just won this year’s Booker, has me worried. (James Marriott: ‘Booker choice is all that’s wrong with literary fiction’.)

I haven’t read Milkman so I can’t say if I’d agree with Marriott’s review, but I absolutely share many of his concerns. He finds the book ‘a tough read’, self-indulgent in style and not particularly elegant or original. He concludes:

Nowadays literary fiction doesn’t mean “good fiction” … it means fiction that adheres to a set of stylistic conventions … novels as status markers rather than life-changing entertainments’.

If this is what ‘literary’ now means, do we need a new name for the other sort? The ‘life-changing entertainment’?

Actually, that definition of literary isn’t enough for me. To me, literary is nuanced, intelligent fiction that might not conform to genre tropes and seems to be bigger, deeper, truer, perhaps more inexplicable than its plot and characters. (Yes: more inexplicable. You could disappear up your own omphalos trying to define literary. If you like that, here’s another occasion where I’ve had a go.)

Literary novels don’t have to be plotless or weighed down by their meanings and value (see my post here where I tackle the ‘plotless’ question).

Neither do they have to be difficult – see this interview where Joanna Penn is talking to novelist and TV dramatist David Nicholls about his adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Nicholls talks of ‘the British literary tradition that feels modern, startling and original’. (If you want another highly readable gem from the Brit-lit tradition, try William Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil.)

All of this is a long way from Booker-lit, but unfortunately Booker-lit is becoming the benchmark for all literary. If you’re a writer of the other sort (like I am), what are you now?

And that’s why I’m fretting. If a new term is needed for literary fiction, what should it be? Contemporary fiction? Modern fiction? Upmarket fiction?

Let’s discuss.

Psst .. If you’re feeling plotless in an uncomfortable way, try my plot book

Psst 2 … If you’re curious to know how my current novel, Ever Rest, is doing, this is my latest newsletter.

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How do you discover the books you want to buy? Some thoughts about book marketing

long_room_interior_trinity_college_dublin_ireland_-_diliffWhere do you find the books you want to read? There are theories galore about how authors and publishers should advertise, use categories, keywords etc. But I often find myself a bit bemused by them.

Because I don’t buy books that way. These theories seem to describe a behaviour that I simply don’t recognise. But I do buy books. All the time. So where am I discovering them?

I don’t expect this post will set the world of book marketing alight. But I hope to illuminate some less acknowledged processes. And I’m curious to know what you do, so I hope you’ll join in at the end.

Facebook adverts

I’ve never bought a book that I’ve seen on a Facebook advert. Yes, I know that advertising is there to remind you a book exists, not necessarily to grab your £££ immediately. I know that adverts have to be seen a certain number of times before they get noticed. And that they work in conjunction with other forms of exposure.

But Facebook has never managed to show me book adverts that I find appealing. This must mean I’m giving it some very wrong signals. (How many other readers are giving the wrong signals, I wonder?)

I’ve certainly bought books by people I know on Facebook, but not because of adverts. I’ve bought because of meaningful contact – chatting to them, or an interview. More on that later.

Goodreads

I don’t browse for books on Goodreads. I go there AFTER I’ve read a book, to keep the karma going with a review, when (ahem) time allows. (For the last few months it hasn’t. I’ll be rectifying that soon.)

Bargain book newsletter services

BookBub et al. I know these are smart sales tools, but they’ve always seemed rather superfluous to me as a reader. First, I don’t buy books because they’re bargains. I don’t find a book more appealing because it’s on special offer. I want the right book.

Second, these newsletters are selling ebooks, and I’m one of those throwbacks who likes a solid version. To have, to hold and to keep. To remind me, by its bulk on the shelf, to give it attention. But I do use Kindle samples to check books out, so it wouldn’t be totally useless to me.

Still, they are popular and effective for authors, so I thought I’d better evaluate them properly. What gems might I find by subscribing as a reader? An excellent article by the Alliance of Independent Authors compared them in terms of value for advertisers, and rated BookBub, Fussy Librarian and Bargain Booksy top. Fussy Librarian got a special mention because it wasn’t just promoting bargains.

I subscribed to Fussy Librarian as a reader, asking for news of literary fiction. After two months of emails, I can report they – or the authors who advertise with them – are not remotely fussy about what they categorise as literary fiction.

long_room_interior_trinity_college_dublin_ireland_-_diliffAnd this is a problem when you shop in this category. It’s easy for us all to agree what’s meant by categories such as crime, thriller, romance, paranormal or YA. But literary? The term gets put on everything that might not fit in the other boxes (and so, in Fussyland, it seems to mean cross-genre or two timelines). Here’s a post where I attempt my own definition of literary, in case you haven’t had enough.  Meanwhile, several writers I know avoid the term altogether because they’ve learned their readers are put off by it.

But Fussy Librarian isn’t everything. I decided to try BookBub, the grandaddy of book email lists. And here’s where I was surprised. I have seen a few titles that I’m keen to know more about, so it will be interesting to see if my buying habits change as a result of BookBub.

So how do I discover books?
My sources are:

  • Newspaper review pages and the London Review of Books
  • Netgalley
  • Publishers’ lists (because of The Undercover Soundtrack, publishers send me their catalogues and I invite authors whose work appeals to me. What’s The Undercover Soundtrack? Sleeve notes here)
  • Recommendations from friends and my bookseller friend Peter Snell (our radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, is here)
  • Blogs – the Literary Hub and David Abrams’s blog The Quivering Pen, which has interviews and a regular feature of upcoming titles. If you have a blog that showcases upcoming titles that correspond to my idea of literary, do let me know.
  • Amazon’s ‘people who bought this bought that’ algorithm. I could wander in there for hours.
  • Oxfam bookshops – a great way to find books everyone else has forgotten about. Especially non-fiction. Yes, I know that’s dodgy because the author doesn’t get a royalty. But often these are books that aren’t available anywhere else or I’d never have known to search for them.
  • For research, I use Library Thing – this is the only time I search for books by categories, tags and all that labelling, because I’m shopping for something specific. But my pleasure reading is all surprise finds.

books 0012My favourite way to discover books

This has to be blogposts or interviews. I’m most likely to go hunting for a book if I’ve enjoyed the writer’s company in another piece of prose. I’ll check their reviews too, obviously. If I read a really thoughtful review, I’ll often want to know more about the reviewer – especially if they have a book of their own.

This means, therefore, that I’m a lot more influenced by gut feeling about the writer’s curiosities, thought processes and delivery. I’ll follow a good voice into any genre. I don’t read fantasy but I love Jack Vance. I don’t read crime but I love Barbara Vine and Dorothy L Sayers. I’m wary of horror, but I’ve been joyously sucked into the latest by Josh Malerman (who is coming up next week on The Undercover Soundtrack … that’s another place where I find glorious reads).

In short, I seek the quality that categories can’t measure. And this possibly means that if you’re a writer whose distinctive strength is nuance, your best marketing tool is an interview, a personal essay or a well-turned review.

Anyway, this isn’t a post that provides theses or theories, it’s a post of open-ended enquiry. Not a ‘how-to’; more of a ‘how-we’.

What are the last 5 books you bought? 

Let’s examine our book discovery habits. How did you find the last five books you bought? You don’t have to have read them yet. I want to see how you met them. And I hope you’ll teach me some new shopping tips.

Here are mine
513pixlvvol-_sx341_bo1204203200_A personal essay: I read this post and so I bought this. The piece is hardly about the book at all, but I feel I’ve been shown a piece of the author’s soul. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

41w0unqywel-_sx329_bo1204203200_An interview: I read this and was bewitched. I ordered this. The Next by Stephanie Gangi. She’s also coming to The Undercover Soundtrack soon.

41c5tvgtobl-_sx323_bo1204203200_Search by category + friend recommendation: This one’s for research. I was looking for accounts of bereavement and Library Thing did its thing. I haven’t read a Didion before, but she’s a favourite of a friend of mine. The irony in the title made it irresistible.  Joan Didion – The Year of Magical Thinking.

51bdxkezzol-_sx325_bo1204203200_A friend: Another friend this time. He said: ‘You’ll like this. It’s weird and it really stays with you. I don’t know why. It just does.’ The Vegetarian by Han Kang

51j1yy-ja0l-_sx332_bo1204203200_Lucky find in an Oxfam bookshop: I would never have thought to search for this. But there it was in a display. A sane biography of the teenage idol I’ve never grown out of. Under The Ivy. The Life and Music of Kate Bush by Graeme Thomson.

Over to you. Where do you discover most of your books? On line, by browsing in a shop? How did you discover the last 5 books you bought and what were they? Any opinions on FB adverts and bargain book newsletters like Bookbub? Your favourite tip for book shopping?

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