Posts Tagged genre fiction

Storytelling in literary fiction: let’s discuss

New_dress_DSC09958There’s a tendency among many writers of literary fiction to opt for emotional coolness and ironic detachment, as though fearing that any hint of excitement in their storytelling would undermine the serious intent of the work.

That’s Husband Dave last week, reviewing Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant on his blog and discussing why it failed to grab him .

An anonymous commenter took him to task, asserting: To have a “sudden fight scene” would be cheesy and make the book more like YA or genre fiction (i.e. cheaply gratifying).

Oh dear. Furrowed brows chez Morris. Setting aside the disrespect that shows of our skilful YA or genre writers, how did we come to this?

When did enthralling the reader become ‘cheap’? Tell that to Hemingway, DH Lawrence, Jane Austen, William Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, Steinbeck and the Brontes, who wrote perceptively and deeply of the human condition – through page-turning stories. Tell it also to Ann Patchett, Donna Tartt, Iain Banks, Jose Saramago, William Boyd.

Dave wasn’t alone in his uneasiness with The Buried Giant:

Adam Mars-Jones … in his LRB review of The Buried Giant, particularly takes Ishiguro to task for throwing away what ought to be a Fairbanks-style set-piece in a burning tower by allowing “nothing as vulgar as direct narration to give it the vitality of something that might be happening in front of our eyes”.

Of course, there’s more than one way to find drama in events, and Dave also considers why the sotto voce, indirect approach might have been deliberate.

But even allowing for this, he also found: there are other bits of the story that do not work at all, and make me think that Ishiguro either scorns, or is not craftsman enough to manage, the control of the reader’s expectations that is needed for a novelist to hold and enthral.

And: The taste for anticlimax that Mars-Jones notes, and the unfolding of telegraphed events that bored me, are common traits among writers of literary fiction who perhaps feel that manipulating the reader is a tad ill-mannered.

The conflagration spread to Twitter

And I’m still bristling about the forum where, years ago, I saw literary fiction described as ‘dusty navel-gazing where a character stands in the middle of a room for 500 pages while bog-all happens.’

Stop, please

It’s time this madness stopped. Are we looking at a requirement of literary fiction – or at a failing in certain literary writers?

It’s true that literary and genre fiction use plot events to different purpose. But engaging the reader, provoking curiosity, empathy, anxiety and other strong feelings are not ‘cheap tricks’. They are for everyone.

Dave’s blogpost commenter is typical of a certain strain of thinking about literary fiction, and I’m trying to puzzle out what the real objection is. Did they simply disapprove of a Booker winner being discussed in such terms? Are they afraid to use their critical faculties?

This is something, as writers, we must avoid.

I have a theory. I’ve noticed that, in some quarters, to query a novel by a hallowed author is considered beyond temerity. These folks start from the position that the book must be flawless, and so they search for the way in which it works.

Now of course we must read with open minds; strive to meet the author on their own terms; engage with their intentions. But honestly, chaps, you and I know that authors are not infallible.

We, as writers (and editors), know we have blind spots. Otherwise we wouldn’t need editors and critique partners to rescue us. Indeed – and this is probably one for the literary writers – how much are we consciously aware of what we’re doing? How much of our book’s effect is revealed to us when readers give us feedback? This writing lark is as much a matter of accident as design, isn’t it?

Brideshead Re-revisited

Going further, sometimes our books aren’t as perfect as we’d like. Evelyn Waugh published Brideshead Revisited in 1945, then reissued it with light revisions in 1959 plus a preface about all the other things he’d change if he could.

Writing is self-taught, and this critical scrutiny is one of our most powerful learning tools. Whenever we read, we should ask ‘does this work’.

Now it’s a tricky business to comment on what a writer should have done. Also we’re reflecting our personal values. Yes, caveats everywhere. But certain breeds of commenter regard a work by an author of reputation as automatically perfect.

So is this where we get these curious notions that page-turning stories don’t belong in literary fiction? Because nobody dares to say the emperor is wearing no clothes?

Again, I’ll let Dave speak:

In Ishiguro’s case, I don’t think it was deliberate. I felt that he was flailing about with that sequence, trying to figure out a way to add the tension he knew was lacking. But he might say, no, I wanted it to be predictable and tedious, that’s the whole point.

Shakespeare didn’t think it was infra dig to throw in an audience shocker: ‘Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.’

So, er, what?

I usually aim to be useful on this blog. Is this a useful post? To be honest, I’m not sure. Just occasionally it’s nice get something off your chest.

Now I’m wondering what question I should end with. I could ask us to discuss literary writers of great reputation who seem to duck away from excitement and emotion. But one person’s tepid is another’s scorching. And I don’t think it get us far to explore everyone’s pet examples of overrated writers. But I’d certainly like to put an end to this idea that story techniques, or any technique intended to stir the emotions are cheap tricks that dumb a book down.

So I guess I’ll end with this. If you like a novel that grips your heart as well as your intellect, say aye.

Thanks for the pic “New dress DSC09958” by Владимир Шеляпин – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, the floor is yours.

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Free book giveaways – when do they work? When don’t they?

5275640024_243d3bcfcb_zOnce upon a time, authors could get a great start if they made their book available free. Back in 2008 and 2009, I got huge traction for the original Nail Your Novel when I offered it free as a pdf. There wasn’t much free material out there, so it got attention. Indeed, as far back as the early 2000s, science fiction writer Cory Doctorow had been giving away digital copies of his novels on a Creative Commons basis, famously saying that his chief problem was to battle obscurity.

But times change. ‘Free’ soon became a deluge. If readers grabbed them in the digital equivalent of a supermarket sweep, they probably didn’t even remember they had them. In all likelihood, those books sat unnoticed in the bottomless vaults of their Kindles.

I flirted briefly with free when KDP Select started. Indeed, I organised a free event to coincide with World Book Night for Authors Electric, a group blog of published authors I used to belong to. We each gave away a book for five days, campaigned our socks off, tweeted until we grew beaks, watched the tallies mount in our KDP dashboards… and virtually nothing came of it afterwards.

Now, is a giveaway the way for authors to get noticed? I contend it is not for everyone.

Where free works

I’ll admit that I worry we give away our work too easily. If we create a culture where a book costs less than a sheet of gift-wrap and a greetings card, there’s something badly wrong. An ebook may not have material form, but it does give you more time and experience than something you glance at and throw away. And tellingly, the people who get cross with me for speaking out are the ones who say they refuse to spend more than a couple of dollars on a book, or berate me for not putting my books into Kindle Unlimited.

So that’s my rant done. However, free does work in some cases – where it adds value, rather than dilutes it.

Lest you think I’m waxing hypocritical, with my WordPress blog and Hootsuite account, let me state that I think free works very well with certain kind of services.

And certain kinds of book. In the kind of genre markets where the series rules, making the first book free can work very well. The authors who do this have plenty more titles to offer once readers are hooked. (Joanna Penn has had great results giving the first book of her series away free, and offering free books as incentives to sign up to newsletters – her post about it is here.) These authors are using free books in the way that WordPress and Hootsuite give starter packages free – to build long-term trust and familiarity. (When I want to upgrade my web services, WordPress and Hootsuite will be my first ports of call.)

Where ‘free’ may not work

But outside those genres, how do readers decide to try an unfamiliar author? Especially those who write the more individual kind of book, perhaps not easily pigeonholed? Usually, it’s by deciding if they like to spend time in that author’s company.

How do they do that? By reading something that sparks their interest. That could be anything. It doesn’t have to be a book. If you’re one of those authors, every post you write, every meaningful conversation you have on social media is already giving a sample of your voice, your personality, your tastes, your passions, the workings of your unique mind. The books you write will be made from that same material. If that doesn’t persuade readers you are fascinating and intriguing, giveaways and free books won’t make much difference.

Giveaways as prizes

Indeed, I have evidence that free giveaways with delayed prizes aren’t working any more. Every week I offer a guest spot on The Undercover Soundtrack. In past years, book giveaways got good uptake. Now, they hardly get any. The blog’s readership has grown enormously, but no one’s bothering to contend for prizes.

Perhaps it’s partly impatience. If a reader likes the look of a book from its Undercover Soundtrack, they don’t want to wait a week for the giveaway result. They buy it immediately. So who’s left to take part in the giveaway? The people who don’t much mind whether they read it or not.

Even giveaway campaigns to well-targeted readers don’t seem to produce much return these days. I recently donated copies of Nail Your Novel for a fellow writer’s launch campaign, which should in theory have resulted in more exposure for the series. I saw no increase in sales afterwards.

reversecov compI have, however, had great results when I’ve done a giveaway of something special – like the NYN notebook or the My Memories of a Future Life antimatter edition. But those were specially made prizes, limited editions. Readers will pitch up for a unique prize, but they seem pretty indifferent to an ebook they might or might not get.

Spend your free books wisely

I know this is contentious. But I see a lot of writers who think they’re not trying hard enough if they don’t give books away and don’t examine whether the tactic is working for them. I think we have to look hard at every free ebook we spend. If we get a worthwhile return, that was an ebook well spent, no doubt about it. If not, we should stop.

Thanks for the pic Constanca Cabral

So let’s discuss. Where do you think free works and where doesn’t it work? How has this changed over the years? Do you think authors are being pressured to do giveaways all the time?

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Literary versus genre fiction – what’s the difference?

How do you define literary fiction?

Is it the writing? Do literary novels do it better than genre novels? You’d certainly expect them to, and it’s true that some writers of genre have a tin ear. Equally, many genre writers are terrific wordsmiths – Ian Fleming, Thomas Harris. Anyway the best writing suits the job – whatever that job is.

Is it insight? You definitely can’t have literary fiction without it. Although some genre writers get close. Is John Le Carre a spy novelist or a literary writer?

Is it that literary fiction doesn’t follow rules?

With a genre novel, tropes must be respected because they are what the reader enjoys. A family saga must run a well defined gamut of black sheep, poor relations, blissful marriages and disastrous elopements because otherwise the reader feels that the writer missed the obvious opportunities. The entertainment is in how these obligations are met in a fresh way, the individual writer’s ingenuity within this formal structure.

If genre authors bust out of their boxes, they risk disappointing their readers. Ruth Rendell, who you’d think has a reliably adoring fan base, was careful to adopt a different name to explore beyond conventional crime fiction. When Iain Banks wrote sci-fi as well as lit fic, he stuck an M between his names. But then some writers jump categories and face their public with no disguise – Robert Harris with his modern thrillers and historical fiction. Perhaps it all comes down to how hard he can argue with his publisher.

If rules, or the lack of them, are the crucial difference, does that make genre benders literary? Maybe, if the blend creates a provocative and resonating tension. But sometimes fusing genres is no more than a simple exercise of this-meets-that (or adding freshly boiled zombies).

If a literary novelist writes about a murder, they certainly don’t have to meet the expectations that a crime novelist or detective writer would – think of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. If genre is about the reader’s expectations, perhaps literary is an anti-genre.

Let’s take Woody Allen as an example. Yes, his medium is celluloid, but it all starts with words and pages. His body of work includes character pieces (Annie Hall, Vicky Christina Barcelona), madcap sci-fi comedies (Sleeper), cosy mystery spoofs (Manhattan Murder Mystery) bleak examinations of morality (Crimes And Misdemeanours). Sometimes, but not all the time, he breaks the bounds of reality by adding time travel (Midnight in Paris), fantasy (The Purple Rose of Cairo). Or singing, flying and ghosts in Everyone Says I Love You. In his latest, To Rome With Love, a character turns invisible.

With Allen, you never know what rules will be followed – and yet you do. They are Allen’s rules, created by his own themes, obsessions and humanity. They’re what we come back for.

So perhaps each literary writer creates a genre of their own, invents the colours they paint in. Like with genre fiction, it makes its own expectations. Perhaps the two are not so very different.

Thanks for the pic pedrosimoes7

What do you think? Is ‘literary’ a genre? What makes a writer literary? What makes them not? Are there any writers you’d say were both genre and literary?

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Writing fast, writing slow – and why one book a year suits hardly anyone

Some books take time to write. You know that already. Having recently flogged my way through two tricky narratives, I’ve been blogging about slow writing quite a lot.

But slow isn’t the only way to write decent books. There are a lot of authors who turn in perhaps two or more a year (I once did four). If you’re writing in a well defined genre, your craft is well established and you know what you’re going to do with the ideas, it’s perfectly possible to whip your novel out in six months or faster. Especially if you’re writing a series.

With genre fiction, I know where I’m going – and here’s my rough process:

  • 1 establish the characters, using genre expectations as a start point, and then twist as much as I dare to give my version a unique flavour
  • 2 establish who will cause the biggest problems, what they want to do and whether that will have enough mileage for a story
  • 3 take the tropes of the genre as a starting point, identify the reader must-haves and work out some spectacular set-pieces
  • 4 research where necessary
  • 5 decide my locations, arm myself with details to write plausible scenes there (travel photos on Flickr are brilliant for this)
  • 6 plot, write, revise, ferment, revise, send to publisher, get notes. Done. Bring on the next one.

[If you liked my potted guide here, you might like my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, which I wrote in about 6 weeks (and 20 years of experience).]

A lot of writers work like this, especially genre writers. If you know where you’re going, know your audience, you can keep fans and editors well supplied. Perhaps too well supplied – the publishing industry usually likes a writer to produce one book a year. They don’t want to publish as fast as some writers are able to deliver.

What’s the problem?

You could say this does no harm; the books can be stockpiled and everyone sits pretty for years. Except they won’t. Because readers don’t want to wait. They are used to gobbling their entertainment in the grip of a craze – they want all of Lost, right now. And these kinds of writers get more leverage the more titles they can offer. Publishers may be losing something if they can’t feed those fans right now.

I know plenty of writers who find themselves hamstrung by this and turn to indie publishing in order to satisfy their fans and make the most of their productivity.

So does the book-a-year model suit the slow-maturing novel? Not remotely. When you’ve been hit by a bizarre idea where anything is possible, these books need many drafts of experimentation before you get near the steps in my plan above. This work cannot be done in a mere 12 months.

Obviously, the traditional book-a-year schedule exists because of publication practicalities. But there are a lot of writers it doesn’t suit. And it seems it doesn’t necessarily serve readers particularly well either.

Thanks for the pic Kio

Fast writers, slow-burn writers – we are publishing in interesting times…  What writing pace suits you and why?

 

 

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Go beyond the literal – make a story dance

My dance instructor is an editor in her more sensible hours, like me. She deals with precision, facts, boiling ideas down to their exactness. How things work and what they are. The world of the literal.

But when she wriggles inside a piece of music to choreograph a routine, she speaks a different language. One of moods, emotions and universal connection. Her style is jazz, a discipline that gathers moves from just about anywhere. Not just the formal steps of ballet, salsa, contemporary or hip-hop. It might be a woman in high heels walking across a room, a covetous glance with the head tilted just so. Simple moves, but when put with the music, they reveal more about it than you ever dreamed was there.

Writers have to do both these things. We construct the literal – who does what and when. What that leads to. Whether everything is logical and how many Tuesdays are in a month. We set up surprises.

Important as that is, the charm of a story lies beyond this.

It comes in two ways:

  • how well we snare the reader in the experience – the moment-by-moment writing
  • why it feels so much more important than ‘just a story’

For the first point, so much comes down to how we use our prose. The break of every paragraph, the glint of every verb, the run of every sentence, the open eyes of a word’s vowels or the quirky wink of a letter clash. Like the jazz choreographer, you don’t have to be fancy or formal – walking across a room is just as effective as a formal metaphor, often more so. You can charm the reader with every mark on the page.

Of course every genre has different expectations of its prose, and every individual writer has different sensitivities too. But all stories have a degree of performance and need to put on the right kind of show. When you’re doing a final polish, look beyond the steps and make the story dance.

Which leads me to the second way a story charms a reader. When they finish, the best stories somehow make sense as a metaphor in retrospect – for life, love, the human condition, whatever.

And here the dance comparison is of no use whatsoever.

Thanks for the pic of Momix Giandomenico Ricci

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What do you do to make a story dance? Share in the comments

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