Posts Tagged Iain Banks

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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Self-publishing and staying true to yourself – interview at Jane Davis’s blog

janedavisblogjanedavisblog2At school, I wrote science fiction stories because it made my teachers supremely annoyed. That probably set me up well for my attempts to get an agent or a publisher, when I annoyed with stories that bent and mixed genres. And why not, when it was good enough for Atwood, Banks and Ballard? And the magic realists?

Today I’m at the blog of Jane Davis, one of my co-writers in the Outside The Box collection, answering questions about what I write and why, and how self-publishing began for me as a last resort and became the most positive step I’d ever taken. How times change, you might say – but we also discuss  whether self-publishers are truly gaining more legitimacy or whether there is further to go. I think the latter. There are still barriers and indie authors are still treated discourteously.

Did I really use the word ‘discourteously’? I did. Do come over.

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How to find the right title for your book – a brainstorming workshop

book titles

Jane Austen’s unfinished masterpiece

I’ve had this question from Kate Calcutt.

How important is the title of a book?

Good titles make you stop and wonder. Catch-22. Wow, what’s that? The Other Boleyn Girl. Wait, there were two? Nineteen Eighty-Four. Why then? What happens? (The book was published in the 1940s, so the forward-reaching, inverted date was startling.)

The more famous you are, the less hard your title has to work. Iain Banks graduated from The Wasp Factory to The Business. Would you have picked up The Business if it had been his first? Barbara Vine gets away with No Night Is Too Long because her name already tells readers what they’re getting. Which is just as well because No Night Is Too Long has zero stopping power and is darn hard to remember.

If you’ve got a long-running series, you can coast with the later titles. The first needs to audition with bells and whistles, but later titles can trade on insider knowledge. Mockingjay would be a challenge to remember unless you’d been primed by The Hunger Games. But it’s really a title that says ‘welcome back’.

But if you don’t have much already on the shelves, your title is your one chance to make a reader stop and consider spending time with you. It is your novel’s chat-up line in a place with hundreds of suitors. It needs to thrum with promise, intrigue.

Is this title okay?

Kate also said: I’m considering a title change from ‘In the Background’, to ‘Life, Captured’.

I’m afraid both of those fall at the first hurdle. They’re so vague that they can’t give a flavour of the book, and a reader is likely to pass them by in favour of a title that makes a strong case for what it’s about. Both these titles could describe just about any story.

Now, you might argue that we want our books to appeal to the widest number of readers. And I’m sure if there was a genre category called ‘for anyone who likes a good read’ we would all hope our book belonged in it. But marketing can’t be about ‘vagueness’ or ‘everyone’. It’s about specifics, individuals and distinctiveness.

Let’s get specific

So what are the specifics of Kate’s book? She described her novel to me as contemporary female fiction – the story of a woman’s life as observed by those in the background of her holiday photos.

Now this is an interesting concept and I can understand why she’s toying with those titles. But they didn’t make me want to pick the book up. In The Background might work with a stunning cover. But titles are seen just as often without their artwork, so we can’t rely on that.

So what shall we do to find a better title? We need to brainstorm.

I’m not saying I’ll get a better title in this post, but here’s a starter. Only Kate knows what really mirrors the soul of the book.

nynfiller21. Dig out the thesaurus

Find words that suggest photos, snapshots, images, likenesses, portraits. Exposure. Shot. Frame. Lens. Subject. Picture. I got down to ‘image’ and I found ‘angel’ – a nice emotive word. Photos aren’t the only interesting concept here. Let’s look up watchers, onlookers, witnesses. And moments. Even jigsaws, as this novel seems to present a life in pieces. Or chorus, as the piecemeal narrative is like the commentary of a Greek chorus. What about biography, as it’s the story of a life? Make a huge list of possible nouns.

Now start another list of verbs and adjectives that could go with those. You’re looking for something surprising or emotive. The blurred girl? Background is a good word if we use it strongly. Could that go with something?

Don’t stop with single words. List questions, enigmas, dilemmas that might arise from the book’s concept.

2. Go for the familiar – and twist

Find idioms that use all the words you’ve listed. And book titles – Amazon is useful for this, as is my beloved Library Thing. Song titles too. As good titles set up a frisson, you can get a powerful effect from altering a phrase that’s already familiar. Look at Anthony Burgess showing off (as ever) with a novel called Nineteen Eighty-Five.

In my scoot around LibraryThing I found a novel called Autobiography of a Family Photo by Jacqueline Woodson. That’s got an intriguing vibe so it’s definitely worth looking at other titles that are similar. There’s also The Photograph by Penelope Lively. The descriptions of these two novels necessarily explain the title, which could give you extra ideas to explore.

3. Look in the text

The perfect title might already be in your novel, hidden in a line of dialogue, or introspection, or a description.

4. Look at the genre

Your book needs to woo the right kind of readers, so you need to capture the right tone. Note, especially, the emotions that titles evoke – that’s the promise to the reader. And avoid misleading ones. Although ‘witness’ is good for the brainstorming list, if you put it in the title you might give the impression that it’s a crime novel.

A shortlist

Write a shortlist of titles. Force yourself to come up with many more than you need. Then put them away and come back when you’ve forgotten what they are. Try the best ones out on friends, then go back to Amazon to see how your shortlist compares with the books already out in the marketplace.

Repeat until satisfied.

You’ll find some more notes on titles in this post by Ray Harvey aka Journal Pulp.

Do you struggle to think up titles?  Do you have any tips? Share in the comments! And if you want to continue brainstorming Kate’s book – or if you think of a possible title share it here!

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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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You have an agent: why self-publish? The hybrid writer

Charles Dickens self-published sometimes. And he sat on chairs the wrong way round (thank you Smabs Sputzer)

Writer Laura Pauling dropped by one of my recent posts and asked this rather interesting question:

I’m curious about your decision to self-publish as I believed you had an agent?

Yes, I have an agent. Not just one, actually; two. Jane Conway-Gordon for my adult fiction and Piers Blofeld of Sheil Land for my MG/YA work. Agented up to my eyeballs and beyond, in fact. And yet I’m self-publishing My Memories of a Future Life. What gives?

Well, My Memories of a Future Life is one of those awkward novels that agents love, editors love – but it’s not what publishers are buying as breakout novels at the moment. It’s come back from editors with notes that said ‘we loved it but was too unconventional’.

It’s a matter of timing. My Memories of a Future Life has a speculative element and would have done fine if I’d been submitting it at the same time as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Iain Banks’s The Bridge. But a lot has changed since they came out (particularly The Bridge, which was published in 1986).

So what’s a girl to do?

Even six months ago there would have been a stigma if a professional author self-published a work of fiction. But some books fit the high-volume needs of the publishing industry and some are better as a slow-burn cult discovery.

This doesn’t mean we don’t need publishers. Far from it. But it does mean that professional authors are developing a hybrid approach. Alina Tugend wrote in The New York Times this week that many traditionally published authors are now choosing to self-publish some of their work. The Bookseller recently featured a group of established writers from all genres who are bringing their own projects to Kindle with their own ebook site – Kindle Authors UK.

Writers are creative people. From time to time, what we create doesn’t sit within well-established genre boundaries. But that doesn’t mean people don’t want to read it (I refer you to paragraph 4…)

And we’re only following in the footsteps of other industries. Buffy creator Joss Whedon made Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog himself, rather than take it to a network. But he hasn’t turned his back on mainstream film and TV.

And I’m not turning my back on conventional publishing. Just because My Memories Of A Future Life doesn’t fit the industry’s needs doesn’t mean my other books won’t. Indeed, my MG/YA novel, Life Form 3, is on editors’ desks right now. Because writers today can do both.

Should you self-publish too?

If your novel is solidly in the middle of a high-selling genre and isn’t getting a sale, perhaps you still have work to do. But if you’ve got a book that’s earned its spurs by securing an agent, has had good feedback but hasn’t made it through the marketing department, maybe you should think about self-publishing too. (In fact I talked about this a while ago in this post here… and a lot of you had plenty to say…)

Laura has also asked how I’ll be promoting the novel, as I usually blog only about writing. It deserves a post of its own, so I’ll deal with that tomorrow!

In the meantime, tell me your thoughts on the changing nature of writers’ careers. Personally I love the hybrid approach – some of my books will be right for mainstream and some will be better as indies. It gives us all more freedom to have fulfilling and viable writing careers. It brings readers a wider breadth of work. It keeps the artform fresh. What do you think?

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Why writers give the best parties

Party scenes are a gift for a writer – here’s my celebration

I love a good party. Anyone might collide and anything might start. Or finish. A party is fate’s way of throwing a die.

Which makes them perfect for a story.

For some reason, a dinner party scene doesn’t do it for me. Of course it can throw folks together, as randomly as you please. But a dinner party is more difficult to choreograph, as most of the action takes place around one table, and juggling a sixsome or eightsome is tricky on the page. Most of the time I find excuses to split them up, sending them out to the kitchen to flatten the soufflé, or outside to have a smoke.

A party, though, comes alive on the page more naturally. Its loose informality means you can drift through a succession of intimate groups or pull back for a long shot. You can use montage to clip a conversation of everything but the most startling line. Or show that somebody is a crashing bore without boring the reader. You can shuffle strangers around with very little contrivance.

What parties can do in a story

Parties might be a focal point for society, as in Jane Austen’s novels, when they are often the only times that characters might meet.

Jilly Cooper has rounded off a good number of novels with a rousing gathering, letting the characters bash out their differences under the special conditions a party allows.

A party can also kick off a novel rather well. Iain Banks used a party early in The Crow Road to give a sense of reunion among his characters – and ended the sequence on a poignant note as the MC saw the girl he loved with another guy. Writing as his M alter ego, he used a party early on in one of his Culture books to set up his world.

You might start with a celebration and have it end in tragedy or outrage – as in Sleeping Beauty. The contrast will make the tragedy all the stronger.

Most of the plot of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim comes from a party the MC is forced to attend at his new boss’s house. The scrapes he gets into set the rest of the book in motion.

A party can have an internalising function too. I used a party scene in My Memories of a Future Life to show the character trying to keep up with her old world after a personal disaster, pretending everything was all right. We can see it isn’t. Later in the book, she goes to another party, held by the friends of a character she hopes to find out more about. The surreal atmosphere reflects her internal state as her life takes another swerve. (Two parties may seem heavy going for one book but I atoned in Life Form 3 where there were no parties at all.)

My rules for a good party

So we’ve established that parties can give you hours of story fun. But like the real thing, they take a bit of organisation. Here are my rules for making your party go with a swing:

1 A party sequence needs a point of view. It could be one POV character or an omniscient camera, but keep it consistent. Don’t start as one and end as another.

2 When lingering on groups of people, keep to small numbers. It’s extremely hard for the reader to keep track of more than three people foregrounded at a time, and some writers never have more than two. Although you may like that ensemble scene at the start of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, where all the characters are nattering in a café, it does not translate well to the page.

3 Keep letting the camera look up to take in what others are doing and to demonstrate that there are more people there besides the ones you’re looking at.

4 If you have a tense exchange, don’t hurry away from it too fast because you need to get round to the other people too. Lock the characters in the bathroom together if necessary so that they can take their time.

Thank you, Oddsock, for the picture. And in other news, My Memories of a Future Life will be available on Kindle soon, so that will be an excuse for a party too…

How have you used parties in your fiction? What purpose did they serve in the story? Which writers give the best parties? Share your examples in the comments!


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Fiction within fiction – made-up worlds and stories inside stories

Stories within stories, dreams and made-up universes are all tricky because once you leave your story’s established world the reader may leave you too. How do you keep them with you?

Stories within stories can go badly wrong. The reader knows it is not ‘true’. Yes, fiction isn’t true anyway, but the reader allows that because they bought into it when they opened the book. But they didn’t necessarily agree to read the characters’ fiction, or spend long periods in their dream worlds. The reader needs to be connected securely with the other world and want to go there.

I’ve just been reading Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, which I discussed recently on Guys Can Read. Tony and Susan does story-in-story with aplomb. Here’s how.

Susan, who is comfortably married with 2 children and a nice home, is sent a novel written by her ex-husband, Edward, who she hasn’t seen in 20 years. When they split up decades ago, he was a discontented drifter making incompetent attempts to be creative. Now he comes out of the blue and asks Susan to read his novel because she was ‘always his best critic’. Susan feels awkward about it – and not just because she’s worried the book will be awful. There’s difficult history between them – she feels complicated and guilty – and she’s dreading what she’ll find in the novel.

So, by the time we get to this novel within a novel, we’re curious. We want to see if it will be bad – but we’re not too worried about that because the (real-life) author has been assured and entertaining so far. And also we’ve become connected to Susan’s reactions. We have inklings that there is an older, raw Susan in dread of being woken. So we are eager to see what is in Edward’s book and how she reacts.

So the first rule of stories within stories is this: give us something we want to find.

When do you introduce it? As soon as you like, so long as you tick those boxes.

You may not need to wait very long. Tony and Susan has a prologue and a short first chapter and we’re into the book within the book. (Yes, a prologue. This writer is happy-slapping several writing taboos – and getting away with it.)

Another of my favourite books with several tiers of fictionality is The Bridge by Iain Banks. The Bridge starts with a man trapped behind the wheel of his crashed car, in pain and terrified. A mere two pages and we are into a parallel fantasy world which is his consciousness while he is in a coma. In the coma world are clues that anchor us to the real-world scene we’ve just read. Some random delirium words – ‘the dark station’ – become the first line of the coma world. There are other details too – a strange, O-shaped bruise on the man’s chest, which has given him his coma-world name, and which we know was from impact with the steering wheel. (Although the book does get flabby after a while, with dream sequences run to briar…)

Second rule of stories within stories

Give us details that anchor us and help us understand what we’re seeing. Another master-stroke about Banks’s coma-world is its setting on a giant, neverending bridge – the Forth Bridge, where the accident happened.

Here’s the third rule of stories within stories

Make both stories satisfying. Tony and Susan’s story within the story is a harrowing thriller, with every bit as much tension as the story around it. Often I see manuscripts where the writer is more interested in one strand than the other. It’s often tricky to make sure the crescendos complement each other, but, hey, you knew it would be a challenge,

Fourth rule

Make both stories affect each other.  So the characters have to be changed not only by what they are doing in the real world, but what is happening to them in the other one. It all needs to knit together to make something bigger than both stories separately – otherwise why have them in one book at all?

Again, Tony and Susan has it nailed, and in rather an interesting way. The Tony part (Tony is the fictional MC) is a story of literal, bloody revenge. The Susan part is about psychological revenge. Edward (the writer) knows exactly how to push Susan’s buttons and prod her insecurities. Because of what Edward is making Tony go through, he’s forcing her to have a relationship with her again, through the book, because he knows he’s making her react. That’s all very uncomfortable.

Do you have any rules for writing stories within stories? Do you have any favourite novels – or films – that do this particularly well? (Thank you THQ Insider for the picture)

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