Posts Tagged literary fiction

How to think like a novelist – with help from Station Eleven and Emily St John Mandel

Think like a writer‘I am very good at imagining doom. That is why I write novels.’ The other day I posted on Facebook about my horse’s health problems, which I have been worrying about, and finished with those words.

Imagining doom. This made me wonder: what characterises the writerly mind? I thought I’d run a diagnostic on the mental routines that make me the scribbling sort. You can tell me yours at the end, or summon Nurse Ratched.

To infinity and beyond
First of all, there’s the tendency to conjure chains of events, especially the unthinkable possibilities. We’re sensitive to the skull beneath the skin. That might be a safety valve, as with the many cheery crime writers I know. Equally, it might be a curse. Ask David Foster Wallace, Sylvia Plath.

Station Eleven Emily St John MandelEverything is wondrous
I’m currently reading Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. It’s a work of great imagination, about a flu epidemic that wipes out most of the world’s population. In one chapter, a character is among the survivors trapped in an airport, and a pilot decides to fly a plane to Los Angeles, to see what’s there. After so long among the grounded planes and the silent skies, the viewpoint character watches the plane speed down the runway and lift off. He thinks

Why, in his life of frequent travel, had he never realised the beauty of flight? The improbability of it?

I read that line and thought: I have always seen the improbability of aeroplanes, and the wonder. I have always thought that electricity is astounding, and so is what we do with it.

I recently read an interview in the Paris Review where Ray Bradbury said:

If I’d lived in the late 1800s I might have written a story predicting that strange vehicles would soon move across the landscape of the United States and would kill two million people in a period of 70 years. Science fiction is not just the art of the possible, but of the obvious. Once the automobile appeared you could have predicted that it would destroy as many people as it did.’

This is the writer’s mind. The questioning never stops. It is like Brownian motion – why, what, what if. What could be different, or taken away? What if I looked from a different angle?

As I walked from Moorgate station through the Barbican centre, I passed a glass ziggurat and saw it as a resource. Perhaps a supply of cutting edges. Until the glass ran out, of course.

Dismantling the world
I have always questioned reality. I have always dismantled the status quo and the world around me. In real life, this can make for abstruse conversations. Doh, Roz, what’s the big deal about aeroplanes? Electricity? Whatever. If you say so.

But writers are surrounded by big deals, things we can uninvent and meddle with, and a past, present and future that changes at the crook of a finger.

But it’s real
Still with Station Eleven. That world is as real to me as the house I left, and the office I walked into when I finished my journey. People in my imagination, whether put there by a writer or invented by me, are as real as a table you can knock your knuckles on.

I must tell the page
This post sprang into my mind as I walked past the fragile skyscrapers, still half in my book. I hurried to my desk and hammered it in rough. Musicians are more complete when they’re at their instrument. Writers are more complete when talking to the page.

tenth of decemberProse is transformation
Let me introduce Janys Hyde, who runs the website Words of a Feather (and has invited me to run a writing course in Venice this September, details here). Janys reported on a Facebook post that she was reading the Tenth of December short story collection by George Saunders. She said:

His writing is like being flooded with emotions that you weren’t aware you had, or had subconsciously chosen to repress.

Go and befriend her now.

Janys must have been eavesdropping in my house because, by coincidence, I’d been having exactly that conversation with Husband Dave – about how good prose dyes your mind, makes you see in a new colour, opens doors you didn’t know you had. (Lest that sound too lofty, the next remark was: ‘your turn to pour the wine’.)

And this is why, although I love movies and other storytelling forms, prose is my favourite way to travel.

PS The hanging teacups in the pic are the window display of Barton’s Bookshop in Leatherhead, where its proprietor and I record So You Want To Be A Writer for Surrey Hills Radio. Photo by Adam Waters.

Do you recognise any of these traits in yourself? What others would you add? Or maybe you’d just like to confirm that I’m in a category of one, and that you’re leaving my subscriber list forthwith. The floor is yours.

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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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Lessons learned from making a contemporary fiction box set – guest post at Jane Friedman

janefboxsetWomen-Writing-Women-Box-Set-Cover_finalJPEGsmlHow do you organise seven time-strapped authors to collaborate on a project? Who does what, especially the tedious jobs like proof reading? How do you decide on an image, a price,  a name, a thrust for the publicity campaign, how much to spend on advertising?

Indeed, how do you get seven individuals to agree on anything?

How do you get the attention of the press – and is that worthwhile? What’s the difference between a proper promotion strategy and flinging the book into the market to fend for itself?

As you know, I’ve been taking part in a box set release with six other authors. We started work, in secret, back in November. Now, Jane Friedman has grilled us about the lessons learned in making a nice notion into an actual live product. Do come over.

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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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Quirky tales and the difficulty of leaving a book behind: My Memories of a Future Life featured at Triskele Books

triskeleJW Hicks collects writers of quirky books, and I’m honoured she’s chosen me for her collection on the fab blog of the Triskele Books collective. (You might recognise Jane as a recent guest on The Undercover Soundtrack with her novel Rats.) She’s prised me out of my writing cage to answer questions on whether I start with characters or plot, what ghostwriting does to your writing style, how I keep track of ideas, and whether I worry the ideas will dry up. (In fact, I confess to acute separation anxiety when I finish a book. I don’t want to leave it. Does anyone else get that?)

Anyway, it’s all there at Triskele – you can get there with a hop, a skip or a tricycle .… or you could ask a soothing voice to guide you there in a dreamy state. At your own risk, of course.

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‘Music: a space to make sense of life’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Sarah Yaw

for logoMy first guest this year says that when she was very young, she spent a lot of time in theatres, watching her dad rehearse with bands. She would fall asleep to the sound as he played bass for the likes of Don Cherry, Lou Reed and his own band, The Everyman Band. Later she became consumed by music herself, pouring her soul into the playing of the clarinet. Tendinitis cut her music career short and a teacher suggested she write, encouraging her to write in the voice of one of the authors they’d been reading that term. ‘Voice’ – it was that word that started it. She realised that writing was musical, a sequence of rhythm, tension and release – and so her first novel took shape (and went on to win the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize). She is Sarah Yaw and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Harmony from fragments’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

for logoMy guest this week had a real struggle to get her novel into shape. She was used to seeking inspiration from music, but found that nothing she listened to was helping. In her head was a jumble of characters and voices, all clamouring but making no sense. Then she happened upon a video of her own daughter-in-law, singing an a capella composition of her own that layered and alternated lines from random blogs. This quirky piece gave her the courage to put her characters together – and see where the harmonies came. She is Rochelle Jewel Shapiro and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Each morning, there was a chapter to listen to’ – guest post at Jane Davis’s blog on making audiobooks with ACX

rozjaneToday I’m at Jane Davis’s blog, reflecting on the experience of making Lifeform Three and My Memories of a Future Life into Audible books. If you’ve been following my audiobook journey for a while you may find the ‘how-to’ section is familiar material, but there are plenty of more reflective moments – so I hope they’ll encourage and inspire you if you’re considering an audiobook too.

I also want to introduce Jane Davis. I first spotted her when The Guardian newspaper featured our novels in an article about quality indie authors. I tried to drag her onto The Undercover Soundtrack, but alas she was too honest and told me that music hasn’t really featured in her creative process. So I’ll tell you a little more about her here. She secured jane davis1a publishing contract when her debut manuscript won the Daily Mail First Novel Award, but has since gone proudly indie, following up with four other titles that deal with tricky subjects in thoughtfully honed prose. Her titles are delicious and hopefully will give you an appetite for more – I Stopped Time, A Funeral For An Owl, An Unchoreographed Life. There’s more about Jane and her books here.

So do join us at her blog for audiobooks, the inside experience.

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‘A lyric, a tune fragment, a thrilling chord run’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, JW Hicks

for logoMy guest this week says that most of her better ideas are sparked by music. She keeps noise-making apparatus at the ready in every room in her house. When she’s stuck she charges up her headphones with inspirational pieces and does a hand-occupying household activity until the ideas return, which usually isn’t long. Quirky and speculative fiction is her milieu, and her short stories have won prizes. Now she’s launching her debut dystopia novel, Rats, with the Triskele books collective. She is JW Hicks and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Science fiction – have we forgotten what it should be?

Pioneer-10-and-11-plaqueWhat makes a story science fiction? Is it an otherworldly location, the science, the time in which it is set?

I’m thinking about this because of a review I saw this week of a novel billed in The Times as science fiction, which sounded rather disappointing – and it’s put me on a bit of a mission.

I haven’t read the book so it would be wrong of me to name it, but it concerned a new planet populated by humanlike aliens. The main threads are the bringing of God to the indigenous people, and the exploitation of its resources by mining companies.

It seemed this story could have been set anywhere. The human challenges were no different from those in a historical novel. The other-world setting didn’t add anything fresh, except maybe to save the writer some research. (I see a lot of science fiction – and fantasy – novels that are written for this reason. If you invent the world, you can’t be accused of getting it wrong.)

But shouldn’t we be doing something better with science fiction (and fantasy)?

shaw

Bob Shaw says, in How To Write Science Fiction, that science fiction’s defining quality is that it deals with ‘otherness’. Whether it’s in the future, the present or the past, it’s about realities we don’t have at the moment.

He also says that the central idea in a science-fiction story is so important it should have the status of a major character. It needs to be developed and explored. It changes what people can do, creates new situations that illuminate the human condition. It adds a new quality of strangeness. And Shaw also says if that concept is taken away, the story should fall apart.

One of Shaw’s own short stories illustrates this. Light of Other Days sprang from an idea about an invention called ‘slow glass’, which allows you to see an event or a setting that happened years earlier. And so a man whose wife and child died in an accident can still see them, every day, in the windows of his house.

shawTake, by contrast, Andy Weir’s The Martian. An astronaut is trapped on Mars and has to make enough air, food and water to survive. It’s genuinely an addictive read and I loved it, but it could just as easily be happening in Antarctica or on a deserted island. The science provides the particular challenges and the possibilities, but it does not change the human essence of the story.

We’re used to thinking that any story outside the Earth’s atmosphere is science fiction, but they’re not. They’re survival stories. But take the slow glass out of Light of Other Days and you’d have no story at all. That’s science fiction.

The Martian is a great read. The other novel may be too. But it’s a pity if the critical press and the literary community are presenting them as examples of good science fiction.

shawScience fiction should be a literature of the imagination. I think it’s a shame if we forget this. The same goes for fantasy – Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is a deeply invented world, and very different from The Jungle Book, which inspired it.

We only have to look at our own, real past to see how science fiction and fantasy should grapple with the idea of transformation. Every invention in the history of humanity shows us this. Think of electric light – we can change society and the very fabric of life with an idea like that. With phones – and particularly mobiles – we are reinventing the way society works, saving lives and creating new types of crime. With scientific narrative non-fiction like Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks we also have a model for writing great science fiction. We can examine the impact of a scientific discovery and the quantum changes it brought, in individual lives and for global corporations.

shawScience fiction works on this same continuum, the scale of human change. A great science fiction idea should allow us to send humanity to startling new places with new advantages, cruelties and injustices. And those are places in our souls, not just other planets.

So – rant over. I’m hoping this isn’t too abstruse or marginalising for some of the regulars here, but you do know how I love the strange   Do you write science fiction or fantasy? What are the ideas you’re grappling with? How do you refine them or test if they will be bold enough? Would they pass the Bob Shaw test?

POSTSCRIPT How could I have forgotten one of my favourite things about science fiction? It took Dan Holloway to remind me of it in a comment – the reason these ideas prove so beguiling is that they are metaphorically resonant. They enable us to see aspects of humanity that aren’t yet visible. Do read Dan’s full comment below.

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