Posts Tagged literary fiction

Would Ever Rest suit your book club? Here’s a FREE book to help you decide

My third novel Ever Rest, has been in the wilds for a few weeks now. It still feels very new to me. I’m still watching its reviews more than I should.

Several reviewers have mentioned they’d like to introduce it to their book clubs, so I’ve created these crib notes, to use as a primer before reading, or a refresher afterwards. I’ve included key themes, suggested questions for discussion, and an interview by Garry Craig Powell at Late Last Night Books where I explain my inspirations and intentions – which, of course, might be entirely irrelevant to your own reading of the book. Spoilers are flagged in case you’d like to avoid them.

The title is more ponderous than I would like. I wanted to call it Sleeve Notes, but Amazon’s rules require the words ‘Study Guide’ in the title, and prominently on the cover. There were other options, but they were even more earnest. So Study Guide it is.

Anyway, it’s formatted as an ebook and a PDF and you can download it free from all the major ebook retailers. Find it here.

PS For more of my creative doings, you might like my newsletter, here

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Making my honest art – writing and publishing literary fiction: interview at @thecreativepenn

Today I’m at Joanna Penn’s now legendary podcast, The Creative Penn, talking about writing and publishing literary fiction.

We cover the writing process for a very long-haul book (ie Ever Rest), the research process, creative revision, how you battle on when you’ve lost your way, and how you design a cover for a book that doesn’t have established genre parameters.

We also cover another big question – if literary fiction isn’t the most predictably lucrative kind of book, and marketing is tricky, what are the guaranteed rewards? Hence the line about making honest art.

As always, I thoroughly enjoyed our discussion. Do come over.

If you’re curious about my creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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I made this! Ever Rest is now available

Trust the process. Although there has been much muddling and rewriting; although I started with a short story and wasn’t sure how I’d make it into a long one; although I had to learn about the technicalities of two artforms (music and visual art) and one elite sport (mountaineering)… I got safely and securely to The End.

Ever Rest, my third novel, is now available.

What’s it like? Here are a few reviews to help you decide.

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How I made my writing career – novelist, writing coach and educator Connie Biewald

How do you get a career working with words? We each have our own routes. In this occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve made writing the centre of their lives, have been recognised with awards and grants and have become a guiding light for other writers. Today: Connie Biewald, who teaches literacy and creative writing to both children and adults, and is about to publish her fourth novel, Truth Like Oil.  

Roz How did you start writing?

Connie As soon as I could hold a pencil. My first novel was about two friends, entitled Josie and Susan. My mother typed it up and made carbon copies. (That shows how old I am.)

I always read and I always wrote. When I read this Eudora Welty quote, it resonated.  “Indeed, learning to write may be part of learning to read. For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.”

I look back at journals from elementary school and I always wanted to be a teacher and a writer.  There were other ideas like being a pathologist—I thought cutting up dead bodies would be interesting. But teaching and writing were the through lines.

Roz Was anybody influential in this?

Connie My schooling felt boring and restrictive. But in fourth grade, I had my first experience of a teacher reading aloud to us. We put our heads on our desks and for a beautiful half-hour I was happy in school. I wasn’t even in school. I was in the NY subway with Mario and his cricket, (George Selden’s Cricket in Times Square) on the Saskatchewan prairie with the owls, Wol and Weeps (Farley Mowat’s Owls in the Family). And time passed more than pleasantly. I was not used to that happening in school.

My mother read to me before bed. I remember one night listening to Louisa May Alcott’s Old Fashioned Girl, watching the clock hit the 8:30. My mother was not one to extend bedtime by a minute, yet the big hand kept moving. There were more pages to the chapter. The combination of anxiety and wonder…the power of literature to make even my mother forget the clock.

Roz Were any of your family in the creative arts or are you the trailblazer?

Connie My parents encouraged creativity—all that typing my mother did! One of my brothers is a musician. Our mother loved genealogy and sewing. Our dad was an industrial arts teacher. They built all our furniture.

Roz Did you do other jobs before you concentrated on literary arts?

Connie Literary arts were always my passion on the side. I was realistic about needing money. I worked in a bakery in high school which provided material for my book Roses Take Practice. I also worked with children through high school and college which became the foundation of my career in education. I didn’t want to do a job in literary arts, thinking that it would take my writing energy away. And I think I was right. I have been able to write what I want.

Roz How did you start to prioritise writing?

Connie The first writing I did with real intention of publishing was after college when I took a day care program director’s job so I could use the morning for writing. That book later became Digging to Indochina. When my children were young I wrote every Saturday morning.

That was enough for a while. As my kids got older I was able to go away to residencies. Grace Paley, my most significant mentor, said, “If you want to be a writer, keep your expenses low and don’t live with anyone who doesn’t support your writing.” I’m grateful to my parents for providing childcare while I went to workshops and residencies and to my husband who has never questioned my need to write.

Roz If you went back to age 16 and saw where you are now, what would your thoughts be?

Connie At 16, I was a mess. I had an idea that if I was going to be a writer I needed to have as many life experiences as possible and some of those experiences were risky. And some were psychological issues as much as intention. I’m lucky I made it through.

Roz What would you tell your younger self?

Connie I’d tell myself, “You will still have these female friends when you are 63. The approval you are craving from these boys doesn’t matter. You’re so much more beautiful in every way than you realize right now.”

Roz That’s exactly the kind of advice we can’t believe at that age.

Moving on, you have four novels – Bread and Salt, Roses Take Practice, Digging to Indochina and – about to be published – Truth Like Oil. Do they share any common themes or concerns? What makes a Connie Biewald novel?

Connie Connie Biewald seems obsessed with 17-year-olds. There’s something very powerful to me about that age. My novels all seem to have this theme—life is tough, but ultimately worth it. And power fascinates me.

Roz Did any of that come from your life experiences?

Connie Yes! The first three books seemed to come from within—Digging to Indochina and Roses Take Practice are autobiographically inspired fiction from my own experiences. Bread and Salt is a fictionalized account of my grandmother’s life, coming of age between World War I and II in Germany.

Truth Like Oil is different. When I finished Bread and Salt I thought I’d written everything I had to say. I was being pushed to write nonfiction about my work and parenting, but that wasn’t fun for me.  I write to escape my daily life; not that it’s a bad life, but people crave escape and writing is mine. I had an effective writing habit established , but nothing to say.  

At a reading, an audience member asked what I was working on next. I said I had no idea. My mother, who was also in the audience said, “You do have another grandmother, you know.” This was true, but I was not close to her. At that point she was in a nursing home and pretty bitter, also very racist. I wasn’t interested in writing about her, though she did become the inspiration for Hazel in my novel. Then a new character, Nadine, a Haitian-American nursing assistant, began whispering in my ear.

I travelled to Haiti because of her. I wanted to understand her background. I ended up returning to Haiti for the next decade, working on literacy projects with teachers and kids at Matènwa Community Learning Center on Lagonav—all because of Nadine.  It’s amazing that a fictional character had such a powerful impact on my life. 

Roz Three of your books are self-published with iUniverse…

Connie I had folders full of positive rejections that all said ‘We don’t know how to market/categorize this book. Is it commercial or literary, young adult or adult?’ My dad kept suggesting self-publishing but I resisted.

Roz You were reluctant to self-publish?

Connie For me there was something shameful about self publishing. But whenever I ran into former students or their families, they’d ask about my books. I was tired of having no publishing news.

I picked the book least important to me, Digging to Indochina, and put it out. It was a big success. And fun! I did lots of readings, and won some awards. IUniverse republished it as one of its star award books. Then I published the others. I wish I’d had the benefit of a developmental editor like I had at Vine Leaves Press. They would all have been better books. Yet I am still proud of them.

Roz Truth Like Oil is published by Vine Leaves Press – how did you find your way to them?

Connie On the website, Vine Leaves says it seeks work that blurs the line between commercial and experimental. I sent the novel and forgot. When I received an acceptance, I was thrilled. My school had just switched to online teaching because of the pandemic and it was a shock to all of us and the technology was tough for me. At that point there was so much fear. The publishing offer was a giant consolation prize. The Vine Leaves developmental editor told me to cut 60 pages and helped me do it. I knew I was in good hands.

Roz All writers have to build a relationship with their readers. What are your thoughts on this?

Connie Marketing is a stretch for me as it is for many writers. I’ve depended on word of mouth. I need to step it up and am not sure how. I signed up for a three-session class at Grub Street.

Roz What other kinds of publishing do you do? Short stories, personal essays… Do you do that too?

Connie Sometimes. I do have short writings on my website. But novels are my thing. Once I know a character well enough to write a short story about them, I’m attached enough to write a novel.

Roz Me too. My soul works in longform.

You also have another defining role – for several decades you’ve taught reading and writing in schools, including a programme for homeschoolers. And you’re a librarian and growth education specialist. Education seems to be a personal crusade for you.

Connie Thank you for noticing that! I really enjoy being with kids. I appreciate their energy, their sense of humour, their ways of looking at the world. I’m constantly learning from them. So many of our issues with power start with how we were treated as children.

As a progressive educator, I think deeply about teaching and how we teachers use our power. I use the way the environment is set up and the schedule and the kid culture of the classroom as much as possible, instead of being an adult who tells kids what to do. I always strive to understand each kid and their interests, strengths and challenges.

I struggle with the fact that I am a better teacher than writer. There’s a passage in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life about how no cares if you write. They’d rather you do things to benefit them! And I think about Grace Paley’s poem  which I love, “The Poet’s Occasional Alternative” about people preferring a pie to a poem. But I need writing to make me a happy teacher and a happy baker so that’s something.

Roz Being a teacher requires considerable energy. As does writing. How do you juggle these demands?

Connie Grace Paley talked about how balance is impossible. At any time in life, one demand supersedes another. That’s okay. During certain times in my teaching year, I can’t write at all. During the summer, I don’t teach so I have lots of time to write. When I was parenting young children it felt much more difficult than it feels now.

Roz You’re building a body of creative work and helping others to flourish. Are you living the dream?

Connie You know, I really am. I never thought of it that way until you asked. I love having grown children who more than earn their carbon footprints and the time that frees up to do my own thing.

Roz What do you like to read? Are there any writers who changed you, either as an artist or as a person?

Connie I read constantly, deeply and widely.  On the “reader” section of my website, I list many of the books that affected me most.  I’ve also crafted my own writing education, taking workshops from writers I admired. Grace Paley, Michael Cunningham,  Allan Gurganus, Marie Howe, Elizabeth Strout,  to name a few. I love Alice Munro’s work and my husband and I have read most of it out loud.

Recently I LOVED the book Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. I’ve read it twice and listened to the audio version, which is amazing. I also love Danielle Evans’ work, most recently The Office of Historical Corrections.

Roz What’s next?

Connie I have two projects that I haven’t been able to do much with during this pandemic. One is a novel for adults that takes place in 1870 in a New England mill town. The other is a middle grade novel.  I’m excited about diving into one or the other this summer.

Roz Give me some stirring final words!

Connie Hmmm.

You can find Connie on Facebook and her website. Truth Like Oil is published by Vine Leaves Press. Find it here

If you’re looking for writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’d like to know more about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pic by Theo McInnes

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

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

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

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

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

Roz Did you have a process?

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

Roz Did you mind that the publisher cut so much?

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

Roz Who were your influences, literary or otherwise?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pic by Theo McInnes

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

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

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

 

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The secret is out: 10 thoughts on nearly finishing a long-haul novel

It’s been a long journey. Five years ago, I started my novel Ever Rest. Fifteen drafts, and I now have the manuscript in a state where it’s fit to show to another person.

For the first time ever.

A curious feeling.

Like unveiling a massive secret

I never talk much about a work in progress (I’ve got a post about that here). I have never workshopped this novel or discussed it with a critique group, though I did base it on a short story I workshopped many years ago.

When I began in 2014, I brainstormed the concept with Husband Dave, but the book is now as far from those original thoughts as a wineglass is from sand.

I have shared tiny morsels of the plot with experts for research. Thank you, pathologists, musicians, priests, media lawyers, artists, expeditioners and mountaineers who answered my questions.

But the whole thing, I have kept to myself, done entirely alone.

Words in, words out

To begin with, I worried it would never get big enough. I had to change from short-form to long-form thinking (here’s a post about that).

For a while, I was pleased any time the wordcount went up. In the late drafts, once I knew what it was, I was relieved to see it drop again.

Under a crazy spell

In these finishing months, I have been a diligent writer and a negligent author-publisher. I’ve kept up with news about ways to stay visible and leads to pursue. I’ve made to-do lists. And I have not done them.  The book needed my undivided attention and I could not imagine doing that other stuff, or how I had ever done it before.

But now it’s like a craze is passing. A sense of other priorities is returning.

It’s been like beginner dating

In the beginning, I was eager for comparison titles. Who were the readers who might get it? I looked for comparisons, according to themes, locations, inciting incidents. They were most unsuitable.  Very well, it would be a misfit, so I wrote in a state of defiance, like a bolshy teenager. Now it’s become a recognisable shape after all, different from my expectations. I know where it might find friends.

I can break my reading diet

A developing book is fly paper. Any idea, style, mood might stick to it, and particularly from other books. See here for my detailed post about what I read while I’m writing.

Now, I can choose books for pure interest.

More to come

It’s not finished. There will be much to refine. but compared with what I’ve already done, the remaining work will be small. Details will change. Technicalities, repetitions. unclarities. plot goofs, realities I need to make more real. Layers that need more sparkle – or less. emphases that need to be adjusted. But it is now what it is. All changes will help it do that better.

Making new humans

There are people who compare the writing of a book to motherhood. I’m not a mother so I won’t appropriate that comparison,  but I find I relate to the singleminded purpose that develops through a pregnancy. In this way, making a novel seems like making a new human. except I have made at least seven with hearts to inhabit, and several more who will test them. No wonder it’s been intense.

Empty nest

I am missing those characters. They are not completely lost to me, of course. I may have to adjust them. Later, the production phases will require that I read and reread anyway. But I miss that I might have no more to discover about them, no more to give or take away from them, because that was one of the pleasures of knowing them. Perhaps it’s good that I am not a parent. (There’s more about how to parent your characters here.)

Heart in mouth

Now it’s ready to be tested. A tightrope moment. Best not to look down.

It’s not over yet.

But it feels like it is.

Thanks for the pic Gusaap on Pixabay

PS There’s loads about organising a rewrite (or several) in my workbook

PPS More on editing fast, editing slow… here’s what’s been happening in my creative world this month

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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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What do you read when you’re writing? It’s complicated

You’d think a writer would have the best excuse to read all the time – an unrestricted diet of anything and everything. But I find my relationship with books is somewhat complicated.

Like everyone, I have a stack of titles I’m eager to read – and never get to them unless I declare a special read-what-I-like holiday. Otherwise, my reading is on a permanent specialised regime.

A book in progress can be very fussy about what it’s fed, like an athlete.

I’ve identified that this regime has several phases.

Research – complicated but not really

I love factual research. Perhaps it’s a hangover from my ghostwriting days. Research was essential to the job, but also innately rewarding. Exciting ideas always came from these new territories of experience. Research was also darn good discipline because my editors were fearsome. If you know you’ll have to defend your plot decisions, you’re careful to check your facts. And you can never do enough swotting, so no time for ‘fun’ reading.

Don’t ask me about any of those subjects now, BTW. I could no more recall that detailed knowledge than I could now pass chemistry A level, though I once did that too.

Fiction for research – getting more complicated

Fiction is also research. In Nail Your Novel I talk about getting inspiration from fiction as a conversation with what other writers have done, perhaps to be more like them, or more unlike them. But here, danger lies. A satisfying novel can be disruptive when your own, by comparison, is primeval soup.

Disruption is one of the dangers of reading. When you’re a writer, you rarely enjoy a book for its own merits.

Interlude, where I don my editor hat

Now don’t for a moment think I’m warning you off reading. I see too many manuscripts written with little feel for the way prose works – problems the writer could solve in a thrice if they read books regularly. To write prose, you must love reading it.

This is not complicated.

Reading while editing – really quite complicated now

With my current novel Ever Rest, the plot, characters and themes are secure. It’s also secure in a bigger sense; I know what the book is. I’m eager to read fresh things and I’m eyeing that wishlist. But I’m now editing for nuance and I find I’m even more wary of disruption. I don’t know how another novel might rearrange my thinking, and right now that isn’t helpful.

I seem to be safe with books of criticism. I’ve been reading Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks. Great stories discussed but not experienced; behind a safety curtain.

I also seem to be safe if I reread novels I enjoyed a while ago. I get caught up, but I have a degree of immunity to their deepest surprises. I have already been changed by them and won’t be changed again.

Isn’t that a terrible way to use books? Perhaps to stop enjoying reading, you should be a writer.

Narrative non-fiction is working for me too. I loved Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker. It filled the sails but did not ruffle the book I was writing. The same with Do No Harm by brain surgeon Henry Marsh, which I’m currently reading.

It’s as if I’m reading to avoid inspiration, creating a controlled environment while my book does what it must.

Isn’t that crazy? Or do you do that too?

PS You can find Nail Your Novel here

PPS I had a nice surprise this month when I discovered Not Quite Lost is a semifinalist in the Kindle Book Awards…… More in my newsletter here

Meanwhile, tell me: What do you read while you write? Do you have strange rules?

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Birth of a press – ‘I knew so many talented authors being turned away…’ an interview

Laura Stanfill

This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, all-round literary citizen and founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon. Here’s Part 1. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress

Roz Laura, tell me how Forest Avenue Press started.

Laura It began as a grassroots display of community. And as a way to keep my brain busy while nursing an infant through colic. I knew so many talented, hard-working Oregon authors knocking on doors in New York and being turned away. It made sense to create one more home for literature right here in Oregon, instead of trying to bend our aesthetics to appeal to East Coast tastemakers. Besides, there are so many long-running literary presses in Portland. I was surrounded by willing mentors, who held out their hands to me as a newcomer.

I’ve always had a strong do-it-yourself ethos, probably inspired by my dad, who founded a collector magazine and put issues out for years. That’s how I saw my press—and still do: as a way to bring people together around a common subject matter. His passion was air horns; mine is literary fiction. When we had the opportunity to go national by signing with a distributor, I took it. We do publish authors from all over the US now, but a high percentage of our catalog remains Northwest focused.

Roz Your website sums up the Forest Avenue personality – ‘a fresh, complex, sometimes nutty, and often-wondrous approach to storytelling.’ How did you develop this? How long did it take?

Laura That speaks to my personal taste as a reader, and how I want our readers to be surprised by our books; a lot of readers come up to me and say how refreshing it is to read titles that aren’t predictable. We’ve always wanted to create space for essential voices that weren’t finding homes elsewhere —authors of color, LGBTQ authors, neuroatypical authors, and other underrepresented voices—as well as amplifying other authors and presses who are doing this kind of work in the world.

Roz Was it your intention from the start?

Laura The personality of the press has definitely shifted over the years. One of the things I love to tell new publishers is that it can take some time to get clear—and then clearer—about your mission and goals and taste. And that’s okay.

Roz Did you make any wrong turnings?

Laura When I first started, I wanted quiet novels, because those were the ones New York kept saying won’t sell. Asking for quiet novels seemed like a statement of purpose to take that phrase back, to turn ‘quiet’ from an oft-repeated rejection to a celebration of character-driven fiction.

But after growing into my publisher self more, and really honing in on my reading taste, I realized I love more whimsical, quirky—and dare I say it—loud novels. Boisterous novels—whether through their unusual language, or their humor, or their ambition to say something in a way that nobody has said it before. Novels that carry us someplace else while lodging deep into our hearts.

Many of our releases in the past two years have some genre aspects, like Renee Macalino Rutledge’s The Hour of Daydreams, a lush and poetic evocation of a marriage from the point of view of a village. It’s based on a Filipino fairy tale about star maidens and its mix of gorgeous language and real-world grit is buoyed by the theme of how we as human beings tell stories about each other because we can never really understand each other.

One constant, which I didn’t realize until our readers began telling me that they appreciated it, has been publishing books that aren’t predictable, that don’t fit into a commercial mold. Their stories might go anywhere—and often whirl into surprising territory. Unpredictable territory. I want to believe our readers come to our books and experience wonder and delight, the way we felt as children, when the world of reading opened up.

Roz Wow. It takes a confident, masterful storyteller to pull that off.

Let’s talk more about story. There’s a perception that literary fiction is often disdainful of plot. Clearly some of this is personal taste – a book that is plotless to one reader is an up-all-night page-turner to another. But many of my favourite literary writers are also cracking story writers by anyone’s judgement. Any thoughts on the plot-plotless debate?

Laura After planting my flag on “quiet novels” and receiving submissions where the characters sat around and looked at each other, I realized I needed to retool my thinking. I love deep, introspective, character-driven fiction. I love language that takes chances.

Roz I do too…

Laura But I do love a good plot. And writers who do all of that well end up with not-so-predictable, evocative, and completely fascinating novels. And that’s what makes me happy as a reader and as a publisher. I want it all!

Roz Me too!

Laura There are plenty of small presses pushing experimental work out, and it’s great, but I land in this plot-with-deep-characters-and-cool-language side of the industry, and I’ve cultivated a readership of fans who love these kinds of books.

Julia Stoops

Parts per Million by Julia Stoops, just out from Forest Avenue, is one novel that blends detailed characterizations with a heady, forward-moving plot. Julia worked on the book—about a trio of eco-activists—for 10 years, and it was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Three point-of-view characters propel the engine of the plot, which moves inexorably toward a stunning conclusion. Parts per Million is full of protests and environmental activism but it’s also built on the stranger-comes-to-town trope, where a young, sick woman who has nowhere else to go disrupts the household these three characters have built for themselves. We’re super-excited that we have a deal with Blackstone Audio for the audiobook.

Back to personal taste, in our first year as a press, my wise publisher friend Rhonda Hughes of Hawthorne Books told me to publish books I love, because that’s how I would build a brand and a community of readers. We can’t please everyone and shouldn’t try, or we’ll fail. We just have to keep going, one book at a time.

Roz It’s so interesting to hear you describe this process. You’ve built a style for Forest Avenue in the same way as writers build their distinctive identities. We try a few things, find some don’t excite us as much as we thought, then we discover our true calling. Wonderful.

Coming up next time: marketing literary fiction

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What I learned about writing novels by failing at short stories – and how to make a short story into a long one

Lee Martin wrote recently on his blog about how he hadn’t intended to write longform fiction. He started with short stories, and graduated to novels only when an editor suggested it.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but that was also my path. Though I was considerably less masterful at it than Lee, who had a respectable bank of published shorts by the time he began the big one.

I started small, and writerly friends urged me to think bigger, mainly because short stories were a much more difficult sell. At the time, I didn’t think I had a novel in me, though I dearly wanted to find one. And, being a beginner, I had my hands entirely full with the craft basics. I couldn’t control more characters, threads, etc etc.

I also wasn’t good at brevity. This was the first reason I was unsuccessful. Whenever I looked for competitions or magazines, I’d bust the word count by several thousand. Even with strict pruning, I couldn’t bring one in under 5,000 words.

And then there was another problem. I was Miss Misfit. I was complimented for style and originality, but literary folk said I was too fond of plot. It didn’t help that I used concepts from science fiction and suspense. Try genre magazines, they said. ‘Try literary magazines,’ said the genre mags.

Much as I yearned for someone, anywhere, to publish me, I’m glad nobody did because I now see a more fundamental problem, beyond the style and subject matter. Even if I didn’t think I could write a novel, my concepts needed a novel’s scope.

In my work as an editor, I’ve often seen how rushing a powerful idea can make it trivial. Usually it’s most apparent with individual scenes, especially emotional ones – a turning point might look unconvincing if it’s too brief, but becomes a spellbinding showstopper if the writer slows and takes their time over every moment. I think this may be why I never had success with short stories – I was rushing a bigger idea. Blurting it out in a state of panic instead of giving it the space and pace it deserved. So the result was underbaked for literary people, and ungraspably off-beam for genre people. In short, I was shortchanging an idea that needed to be bigger. That’s not to say a big idea can never be a brief story, but I wasn’t suited to that approach.

I’m thinking about this because of Lee Martin’s post and because I’m now putting one of those old stories on a bigger canvas. As you might already know if you saw this recent post about the wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process, Ever Rest began as 7,000 words and has now grown to around 110,000. You’ll also see from that post that I began with trepidation. In my mind, Ever Rest was frozen in that small space. Was expanding it even possible?

I’m happy to report it was, so in case you’re also in an expanding frame of mind, here’s what I’ve been doing.

Is it still the same story?

Good question. It is because some parts of the core situation are technically the same, like the two Westworlds, Fargos, 2001s, Flowers For Algernons. And here I shall be magnificently vague as I’m not ready to explain more yet.

The how-to bit: making the story bigger

Find the other characters who have a story arc

My original story was a single viewpoint, first person. I looked for other souls who had a significant experience triggered by the core event. Gradually the cast list grew. The original character became two and they are now such distinct people that I can’t believe it wasn’t always thus. The story is now third person, six narrators.

Go beyond the original timescale

Ever Rest original had a timescale of a few days, with flashbacks to childhood and teen years. Gosh, didn’t I stuff a lot into 7,000 words? What if I spent longer in those years? I free-wrote in the characters’ viewpoints, not planning anything, shooting footage until they did something surprising or moving.

Look for missing moments

As I pieced my footage together, I found a pattern of situations that were always worth writing. When character A first met character B, what made them interested in each other? When character X started to change their mind about situation Y, what was that moment? Sometimes it was apparent that key conversations were missing. I didn’t know how those conversations would go; it was more that I knew the opposite – the characters would not be able to keep quiet.

Brief moments become major turning points

This is one of the joys of the bigger canvas. Moments that the original story glided through – or never even looked at – can become turning points, or even twists.

The end of exploration

Some of my explorations went to dead ends. I had plenty of footage that was ultimately dull, though nothing’s ever wasted. Even if a piece of text doesn’t stay in the manuscript, it helps with your own knowledge of the book. There were also plot directions that felt forced, so I took them out again. (Hint: keep all your versions so you can undo.)

The big question is this. With so many possibilities, how do you know when you’ve got an idea to keep? I always found the answer was this.

When it felt like it had been there all along.  

If you want to know more about Ever Rest, and anything else I’m working on, sign up for my newsletter!

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