Friday, 5 September 2014

Hopping Mad?

"Mad as a Box of Frogs" by Becky Brown. Used here by kind permission of the artist.

Twitter and Facebook were ablaze earlier this week with the unfolding (or should that be 'unravelling'?) story of a writer who had taken exception to some (to be honest, rather mild) criticism about a book he had created with iBooks Author. The full exchange can be read HERE. Be warned, you might need a large pot of coffee if you hope to get through it all in one go.

If you have better things to do than trawl through all that, suffice to say it's another example of a writer launching what I'm sure he believes is an entirely justified defence of his work, standing up for his artistic integrity, etc, etc. He asserts that the reviewer is factually wrong to, for instance, call his prose "workmanlike", and goes on (in an extraordinary series of twenty-three comments, posted over ten hours (and that's just the start!)) to post extracts from his work, saying some of his descriptions are worthy of Keats or F Scott Fitzgerald. As far as he's concerned, he's doing the critic a favour, by highlighting examples of his writing that prove the review is incorrect.

The problem is, writers don't get to do that. When somebody reads something we've published, their response to it is entirely outside our control. If they think the prose is workmanlike, or the plot is unoriginal, or the characters are unconvincing, then our only option is to take it on the chin. It's only one person's opinion, after all. If several people say the same thing, that probably highlights a weak spot that would be worth concentrating on when it comes to the next book, story, or poem. What we don't get to do is fly off the handle, accusing the reviewer of telling lies or being ignorant. Because that will only ever make you look like a complete nutcase.

I think the only case when it might be appropriate to response to a review is when there has been a genuine factual error - for instance if they've misspelled your name, or got the book title, ISBN, or release date wrong. Anything else, you just have to let go. And even if there is something justifiable, then a discreet email to the reviewer or editor of the publication in question is a far better option than waging all-out war in the comments thread.

Personally, I'm going to keep hold of the link to this particular example of a writer in meltdown. If, in the future, I find myself published and on the receiving end of what I consider to be an uncharitable review, and I feel my fingers creeping towards the keyboard to unleash the kind of righteous indignation that only a writer can muster, I will stop, read the entire "Venice Under Glass" thread from start to finish, and then see if I can summon up the will to tear into the reviewer in the same way. Chances are, I won't. And that can only be a good thing.

In one of the happy accidents that the internet often throws my way, while I was looking for a picture to illustrate this post I chanced across the work of Becky Brown. Her animal illustrations are fantastic - full of life and personality. If you like them as much as I do, please go and take a look at the wonderful prints and cards for sale in Becky's shop.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Chloe Banks on The Art of Staying Flexible

I'm delighted to welcome long-time friend of the blog Chloe Banks, who is out and about promoting her debut novel, The Art of Letting Go. Chloe is an accomplished short story writer, so I'm looking forward to reading the book and seeing how she's taken the leap into the longer form. The book is available from a new publisher, Thistle Publications, and that in itself is an interesting aspect - the company is a new independent outfit that slots itself somewhere in between the two usual avenues; it's not self-publishing, but it's not quite traditional publishing either. It's an exciting reflection of the way the publishing landscape is changing and you can read Chloe's thoughts on it by clicking here.

Anyway, without further ado, let me hand you over to Chloe...

The Art of Letting Go tells the story of Rosemary, whose peaceful seclusion is disrupted by the man who she was involved in a traumatic relationship with decades earlier; only this time he’s lying in a coma and Rosemary must decide whether to let him live, or let him go. In the midst of her secret dilemma she meets an abstract artist who is used to manipulating shapes and colours to make people see things differently. But what else is he manipulating? And can he help Rosemary see her own situation in a different light?

The Art of Letting Go is available as a paperback and an e-book here.

And streeeeeeetch...

When I was a competitive runner I was proud of being supple. I could pretty much do the splits, I could touch my head to my knees and all sorts of other contortions. When I switched priorities from racing to writing, I thought I could stop worrying about being flexible. I was so wrong.

There is a famous and much over-used phrase in writing – kill your darlings. In order for a story to be as good as it can be, sometimes you have to cut the bits of writing that please you most. In the first draft you can write what you want, how you want. When it comes to re-drafting and editing you need to make your narrative work, and that requires being flexible – changing your own ideas of how the story should go or how your characters should act.

When I was writing The Art of Letting Go, I had to change a lot. I have written elsewhere about changing from a straight-forward narrative to a multiple viewpoint narrative and how hard it was to create four or five authentic voices. With one of my characters, Cheryl, it was particularly tough. I knew what I wanted her to be like, and I knew how I wanted her to act, but feedback kept coming in – she’s not believable. It wasn’t until I had an agent and was perhaps six or seven drafts into writing the novel that I realised the problem: a person with the character I’d created wouldn’t act in the way I’d asked her to act. I ended up re-writing her completely – giving her a different background and different influences and motivations. And I think she finally works.

This willingness to adapt your ideas – rather than just edit your original plan – is key to getting an agent or a publishing contract. Believe me, it’s deflating to go through the euphoria of being offered a contract and then receiving an edit letter outlining all the things you have to change in the manuscript, but it has to be done. Edit letters often make authors cry. Here you are, with a book worthy of an agency/publishing contract, and you are STILL being told that you need to completely re-think one of your characters, alter a major part of your plot and start the entire novel at a different point. You don’t want to do that? Fine. Don’t expect to be published.

All this, of course, comes with the caveat that you are the master of your own story. Yes, you need to be prepared to flex and change. No, you don’t have to cave in to every suggestion. When my agent listed all the changes he wanted me to make before we submitted to publishers, I set to work on most of them. There were a couple of points however – such as changing the ages of my main characters – where I dug my heels in. I was able to explain why I didn’t want to make those changes and David respected that. Agents and editors are looking for writers who can both touch their toes and stand their ground!

When I was county cross-country champion I needed to have muscles that could power me up hills, but were still flexible. As an author I need to create my darlings, but be willing to kill them – or at least bend them a bit. But the real key to both? The same as it always has been: putting in hours of hard work and practice. When it comes to writing there are some rules that can’t be bent after all.

Chloe Banks lives in Devon with her husband, son and an obsession with words. She started writing for a dare and forgot to stop until it was too late. She is a prize-winning short story writer and a first-time novelist, represented by The Andrew Lownie Literary Agency.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Five Things

I was recently tagged in a Facebook post by Jonathan Pinnock in which he listed five things about his current work-in-progress. There was an enjoyable progression to his list, as it basically went from him saying he had no WIP (perfectly understandable seeing as he's just launched a non-fiction book, the excellent-sounding Take it Cool, which I'm planning to buy very soon (unless I manage to win a free copy from these guys)) to him deciding on an idea and planning to write it that same evening. To be honest, I'm hoping for a similar boost from taking on this challenge. Let's see...
Long-term Relationship
I've been working on this novel forever. At least it seems that way. It started off as a short story somewhere around 2005/6, back when I'd never have had the confidence to send it off anywhere. A couple of years later I showed it to one of the tutors at an Arvon course I was on, and he made a chance remark that 'unlocked' the rest of the story and convinced me it could be much more than just a few pages' worth. I wrote a few chapters, lost momentum, moved from Leeds to the Midlands, joined a writing class, wrote several more chapters, lost interest, wrote lots of short stories, had some success with those, moved again (not so far this time), decided I was never going to get where I wanted to be purely through the stories, rewrote everything I'd done, got nearly to the end, and stalled. That happened in about March this year, and I've been adding a few hundred words to it every so often, but it really doesn't feel like progress.

Identity Crisis
The main problem I'm finding with this book is that there's part of me that really worries about what will happen if I get to the end and if I can stay enthusiastic enough to edit it into a publishable sort of shape and if I'm lucky enough to land an agent/publisher and get the book out into the world. You see, it's a science fiction / techno-thriller type of deal, and I'm not convinced that's the kind of writer I am, or want to be. Michael Logan's written an excellent series of blog posts about his literary journey since winning the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award. The thing that's really stood out for me is how reluctant publishers are to let a new author change course - it's all about building your 'brand', it seems. If you want to veer off-course for book four or five then, depending on how your sales have been, they might let you take that risk. I know I'm jumping the gun massively here, but it's hard to focus on a book that could lock me into a genre I don't want to commit to in the long term.

I mentioned a while ago that another obstacle to keeping up my enthusiasm for the book is that some Hollywood types are, rather unsportingly, making a film that's based on more or less the exact same concept. I haven't heard much else about the film since then, but I go from thinking it's great news because people will be interested in other ways of looking at the idea, and it being a prime opportunity to piggyback on any big-budget marketing from the movie, to being despondent that my book, which always seemed (to me at least) a unique spin on the "teleportation accident" scenario, will just seem like a lazy knock-off of someone else's idea. I feel a bit hamstrung, and I'm trying hard not to convince myself that I ought to wait to see whether the film turns out to be any good before I make my next move.

Considering a Sex Change
No, not me. But I've been looking at one of my favourite main characters - a grizzled and unpredictable agent from a European equivalent of the FBI who helps the protagonist - and wondering about making him a her. I'm wary of the work involved in this (as one of the main elements of the rewrite was changing the narrative from third- to first-person perspective and that's been hard enough), but I think it might be an interesting way to go. It would help balance out the book a little, as it's pretty bloke-y at the moment, and I can't think of many similar stories where the 'mentor' character is a older woman helping out a male protagonist. I've been imagining Kenneth Branagh or Keifer Sutherland in the role - maybe I should consider Gillian Anderson or the evergreen Helen Mirren instead (not that I'm suggesting either of them could be described as "grizzled"!)?

Keeping the Faith
Okay, this post is turning into more of a self-pitying whinge than I planned. The thing is, I really believe in this story, and I want to get it finished and out into the world in some form or another. I think people will enjoy it, and I believe it will be a success if I can just keep going with it long enough to do it justice, although exactly how that success is likely to be measured remains something of a mystery to me at the moment.

So, there you go, five things maybe not so much about the book itself as about the crumbling mental state of the guy attempting to write it. Sorry about that. I'm now supposed to nominate five people to take up the baton and although I'm always reluctant to point the finger at anyone, I'd like to invite the following people to take part, who may do as much or as little with it as they choose. All you need to do is tell everyone five things about your current work-in-progress - interpret that however you wish.

Freya Morris
Nik Perring
Teresa Stenson
Amanda Saint
Dan Powell

If anybody else fancies jumping on the bandwagon, feel free! Rules are made to be broken.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

How Very Curious...

Our home for the weekend
I spent last weekend under canvas (particularly excellent canvas, as it happens, as the picture on the left plainly demonstrates), at the Curious Arts Festival. This is a new event from, I think, the same organisers of the Voewood Festival, which I went to a couple of years ago. Set in the beautiful grounds of Pylewell Park near Lymington in Hampshire (not far from where I grew up), the festival featured a diverse line-up of authors, musicians, and other performers across the two-and-a-bit days from Friday afternoon to Sunday night.

My other half and I made it our mission to to see as many author talks as we could. And there were some fantastic writers there - from Costa Book of the Year winner Nathan Filer to the Man Booker-shortlisted Deborah Levy, from all-round comedy superstar Rebecca Front to BBC National Short Story Prize shortlist regular MJ Hyland. All of them had a lot of interesting stuff to say about the process of writing, that odd compulsion some of us have to take what we see going on around us and try to make sense of it by noting it down. I could listen to writers talk about writing all day, so it was a pleasure to be able to do just that for a couple of days.

The house at Pylewell Park
I don't intend to make this post a review of the festival (suffice to say I really enjoyed it, despite a few very minor teething troubles. The festival will, I hope, return next year, bigger and even better). And I could waffle on for hours about the various authors and the different things they said about how they do what they do. But I think the most important thing I learnt from the weekend wasn't any of the things that the authors did differently. It was the one thing they all did the same: they finished what they started, whatever it took. It sounds simple, but there's an awful lot more to it than just starting typing at Point A and not stopping until they reached Point B.

Several of the authors talked about how they'd worked on their books (particularly their début novels) for five or six years. Lottie Moggach (author of acclaimed thriller Kiss Me First) said her novel had started off as a science fiction book before she found a way of rooting it in the present day. The change in setting opened up the story to her and took it from being an idea she was playing around with to a novel she could actually finish. Nathan Filer's Shock of the Fall grew from a couple of sentences that popped into his head after work one day; although they didn't actually make it into the novel, those few words told him everything he needed to know about his protagonist. It took numerous drafts to fit the tone of the book to those few words, but he kept tweaking it until he'd found the perfect voice for his narrator. MJ Hyland jettisoned 33,000 words of her work-in-progress when she realised she was writing about her main character as a grown man, when in fact the real story was about him as a child. The list goes on.

These revelations were depressing and inspiring in equal measure. Depressing because I've been treating the completion of the first big redraft of my novel as pretty much the final stage. Yet that - when it comes - will only be the next step in the journey. There'll be a lot more work to do afterwards and none of it will be easy. Inspiring because not so long ago all these writers whose books I see on the shelves of my local Waterstones were in the same position as me, chipping away at a novel with no real idea of whether anybody else would ever want to read it and only a sliver of self-belief to convince them it was all worthwhile. They stuck at it, carrying on where most people throw in the towel, turning a blind eye to the distracting sparkliness of Other Ideas, and then sending it out to agents and publishers even though they could only ever hope to be one among thousands all vying for the same few slots on a publisher's list. That's the main thing I took from the weekend: it's not easy, but it's possible, and the only thing that's guaranteed to stop me is giving up.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Review: "Burnt Island" by Alice Thompson

A struggling author accepts an invitation to stay on a mysterious island in the middle of nowhere while he tries to write a horror bestseller. What could possibly go wrong?
Image from Salt Publishing's website
I feel I should use a hushed tone to begin this review, because what I'm about to say may result in people with pitchforks and flaming torches chasing me down the street. Here goes, then. Despite the seemingly universal acclaim with which the Man Booker-shortlisted The Lighthouse by Alison Moore was received, when I read it I found myself somewhat bemused by the tsunami of adulation that had washed over Twitter and swept the novel up the charts and onto a lot of Book of the Year lists. Although I enjoyed the writing (and am keen to read Moore's collection of shorts, The Pre-War House and Other Stories), the story itself and the central characters didn't really press the right buttons for me.

So my heart sank a little when I picked up another novel from Salt Publishing, Alice Thompson's Burnt Island, and discovered that it too opens with a hapless, awkward chap undertaking a journey by ferry. Max Long, Thompson's protagonist, is perhaps marginally more successful in life than Moore's disaster-prone Futh, but as the ferry rolls on the rough sea and casts Max's luggage into the waves you know that he's not somebody upon whom good fortune has any particular interest in shining, either. But I was pleased to find that that's where the similarities ended, and Burnt Island turned out to be very much my kind of book.

Max is an author with a back catalogue of unsuccessful literary novels. Having been awarded a writing fellowship on Burnt Island, he steps off the boat with little more than the clothes he's wearing and a vague plan of penning a schlocky horror story - a novel written with a cynical eye on the bestseller charts. He's selling out; is he, perhaps, selling his soul? After being attacked by a gull and spending a disturbed night in what he first believes is a tiny stone cottage but turns out to be a pebble-dashed caravan that rocks in the wind (the first of many things on the island that are not what they seem), Max is invited to stay with James Fairfax. In some ways, Fairfax is the struggling writer's nemesis, an author whose debut novel achieved both huge critical acclaim and stellar sales - sufficient to keep him living in luxury for years. The world eagerly awaits Fairfax's next masterpiece, and Max is jealous of the other man's success almost to the point of hatred, yet convinced that staying with him will somehow be the key to breaking through his writer's block and hitting the big time.

Once he takes up residence in Fairfax's house, things really get strange for Max. He develops an obsessive interest in the beautiful Rose, who he first assumes to be a maid, although it quickly becomes apparent that the relationship between her and Fairfax is far more complicated than that. Shadowy figures seem to be watching and following him wherever he goes. He encounters huge stones that appear to move by themselves, runs into numerous doppelgangers, and experiences deeply unsettling visions. Is any of it actually happening, or is the horror novel he's trying to write affecting his mind? As Max's grip on reality starts to falter, he discovers a sinister secret about the book that made Fairfax's fortune, and begins to uncover the mystery of what happened to his predecessor, the last author to accept the Burnt Island writing fellowship... and who was never seen again.

There are many nods to established horror tropes in the book, and it all gets a bit meta in places, particularly when Max finds a disturbing passage from a manuscript Rose is working on, featuring a protagonist called - as you might expect - Max. All this trickery is done extremely well, though, with the horror movie cliches adding to the story and the island's mystery rather than undermining it. Thompson's writing is direct and unfussy without being too sparse or detached, and she keeps up the pace throughout. I loved how there are numerous interpretations you could apply to the novel; it's a story that stuck in my head for a long time after reading it and I'd recommend it to anybody looking for something a little less straightforward than your typical thriller, particularly if you're also a fan of the low-key horror of The Wicker Man and the isolation and creeping insanity of The Shining.

Salt Publishing will be reissuing a couple of Thompson's previous books soon, including The Existential Detective. On the strength of Burnt Island, I'll definitely check them out.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Bear With Me

If you follow me on Twitter you've probably already heard this, but I'm very pleased to announce that the latest volume of The Fiction Desk has gone on sale. There Was Once a Place is volume seven of the short fiction journal and features my story, The Guy in the Bear Suit.

I've liked the look of The Fiction Desk anthologies for a long time so I was very pleased when my story bagged a runner-up spot in their annual flash fiction competition and so earned a place in the new collection. Online and magazine publication's great, but there's something about being in a proper book that can't be beaten - particularly one that's as well curated and interesting at TFD.

The Guy in the Bear Suit is an odd little tale that grew out of me considering how sinister those character costumes in theme parks are once you're too old to simply accept them as cartoon characters who've strayed off the TV into real life. There's something unsettling about them never speaking, or the way they can stand right in front of you / follow you around without you having any idea who's under all that fur and foam. And with that in mind, I began to think, well - what there was something inside much worse than just some random, over-attentive stranger...?

There Was Once a Place will be the third Fiction Desk anthology I've read. So far it's excellent. Next up I plan to return to the beginning of the series with volume one, Various Authors, which can be downloaded for Kindle and ebook readers (or the relevant tablet / PC apps, of course) free of charge from the TFD website. The other volumes can of course be ordered online or sourced from your friendly neighbourhood bookshop.