How helpful is ‘genre’?

Not very long ago I first became aware of the complexities of ‘genre’. I understood this to mean that books had to fit into a category with a label recogniseable to others in the book business. My prior knowledge was rudimentary: I knew about fiction and non-fiction, and that some fiction is about the present day and therefore ‘contemporary’, or set in the past and ‘historical’, but as a wide-ranging reader I had never given the issue much thought. When I started to write myself the original motivation was an interest in my own community, in the first half of the last century before mains electricity, mechanised farming and antibiotics. Within that community I created a woman with a respectable position and a dark secret, and so it began.

In the opening chapter of the first book ‘A Good Liar’ a young woman’s body is discovered and the reader might ask, ‘Who pushed Alice in the river?’ Very soon, however, the demise of poor Alice fades in importance as characters rather than events begin to drive the story. Thus far I had not asked myself about ‘genre’. It was only when I started to learn about finding an agent that problems of definition appeared. ‘You have to be very clear about your genre’, I was told. Why, I wondered: what matters is the writing, surely, not the ‘format’. But I was the novice so I complied, concluding that my genre was ‘local historical fiction’: you could almost hear the groan from any prospective agent, all of whom were in London, as far as possible away from West Cumbria where I live and my stories are set. ‘But is it literary fiction of commercial fiction?’ was the next question, and is it ‘women’s fiction’, whatever that is?

I ended up by defining my first book, the product of four years of struggle, learning, frustration, effort, determination and optimism, as ‘local historical women’s commercial fiction’, which I suspect is the kiss of death in publishing terms. Needless to say I have found this process of genre definition unsatisfactory, and am still unsure of its purpose. Searching for an agent with this definition hanging round my like an albatross seemed like such a fruitless task that I decided instead to self-publish, and did so, with that book and the two more that followed. I believe that the three books in my trilogy – ‘A Good Liar’ (2012), ‘Forgiven’ (2013) and ‘Fallout’ (forthcoming, May 2014) – have a life and a quality beyond this clumsy pejorative label.

How do I define my own books? They tell of women’s struggles against limitations placed upon them by the circumstances of their lives in the middle years of the 20th century, set in the richly varied and interesting landscape of Cumbria’s west coast. They are both universal and particular. The strictures of ‘genre’ are more of a hindrance than a help.

The challenge of ‘linked’ stories

Of all Rohinton Mistry’s poignant and ‘pain-full’ stories the ones I love most are in his ‘Tales from the Firozsha Baag’, about an apartment building in Bombay (as was), told through the eyes of a boy who lives there and knows all the quirky tenants and the connections between them. The eleven stories are linked by the boy and a place, and we follow the complex trail of friendships, quarrels and animosities which leads from one episode to the next.

A trilogy, three stories in a sequence, can have similar delights, and present similar challenges. I didn’t make a conscious decision to write a trilogy until I found my main character Jessie Whelan, months after starting to write ‘A Good Liar’, and quickly discovered that she was too complicated and interesting – to me at least – to be lost after just one book. So I left the ending of ‘A Good Liar’ ambivalent and unresolved, to encourage the reader to want more, jumped ahead ten years, and carried on.

It was only when planning the next part ‘Forgiven’ that I realised that for some readers this would be the first book, not the second. I needed to build on the prior knowledge of some readers without repeating too much and boring them, while at the same time enabling new readers to have sufficient  backstory to develop the internal tension I was striving for.

Flashbacks weren’t going to work: there was too much detail that could seriously interrupt the forward movement of the plot. So I had to reveal necessary backstories through reminiscent conversation, or questions from ‘new’ characters requesting and receiving information that new readers might also find useful. All that couldn’t be within the first few pages, but if the new reader was kept waiting too long they might give up. Not all that the new reader might find interesting is needed at one time: little morsels can be dropped in from time to time, just to add flavour to what’s currently happening.

It all needs to be planned of course, and I’m getting better at that from a very cold start. My early assumption that I could start to write and all the necessary plot details would fall neatly into place was the main reason why my first effort ‘A Good Liar’ took four years to complete, compared with a tight year or less for each of the following books.

Once the first draft is readable, it then needs to be looked at both by ‘experienced’ readers, who’ve read the previous parts of the trilogy and ‘newbies’ who have not. Their needs are different and both have to be reasonably happy with what’s presented to them. In commercial terms, it’s helpful if, wherever the reader starts, she is keen to read either the previous parts of the trilogy or the following ones, or both.

Selling more books was not a major consideration when I decided to write a trilogy, but it’s been noticeable that when the second part appeared it boosted sales of the first one. I’m hoping of course that the publication of Part 3 of the trilogy ‘Fallout’ will similarly bootstrap the sales of the previous two. For a self-published author of fiction, finding a readership will always be a challenge. A single book might have novelty value but then sink without trace when the first flurry of attention – if you’re lucky – is past. Producing three books in a series in successive years is a writing challenge, but should help sales, if the books are worth reading. If the first one is a reeker, then it could work the other way. Until the author’s name on the cover is so well-known that anything you write will sell, you’re only as good as your last book.

Despite the complications, I’m glad I decided to write three linked books, each set in the same area with overlapping characters and ten years on from the previous one. The story encompasses the first half of the twentieth century in West Cumberland, and I enjoyed the long view as well as the microcosmic details of each episode. It’s a West Cumbrian saga as well as a family saga, and I’m happy about that.

Now that the third part is virtually complete, I’m casting about for the theme, place and time of the next book. I may even try a different genre, crime fiction this time, but set in the past like ‘Life on Mars’. I won’t be making a definite decision about that until ‘Fallout’ is ready for the printers in about three months’ time.



The joy of words, spoken and written

Sometimes my working life seems to be in two distinct parts – the education work and the fiction writing – that have no connection with each other and are mutually exclusive. These days the balance of time has tipped towards the writing, but while working in a school yesterday I had the curious sensation of the two worlds colliding, not in terms of the content, but in terms of the skills and the way I’m using my brain.

The content of my education work is so embedded after thirty years of experience that It seems to occupy the same space as the imagination I use when I’m writing. This cognitive content may have been learned sequentially but now its different subsets merge and flow into each other, making connections without any effort on my part. I think of something, an idea or a fact, and it immediately connects with something else.

When I’m working, presenting to a large audience as I did yesterday at Rosebrook Primary School in Stockton, I have to find the words to describe and explain the connections that have jumped into my mind. Those words have to be spoken, and immediate. The fast processing and reaction is – for me – the intellectual equivalent of an extreme sport. I guess it gives me the same rush, although the only danger is that the words will dry up, or tumble out randomly, or offend someone. I’m pretty sure I have offended people in the past by saying exactly what I was thinking without employing the filters that kick in when you slow down. Very occasionally, when I’m tired or unwell, I can’t find the words I need, but that’s rare. Over time I’ve learned to just let my mind relax and focus, not distracted by anything except the focus or the question I’m responding to. I try not to listen to myself, although occasionally I’m aware that what I’m saying is just right. The downside is that the words are ephemeral and what my listeners actually hear, through the filter of their own experience and values, may be different than what was said.

My experience of writing is much shorter than my experience of speaking. If I write as fast as I talk, the words usually flow, but they sound like spoken words not written ones. To shift from the spoken to the written form requires different structures, tighter, more concise, more measured, more thoughtful – more ‘poetic’. That’s where the re-drafting and editing start, for which I need to slow down. Speaking the written words out loud helps, and I’m now half way through doing that for the penultimate version of ‘Fallout’, before it goes to Charlotte, my editor. This will be her first sight of most of the ms. and I value her judgement so much that waiting for her reaction has made me nervous. I know I will need to take more time, adding and deleting before any final polish, but that goes against the grain of my habitual impatience. ‘Life is short’ has been my motto for decades, probably since my father’s sudden death when I was nine: I’m learning slowly to control the urge to rush.

Spoken or written, fast or slower, words are a constant joy. I hope something else carries me off before I lose them.

Implicit or explicit?

Writing a trilogy is trickier than I thought: I’ve written the three novels  in ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ as three ‘episodes’ set ten years apart, but readers may not tackle them in chronological order. No matter how much you want her to start at the beginning, every reader may start wherever she wants. As a consequence, I can make no assumptions about what the reader already knows about previous events or understands about the characters.

Other series I’ve read with pleasure, notably the Patrick O’Brian ‘Aubrey and Maturin’ stories, make very few concessions to the reader: if you’re lost, that’s your problem. But I have tried to be a little more accommodating, and there’s the rub. For the ‘experienced’ reader I can afford to be implicit, letting them fill in the gaps from what they already know. For the ‘novice’ reader however, implicit is harder: it may drive them back into the previous episodes for greater understanding, or it might drive them away altogether. More details and back stories sometimes need to be provided, which could threaten the flow of the plot and risk annoying those for whom the repetition is unnecessary.

On the whole I think explicitness has won out, but while writing recently the final stages of Part 3 ‘Fallout’ I’ve tipped towards ‘less is more’. The main thread of the story is the one that really matters, to me at least, and is reasonably well tied together at the end. I had planned to have a big ‘set piece’ as a penultimate chapter, to update the wider cast of characters and make their futures more explicit, but when I got to that stage the big scene lost its appeal. I knew I was done when I started to cry, and didn’t want to dilute the final impact by writing more.

So the ms of ‘Fallout feels almost complete. It will have to be read out loud and crafted more thoughtfully, sentence by sentence, but the main work is done, a couple of weeks before my self-imposed deadline. Is that a good sign I wonder? After the protracted agonies of the first novel this has felt alarmingly straight-forward. If there’s something seriously awry I’m counting on my wonderful editor Charlotte to find it. Mick, my partner, has been reading as the draft has unfolded and his feedback has been invaluable, but he may be too close to see the faults clearly, as I am myself.

I recall this feeling of anti-climax: restlessness, uncertainty, desperate for feedback. The urge is to start on the next stage in self-publishing, the nightmare of promotion and ‘marketing, but I’m trying to be patient – not my strong suit. By next week I may know more and feel differently. Watch this space.