Is the ‘local book’ label useful?

I searched on the bookshop shelf in a nearby market town but my books were not there. I asked at the counter. ‘Oh, they’re in the ‘local’ section,’ I was told, ‘in the back room’. What could I say? True, my books are set in a recogniseable area, and local people who read them are pleased to find places that they know. But all the fictional characters are exactly that, fictional, and these characters and their stories are actually more important that the ‘localness’. So why are the books ‘condemned’ to the ‘local’ shelves, alongside histories of hematite and Herdwicks?

This could be another example of the tyranny of genre. We are obliged to allocate a genre, that is a label, to our books so that the booksellers know where to put them on the shelf. And as a consequence of being labelled as ‘local’ – by others, not by me – I find myself explaining to someone in Ambleside that the books may be set on the west coast of Cumbria, about an hour away from Ambleside by road, but they can be – and are- read with pleasure by people on the other side of the Atlantic, not the other side of the county. One of the beauties of historical fiction is that – compared with contemporary fiction – it doesn’t date. There may not be a sell-by date, but there appears to be a ‘sell-within’ limitation, and I’m wondering how to get around it. I would so love to see my novels on a bookshop shelf in Leeds, or Newcastle, or even London, but the chances of that appear to be slim to none.

If I were a commercial publisher, I would find editors of the national media book sections who would commission a review, but as a self-published author the review route seems to be blocked. Do nationally recognised reviewers ever get to see, never mind read, self-published fiction, or do they, like the publishers, restrict themselves to reading that which has been already ‘filtered’ by other colleagues in the book trade? Is it worth sending off expensive parcels of books in the hope of a response? There may be a ‘slush pile’ for reviewers as well as for publishers, and I have no particular desire to end up on it. Is there anyone out there, I wonder, who would be willing to take a chance on reading a trilogy by a self-published author with pretty good sales, about an independent woman struggling to survive and maintain her integrity and independence against serious challenges in the early twentieth century?

Let’s say the trilogy is set in ‘The North’, that foreign land known only to pioneers who venture as far as the M6 and keep going past Birmingham or even Manchester. Is there such a genre as ‘northern fiction’? I’d be OK with that: there is something about this half of the country that feels and looks different than the more manicured south. But when ‘local fiction’ comes to mean ‘readable only by those within a thirty mile radius of where I live’ I get a bit fed up.

That’s the end of today’s moan. I resolve to be more positive in future.

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What makes a good book cover?

SAM_1212A couple of years ago, when my first novel was in production, my ‘book designer’ asked me to go to a bookshop and look at covers. ‘See what you like,’ he said, ‘and what will make people want to buy your book. Then we can give Kevin the cover designer some direction and criteria.’ So I looked, and felt that most of them were anodyne and boring. Nothing about many of the covers made me want to take the book off the shelf, never mind hand over any money for it. I wanted to be struck by the cover image, engaged, intrigued – some reaction. It wasn’t about liking or not liking, more about curiosity.

The first book ‘A Good Liar’ played safe: it combined three images, all of them aesthetically attractive, which collectively gave the reader a sense of what lay within. The second book ‘Forgiven’, looking back on it now, played even safer. It was a beautiful image of a green valley and distant a distant snow-capped ridge, and in the foreground a gorgeous granite stone wall which epitomises the area where the books are set. We had tried to create a cover image using photos of pit wheels and women with children, but it was too fussy and nothing was working. The running theme of the book was ‘forgiveness’, and in the end I felt that the distant peek of light in the sky symbolised that feeling, but it was a bit of a stretch. Basically it was just a beautiful image.

Now we’ve had to make a decision about the cover of book three, ‘Fallout’, which is set against the calamitous event of the world’s first nuclear reactor fire, in Cumberland in 1957. It’s a tough time for my heroine Jessie Whelan too – no more details! – and I wanted a sense of anxiety in the cover, nothing too soft or bland. A beach scene this time, I decided, to complement the view of fells (that’s a Norse word meaning ‘hills’ that’s commonly used in Cumbria): one of the wonderful west-facing beaches that we enjoy in this region. But it had to be a special beach scene, and we found one, with a red sky, beautiful but threatening too. Still I wanted more: among the photographs I’d found of the reactor fire was one of a group of workers in their anti-contamination suits and helmets, looking like spacemen. The clever cover designer imposed this image on the beach below the red sky and the cover of ‘Fallout’ stared out at me. I loved it: as intriguing as I had hoped for and authentic too.

I made a poster and took it round the local bookshops to alert them to the forthcoming publication. One buyer at a local attraction flinched and literally stepped away from the image. ‘We can’t sell that here,’ she said. ‘It’s too frightening. Not the kind of thing for this shop.’ It’s not a proper bookshop, granted, but other crime fiction books on the shelf have quite graphic images. I was surprised by her reaction and I should have asked her to explain it, but I didn’t. Later she confirmed to the books’ distributor that she wouldn’t be carrying copies, even though the first two books in the trilogy sell well there. Nothing I can do about it, I suppose. It was never my intention to upset anyone, but then the line between curiosity and aversion is notoriously thin. I wanted the ‘Fallout’ cover to convey the danger that threatened my heroine and her community, and clearly it does that effectively. But I think there’s more to it: most people’s impression of the Lake District and Cumbria is green hills, sparkling lakes and Beatrix Potter. For those of us who love the wild west coast, that image needs a challenge, and I think – I hope – that my three novels portray real life here, not some romanticised idyll. If people’s reaction to the ‘Fallout’ cover starts some conversation about this dichotomy, that’s a good thing. It may cost me some sales, but maybe not. I’ll have to wait and see.

By the way, you can see all the covers on the books page of my website http://www.ruthsutton.co.uk. Have a look and see what you think.

Can you teach someone how to write fiction?

There was such a huge response to my post on the question ‘Can you teach writing?’ that I decided to add some more, so here it is. I didn’t make this stuff up: I learned it from my own painful experience, and from great guides like Andrew Pyper, Matthew Hall and William Ryan, whose ideas I have shamelessly plundered. Here goes….

There are a number of aspects of teaching how to write fiction. Let’s divide the process up and pay attention to at least some of them…

  1. Translating thoughts into words and sentences. This is about vocabulary and rhythm, the sound, imagery and flow of the language. If you need to pay attention to grammatical accuracy, this is where the conventions need to explained and practiced. Some of the rules of these conventions – the use of the apostrophe, for example – might need to be ‘taught’, but the best learning is from reading and speaking words aloud, analysing the ‘poetry’ of others’ language and how the full meaning is conveyed, and then bringing those insights into your own work. Working with others encourages you to hear your language, get feedback on it, and refine it constantly to achieve the effect you are striving for.
  2. Finding and developing ‘characters’. People are the essence of fiction, who they are, how they react to the world and others to them, how they speak, walk, dress. There is no easy way to develop the characters who will inhabit and drive your story, and every writer will have their own way to find and flesh out the people they need. You can start with an image, from life, from a picture, or in your head. Then you think and ask questions of this image until it develops dimensions and warmth. What motivates the person, how do they look and sound, what are they afraid of, what and who do they love, – the questions are the ones you use to check out anyone who does or will mean a great deal to you. All and any questions are relevant here, some of them very personal. Even if you never use the answers to all the questions in your story, it helps to deepen each character in this way. Once you have the details, add things like birthdays, favourite colours, hair style, etc and make a separate file, or file card, for each character to help continuity and consistency. It’ll save so much time later. This process can be both taught and practised to great effect, before you embark on a first draft of anything.
  3. Plot, and the ‘Three act structure’. You can research the theories of plot and structure online to great effect, and as much as you want. The three act structure is most commonly used in films, or in crime fiction, but you’ll find it in all forms of fiction, back to Dickens, Jane Austen and other classics that were around long before such a structure was given a name. Most fiction starts with a question – ‘What if…?’ – or a crisis, to kick start the action and grab the reader’s attention. Much of the plot will then evolve from the interaction between the characters and the events, to drive the story forward. Action is generated by both external events and internal processes, such as the emotional reactions of the characters, and their development and changes over time. We want our characters to have an impact on the external events and also be affected by them, creating tension on a number of levels to keep the reader engaged. The relationship between character and plot, between internal and external can be as complicated as you can handle, and as the reader you have in mind will be happy with. My advice would be to keep things relatively simple while you’re learning the craft.
  4. Point of view: whose shoulder are you sitting on, seeing and hearing what they see and hear in each scene? Do you write in the first person, or the third person? In the present tense, or the past. The ‘costs and benefits’ of all those approaches can also be ‘taught’ and rehearsed, leaving you the writer ultimately to make the best choices for the effect they wish to generate.
  5. The idea of a ‘theme’ that runs throughout your work. I’m not certain about this for a beginning writer. It could lead to some pretty pretentious and self-conscious stuff, and needs to be handled lightly, but this too – like keeping notes on the details of your characters – can help the continuity of longer works of fiction and add to the shape and structure of what you write. You should be able to answer the question ‘What’s your story about?’ without just recounting what happens. Incidentally, the answer to the question will also help in ‘pitching’ your story to an agent or anyone else in the book and film business. In the scale of what can be ‘taught’, the issue of ‘theme’ might not be the first thing I would ask the apprentice writer to tackle, but it would be something to work on before you start to write in earnest.
  6. Planning and thinking before you start to write: learning patience, when all you want to do is get writing. I paid a heavy price for my impatience in writing my first novel, embarking on the first draft way too soon and getting into all sorts of trouble that took years – yes, years – to untangle. What I’ve learned to do – having been well taught in various workshops – is to start with an idea or a question, and gradually expand to a page of the overall shape of the plot, then expand again, and again, and again, into ‘Acts’ or stages, then into sections, then chapters. I call this working from the inside, out.
  7. Displaying your plan. By this time you’ll have an outline for most of your sections or chapters. Now pin them up somewhere, on a wall, or lay them on a cleared floor, and look at them. Take in the big picture and start moving things around, adding bits, changing bits. You can’t do this by reading sequentially on a screen: you have to get a ‘simultaneous visual impression’ of the shape of the whole work, before you start to write. This is your map of the territory. You may change your mind about the route once you embark on the trip, and you may even change your destination, but the map is always there to ground you and to keep you going if you start to feel lost or stuck.

I’ve written this pretty fast – it’s a blog post of a thousand words or so after all, not an essay. There’s loads more you could add, and heaps of great books and advice available. But this might do for a start. I wish I’d thought about these few things before I started. I haven’t even mentioned dialogue, which is definitely something you can be taught, but if you get the characters rights, and the setting, and speak out loud whatever you have characters say, you can improve the quality of dialogue immeasurably. And then there’s the challenge of the opening paragraph. Bets way to learn that is to look at opening paragraphs, consider what makes them work, and then write your own. See what I mean? So much to be learned, and all of it can be taught, if you have the right teacher.

Can you teach writing?

‘Once a teacher, always a teacher’: I think that’s true, and being a teacher – however long ago – makes you permanently and irredeemably critical of how information and ideas are presented. Although I’ve not taught school students for many years, I make part of my living still through ‘teaching’ adults, and after twenty years of doing so I have an idea of what works.

So a visit to Crimefest in Bristol last week was a chance to learn about writing crime fiction from a brace of presenters I’d never seen in action before – Matthew Hall (the MR Hall of ‘Coroner’ fame), and William Ryan. It was an afternoon workshop, and something about the blurb made me think it might be useful. From Cumbria to Bristol is a long way, but it turned about to be worth every mile and every pound it cost me. What did they do that I found so helpful?

For a start, they told us right at the start that some aspects – but not all – of successful fiction writing can be taught, not just ‘caught’ or developed through some mystical intuitive process. They were well-organised and positive. The room was small, a screen had to be invented using a tablecloth as nothing else was available, a laptop failed to function and had to be replaced. Clearly they had worked together before and in supporting each other they reassured us that they would do whatever it took to give us a positive professional experience. They had two clear foci – character and plot –  and some slides to support what they told us and asked us to do. All the materials had been circulated well in advance by email. Obviously they had presented this workshop before, but had customised to fit the timings and the size of the group.

I’ve seen this before as an educator, but it was fascinating to see how the passivity of our group during the previous session – about which more later – transformed into engagement given the opportunity to do so. Each one of us was involved in specific tasks that were clearly relevant to the issues of the three act structure, character development and dynamics, and the protocols of crime fiction as a genre. The time was tight, the pace fast, and intense short group activities were interspersed with more anecdotal and expository slices that had me scribbling furiously, not what was being said but insights and ideas that began to tumble around my mind about my own next writing project. I was clearly learning not just listening and it was exhilarating.

Several months ago I had a similar experience at the Winnipeg central library in a workshop presented by Andrew Pyper. He’s a Toronto journalist turned very successful novelist (latest book, ‘The Demonologist’) and used a similar structure and presentation style that engaged and excited his audience. On that occasion too, in just a few hours, I learned so much which has proved very useful since.

Andrew Pyper was a journalist; Matthew and William Ryan had both been barristers in a former life and are now highly successful authors: all three have a passion for words and stories, both spoken and written. The previous session at the Crimefest day in Bristol provided an alternative – much less satisfactory – experience: the contrast sharpened my understanding of what for me is helpful and what is not.

We were faced with a panel of two professional editors and two agents, who were asked quite good questions about their roles and function first by a moderator, and then by us. If I hear another agent tell me that the criterion for choosing a submission is that ‘they fall in love with it’, I think I’m going to scream. They talked about ‘dating’ to describe the relationship between author and agent, and told us that the process of taking the book from manuscript to publication was like ‘giving birth’. I regard myself as an old-fashioned feminist but this excessive ‘feminisation’ was actually deeply unhelpful. What are we as writers to do with such advice? I was also struck by how all four of the panellists cheerfully informed us that they were too busy ‘going to meetings’ during the working day to read the submissions or manuscripts they were supposed to be working on. All the reading was done in the evenings or at the weekends. Not sure how my fellow participants felt about that, but I found it depressing. How could that make any writer feel confident about the professional attention their efforts would receive?

Even more depressing, but perhaps revealing too, was that none of the four had ever actually written anything, or felt they were capable of doing so. These were not writers, or even speakers of words, these four people spent their time responding to other people’s words but not themselves engaged in creating them. Advice to self: if you want help with being a writer, learn from people who write. Further message to self: whatever the current role of the agent is, I think some of them have lost the plot, literally.

Selling books on Amazon: what’s going on?

I got a phone call: ‘Do you know someone is charging £50 for one of your novels on Amazon?’ I didn’t know whether to be flattered or horrified, so I settled for being confused. I checked on my Mac, and the information was what I expected: the Kindle versions of my books were there, front and centre, but the paperback version took another few clicks to access. I also noted that Hoad Press – that’s my own imprint – was only one of a list of sellers, some of whom were charging very odd prices. I guess that’s just Amazon punishing us small sellers for not giving them the fulfillment role which makes them lots more money than hosting other sellers.

But then I went onto the Amazon books site using my ipad and completely different windows came up. A friend who tried on her ipad got different information again. ‘Try ABEBooks’, she said. ‘They’re owned by Amazon, so they should carry your books too.’ No such luck. Hoad Press don’t exist according to them, and an odd collection of my education books appeared, some of them seriously dated. As we talked and checked these anomalies, I realised that I could spend all my time trying to sort it all out. I also understood why the number of Amazon paperback orders which was only ever a trickle has recently dried up completely. Not for the first time I reflected on the fact that I can sell ten books in ten minutes at a book group or library talk, of which I do quite a few in the Cumbria area, and make as much money as I would earn through Amazon ‘real book’ sales in several months. With my time precious, how would I rather spend it, sending off plaintive emails to Amazon and receiving stock responses back, or meeting the people who want to hand over their money to the author herself? No contest, which probably demonstrates only what an amateur I am.

When the big breakthrough comes, when Richard and Judy are singing my praises, when agents are beating a path to my door and the film rights are up for grabs, maybe then I’ll trust Amazon with ‘fulfillment’ and not even think about it. But for now, I’ll keep plugging away at selling through my website and Paypal, and doing what I enjoy – writing, talking about writing and selling to my readers direct whenever I can.

Can characters be real people?

It was one of those spooky evenings when you get the impression that the people you’re talking to know more about what you’re talking about than you do. The Millom Ladies Guild were listening politely to my stories about the real vicar who inspired the one I depicted in ‘A Good Liar’ when one of them said, ‘Oh, yes I remember him. I was there when the new school was being built.’ (If you know the story of A Good Liar, you’ll understand all this: if you haven’t read it yet, now’s the time!) Thank heaven she didn’t disagree with either my details or the description of the vicar. A little later I was talking about the fire in the nuclear reactor at Windscale in October 1957 and the people there who played a crucial role, and one of my audience was a cousin of a man I had referred to.

This is why the writing of Part 3 of my trilogy, ‘Fallout’ set in the community around Windscale at the time of the fire caused me some anxiety. I wanted to tell the inside story of the fire, the details of which were revealed only recently, fifty years after the event. This meant naming names, or giving fictional names to men who would be instantly recogniseable to many of the local people who will read the book. If I name them, I wondered, can I also give them words to say, words that they might have said but there is no actual record that they did so?

I decided to include half a dozen real people, under their own names, as minor characters in the background of the action. The main Point of View inside the plant is carried by an entirely fictional character, a visiting physicist from the Harwell nuclear research labs. The ‘real’ characters were named, given things to do and words to speak, during an event within the living memory of both myself and probably the majority of the potential readers. My editor wasn’t sure how to deal with it, so we called in a lawyer who deals mainly in copyright issues, for an opinion about the ‘ethics’ and legality of doing what I’d done. His view was that it was OK, for three reasons: a) the named people were playing a background not a foreground role; b) what they did in my story was supported by the evidence in the official history of the incident and was therefore a matter of public record; c) nothing that I had them doing or saying could be seen in any way as negative or blameworthy, in keeping again with the conclusions in the factual historical record in Lorna Arnold’s ‘Windscale 1957: Anatomy of Nuclear Accident’. On top of all that reassurance, the lawyer also said how much he enjoyed the relevant sections and wanted to read the rest.

One of the ladies in Millom asked, ‘Do you have to get permission to include real people?’. A good question, and I sincerely hope that the advice I sought was correct and that the answer in this case is ‘No’.

Are authors real people?

The lady in the local bookshop was impressed. ‘You wrote this?’ she said, as I showed her a poster about my new book. ‘So, you’re an author,’ she continued. ‘I know lots of sheep farmers, but I’ve never met an author. Except you.’ She turned to another customer who was waiting to be served. ‘This lady’s an author,’ she said. I felt as if I had two heads, but I smiled and agreed that I should sign all the books of mine that she had on the shelf.

People certainly seem to like to have a book signed by the author, which is why booksellers are keen for you to do so. Without the signature a book can feel like an artefact, produced far away by someone you can’t envisage. It may have a function and even bring pleasure in an impersonal disembodied way. Perhaps the signature makes the author seem more like a real person.

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, first at school when I was taught to make marks on paper, then copy words and finally to think of the words in my own head before I wrote them down. Then for the next fifty years or so my writing was about my work, dictated by experience and reality, but all that time what I really wanted to do was write fiction – stories, dialogue, descriptions of people and places and events that I made up. It took all that time to carve out the time and energy and stop worrying about not making any money out of it. Non-fiction writing was part of the job, but fiction would be part of me.

It was much harder than I anticipated.  You don’t just write sentences, then paragraphs, then a scene or a chapter. You have to have an idea of where you’re going, and why. It took me a long time to figure that out, which is why the first novel took four years and was frequently dropped – or hurled – into the ‘too hard’ basket. Once I found out what I needed to do, then it became a process to follow, with countless hours spent tapping away, staring at the screen, thinking, changing things that seemed false or unnecessary. At some point the changes begin to feel like sliding back down the hill you’ve just climbed, and then it’s time to stop.

Being an author doesn’t feel like a mystical process, worthy of the awe of the lady in the bookshop. I couldn’t call writing a job for me, more of a hobby, like growing sweet peas or knitting. And when you self-publish as I do, writing is the easy part. After the writing is done the book has to be produced, and people persuaded to part with their money in exchange for it, which is much harder. But still they want you to sign on the author page, and when the new book comes out in a couple of weeks I’ll sign away until my hand aches, because it’s the scribbled name that makes the author seem like a real person.

(If you buy a book via my website, by the way, I’ll try to sign it before it’s sent out, if that’s OK with you.)