The author as tyrant: is writing stories a form of control?

With novel number 4 all but finished, I find my mind turning on what next. There was an interesting conversation the other day about a possible plot for book 5, and I heard myself saying, ‘Well, I could kill off so-and-so, and have so-and-so falsely accused, etc etc,’ as if my characters are just pawns in my chess game. Which of course they are.

During the very first painful writing experience I recall deciding that one of the main characters should fall seriously ill and might die. I liked this character and had thought a lot about him, his childhood, his anxieties and frustrations, his strengths and talents, and I was proposing to bump him off on a whim, because I wanted to, and more importantly because I could.

As a happily single and self-employed person I must have a need for control over my own life that is perhaps higher than the normal. Creating characters and writing stories about them may be an extension of that inclination to be in charge. Novelists will tell you that their characters have a life of their own, and in their day to day actions that’s true, but ultimately if their creator decides to bump them off, or incapacitate them, they are powerless to resist. The author rules, OK?

By the end of book 2 ‘Forgiven’ I’d decided that one of the characters had outlived her usefulness to the development of the overall story and would have to go. The only question was when and how. In the end I started book 3 with a death, which upset some readers, but ‘tough’. Death is part of life, as are serious illness, unwanted pregnancy, and addictions of various kinds. We need characters who are stable and comfortable and reasonably happy, but they don’t make good stories and usually end up being hapless victims or just a counterpoint to the more interesting complexities of far less likeable people. And I’m the one who gets to decide, who lives, who dies, when, how and to what effect. I need to think about what this says about me.

Counting words

I’ve just finished the third draft of my new book ‘Cruel Tide’, and the last thing I needed to do before I sent it off to the Editor for the first stage of its journey to publication was to count the final word total. It’s a bit of a chore and half way through I wondered, why am I doing this?

There are probably several reasons for counting words, both as you go along and as a total. I’ve always believed, for example, that a full-length novel had to have a minimum number of words so that the reader doesn’t feel cheated. Below 80,000 or so wouldn’t be enough. Where that number came from I’m not sure: I must have heard it on one of the writing courses I’ve been on and it stuck. Many of the novels you see on the shelves are much longer than that, and are usually commented upon for their length.  I recall ‘A Suitable Boy’ when it first came out bring described admiringly in terms of its staggering length, and more recently ‘The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I read all of Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’, and loved it even though I skipped through some of the political background pretty fast, but didn’t get past the first few pages of ‘The Goldfinch’ before I ran out of sympathy for the main characters and gave up. At present I’m reading the first volume of a two-part biography of Charles Darwin, but at 540 pages it’s so big and heavy that it’s very difficult to read in bed, and the weight when travelling is enough to drive you back to Kindle.

When I wrote my first novel I was obsessed with making sure it had enough words. As a consequence I rambled on far too much and in the final painful edit, having been advised to cut, cut, and cut again, I excised nearly 40,000 words, including entire characters, sub-plots and yards of riveting description, and the book was better for it, although still not as tight as it needed to be, looking back. The second and third books of the trilogy all worked out about the same, around 90,000, and that seemed to me to be about right. Each chapter was between three and five thousand, and that felt about right too, to keep the story chugging along. Every chapter had to have a point and a contribution to make, and should leave the reader wanting to read on.

The fourth one, just completed, is a bit different as I’ve switched genre from ‘local family saga’ to ‘crime fiction’, and have tried to adopt the three-act structure that I learned from Matthew Hall and Bill Ryan at their splendid workshop a year or so ago. Hall started as a screen writer I think, and he was particularly clear about the necessity of the three acts, each with its own purpose and dynamic, and the parallel internal and external dramas. Maybe that’s why this one has turned out to be somewhat longer than the previous ones. The word count just completed came to nearly 114,000, which was a surprise. This time I’ve been editing quite severely as I went along, to avoid the intimidating sprawl that requires a post-facto hatchet and all the perils of continuity that may ensue.

This longer length is curiously satisfying. It makes me feel like a real grown-up writer, which is rather sad for a woman in her sixties who’s been writing in one form or another all her life. As I have read the ms closely over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reasonably happy about the development of the characters, they way they look and especially the way they speak, and the whorls and twists of the plot. It tells a readable tale without the pace slowing down too much in some places. And I have tried to avoid the research information that so irritates me in some of the books I read, where the writer seems bent on squeezing in far more detail than is necessary, however authentic it might be.

What really matters, of course, is not the number of words but the choice of them – their meaning and imagery and stimulus and sound and balance and poetry. I wish I were more of a poet.


Why do we crave recognition?

For the third time this spring I sent off four copies of my latest book to enter a local literary competition. The first time, three years ago, I was quite sure that the quality of the work, its local roots, deathless prose and professional publication values would shine forth and guarantee at least a place on the shortlist. When it wasn’t on the shortlist, I actually wept. The following year, with another book out, I tried again, but by now I was a little more realistic about how things work and my expectations were lower. Just as well, as there was no mention on the shortlist. This year, my hopes were higher again, as the subject of the book happened to be of interest to one of the judges and I thought this might make a difference. Wrong again. When the shortlist was emailed to me last week, I scoured it again, and again in vain. Disappointment, yes, I admit it, but not as acute as before, and quickly overcome as I settled to polishing the new book. Will I enter this book for the same competition next year? Probably not. Patience is not my strong suit and after a string of rejections I tend to think, ‘Sod it,’ and move on. It was the same when I was looking for an agent, some years ago. Initial high hopes, born of ignorance about how things actually work, were quickly dashed, and after a dozen or so rejection letters I decided to go it alone. I’ve enjoyed doing so, and sales have been remarkably good in both paperback and electronic formats, but I would still have relished the buzz of feeling that someone out there in the book business thought highly enough of my work to offer to represent it and me.

On a day to day basis as I tour the readers’ groups and WIs of West Cumbria I get wonderfully positive feedback from people who read the books and love them, and I know I should be content with that. But, but, I would still love someone who knows about books to tell me that mine are worthwhile, and why they think so. ‘Get over it, Ruth’ I say to myself. Get on with what matters and stop fretting about being ignored. I do, and I have. The second draft of the new book is coming on splendidly, sharper, clearer than before as any second draft should be, and the feedback from my Editor was more positive than any of the others, and she knows about books. But she’s also a friend, so does that count?

Even four years into the self-publishing business, I’m still irritated by the assumption that anything self-published is of poor quality. I joined the Society of Authors partly because they take account of an author’s sales, to distinguish serious self-publishers from others, and membership of the SoA, alongside writers like Philip Pullman whom I revere, means a great deal to me. But I’m still looking, unsuccessfully so far, for someone to review my books and provide one of those pithy quotes you find on book covers, the ones that make you feel it must be worth reading. 

I accept that the need for recognition is linked to ego, and to a competitive urge to prove something to oneself and to others. I still think it’s OK to blow your own trumpet a little if there’s a reason to do so, but I can’t stomach some of the excessive self-promotion that others seem to pursue. And it’s obviously not enough for me to get great feedback from my friends, or my readers. I don’t want a Booker prize, but it would be so comforting to have someone whose work I respect tell me that they’ve read my trilogy and value it, for whatever reasons. While I wait for that I shall ‘bash on rewardless’ and put the pursuit of recognition back in its box, out of sight, and not let it distract me.


Genre: what on earth is it?

I was half listening to Radio 4 the other morning and caught the end of a discussion with some literary worthies, about whether the prejudice (their word) against ‘genre fiction’ is relevant any longer, or has it become as superficial and snobbish as ‘designer labels’ in fashion? All agreed that ‘genre’ was a form of labelling for marketing purposes, and that some ‘genre fiction’ was actually pretty good even by (undefined) ‘literary’ standards, although yet again the example they cited was Patrick O’Brian with his wonderful naval saga set during the Napoleonic era. O’Brian tells great stories in an engaging style, and those characteristics seem to be define ‘genre fiction’. If that’s so, I wonder what are the defining characteristics of ‘literary fiction’? How different can they be?

Readers of this blog, a small but discerning group, have heard me bang on about this before, and other much more successful writers than me do the same. Why do I and other ‘story tellers’ feel that the ‘literary’ world seems bent on patronising and belittling us? What’s wrong with a classically good story, well told, which readers find accessible and compulsive reading? The analogy with the fashion industry is an obvious one. The high street stores sell some very good clothes, pitched at the average purse and taste. These clothes may not be unique to this season, or  easily dated, or made with exclusive materials, but they’re affordable, wearable, and occasionally really interesting and appealing too. Some high street clothes even appear on models in glossy magazines, alongside their more expensive and extraordinary counterparts from the big name designers. 

There’s no profit for producers in fashion that doesn’t date. The fashion industry relies for its survival on the view that last season’s version of clothing and accessories must be replaced, as a form of conspicuous consumption. Perhaps the book industry has the same aspiration. Publishers used to be content with ‘high class’ books that sold to only the most discerning buyers, but it couldn’t charge excessive prices – such as some would pay for a handbag – and when the profit margins shrank under competition from you know who and ebooks they found themselves in a pickle. They wanted to publish ‘quality’ but needed to make larger profits to survive, so they ended up publishing books by known names that would sell not because of their intrinsic quality but because of the name on the cover and sycophantic reviews commissioned from other big name authors from the same ‘stable’. Incidentally, the urge to ‘ghost write’ must be really strong: is it true that Jeffrey Archer’s best-sellers are actually written by other people? And the pressure on successful authors to publish more must also be acute: could their quality suffer as a result?

Obviously, one victim of this ambivalence within the book business is the novice author, apart from the infinitesimally small number in any year who fit the criteria to be hyped into success by massive marketing investment. The message from publisher to agent, and thence from agent to writer seems to be ‘Unless we can guarantee to sell millions of your book, thanks but no thanks.’ And what really are the criteria for this lottery-like selection? ‘I need to fall in love with your book,’ say the agents. And what exactly does that mean? Is it really as arbitrary as it sounds? We’re also told that agents and publishers are looking for ‘trends’ and would-be authors need to spot the rising wave and attach themselves to it. That’s not a very satisfying explanation either, and who determines which waves will burst into flood while others web quietly away?

So here we are again. It is slowly occurring to me that the best way to avoid the frenetic pressure of literary fashion, or the pursuit of quantity over quality, is to avoid traditional routes to publication and do your own thing. The only exception would be the handful of published writers whose talent is so extraordinary that they can make their own rules and stick to them. There may be other extraordinary writers out there, but unless the quirky and  unspecified needs of the agent and publisher can be fathomed out, these writers will remain beyond the ‘literary Pale’. There may come a time when this ‘Pale’, ie. a constructed boundary, will cease to be important to the majority of us who remain outside it and become a self-regarding cage for those within. Maybe that’s why the literati I heard the other morning on the radio were admitting that the concept of ‘genre’ is increasingly outdated and needs to be ‘refreshed’. I agree. Let’s do it.