The latest ‘genre-fads’

As any regular reader of my blog will know, I’ve always been puzzled by the complexities of ‘genre’ and its effect on those in the book business whose role is to decide what gets published and what doesn’t. Apparently in the latest edition of the ‘Bookseller’ magazine, which I haven’t seen myself, is an article about a new ‘sub-genre’ label ‘grip-lit’, a term used to describe psychological thrillers, such as ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Girl on a Train’. (I’ve already noted the repeat of ‘girl’ in the title, to bring one’s work instantly to the notice of a literary agent.) ‘Grip lit’ is hardly a new idea; it’s been around for decades, displaced more recently by the new wave of ‘detectives’. Perhaps literary fashion, like its clothing counterpart, has a ‘retro’ phase, when the delights of a previous era are re-discovered and claimed by a younger generation.

If genre is indeed driven by the vagaries of fashion, writers like myself face some choices. We can scour the landscape of current trends to find what sells, analyse the component parts and imitate them as quickly as possible, before the trend fades. And if we’re really clever, we’ll use a trendy title book too. Alternatively, we could aspire to something more timeless and run the risk of being ignored by the bandwagons that sweep by so relentlessly. The beauty of aiming for the timeless is that the books’ shelf life is much longer. If you’re self-publishing in paperback – which you probably are as no agent is interested in anything so untrendy – shelf life is an important consideration. Self-publishers can’t afford the ‘launch’ and promotion budgets available to traditionally published books, and have to rely instead on steady sales over a longer period to get any return on the initial investment.

In the Saturday Guardian review section, a few pages on from the piece about ‘grip lit’, there is an article by Hilary Mantel about the life and work of Elizabeth Jane Howard. Howard’s work is often disparaged, with a genre definition of ‘by women, for women’. Mantel believes that this category existed ‘until very recently’, but I think it’s still around, and just as disparaged as ever. The difference is that now such novels rarely if ever penetrate the net thrown around the publishing business by the professional agents on whom the business now relies. Confusions abound. When does fashionable ‘chick lit’ grow up into unfashionable ‘by women, for women’? Is this another example of the confusing irrelevance of genre? Isn’t it time we dropped the whole labyrinthine idea, or a least cleared away the clutter and returned to a smaller range of overall ‘categories’ of fiction which is not defined by assumptions about who will read them?

 

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Learning on-line: does it work?

Late again this week with my regular blog post, mainly because much of my screen time has been taken up with a new on-line course, and it’s that experience I’ve been thinking about. I was attracted to it in the first place because it was so much easier and cheaper than schlepping down to London for something similar, finding a place to stay, dealing with a large group whose demands on the tutors always seem more pressing than mine – you know the story.

But cheaper things are often not worth the little you pay for them, so a week or two into it, what are my feelings so far? It’s a first for me, and I wasn’t sure at all. But so far, it’s been OK. It does what any good learning experience should do, make you think about what you’re doing by exposing you to alternatives, providing feedback which is useful as long as it’s specific, and encouraging you to change things and be more adventurous. The course, by the way, is called ‘An Introduction to Crime Writing’ and is with the Professional Writers Academy. The tutor is Tom Bromley, and the visiting ‘mentor’ is Sarah Hilary, a familiar name given her success with ‘Someone Else’s Skin’. Her book is one of those that we’ll be reading and discussing with her as a group exercise.

Other than that, the work is spread over four weeks and provides a succession of structured exercises: first week on ‘settings’, second on ‘developing character’, and so on. For each section we have some contrasting examples to look at and critique, and then a piece of our own to write using what we’ve learned, which is posted and critiqued by at least two others in the group.

What’s working so far? First, we were able to see Tom Bromley talking in a podcast in which he explained the course and introduced himself. It’s always useful to see and hear someone you’re dealing with on-line: without that, it’s very difficult to establish any form of relationship, especially when you are trusting that person to provide something worth both your time and your cash. We have audio interviews too with Sarah Hilary, although audio-only is less engaging. Second, the extracts and writing tasks are well-chosen and conducive to learning. In the second section, on Character, we’ve been offered three examples of ‘the detective’ – the genius who has a massive brain and works everything out; the meticulous plodder who just keeps doing the leg work until enough information is forthcoming; the flawed anti-social person who gets there by some bizarre route the rest of us would never consider. I’ve found those differences interesting, and helpful in deciding what kind of behaviour I want from my ‘detecting’ character. Today I’ll tackle the exercise in which we are asked to describe how our chosen ‘detective’ makes and eats his/her breakfast. What a great idea. As well as enriching the setting, both place and time, we can show so much through just watching and recording what happens in the mind’s eye.

Of course when you’re offered examples it’s tempting to mould your character to fit one of these ‘models’. The seduction of ‘genre formulae’ has to be resisted, even against the siren call of the latest block-buster. If a particular approach has worked and sold heaps of copies for someone else, last year, that’s no reason to attempt to replicate it, even though it might be reassuring to an agent. I had an interesting ‘conversation’ with Tom Bromley about ‘Someone Else’s Skin’ and what constitutes ‘success’, which I’ll come back to in a later post.

I’m enjoying the screen contact with some of the group members, although there are fewer of those than I was anticipating. Some have posted a picture and a detailed profile, others have not, although the privacy protections are strong. It’s easier to ‘talk’ to someone if you know where they’ve been and what they look like, isn’t it? We’re all reacting differently to both the extracts and the tasks, which makes for fewer assumptions about what’s ‘good’ or ‘clear’ for a reader, and that’s salutary for a writer.

One potentially unhelpful aspect is the quality of feedback available to any of us from the other participants who look at what we write. Surprisingly, no guidance is offered about what constitutes useful feedback, and how to react to it: it’s just assumed that we all know how to do it, and we don’t. I want to provide and receive specific detail, critical as well as positive. It takes longer to consider and to write, but if feedback is an essential part of the learning we should expect it to be quite rigorous, and some advice about this would be useful.

So far, so good. Compared to some of the writing groups and courses I’ve been on over the years, this is proving relatively useful. When an actual group works well, which involves good leadership as well as the accident of composition, the experience can be more intense than anything you could achieve on-line. But when a group doesn’t work well it can be immensely frustrating. I recall paying a lot of money and travelling many miles for a five day experience that was a model of what shouldn’t happen. It was a group for established writers but with no ‘filters’, so some of the members had no writing experience and had come only for a holiday. The group leaders were also inexperienced and badly prepared. One of them spent most nights drinking noisily with some of the group members. The following morning his apology for not having read our work – one of his duties – was all about what a great night it had been. After one day I absented myself from the group completely and got on with my writing, which I could have done without leaving home. Looking back on what I wrote that week I notice now how dark and violent it was!

 

How will I react to the first review of ‘Cruel Tide’?

I’m off to London this weekend so I’ll do this post now, and hope it doesn’t get lost in the Twitter and FB clutter that seems to fill my timeline and probably yours too.

I’m surprised to say that having waited years for a decent review of any of my books, I’m both looking forward to and dreading the review that’s been promised in February’s issue of Lancashire Life, which will probably be out in a couple of weeks. First, I wonder if it will ever appear. Editing a monthly magazine must be quite a job, and whatever’s been written might just hit the cutting room floor, as they say in the film business. But if it does actually appear, what will it say, and how will I feel?

One of the hardest things about self-publishing is the absence of professional feedback in the form of reviews. The national newspapers take their books for review from the traditional publishers, apparently, to avoid being swamped by unreviewable rubbish. Understandable, assuming that much self-published fiction is indeed rubbish, and therein lies the dilemma for those of us who have chosen to take that route direct to our readers. Apart from Amazon reviews and star ratings, which are mostly welcome but don’t represent considered professional feedback, authors like me have no way of helping readers decide what’s worth buying and reading. How do you pick from the plethora of stuff out there, except on the questionable criterion of price? You could use the star ratings as a guide, but they’re pretty questionable too.

I managed to get two very kind writers to give me a ‘quote’ about ‘Cruel Tide’ for promotion purposes, but I couldn’t ask them to undertake a full-scale review. Apart from that, and some mentions in the local press, nothing about this book or any of the others. I’ve asked for reviews, of course, but have been told repeatedly that they don’t have the time to read full-length fiction, or people to do it, or space to print them. One national organisation I’m actually a member of, which has a book page in its monthly magazine, claimed that they couldn’t review my books without upsetting other members who are writers. Really?

That leaves me with no experience of getting public written feedback on my novels from a professional who reads and writes critically about books as part of their daily work. The Lancashire Life  reviewer doesn’t live in Cumbria, so the ‘local’ flavour probably won’t be of interest. I assume that the reviewer will come at ‘Cruel Tide’ cold, without reading my preceding trilogy where some of the characters have been heralded, and she has been told that this is crime fiction, and will therefore have certain genre expectations, which may or may not be satisfied. Any of these factors could have a bearing on her reaction.

I can cope with specific criticism: I generate plenty of that myself about anything I’ve written. What I fear is overall dismissal, scorn, disinterest, or the suggestion that I’m wasting my time and should find something else to do. You don’t see reviews like that very often, but they do happen, and the author must be crushed, unless they’re far more resilient than I am. I don’t expect to be told that the book is badly written, but I could be told that the structure is poor, the characters unbelievable or the ending is a let down. I’m in the early stages of the next book, and specific feedback could be useful, if I can bring myself to accept and act upon it. Or I could have faith in myself and stick to my guns. I can’t anticipate how I’ll react until it happens, and I can’t do anything about it either, so I’ll just have to wait and see. How do other inexperienced novelists cope with reviews? Are they as nervous about them as I am, and does this anxiety wear off with more experience and confidence?

Where do plots come from?

I’m sure anyone who writes a novel is asked the question: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I can’t speak for anyone else, but thinking back on the books I’ve written so far, there seem to be a few places where plot ideas come from.

  • My own experience, things that have happened to me personally, together with all the emotions that surrounded them. Some of these are from decades ago, others more recent. I’m not providing any examples of these, to preserve my own privacy and the trust of those around me.
  • Stories or snippets of stories I’ve heard from other people. One of these, told to me many years ago, concerned growing up in Belfast in the 1960s with a Catholic father and protestant mother. Another, just a memorable snippet, was about a young man whose wife left him and then returned to their house a few days later while he was at work and removed every stick of furniture, every carpet, curtain and light fitting. He was too shocked and humiliated to track her down.
  • Details gleaned from contemporary newspapers and accounts. I use the Whitehaven News for some of this background colour, peering at the microfilm reader to find authentic details that could later become small valuable nuggets in the story. It’s a useful source as it’s weekly and contains all the court cases, petty theft, accidents, and features that add depth to the picture I’m painting. The post-war period I researched for ‘Forgiven’ was rich in detail that evoked that particular time: the parish council resolution that refused to celebrate the anniversary of VE Day in 1946 as they had ‘nothing to celebrate and nothing to celebrate with’; the couple who were caught handling blackmarket pork when a mouse ate through the string supporting a heavy illegal ham hanging upstairs, with damaging consequences. In ‘Sellafield Stories’ an oral history of the Cumbrian nuclear plant I found some rich detail about the reactor fire of October 1957 from people who were there at the time. Transcripts of hearings and enquiries are also great ‘primary sources’, raw, unfiltered by anything except the capacity of the note-taker to capture everything that was said. One of the survivors of the William Pit disaster of August 1947 gave evidence to the official enquiry about his experience of the explosion and his escape from the mine, and I took some of his words directly into my text for ‘Forgiven’. Maybe it’s the historian in me that get so excited about the authenticity of evidence like that.
  • Places, and what might have happened, or could happen in this setting. When I did the walk across Morecambe Bay from Arnside a year or two ago I was very struck by the care we had to use when approaching the shore at Kents Bank to avoid a shiny grey patch of mud that wobbled visibly as we came close. This was quicksand, and a false step into it could have been life-threatening. My latest novel ‘Cruel Tide’ drew its opening scene from this experience.

None of these nuggets, of themselves, provide you with a plot, but some of them will provoke the essential ‘what if?’ questions from which great stories can be created. They also remind you of features of earlier times that could provide a starting point. For the novel I’m researching at present, a casual meander around some websites has already provided a striking image that will anchor the plot at the start and leave an after-taste of menace and threat. I had to decide who would witness this image, where, when and how, and what impact it might have, and the story began to take shape. It’s very early days yet, but I’m pretty sure that I already have the first chapter. Once I get to that stage, the story ideas begin to bubble up, adding more strands and twists. The trick is to know when to stop adding layer after layer of complexity and characters, how to shape the story into the necessary peaks and troughs, and then take a deep breath and start….’Chapter One’.

‘Writer’ or ‘presenter’? Am I allowed to be both?

I can tell when a plot is forming when I start looking inside my head and lose track of what’s happening around me. It makes me terribly bad company, and not fit be with people until I make a conscious effort to haul myself back to reality. That’s where I am right now: I recognise the state of mind, but I have to admit I don’t welcome it.

It’s a dilemma I’ve faced before, and I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it. I like people and company and talking and listening. When I was working in education, opportunities to indulge these pleasures were built into the work, and I loved the intense engagement involved. I’ve described my work at its best as the equivalent of an extreme sport, where all your senses and your brain are stretched and exercised, deliciously so. Now I’ve made a long-delayed decision to leave the education work behind and focus on being a writer, which is essentially an inward-looking isolated existence, and I know I’m going to find it hard. Writing can give me that wonderful intensity of concentration, the ‘flow’, but I also need an outlet for the other side of my nature, the gregarious interactive side.

To some extent, I’ve found it, in the opportunities I already have to present my work, talk about the books and discuss them with readers and other writers, but so far those opportunities aren’t quite frequent enough to meet the need. I get the feeling that people don’t expect writers to be able to ‘present’, as if the two skills were at opposite ends of a spectrum. But I was making my living as a presenter for twenty and more years before I started to write fiction. I know I can do both, and the balance isn’t quite right yet. I want to write to the organisers of the big literary festivals and tell them they need people like me who can ‘entertain’ an audience. large or small, but even saying that here sounds woefully egotistical.

Sometimes, listening to other writers and reading what they say on Twitter, I get the feeling that the presenting skills are somehow despised, or at least regarded as an unwelcome distraction from the monastic business of writing. Is my interest in running workshops, reading my own work and talking about my books inappropriate for a serious writer? Or is it just a sign that my real interest is in stories and ideas and communicating, whether written or oral? Maybe that means I’m not properly serious about being a writer, or maybe I’ll just have to keep the two activities going on parallel tracks and divide my time between them in a way that makes me happy.