My new book arrives: how does it feel?

BURNiNG_SECRETS_AW.inddI’m ruthless with my Twitter feed, regularly and systematically blocking anything I don’t want and refusing to ‘follow back’ until I’ve checked the person out. Too many ‘followers’ are just fishing for reciprocation, and I’m not interested. As a consequence, my Twitter line includes almost exclusively people involved either in books and publishing, or Cumbria and the Lake District, or any combination of those.Wasdale

 

In a sense those two threads dominate my thinking about my books and writing. I’m passionately interested in West Cumbria, an area I have loved all my life and where I’ve lived for the past decade and more. Part of my determination to begin writing fiction at a relatively advanced age stemmed from the need to write about this place and its history and people.

That’s the upside: the downside is that I’ve never been sure about the ‘genre’ of my writing. Which comes first for me – setting, characters, or plot? In the Jessie Whelan trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ the priority was clearly setting and characters. The main external dramas were provided by real events, and the internal dramas arose from the interaction among fictional characters, and between them and their surroundings, both place and time. When I decided to have a go at crime fiction, I realised that balance of those aspects would have to change, and that plot would have to be more important, but I don’t believe I’ve truly made that shift. Setting and characters still dominate, and details of the plot are much harder for me.

Maybe it’s that ambivalence about what my writing is really about that has made me less enthusiastic about the new novel than I should be. All my writerly Twitter acquaintances speak of the arrival of a new book from the printers with such excitement, much like the arrival of a new baby – unalloyed positive feeling. Or at least that’s how it appears. There are photos of piles of books waiting to be signed, glamorous launch events and brimming champagne flutes.pexels-photo.jpg

For me, the new book’s arrival last week was just another stage in the long tedious process of self-publishing which has felt endless and stressful, even though the whole schedule has worked without a hitch. I suspect that part of my anxiety about it is a hangover from the anxiety about the serious accident I suffered almost a year ago when the new book was in its very early stages, too late to be abandoned but too early to see the light at the end of the tunnel. For a while I couldn’t walk, or drive, or even type without pain. It would have been good to just relax into recovery but the unfinished book haunted and taunted me, and kept me awake. I resented it, and maybe I still do.

The arrival of a new book could feel like a milestone, and a relief, but it doesn’t, because now the real work starts of trying to sell the damn thing. Promotion requires unceasing optimism and enthusiasm and for me those are both in short supply at present. Should I be honest and admit that the book felt rushed? The background details of the Foot and Mouth outbreak in Cumbria in 2001 are rich, authentic and moving, but one of the characters is unconvincing and the plot allows authenticity to triumph over a more eventful – and satisfying? – ending. I’m always my own harshest critic, which is unhelpful at this stage.

So, for various reasons, when the books arrived I wasn’t overwhelmed with love for a much-loved child after a difficult pregnancy. It was more like ‘Here we go again. And they’re not going to like the ending. And do I really want to do this all over again in another year or so? And I’m supposed to be retired.’ Not very positive is it? Maybe I just need to pull myself together and stop whingeing.

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When is the author not really the author?

Two things are on my mind about this question: both of them were prompted by recent encounters with writers.

The first example comes from an author explaining his/her writing process. This writer finishes the first draft and gives it to three ‘readers’ for comment. Their suggestions are incorporated into the next draft, which then goes to the ‘editor’ for further suggestions, and here again some at least of these are used to produce the third draft.

writing-group

In this particular case, the text has now been developed by five people, but still it is considered to have been ‘authored’ by the original writer, who said –  in jest? –  that the names of all those who had contributed should perhaps be on the cover alongside the author’s name.

It may have been a throwaway remark, but it provoked my question about when the author’s apparent work is more, or less, than the author’s actual work.

In this particular case, the author is very well known and sells huge numbers of books all around the world. The first readers the author uses are people responsible for selling the author’s books in various countries. It is in their interests, therefore, for the book to be as attractive as possible, to increase the sales and their profits. They would not expect payment or acknowledgement for their work, as they are actually employed to maximise sales, and might even benefit financially from doing so.

The editor’s role is slightly different, one assumes, and concerned with the intrinsic quality of the book rather than only its commercial appeal. Prompted by the editor, more rewrites are undertaken by the author, and after some further discussion and polishing the text is sent for the final stages of editing and proof-reading. When it is printed and sold the author might/will acknowledge the role and assistance of all these people, but the reader will still believe that the author with their name on the cover actually wrote the book. In fact, it was most likely the author’s name, not the title, cover or subject matter, that made the reader buy the book. It has almost become a conspiracy of silence, to preserve the image of the author’s sole responsibility for the book’s final form.


The other nudge to my thinking about this issue was a recent journalistic fracas surrounding an article about a well-known British ‘celebrity’. This person had written a  new book and as part of the promotion was interviewed by a journalist. When the piece was complete, the celebrity and her agent leaned on the publishing editor of the magazine to change the article, to make it more favourable to the image they wanted to project and include more positive reference to the book. The journalist was outraged that this was agreed and her article was changed in this way, without her consent – so outraged that she insisted that her name be removed.

OK, these are different ‘genres’ of writing with different protocols. A key difference is that in the first case the author requests and welcomes amendments to her work, and in the second case the amendments were neither sought not agreed. But clearly the line between apparent and actual authorship is being blurred, and in each case the reader is probably unaware of what has happened behind the scenes.

Does it matter? Is the reader being duped?

My first full day writing workshop

I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks, and anxious about it too, and last Saturday, January 17th 2015 at Kendal library I led my very first full day writing workshop. And I really enjoyed it, although I was pretty exhausted when it was over: partly the several hours of concentration and partly lack of sleep the night before.

There were eleven in the group, small enough for conversation and large enough to benefit from a range of people. The range was hard to deal with too, as each person came with different prior writing experience, and therefore a range of wants and needs. It was quite a short day as the library didn’t open until 9.30am and closed at 3.30pm. We took a short lunch break but even so it was only about 5 hours once we’d got organised and started, and the challenge was trying to cover the long list of ‘aspects’ that I’d made. Some things went by the board when they didn’t appear in the group’s list of priorities: we mentioned ‘dialogue’ only briefly, for example, even though to my mind it’s essential to the pace and depth of a novel, to drive the story and to reveal character. I could probably have skipped or truncated the focus on the interaction between character, setting and story, but that was the first session and it was only at that time that the importance of the prior learning became obvious. Or maybe we needed to start with relatively familiar stuff just to get warmed up.

What really delighted me was everyone’s willingness to contribute and be honest about the struggle of both writing and getting published. I felt as if I was among friends, and in that safety people were open to new ideas and developing their story plans really quickly given the stimulus of good ‘what if questions’. We laughed and encouraged each other, and that was great.

The part of the day that seemed to resonate with all of us was about ‘structure’, not just the protocols of the 3 act structure which I didn’t do well explaining I fear, but the business of seeing a full-length fiction as a whole before starting to write the first draft. That doesn’t mean that every last detail is mapped out and immutable, but it does give you as the writer a view of the landscape before you start your journey. Maybe I enjoyed discussing this because it was what I lacked so woefully when I started my first novel, and was probably the reason why it took four years to complete. I learned the structure lesson the hard way, and took much more care with planning the second book. Now on book 4 I’m planning ahead in even more detail, but this is the first foray into crime fiction and the intricacies of the story are demanding more care at this early stage.

I suggested that we need to see the shape of the work all at once, rather than sequentially. To this end I put my early draft outline on paper or cards and lay them all out on the floor, or pin them on the wall, taking in the picture all at once, moving pieces around, seeing connections and possibilities that I hadn’t seen when the work was on screen or in one continuous piece. ‘Simultaneous visual display’: maybe it depends what kind of mind you have. I’m an abstract random thinker by preference, at least in the first instance, and need that overall picture before I can sort the pieces into an order.

Most – but not all – of the group wanted to talk about publishing, and I’d forgotten how depressing the conversation can be as one by one we told our stories of disinterest from agents, prejudice against self-publishing, the financial considerations, the time and the waiting, ineligibility for competitions and so on, and so on. I don’t regret the decision to self-publish and to invest my time, energy and money in the process but for people with less to invest it looks a pretty bleak picture.

As we concluded, however we want to get into print, the most important starting point is to have a really high quality piece of work, and for that we need to welcome editing. Family and friends mean well but their feedback isn’t enough. Getting professional critique seems to cost so much that it becomes another hurdle that blocks progress. One or two people asked if I would offer a critique, and although I have a professional interest in feedback my own experience of writing is still limited. So I agreed, but won’t charge anyone until I feel I can offer a service worth paying for. Already I fear the siren call of writing-related activities – running workshops, critique and feedback, advice on self-publishing – when what I most need and want to do is write my own stuff.

I’m taking a break from everything for the next two months to pursue a long-standing travel ambition, so I’ve got some time to think about it. When I get back in mid-March it’ll be straight into the first draft of book 4 (as yet untitled) to meet the deadline of August that I have set myself. So I’m disappearing from Twitter, blogs and all that for two months at least. I’m not sure that anyone will notice!

Point of view – a more detailed look

When you’re a fiction-writing novice like me, it’s hard to know what you don’t know. Not only had I never written fiction before I started on my first novel in 2008 aged sixty, I’d never learned anything about writing, no courses, no books, not even in a book club, although I read widely and daily. In those circumstances I embarked on the novel with confidence born of ignorance. I thought I could put words together quite effectively, but I hadn’t thought about structure or any other key questions. First person or third? Past tense or present? Plot-driven or character-driven?

In Part One of what was to become a trilogy I started with two questions for the reader: who pushed Alice in the river, and would the abandoned child ultimately find his mother? It was only after a year or two of hopeless meandering and some very critical professional feedback that I realised that neither of these questions really mattered. The most interesting questions were: why does cautious Jessie take a lover, and then another, and what happens when the abandoned child turns up twenty years later.

The key point raised by my ‘reviewer’ (Sarah Bower for The Literary Consultancy) was that I didn’t seem to understand ‘point of view’. Whose eyes are you looking through, Sarah asked; whose ears hear what’s being said? In the draft that I submitted for critique the point of view sometimes varied randomly from one sentence to the next, as if the narrator of the action was formless, slipping at will into the shoes of whoever might be around in the scene. I wasn’t bothered whether the eyes and ears were those of a major character or a minor one. I called it kaleidoscopic, she called it a mess.

My reactions to the critique were classic: for a number of weeks I put both it and the manuscript aside and refused to think about them. Then I decided that ‘point of view’ was a pretty silly concept and therefore it couldn’t matter much. In the end I bowed to the unavoidable conclusion that my reviewer knew much more about writing fiction than I do, and that I should think more about what she had suggested. Choose two or three characters to carry the ‘point of view’ she had said, no more. Make it clear to the reader whose point of view is paramount, chapter by chapter. If you want to change it within a single chapter do so carefully and purposefully.

It was soon very clear why I was tempted to either ignore the critique and abandon the whole project or carry on regardless. Limiting the points of view in this way changed everything. Almost every chapter would have to be re-written. And then another realisation hit me: if I wanted to tell a complicated story with very limited points of view, some of the details would have to be conveyed indirectly as none of my key protagonists could realistically be involved in witnessing the action directly. Sounds complicated, and it was. The first draft of the first novel took two years, and the radical redraft a further two before I had anything that was worth polishing. The effort involved, sustained by only a faint glimmer of confidence in the potential outcome, nearly finished me off. It was only stubborn determination not to waste the effort completely that finally pushed me to finish ‘A Good Liar’, cope with the repeated generic brush-offs from agents and decide in the end to publish the book myself.

The second and third parts of my trilogy have continued the decisions about third person, past tense and two or three points of view adopted for part 1. But now I’m thinking about what to write once the trilogy is complete, which should be summer 2014. Knowing what I know now, what different choices could I make about the next novel I hope to write?

My own reading has become more analytical, more aware of tenses, voice, dialogue and structure. Maybe reading fiction is like watching cricket: you never really understand what’s going on unless you’ve played it yourself. And I’m still thinking about ‘point of view’. If you choose the singular point of view, as in Jane Austen, all the action and details necessary for the reader have to be conveyed through the eyes and ears of one person. That person has to be in every scene, witnessing the action directly or hearing about it from someone else. Unless this key protagonist is merely the constant recipient of other people’s news, he or she has to drive the action forward by their own actions, or inactions.

I recall reading Robert Goddard and wondering why his protagonists seem so prone to getting drunk, or over-sleeping, or other mistakes that lead in turn to twists and crises in the plot. With only one point of view there’s no other way to drive the plot forward. Those same necessary personal frailties apply in spades to various contemporary fictional detectives – Morse and Wallender to name but two – who are irredeemably prone to aberrant behaviours, depression and dysfunctional personal relationships. How else can drama be created?

As writers we are faced with a choice of singular, limited or multiple points of view. What are the implications for both writers and readers? Do different genres necessarily deal with this issue in different ways?

Dealing with ‘Point of View’

In 2008 I went on a course entitled ‘How to Write a Novel’. Over a week, with expert tuition, we learned about structure, character, dialogue, all good stuff. I was hooked, with all the confidence of the novice. I wanted my tale to be multi-facetted, like a precious stone, glittering with fascinating minor characters, each of whom would see the action from their own unique perspective, adding richness and texture, etc etc. You get the picture. Ludicrous ambition.

There was another admired model of story-telling in my head, from the unlikely source of the US police drama ‘Law and Order’. Not the recent offshoots, but the old original series, with low-slung angular cars and police using public phones, and then mobile phones the size of bricks. In those early days, every episode of Law and Order followed the same formula beginning with the discovery of the crime, and usually a body, by minor characters who held our attention for only a few moments before their function is fulfilled and they disappear. These bit-part players provide a momentary, quirky (what a great word!) ‘point of view’, quickly overshadowed by the familiar detectives who arrive on the scene and take over.

When I began the tortuous journey towards my first novel I didn’t even think about whose ‘point of view’ I was writing from. I would relate the action from one character’s perspective, and then switch to another perspective within the same paragraph without any awareness that I was doing so. The idea and effect of ‘point of view’ was unknown to me. I wonder now whether it was mentioned on that first course and I missed it, or was it never raised at all?

The first draft of my novel was sent off for critical review after two years of painful effort, and six weeks later, just before Christmas, the response came back. ‘What happened to ‘point of view’?’ said the reviewer. ‘The reader sees the action from several different viewpoints within the same chapter, and some of those viewpoints are minor characters we know very little about. This is asking too much, the reader will be confused. You need to reduce the number of characters through whose eyes the story is told: two or three main characters at most. Make a choice.’

The advice was sound, but devastating. I couldn’t tweak a few things to fix the problem: the whole novel had to be started again. For a while I couldn’t face it, letting the distractions of Christmas and New Year push the troublesome task to the margins of my life. But in the end I knew that I had already invested too much in this project to let it go. I went back to the beginning and rewrote almost everything, cutting out some characters completely, changing the perspective, and reducing the overall length. It was my first painful experience of a task I heard described much later as ‘murdering your darlings’. My darlings were well and truly decimated, but the lesson was learned.

That’s enough confessional for now. I’m coming back again to the issue of ‘point of view’, but just for now Chapter 19 of Book 3 is calling me and cannot be delayed any longer. It’s ready. And I know whose point of view it will be from.