Climbing the Novel Volcano

How it goes:

  • You think you can write a book. ‘Everyone has a book in them’, don’t they? You toy with the idea. You start. You stop. You think again. Maybe you start.
  • You plan it, idly. One rainy day you write a beginning. It’s rubbish. You bin [delete] it.
  • Another idle afternoon you begin again. Maybe you write 500 words!
  • You continue. Maybe you have a chapter.
  • You’ve got going. You become absorbed. You write. And write. And write.
  • You stop. Months pass. Life intervenes. The boiling has slowed to a simmer and become still. The words lie gathering [virtual] dust in a file somewhere on the PC.
  • Months later, in between scribbling flash fiction, blogging or writing Tripadvisor reviews you come across the dusty file. You read it.
  • ‘Hm’, you think. It’s not that bad! You apply yourself. You have another couple of chapters. Hooray!
  •  Life intervenes once more. The file languishes unloved in the depths of ‘documents’. Months pass.
  • One day you mention it to someone. They express an interest, thus re-kindling your own enthusiasm for the project. You get going once more. Hooray!
  • At long last you complete the first, raw, ragged draft of a novel. You feel accomplished/uncertain/satisfied/unworthy/confused/conflicted.
  • The someone wants to read it. Hooray/ Horrors!
  • The someone likes it!
  • You know you need feedback. Another someone suggests you try a shared edit. You try this. The someone likes it. Hooray! But they want you to rewrite the plot. Bleurgh!
  • You edit. And edit.
  •  Enough editing. You consult the Bible [aka the Writers and Artists Yearbook] and find a meagre handful of possibly sympathetic publishers/literary agents.
  • You must write a synopsis. This is the writer’s bete noir. You think about it. You lie awake thinking about it. Maybe you didn’t want to be published anyway?
  • One rainy day you apply yourself to synopsis writing. You consult online advice. Horrors! You know it’s crucial. Maybe you don’t want to be published?
  • It is still raining. You make a start. It’s terrible. You get a cup of tea. You start again.
  • It’s hopeless.
  • You read it aloud to your writing group. It sounds rubbish.
  • You return to the task. You edit. It’s still awful.
  • You rest the hopeless synopsis and attempt a cover letter. You write a blurb. You read it. It doesn’t sound like your novel at all. Perhaps getting published is not all it’s cracked up to be; Waterstones’ window can probably survive without your best seller…
  • In the night you make promises to yourself: I will submit the work to a publisher before I make my next trip away. I will complete the synopsis tomorrow. I will get up now and write the cover letter. You fall asleep.

 

 

Another Tedious Round of Kiss and Tell

                The customary, annual circus of celebrity autobiographies is cranking up already, as the first signs of sparkly window dressing in the shops appear and even the miniscule pharmacy next to our doctors’ surgery has sprouted some tinsel along its dusty shelving-that is, unless it has been left over from last year?

                First out of the traps are a couple of football managers, following up their published memoirs by appearing on an overabundance of talk shows and magazine programmes, promising plenty of ‘kiss and tell’ revelations. You can’t blame them. Presumably in retirement they need every penny they can get to keep them in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. The level of writing competence will be adequate, since they will have engaged the services of ghost writers, and in any case I suppose their readership will not be purchasing their books for their literary qualities, characterisation, plotlines, descriptions, imagery or philosophical debate. No, the punters will be interested in two things only-whether they dish the dirt-and what the dirt is.

                Then there are actors, pop stars, footballers, ‘presenters’ and comedians. I used to feel it incongruous for pop singers or models barely into their twenties to pen [or have someone pen] ‘My Story’ but of course then I realised it is the ultimate gravy train. In another couple of years, having become addicted to some substance, had a couple of stints in The Priory, got married, had an affair or two, come out, been arrested and done community service the material is all set for ‘My Story-the Next Chapter’. Look at Katie Price. She has created an entire industry from living her orchestrated life in the public eye, thus generating enough story lineage for a library full of autobiographies.

                If I appear to be less than enamoured of celebrity autobiographies then it is true. In fact the biography is not a favourite genre of mine at all. Unlike the unlovely Noel Gallagher I’m a great fiction fan. Has Noel any plans to publish his own memoirs? If he has not already done so, I’m betting it will happen at some stage. I’m also willing to wager it will contain a fair portion of fiction, a genre that Noel abhors.

                I do make the odd exception to my biography reading rule. Jennifer Saunders has been reading her own on the radio; fresh, entertaining and funny. In contrast, Dawn French’s offering [doled out to my book club-hence not a choice] came across as self congratulatory, inflated and at times, resentful.

                If there is a redeeming feature about the eruption of Christmas biogs it is that they are unaccountably popular [or why would there be so many on the shelves of WH Smith and Waterstone’s], which means that a great many people pick up a book who would otherwise be reading nothing more than The Daily Mail or the numbers on their lottery tickets; that is, if they are read? They do, after all, tend to include a plethora of glossy photographs…

The Fickle Art of Reviewing

                How wearying it is that reviewing has become such a cynical marketing ploy, instead of the useful consumer tool it was invented to be. It is no surprise, these days, to learn that companies such as publishers and tour operators are prepared to pay vast sums to get positive evaluations, but saddening all the same, that large conglomerations see us, the consumers, as so easily manipulated.

                I was ‘stung’ a couple of times myself when trawling through the cyber aisles on Amazon. I was seduced into buying ‘One Day’, a shallow rom-com [never a favourite genre of mine], which was eulogised about by hundreds of gushing reviewers. I did, at least manage to get to the predictable end of the book. Then there was ‘Shantaram’, which also achieved massive acclaim, and which I assumed would be more my style-it concerning travel in exotic locations, and which I deleted after less than two chapters. I also vented my spleen by writing my own vitriolic review of this egocentric and tedious story.

                None of this, of course applies to my own, lowly and self-published contribution to Amazon, my debut novel, ‘The Year of Familiar Strangers’ [by writer Jane Deans]! The book has managed to elicit two reviews so far, contributed by such acquaintances as I have persuaded to press finger to keyboard following their purchase. Between them they have bought it three and a half stars, hardly meteoric acclaim, but nevertheless respectable for a first go. Verbal feedback, however, has been startlingly gratifying. In another life, where I’d have begun to write novels in my youth, I might even have achieved the limitless wealth that could have bought me hundreds of rave reviews. Who knows?

                I get through a number of fiction novels each year, though I no longer look to Amazon to suggest the selection. It is tricky, as an innocent consumer, to know where to look for a good read. How can you be sure to get unbiased opinion? I go, often to book prize long-lists, which can be a reasonable guide; not so my recent purchase, the Booker choice of Richard House’s ‘The Kills’, which I found incoherent, confusing, boring and frustrating. I had more luck with Christine McKenna’s ‘The Misremembered Man’-a quick, light, amusing read with stereotypical characters but plenty of comedic, Irish, homespun philosophy.

                But I suspect my ‘big reading hit’ of the year will be the current occupant of my Kindle screen; A M Homes’ ‘May We Be Forgiven’, which has started explosively, a stonking rollercoaster of a story, darkly, bleakly comic in its exploration of a dysfunctional American family. It was an Orange prize winner, but gets mixed reviews, although I very much doubt anyone was paid to write them! 

I Submit!

                In a flurry of unaccustomed, industrious zeal, during the week we’d had to make an unplanned return from the warmer, sunnier parts of Europe, I threw myself into yet another round of submissions of my first novel to still more literary agents. This burst of activity was, in part to justify and ‘make the best’ of the precipitate return to [then] chilly England and also because the next three submissions were, according to my schedule, due.

                I admit I’ve been dogged and inflexible about following this agenda. In the Bible that is ‘The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook’ there is no shortage of advice on finding, selecting and submitting to an agent, however now that I’m past the six month mark the selecting part has become more a case of ‘anyone who accepts new writers’ manuscripts’…and rather than choosing on the basis of their current author stable or the genre, I’m using alphabetical order as a guide.

                Literary agents’ websites vary from the pretentious to the austere and from the unapproachable and superior to the fluffy and avuncular. They rightly proclaim their discoveries and their successes, include lists of the prizes their authors have won, the bestsellers, the smiling debut novelists. ‘Come on in’ they say, beckoning encouragement or almost daring the fragile, amoebic beginner to send something. Many still demand postal entry for submission, requiring endless printing out on quality paper, no staples, single sided, double spaced, this, that and the other-plus a mint of postage and don’t forget the self-addressed envelope for the return [that is, if they agree to return it-a number candidly admit to shredding.]

                There is no conformity of requirements for submissions. They want the first 3 chapters, a single page synopsis, a letter of introduction and a CV; or they want the first 50 pages, a letter outlining the story and some personal history, or they want a chapter outline, a 500 word synopsis and a CV. Each submission means beginning all over again with preparation. It may not be such a bad thing. Perhaps it weeds out those whose belief in their work is not absolute? Much is said and written about the tolerance of the would-be writer to rejection, but I’d say it is the absolute lack of any kind of response that is demoralising. A few weeks ago I received an email from an agent I’d submitted to last October, kindly saying the work could not be accepted at this time and apologising for the delayed response, a missive which did almost feel a little encouraging, in the face of so much ignorance.

                Many agents are cashing in on the rush of aspiring authors by offering various courses, although according to an item I heard on a radio consumer programme, many are cynical exercises in generating revenue, rather than attempts to improve the standard of the great ‘unpublished’. One agent was quoted as rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of ‘lots of lovely money and they haven’t got a clue’.

                I will soon be coming to the end of my schedule of submissions, then I shall be doing what countless other amateur writers have done, ie self-publishing. In the meantime I press on with novel 2; after all, Iain Banks apparently penned a whole 6 tomes before getting one published. And if E L James can get lucky with an e-novel, I’m bloomin’ sure mine can make it!