Perching on the publishing pinnacle

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Yesterday I attended Polly Nolan’s workshop organised by SCBWI Switzerland at the International School in Lausanne. Polly Nolan (photo above with Joy Manne) is a literary agent at the Greenhouse Literary Agency.  The detailed portrait that Polly gave of the publishing process and how that could affect the would-be writer was stimulating. Her answers to our many questions were clear and coherent but also often heartfelt. At the same time, the goals and limitations of the mainstream publishing process portrayed were challenging for me as an author.

As I struggle to make sense of what I heard (and felt), one thing is clear – and excuse me for stating the self-evident – despite Polly’s refusal of the word ‘product’ for a book, the publishing industry is about selling and preferably selling big. The more time goes on, the bigger the targets the industry sets, the higher the returns they expect. Although clearly many of the books chosen for publishing will only reach middling results, the bar below which a book is deemed a failure continues to rise.

Those of us who write novels in the hope of getting published via traditional channels might do well to factor that quest for blockbuster success into our plans and dreams. It colours not only the types of books publishers are prepared to take a risk on, but also the way they are written. It was personally reassuring to hear Polly insist that a good story will always win out. My whole quest in writing is about telling a story as best I can. But in terms of form and length as well as in terms of content, not to mention personal taste, the criteria for what constitutes a successful book limit the story that can be told and the form it can take.

Despite the growing interest in alternative channels of publishing, traditional book publishing is still viewed as the pinnacle would-be authors should aspire to. All print media and most on-line review sites refuse to review indie or self-published authors. While this may be essentially aimed at stemming the overwhelming tide of submissions, it also tacitly reinforces the vision that only those who traditionally publish their book are worthy of interest. But then media and most review sites are also driven by readership and ratings and big numbers.

If the threshold of success continues to rise for the publishing industry, the author has to ask herself what level of ‘success’ suits her. The video artist Bill Viola talking about installations said that they were never complete without a spectator standing in the middle of them. As authors, we clearly want to be read. I certainly do. I write stories for people to read. Apart from those who aspire to or dream of making a full-time living out of writing novels, us other authors need to ask ourselves what is our measure of success and how (and if) we can reach that, including whether the effort required is such that it causes us to cease writing.

In writing all this, I in no way seek to demonise traditional publishing, but rather, thanks to Polly’s presentation, try to see it for what it is and what it can do (or not) for me as an author. As I raise the question of what size readership will satisfy an author’s need to be read, a more fundamental question arises: in a society that increasingly measures all value in terms of monetary considerations, what financial return should an author legitimately expect from her work?

The Brick

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I like to set myself challenges in writing. Someone said you should have very few characters in flash fiction, so I decided to write a piece with more than a few. As I was busy preparing for next weekend’s flash fiction workshop with MJ Holmes, I sat down and wrote a piece of flash fiction with six characters in it. It’s called The Brick (485 words). More about it later.

Updates…

To be honest –for which I will no doubt pay– sometimes it is tiresome keeping up a steady flow of interesting items on Facebook and elsewhere about my writing and books. The truth is, I’m writing and writing and writing and maybe that isn’t such exciting news. Anyway, here’s a brief extract from the draft of chapter 17.

The cave was larger than he expected. Along three sides ran low cots, little more than an odd assortment of rough planks hastily hammered together. In the farthest corner someone had built an open hearth, formed by an irregular circle of stones. Above the fireplace, a trail of soot snaked up the wall and disappeared through a narrow crack in the roof. Jon lowered himself gingerly onto a cot, his legs trembling, a dull pain in his chest oppressing him.

Writing the new novel

Back to writing my new dystopian novel. Just finished chapter 15 (of something like 50 chapters). I’ve already got the cover photo but am still toying around with possible titles. Here’s a short fragment from the draft of chapter 15. Don’t worry, it is not all like this!

A shout went up nearby and they could hear the pounding of running boots. “Get in!” Nan order. “Feet first.” He did as he was told, letting go of the rim of the shoot with some trepidation. The passage was pitch black and an ugly smell rose from within. The shoot angled away steeply, turning as it did, till he flew out the end and landed with a sickening thud atop a slimy heap. The shock of the landing was lessened by the stinking mess he fell on. When he put out his hand to push himself up it sank uselessly into the rotting food. Hearing Nan sliding down above him he rolled to the side, just in time to avoid a collision. Her arrival sent a shower of gunge spraying all over him. 

As he finally managed to escape the decaying heap and clambered to his feet, he had only one wish: to be rid of the sticky muck that clung to him and his clothes. His hands were plastered with the stuff. He couldn’t even wipe his face clean.

Beyond the world

Inside Out full

One of the challenges of writing Sci-Fi and some fantasy novels is finding the right role for the world or worlds to play in the story. In this type of fiction, much of the fascination for both the reader and the writer is with the dystopian or alien world and the technology that drives or destroys it. Often such a story is born from and driven by a vision of the world or some social context rather than the characters and their interaction. This was a difficulty I had to confront with the dystopian novel I am currently writing. From a narrative point of view, it is the characters that drive the story not the world. Of course, the world may be a character, but then that world must come to life and breathe and move and feel. Two examples spring to mind. Maria V, Snyder does this in an artificial world in her two books, Outside In and Inside Out. In quite a different vein, Arthur Machen makes the countryside come alive in Hill of Dreams, doing so was one of the hallmarks of his writing. When the characters are eclipsed by the world and its history, then the story lacks depth and fails to engage the reader lest it be purely intellectually. So the challenge for the writer in such fiction is to go beyond the world to discover how the characters feel and act within it.

A review of Boy & Girl

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A review of Boy & Girl by the author Leland Dirks.

This book is brilliant. I’ll be thinking about these characters and this plot for a long, long time. Building not just one but two worlds that are quite believable and complex characters to fall in love with in such lovely prose is a beautiful accomplishment. I have no idea how to categorize this book, and honestly, I think that’s one reason I love it. It could be “young adult,” but there is plenty for this older reader to be challenged by. It could be fantasy, but the characters feel so real and “normal” that it feels more like literary fiction. It could be paranormal (there is telepathy and other psychic phenomena), but it doesn’t feel strained. All I know is that the writer has crafted a wonderful story that I love, and I can’t wait to start reading the sequel. I heartily recommend this book. (…)

See the full review on Amazon.com.

Night escape…

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Illustration inspired by the work of Henri Rousseau

As In Search of Lost Girls is published and the revised edition of Boy & Girl is at the printers, I can finally get back to my new novel. Here’s an extract.

(…) He grins, his face caked in mud, and yanks harder on the root. A large clump of earth breaks away and tumbles to his feet. It is followed in quick succession by several other clumps leaving a gaping hole in the tunnel roof through which I can see only darkness. Using the fallen earth as a stepping stone, Mart clambers up and peers out.

When he says nothing, I scramble up next to him, my arm slung around his waist for support. His body gives off such welcome warmth in the biting night air, I huddle close. I peer out through a forest of blades of grass that grows around the gash in the earth, and as my eyes adjust to the pale light of the moon, I see a tangled mass of leaves and branches writhing in the wind. Here and there, shifting patches of colour catch the moonlight like willowy dancers weaving their way across a darkened stage.

The sight is extraordinary, but the surrounding soundscape enthralls me more. Against a backdrop of groans of age-old branches struggling against the wind and the accompanying complaint of leaves, the shrieks of nightbirds, the high-pitched cries of bats and the throaty calls of animals on the prowl set the scene for a nighttime drama that is both enticing and menacing. Nearby, a creature moves unseen through the grass, only the rustle giving away its presence.

A sharp hiss to my right has my head swivelling in that direction. I freeze at the sight that awaits me: only a foot from my nose, a cobra surges up out of the grass, its hood spread wide in defiance, its tiny eyes bulging, its tongue flicking in and out. (…)

Review: Thief’s Magic

Thief's Magic

See my review of Trudi Canavan’s latest novel, Thief’s Magic.

As with many of Trudi Canavan’s earlier books like The Black Magician trilogy and The Age of the Five trilogy, I really enjoyed reading her new novel Thief’s Magic, book one of Millennium’s Rule (read on)

The exceptional

Sir-Ken

Sir Ken Robinson in a recent BBC interview with Sarah Montague as part of a programme called The Educators, talked about how a careless criticism of a teacher put him off singing for years. He added:

“…. When you’re that young, it doesn’t take a lot to be encouraged or discouraged … On the positive side, if somebody says you can do something, it lifts your whole expectations of yourself. You think: well maybe I can do that…”

School, amongst other things, leaves many young people with a feeling that they are not up to standard, that they can do nothing exceptional. It was my case with English and writing all those years ago. It took me another forty years before I dared write my first novel and what a joy that was.

In all my novels, I tell stories of young people (Sally, Brent and Keira in The Reaches for example or Peter, Kaitling and Fi in Boy & Girl) who, despite the immense difficulties that abound, discover their own talents and manage to do the exceptional. The achievement is all theirs, even if there is an adult nearby who has the wisdom to believe in them and to encourage them, like Professor Rafter in the first three books of The Storyteller’s Quest (The Reaches, The Keeper’s Daughter, The Starless Square) or Dr. Grant and Fi’s mum in Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls.

Secret Paths Editions