Tag Archives: Writing

The Next Big Thing: A blog chain of works in progress

Some weeks ago, my friend and writing circle buddy Laure Baudot invited me to be a part of The Next Big Thing blog chain. (Take a look at her posting here).

The idea’s pretty simple: talk about your work-in-progress by answering ten questions on it, and then link to the blogs of five other writers with their own works in progress. Kind of a sneak peek at what people are working on, and what may emerge in the next few years from our fertile, warped and often crazed imaginations. I agreed to take part. Then life intervened. My mother died (more on this below). I had to drop everything and travel to the UK for her funeral. Tim, my son and his beautiful wife Bea, came to stay for five weeks. Writeous Interruptus (Or is that blogeous interruptus?).

So I’m finally getting to it, some weeks late (apologies to all Laure’s followers who landed on my blog and were dead-ended). I’m breaking all the rules (of course) because two of the writers I’m linking to here are already linking to me (what is that, some kind of internet incest?), but who cares? I don’t think anyone is policing this. Also, I’m linking to one writer, Deepam Wadds, who I didn’t invite, but who has a Next Big Thing posting up. The more the merrier I say. So my five is actually six, but two of them don’t really count, because they’re really in someone else’s circle.

So here we go. These are the ten questions I’m supposed to answer:

1. What is the working title of your book?

Mother Of All Lies

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

I didn’t have an idea for a book. I had time, a passion to do it, and (to some extent) desperation. It was 2001 and the Internet boom had bust. I was working in Amsterdam at the European headquarters of a US Internet company, when the entire staff was laid off. That was in August. Under the Dutch employment laws I knew I’d have a few months on full pay while I looked for work. I’d always talked about writing a novel, but, apart from a really, really bad novel I wrote when I was 17, I’d never even made a start. This was the first time in my working life where I actually had time to write. What emerged was a hodgepodge of a first draft that was a total mess. I liken the process of discovering the novel hidden inside that draft to the work of the John Harmon character in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. He made his fortune sifting through giant piles of dust and rubbish for treasure. That’s what it’s been like.


 3. What genre does your book fall under?

I have a healthy distrust of genre labels. They’re useful for the marketing people at publishing houses, but I’m not sure they do writers much good. They tend to ghettoize what we do. If I had to pin a label on it, it might be literary fiction. I’d like it to be literary. That’s what I aspire to, and mostly what I read, but that doesn’t mean it’s posh or snobby necessarily. In fact, it’s pretty strongly rooted in working class culture. There are no soirees in my book, and there is plenty of snot and tears.

 4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 

The antagonist is a strong female character whose gambling addiction fractures and damages her children’s lives. Though she’s in her late 60s when the book opens, there are flashbacks to her in her 30s, 40s and 50s. If I had a time machine, I’d put Maggie Smith in it and get her to play the part at every age. She’d be perfect. She could switch between the Downton Abbey character and the woman she plays in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (I forget her name). The antagonist is pretty much a blend of the wit and attitude of those two women.

The protagonist is harder, because he is four, ten, twenty-two, and in his mid-thirties in different scenes. Someone earnest and intense. Like a young Ralph Finnes. Or possibly (in any world in which a literary novel were made into a full length cartoon) Charlie Brown.

 5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A working mother’s gambling habit spirals out of control, wreaking chaos in the lives of her young family.

 6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I really want to find an agent. I’m a firm believer in the traditional model of publishing, for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere. I would only self-publish it if I ran out of options. I suspect the same is probably true of many self-published authors (though certainly not all).

 7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

That messy, sprawling first draft was written pretty quickly. I think I finished it in early January 2002, when I was back living in London. It sat on my laptop’s hard drive for a further five years before I touched it. I knew it needed to be revised (actually, rewritten), but I moved to Canada in April 2002 and I was busy with a new job in a new country. I just didn’t have the time. I picked it up again in October 2007, after a heart attack. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve re-drafted it since then, but I’m saying it’s now in its 14th draft.

 8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

That’s a tough question. To be honest, I find comparisons a little invidious. Especially since this is my first novel. I think others can make comparisons, but it feels a little presumptuous for me to do so. A lot of early readers have compared it with memoirs like The Glass Castle and Angela’s Ashes (I see why. Both books feature dysfunctional families, in which the children take on parental roles in order to save the family). But it’s not a memoir. I think my writing style is somewhere in the neighbourhood of Nick Hornby: accessible and not particularly dense and showy. But thematically it’s a million miles from Hornby.

 9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My mother. She was a gambler. An addict. A charming, beautiful liar, with a manipulative intelligence. As a young boy, I adored her. I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. As I grew older and began to see her as she really was, I grew to hate her. The story arc of the protagonist, which is that of a love story in reverse, is pretty much the story arc of my relationship with my mother. Having said that, she was a huge influence upon me: she was a big reader, and she never once told any of her six children they couldn’t be exactly what they dreamed of being. Which is a gift I still cherish. She died at the end of October 2012.


Me and my twin sister Sally, age 3, with my mother.

10. What else about your book might pique your reader’s interest?

The editor I’ve been working with to polish the manuscript for submission calls it gritty. A gritty family drama. That’s because many of the scenes contain the kind of drama that happens in certain kinds of family (a teenaged son pulling a knife on his father, for example). There is at least one scene that my wife can no longer read in revision because it makes her cry every time she reads it.

But that makes it sound bleak and a little hopeless, and I hope it’s not that bad. It’s shot through with dark humour (which I find I can’t do without), but it’s a form of gallows humour. I hope it will make you laugh and cry, in somewhat equal measures.

I suspect it may be a woman’s book. I’ve had a few male readers, and by and large I get the impression they didn’t enjoy it as much as the women who’ve read it (in fact, I suspect that at least one of them hated it). I think that’s because it’s more focused on character development, and less driven by plot and big events. One reader complained there’s no sex and no important deaths. Not to give too much away, but there are five deaths. As to the no sex part, it’s a book about a boy’s relationship with his mother, so to my mind that’s probably a good thing.

Now that’s out of the way, here are the five, no six, no four (oh, you figure it out). Here are the writers whose works in progress sound worth exploring to me. I met all of them at The Writers’ Community of Durham Region, which is the most awesome writing organization in the world.

The aforementioned Deepam Wadds: deepam wadds. A dancer, a massage therapist and a fine writer, who won the WCDR’s short story contest last year.

Dale Long: Dale and I worked together for the first time in the Autumn, on a workshop on the rendering of accents, because both our projects have characters who are afflicted by them. He’s funny, and tends to come at things from an unusual direction. His blog is called: Inkstroke’s Blog

Ruth E. Walker: Ruth is a past president of the WCDR, and her fine debut novel, Living Underground, was published in the autumn by Seraphim Editions.

Sue Reynolds: Sue was also a past president of the WCDR. Sue is a writing instructor, and a fabulous writer.

Noelle Bickle: Boundbytheword. Noelle is sassy and funny. I haven’t read her book (yet) but I’ve heard a few excerpts and I can’t wait to get the whole thing in my hands once it’s published.

Mel Cober: Melly Loves Orange. Mel’s just finished her debut novel. What’s it about? Why don’t you click the link and find out?


Are you still writing your book?

Conversations I have had:

Jane Austen’s process: some hope for us mortals

A writer’s process – their method of writing and revising their work – is to some extent personal. But there are certain elements which have come to be seen as critical to the production of good work, amongst them: revising and redrafting the work (writing is revising – never trust a first draft), reading the work aloud to make sure it reads well, exposing it to fellow writers in workshops, and building a group of ‘first readers’ who can be trusted to give a sane and balanced evaluation of the work. New writers are advised to work these elements into their own process.
But if they’re anything like me they might be inclined to ask themselves, what did my literary heroes know of process? Did Jane Austen resort to a process, or did her works drop, fully-formed, on to scraps of paper she squirreled away whenever she was interrupted in the act of composition? We like to think that’s the way genius operates – an external force which possesses some lucky individual at times and gifts them high art. It’s a concept that’s as old as art itself, this notion of possession, or the gift of the muse. Only us mortals have to resort to process.
So it’s something of a surprise to discover that Jane Austen had a process, and it wasn’t so very different from the process modern authors adopt when fashioning their work. Take Pride & Prejudice for example, arguably her most successful novel (I prefer Emma, but that’s just me). This started life in 1796, as First Impressions. It wasn’t published until January 1813 – fully 16 years after she began it. We don’t know how many drafts she produced of the work during these years – biographical details on her life are sketchy at best – but we are given a glimpse of the way she liked to work by contemporary accounts from family members.
For example, how did a woman, who lived at home in small villages for most of her life, workshop her material? She used the only resources she had: her family. She read the work aloud as she was working on it, and it became a firm family favourite. She had a large family – six brothers and a sister – so she had a fairly large audience for these readings, and they were all interested in literature, and well read. Not the ideal workshop participants exactly, but better than nothing. The Austens also had a large and varied library (her father was a rector, gentleman farmer and private tutor) which gave Jane plenty of exposure to the best contemporary work, and a deep well of older writers to draw on.
Pride & Prejudice is by no means the only book which took her over a decade to hatch. Almost every one of her major works started life as something very different in the late 1790s. Sense & Sensibility was originally written as an epistolary novel called Elinor and Marianne. She revised it completely several times, but we don’t know how much of the original work survived because that first draft has been lost.
Frankly, I was surprised (and a little relieved) to discover that even my hero needed to revise her work, and refine and revise it many times, over many years, before it gelled. I think there’s hope for all us mortals.

Why I don’t plan to self-publish my novel

I’ve been reading a lot of advice on getting published lately. Yes, I’m at that stage. The latest draft of my novel is with the mentor I was assigned by Humber School of Arts, and if he thinks it’s ready, then the process of querying agents will begin. As long as he gets around to reading it.
So I’ve been preparing by educating myself about the process of turning a bloated .doc file into a finished book. I’ve read a lot of books on the subject. I’ve scoured blogs and websites. I’ve subscribed to Publishers Marketplace. I’ve spent a small fortune.
A lot of people, mostly non-publishing types, have asked me why I don’t just go ahead and publish the book myself. Why wait at the bottom of the food chain for a ‘mentor’ to give me permission to approach an agent, who (if they like the book enough) will then approach a few editors at the ‘right’ publishing houses and hope they will champion the project for me and persuade all the other gatekeepers – the sales and marketing folks at the publishers – to take the book on? That’s a hell of a lot of people to persuade. It’s also a hell of an eco-system to fund. The publisher gets to keep (depending on sales volume) anything from 85-90% of the cover price of the book, and the author – the guy at the bottom of the food chain, gets to keep 85% of the 10-15% that’s left.
Why not take the easy way out? Why not pay the $1000 or so it takes to get the book e-formatted, put it up on Amazon and take 35% to 70% of the revenue from sales? There are writers who claim to be very successful doing just that. In a recent blog, e-publishing phenomenon John Locke claimed he has sold (as of March 8, 2011) 350,000 books on Amazon this year. In case you’re wondering, that’s a lot.
It’s a fair question, and one deserving of some thought. After all, in my reading on going the traditional publishing route I’ve been advised to:
• Pay to get the book professionally line edited before submitting it, because publishers can often no longer afford to do this
• Pay for my own cover art to get a cover I’m really happy with
• Hire my own PR firm, because the promotional budget attached to any given book is miniscule and likely to achieve little or nothing
• Build myself a solid ‘platform’ (i.e. a market) – to make my book more appealing to agents and publishers
• Organize and pay for my own book tours, as debut authors can’t expect publishers to support tours
• Develop my own social media and online strategy
Looking at this list, anybody is bound to wonder. If I’m paying for all the editorial functions to get the book ready for publication and designing the sales and marketing strategy, and paying for my own PR, AND building my own audience for my 8.5%, what’s the publisher doing for its 90%?
Right now, one answer would be distribution. They have the infrastructure to deliver the finished article to brick and mortar stores all around the world. That’s clearly not going to be enough, going forward. Last week Publishers Weekly reported ebook sales of $69.9 million in January (up 116% year on year). Sales of mass market paperbacks for the same period were $39 million (down 31% year on year).
Don’t get me wrong. This is not meant as a diatribe against publishers. They’ve watched their margins get squeezed progressively during the past several decades, and have trimmed and trimmed. They stopped trimming the fat a long time ago – it’s been all muscle for years. Consolidation was supposed to help them achieve economies of scale, but the discounting has always seemed to outpace their ability to achieve cost savings. And they do assume most of the risk in the value chain. For every massive best seller there are a slew of books which fail to earn out (i.e. earn enough to repay the author’s advance). I get it.
However, I have to say that if I was writing solely for money, I’d probably go the self-published ebook route.
So why am I choosing the more difficult, time-consuming and potentially costly traditional publishing route?
Precisely because it is more difficult. And it’s not because I’m contrary, or addicted to pain. It’s because writing is supposed to be art, and art is supposed to be hard. It is supposed to require work, effort, and sometimes pain.
Self-publishing is still tainted with the stench of vanity publishing. Things are changing. Self-published book award schemes are cropping up, some of them from highly credible organisations (Writer’s Digest’s contest springs to mind – a competition which is now in its 19th year). However, when a self-published author like Lisa Genova (Still Alice was a self published after she failed to generate enough interest in the book from agents and publishers) gets the chance of a publishing deal, they still jump at it. Why?
Everybody believes they can write. How hard can it be? All you need is a dictionary and the ability to assemble the words in it together in the right order. A pen and a piece of paper. Or a computer. And maybe everybody can write, after a fashion. But can they raise their writing to the level of art? Can they build atmosphere, evoke emotions, and sustain those through 200 or more pages of a novel? Can they create a world and make readers believe in it?
Publishers, and to a certain extent the agents that serve them (apologies to agents – I know you serve your writers primarily) are our de facto arbiters of talent. Do they make mistakes? Of course. We love to hear about the number of publishers who rejected masterpieces like Animal Farm, or massive hits like the Harry Potter series. We love it when we’re told that 40 or more agents turned down Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (wouldn’t we love to have their names?). These stories just reinforce the point: persuading this tiny cadre of insiders is hard. It’s not enough simply to be good. You have to be world class.
Publishers, simply by virtue of putting a book out there, stamp it with their hallmark. The hallmark says this is a real book by a real writer – it has managed to overcome every difficulty and trial we’ve put in its way. It passes the test.
Which is not going to keep my (or anyone else’s) book out of the remainders bin, but that’s another story.

Attention deficit, ebooks and the iPad

What’s the most important finite, non-renewable commodity in the world as far as an author is concerned?

As far as this author is concerned it’s time. The amount of time someone has to spend reading. And by reading I mean reading books – immersing themselves in other worlds and possibly other universes created from the mind of an author. I don’t mean Facebook and Twitter feeds.

It’s never been a large number, but the proliferation of technology is chipping away at it the whole time. It’s harder and harder to get people’s attention. Even in the pub. I have friends who will continue checking their Blackberry or iPhone during the course of a conversation. These days I’ve got a strict policy – if you start checking email mid-conversation, I stop talking. I know I’m old fashioned but I don’t care. If I’ve made time to meet someone to catch up, they’d better damned well listen when I have something to say.

Why does attention deficit mean so much to me? Simple maths. If the average adult has time in his or her reading life to read, for argument’s sake, 1000 novels, I want my novel to be one of those novels. If the number shrinks to, say 800 novels, I worry that my novel will be one of those that suffers.

What I really worry about is the disappearance of the form completely. People are becoming used to multi-tasking: checking their email and surfing the internet while they watch tv; texting and messaging while they’re at the movies. Nothing commands their undivided attention any more – not even a play or a movie. How the hell can a book compete?

Into this landscape, Apple tosses its iPad – a device which at least one publishing industry CEO believes will revolutionize the book. Of course he’s talking about the book in the wider context – non-fiction works like travel guides and text books. But I fear he’s also got his targets fixed on the novel. Which would, in my humble opinion, be a mistake.

We’ve already had this debate. I can remember sitting at a restaurant in Cannes during the multimedia show in 1995 debating the place of interactivity in the novel. My argument was (and remains) quite simple. A novel’s job (the author’s job) is to take us on a journey. Sometimes he or she is going to want to take us places we don’t want to go: painful places. Places we would much rather avoid, given the choice.

Also, surprising places. Delightful places. Places we never imagined existed. Somebody else imagined them, and the novel is the place where we get to explore those other universes of the mind.

Why would we want to give that up? Why would we want to take the reins from the hands of authors who have mastered the art of driving the plot, and try to drive ourselves? Just because we can? And where will we go? Most likely we’ll take the safe option – the option which challenges us the least. It’s highly unlikely to surprise us because we know it all too well.

There are already enough things in the world distracting readers from books. The last thing we should be trying to do is distract readers away from a book when we actually have their attention.

But won’t the interactive features make the book more immersive? I don’t deny that an integrated dictionary, encyclopaedia and other reference works might help readers as they read (although I have a Kindle, which has an integrated dictionary, but I still prefer my own). I recently read Wolf Hall, and found myself jumping up to check the historical references on my computer at several points as the plot unfolded.

Still, any interruption in the story telling risks losing the reader’s interest. It’s hard enough to get it in the first place. Let’s not throw it away when we do have it.

Why I won’t be blogging the genesis of my novel

Some of my fellow classmates on the creative writing course at Humber College are blogging the creation of their novel as they go. I thought about doing that for about 30 seconds, but decided not to. Why?
Because it’s boring. Apart from other novice writers, who wants to know? Worse, it’s likely to turn ordinary readers off. Does the magician show you how his tricks are performed, before performing them? Of course not. Who would want to see the trick? Apart from other magicians.
But isn’t it one way to create buzz around your book?
What book? There is no book. There are just some words in a file on a computer somewhere. I’ll start thinking about creating a buzz for my book when an agent has read it and decided it’s worth pitching to a publisher, and maybe not even then. Maybe I’ll wait until it’s actually been accepted by a publisher, and I’ve made all the revisions they’ve asked for, seen the galleys, corrected them, and have a printing and a launch date. Maybe that would be a good time to create some buzz around the book – when it actually stands some chance to be a physical presence in the real world, and not just an aspiration in my head.
Plus, and this one is the killer for me, do I really want my potential readers to know what a lousy writer I really am before I am browbeaten into killing off the more self-indulgent passages in my prose, and the ridiculous plot twists I’ve thought out? It’s like going to a party half dressed. People don’t want to see that. They want to see you turned out in your best bib and tucker with your shoes tied and polished and your socks pulled up. Maybe you could even wear a tie?
Point is, nobody cares about our half baked work. Tragically, it’s unlikely anyone will care about our full baked work.

Putting words in people’s mouths

It’s a perilous process. Last week I got some more feedback from my mentor on my novel-in-progress. He tried to correct the grammar coming out of my character’s mouth. Trouble is, I intended for that character to make a grammatical error. Newbie writers are always being told to show not tell, and errors in grammar are one way of showing the reader a number of things: social class, aspirations, education, where they grew up, etc. etc. True, it was a fairly subtle error, but I had hoped that he had read enough by now to have trusted that if I make a stupid error of grammar I did it on purpose. Obviously not. Which is frustrating.
Thing is, nobody speaks in standard English. We all routinely split infinitives. Many people say lend when they mean borrow (and vice versa). Cockneys use double negatives all the time (ain’t done nothing). It’s an important marker of social class, and it’s a lot easier to give a character substance with dialogue sprinkled with grammatical errors than trying to capture the elisions and glottal stops in their language with dropped letters and punctuation. Very few writers write regional dialogue well. The obvious thing to do is put mistakes in our characters’ mouths.
How far can we go? I’m wondering about that. I grew up in suburban North London. The accent at school was overwhelmingly what is now called cockney, but even among the kids in my class there were differences in usage which were striking. So, for example, the kids with solid working class backgrounds (some of them at least) used quite an archaic form for the genitive case: they would say yourn, instead of yours, and sometimes hern, for hers. Though it’s no longer standard English, it used to be quite normal (my’n = mine is the only survivor in modern English of this form). Some of us picked this up and used it at school sometimes (to fit in to the group). I did, but I never used the form at home. I couldn’t have told you why at the time, but probably I somehow sensed it was the wrong context.
Linguists will probably tell me that it was impossible for that form to have survived into the 1960s in North London. All I can say is they didn’t go to St. Mary’s School in Hornsey. I imagine that form has been swept away by now, and no longer comes out of the mouths of the babes and sucklings spawned by my old classmates. So if I put that dialogue into the mouths of my characters (the book is set in North London, largely in the 1960s) will the reader get it? Or will it go right over a reader’s head. My guess is the latter, which makes it pointless. That’s my current position at least. I could change my mind tomorrow.