Author seeks genre, hook an advantage

NY resolution? I’ve resolved my second novel will be doing the rounds of the publishers by next month. First to tell them what I write. I think it’s literary fiction. Every now and then I look up some definitions to make sure:

Wikipedia: Literary fiction is fiction that is regarded as having literary merit, as distinguished from most commercial or “genre” fiction. The term and distinction has been criticised by authors, critics and scholars, especially because a number of major literary figures have also written genre fiction, including Doris Lessing, John Banville, Iain Banks, and Margaret Atwood…

Oops! I don’t want to offend anyone. My work isn’t necessarily better than the work of the genre writer next door. And Doris Lessing is (was) amazing. Serve me right for relying on Wikipedia.

Goodreads: Literary fiction is a term … principally used to distinguish “serious fiction” which is a work that claims to hold literary merit, in comparison from genre fiction and popular fiction. 

Crashing in with the size 9s again…Then again, that “claims” to hold literary merit suggests anyone can join in. I expect Trump along any day with something he wrote between tweets.

In 2014 Huff Post’s Steven Petite thought he knew what it isn’t:

…To put it simply, Literary Fiction is anything that does not fit into a genre.

…Literary Fiction separates itself from Genre because it is not about escaping from reality, instead, it provides a means to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses.

I hope my writing does that. But where does his definition leave, say, Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Pullman or the wonderful YA author of dystopian philosophy, Philip Reeve? And Lessing and Atwood are causing trouble again.

The recent Arts Council report on the plight of literary fiction authors also found it heard to define its subject:

Literary fiction…is not an absolute category. As with other art, it is what people believe it to be; hence we leave its boundaries undefined. What it definitely is not, for our purposes, is poetry or plays. We are looking at fiction.

Arts Council report

NowNovel (quoted for no better reason that that it’s flying high on the Google radar) says literary fiction…

  1. Is valued highly for its quality of form and creative use of language
  2. …explores subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism and tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. …Often, literary fiction makes more demands on its readers than genre fiction…

Hmm. Star Wars in any form makes incomprehensible demands on me but I’m quite happy with Jane Austen – surely it depends on the reader?

My favourite and final definition came from Sandy Day on a recent Book Connectors thread that started as a discussion of the Arts Council Report:  …literary is a style not a genre. Every literary book fits into a genre, love story, mystery, thriller, social drama, etc. It’s the style of writing, the subtlety, the metaphors and originality of language, that make it literary. (Do investigate Book Connectors: there are some refreshing discussions there with readers, authors, bloggers, reviewers…)

I work hard on subtlety, metaphors, originality etc but if they fail to ignite, maybe my book could sneak in as contemporary fiction. Waterstones, I notice, put both E L James and Kate Atkinson in this category and add “modern” to the label. It should be broad enough for me, then. If Zadie Smith doesn’t quibble at sharing a genre with Jeffrey Archer, why should I, veteran of the Great Amazon Dinner Party that I am?

Or do I write commercial fiction? Well, no, since I couldn’t possibly make a living, or even pay for another holiday, from what I earn as a writer. However, if my work did start selling by the shelf load, would it then become “commercial”? Having been to the Oxfam shop with duplicate Christmas presents yesterday, I could suggest one defining characteristic of commercial fiction is anything you can find multiple copies of there. But this definition from the grandeur of Curtis Brown Creative is probably better:

Lots of our students … don’t want to be told what they’re writing is “commercial fiction” – but really what we mean by this is that a novel’s strongly story-led and with potentially broad appeal. Commercial fiction is less about style, voice and innovative use of language/form than literary fiction but there’s also an area where the two meet and blur – that’s often called ‘sweet spot fiction’ and it’s top of many publishers’ wish-lists.’’

Sweet-spot fiction! That’s what I write (in my sugar coated dreams).

Hook 11
Ian McKewan hit the sweet spot for me in 2016, but Lionel Shriver (2013) didn’t.

How can I get from where I am now, to the sweet spot?

Harvey Chapman quotes literary agent Nathan Bransford:…Sooooooooo much literary fiction I get in the old query inbox is plotless. It’s just a character musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence. The prose is lush, the character detailed, but one problem – absolutely nothing is happening and thus it’s (forgive me) extremely boring. Good literary fiction has a plot.

Ah. I do have a plot. I’m just not sure where it is. It’s not heavy enough to have sunk below the surface (good), so perhaps its subtlety has floated it free altogether, flotsam on a sea of interior monologue (bad). We dipped a toe in the water with two submissions in 2017. One editor replied: I think Jessica is a very accomplished writer, and it’s great to see how much she achieved with THE INFINITY POOL, but I’m not sure this is for me – I felt it just didn’t have a hook that was quite commercial enough for (name of publisher).

Adrift in an over populated ocean, I need a net to gather in my shoal, or even just one hook. As the second editor pointed out:

While there was a great cast of characters I just felt that there were perhaps too many so it was difficult to really connect with all the characters and there were too many changing viewpoints so the narrative didn’t quite have that flow. (Her words certainly flow,  unsubmerged by punctuation, but she makes several very valid points so I mustn’t carp. There’s a plaice for what she says – sorry, I’m away with the fishes.)

Stand by for a rail disaster or perhaps a bomb in the shopping centre. That should dispose of a few changing viewpoints, and at least I’ll be back on dry land. I never liked (him/her/them) anyway. Then for my hook!Hook 12From the same rejection email quoted above: I really liked the device of… (my secret device, patented to me: when it hits the sweet spot you’ll know what it is)… to bring out the stories, I thought that was a really nice touch and something quite different.

The hook’s there, it just needs sharpening. Happy New Year and watch this space!

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

Achievements and deletions

A spate of ideas had spated. A flow of words had flowed. I thought all that was needed was to continue at roughly the same rate and in a few weeks a final first draft of a second novel would spew out. But my heroine‘s been delayed again.

heroine-with-baby
My heroine asked me to reuse an old picture, to save time drawing a new one.

The reasons this week? One was a stand alone story for children that sprung unexpectedly from the novel a few months ago. A publisher showed a glimmer of interest, if I could adapt it to be suitable for a wider market. I spent time tinkering. My heroine didn’t mind, she’s a mother herself.

The local bookshop advertised for part time staff. Could be fun, could keep me off Facebook. I spent hours compiling a CV, before realising, though I sympathise with the difficulties of a tiny independent bookshop trying to stay afloat, the rate of pay and terms were so poor I would end up enemies with the owner. My heroine was drumming her heels. So in lieu of fresh ideas I made corrections to a previous section of the novel that I’d printed off.

This week I had appointments with the dermatologist, dentist, hygienist, and at the eye clinic. No, they didn’t keep me waiting long; no, there was no devastating news to put me off my stride. But it gave me the chance to research ideas for a novel about our wonderful NHS. I might make some money to donate to the poor old behemoth (the scriptwriters for “Casualty” must be laughing all the way to the blood bank). I also tried to participate in the online Mslexia Max Monday forums with authors, editors and publishers. But my internet was on a go-slow (in solidarity with my heroine?)

planning-3
What a planning document!

On Tuesday morning I worked out how A would lead to B and  C result from that. I wrote the episodes (2,000 words – hooray!) and added them to my structural plan (a table with columns for chapter numbers, characters involved, location, how the action moves on, page numbers, themes highlighted, and any national/local/historical events that ought to be referenced). Then I had fun colour coding it with contrasting pastel backgrounds, one for each week of the narrative (spread over five weeks). Now it looks like a block of Neapolitan ice cream.I spent some time admiring it. My heroine sniffed.

On Wednesday I wrote the synopsis, for sending to a mentor I’m meeting in March. It eventually emerged coherent.Then I edited down my first 6000 words to 3000, because that’s the limit she’ll look at, and managed to fit a list of key questions for consideration at our meeting to one page. A reasonable day. My heroine lost quite a few calories/words in the course of it.

On Thursday I looked at my emails before starting work. How fascinating – one involved an invitation to a Gala Dinner to celebrate one year of the Jolabokaflod campaign in the UK. I can’t not go to that! It’s at the Café Royal, and there will be networking opportunities and canapés. Or should that be canapuneties and opportés? Either way, jolly good book trade fun. Acceptance entailed looking at their crowdfunding campaign and book promotion possibilities for The Infinity Pool. I shall report from the field next week. It reminded me I must get some new business cards, so I spent a happy hour designing those (book one side, blog the other). Anbook-launch-invite-small equally fascinating email concerned a book launch (see left) and a course to be run by Writers & Artists, From First Draft to Final Draft, with William Ryan. I once took a Guardian Masterclass he ran with  Matthew Hall and it was excellent. I look into details; I note I’ll be abroad during some sessions; I consider it anyway. At least the dreaded synopsis is written, and the 3,000 words are ready!

Then there were two free video courses to investigate.The first was from The Write Success, about writing a catchy blurb, and the second from The Writers’ Workshop. I probably won’t watch them unless there’s a transcript so I can skim the introductory rhetoric such videos tend to feature. I spend enough time in front of a screen as it is. But there may be gold within. There was the Authors’ Licensing and Copyright Society newsletter, less dry and more useful than you may think, and some correspondence with my German translator, about publishing possibilities there. My heroine shrugged. She’s not in the right book.

With a birthday just before Christmas and a family of bookworms, I have an enviable TBR pile. I’ve got through a lot of them – an author has to read, to see how others achieve results. My heroine is also a reader, so she’s resigned to that.

All this before the window cleaner pinned me to the doorstep. In five minutes I discovered he loves Del Shannon, runs the Del Shannon fan club, went to LA once on his way to Australia and called on Del Shannon, took Del Shannon jogging, then went with Del Shannon to watch a studio recording session but found it boring as he doesn’t like music. Eh? Do not pinch this character, folks, he’s mine, although he won’t fit into the current WIP. However he could be somebody’s dad (not my heroine’s).novel

Today is Friday, when my blog post takes priority. So as far as the WIP goes, heroine, I make that approx 2000 words added, 1000 deleted. Not bad for a week’s work.

Finally, I spent time thinking about an elegant, hilarious, informative writer who has been around all my life and has continued regularly to produce fine words in the face of illness. I’m so pleased there’s another Saturday Guardian column by Clive James today (updated 28th January) and I’ll always treasure this one from last week which I feared might be the last.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Prose and Prosecco

Sadly, “Prose and Prosecco” isn’t a newly unearthed Jane Austen novel whose intelligent heroine triumphs over a bubbly rival. The two words describe a more mundane dilemma: how to take up the pen (well, mouse) again after Christmas and New Year?

hibiscus-2Rich food has clogged my plot, chocolate stuffed my characters, and I certainly wasn’t inside the head of my devout Muslim heroine while glugging snazzy cocktails. This year there was an unexpected and beautiful present on Christmas Eve: a jar of hibiscus flowers and a bottle of Crémant de Loire to start us off in style. I thought I deserved it – I’d posted off a seasonal article that very day and another the day before on this blog.

The label on the hibiscus flower jar said “average contents 11 flowers” so in order to waste not and want not we also tried them with Prosecco and pink champagne (too sweet, crémant is best). I’d promised myself the week after Christmas off (though I hankered after escaping the clutter and decorations for the quiet of my study), and since my blog posts oil the wheels of the Great Second Novel, it too ground to a halt. prosecco-1I spent days sofabound, reading. Reading is essential for any author and these books were gifts: Margaret Drabble and Somerset Maugham and a new Austen biography, tales from and of establishment figures happily received despite my having been rather preachy about diversity just before the Prosecco season began. Such reading is not helping the Somali mum take shape. The plot, never very distinct, has receded altogether and the characters gone on leave. The world looks fuzzy…

When I remembered to make a resolution, it was to spend less time on social media. Authors are supposed to use social media for marketing, but with only my debut novel still to market, and that now identified with the year before last, I need to produce Novel Number Two more than I need to faff about on Facebook and Tweet to an unlistening world. Although, perhaps one of the Facebook book groups would give me the stimulus  I need? Maybe in the form of a review to investigate or a discussion of writing methods and procedures? I broke my resolution in five minutes.

How depressing, to be honest. The main thread in the first, usually supportive, positive group I visited was about the objectionable behaviour of a self-styled reviewer/blogger who gets as many books as he can free and doesn’t bother to review them. I agree this is dastardly behaviour – no, seriously, I do – but by comparison with all the dishonesty, violence and abuse the world has seen recently the length, outrage and personal sniping of the comments thread did seem excessive. (Fortunately the threads were very soon back to their normal sense and sensibility.)

I tried another group, also usually helpful. This was even worse. More outrage, some justified, this time aroused by a tactlessly written, poorly researched Huff Post article about how bad indie authors are, on the lines of “If you can’t sell to an editor how will you ever sell to the public?” As I begin to note ideas for this post (Monday 2nd), the writer has issued an apology and claims to have received threats of rape and death. Her initially enraged critics have variously commiserated with her or disbelieved her, and the argument has set off again. The indie writers stake their claims to respect (rightly, though some would aid their cause by checking their spelling and grammar first). The traditionally published writers weigh in, one so aggressively I couldn’t work out whether the post was intended ironically or to be taken at face value – if the latter, just imagine you’ve been knocked out cold. Whichever side they’re taking, these people are all so FURIOUS! Happily it’s Friday now and either there’s a ceasefire, or everyone’s just worn out.

Those were books, authors and reviewers you were talking about, folks. People can discuss them in a light hearted way or a scholarly way. People can enjoy them, dislike them, ignore them, be mystified or delighted or amused or frightened by ambiguitythem, but they are only authors telling stories or reviewers of stories (most of the books referred to were fiction. I agree non-fiction has a different range of influence and importance.) Fiction is written and published via various economic models, one of which is currently threatening the market share of the other. How that will pan out is not yet known. But nobody is getting killed (except in fictional ways); nobody’s home has been bombed, nobody has been forced into hiding or tortured or lost their families. In every culture and every market, the majority of authors have always struggled to make a living, and that matters, but it won’t be solved by a mass throwout of toys from the pram.

The world has huge problems. No point listing them, we all know what they are. In 2017 we’ll need intricate, complex, long lasting, multi faceted diplomatic conversations and careful, damage minimizing action to resolve even a small number of the political, environmental, and economic difficulties we face. And we can’t even talk about book reviewing and publishing without flying into a rage?

It makes me wonder whether it’s even worth writing my Somali mum, supposing I can beckon her back from the shadows? The Prosecco tastes sickly in the light of so much anger: I need to find a more serious drink to divert my attention. If the new book ever sees the light of day, please don’t use it, me, the publisher (if any), the reviews, the price, the genre or any other aspect of its existence as ammo in a slanging match.

(Update January 2021: I just re-read this post. The Magic Carpet – link above and on my home page – was published in summer 2019. In other respects the world has got even worse. I still stand by everything else I said here, but I’m learning to use shorter words and sentences.

prosecco-5
Happy New Year!

©Jessica Norrie 2017