Wednesday, 3 June 2009

It may not be your book...

So everyone has a novel in them? Fair enough. Does everyone have a good novel in them? Probably not. Does everyone have a good novel, plus the desire, determination, perseverance, thick skin, and sheer bloody-mindedness to get published? Definitely not.

For anyone reading this who has taken on the already difficult task of writing a novel (and congratulations to you, it’s no mean feat, no matter how many people seem to have done it on Absolute Write), you will be well aware that the hard work is only to begin once you embark on the soul sapping publisher/agent round, trying to get someone else apart from your friends to give your work any validation.

We all have rejection letters, piled up high, if you are anything like me. Does this mean you are terrible writer? It becomes difficult to believe your friends and loved ones after a while, who insist, objectively, that your work is good, excellent, sublime... So why can’t agents see this?

And then to add to the profanity of it all, you buy a novel, one in the bestseller's list at Waterstones no less, and you find that it is the most gut wrenching string of dribble that any soul has ever let drool from their lips (fingers). Where is the justice?!?

Instead, maybe you should be asking, where is the luck?

‘Luck? My genius has nothing to do with luck’. No, probably not, but luck has an immense part to play in the lives of us all, from the moment we are born, to the moment we die. Of course, with the probabilities of life-changing events being very small, we can live most of our lives within a ‘high-probability’ bubble, meaning we avoid such instances as getting ran over, crashing in a plane, being crushed by a falling cow, annihilated by a gang of wasps, or getting a novel published.

I’m not saying that luck is the only thing involved – there has to be the raw product there to start with. But to say that luck doesn’t play a massive part is naive – if this wasn’t the case, then the publishing industry would have to be said to be infallible; how would one explain a publisher passing over so many great works so much of the time?

My interest in Randomness has arisen due to an excellent pair of books by one of present day’s greatest minds, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. If anyone is interested in examining just how random and affected by external events our lives are, I strongly recommend Fooled by Randomness, and The Black Swan, as well as his website.

How many times do you think your novel has landed on the wrong desk – the one just next to the person who would have loved it? How many times do you think the agent was distracted when looking at your query letter? How many times do you think the agent was in a rush when skim reading your sample chapters? How many times do you think they were in just a bad mood?

Of course, these examples are simplistic to help illustrate my argument – any system as complex as Life has an almost infinite number of variables to consider, and it becomes impossible to label them all. Therefore, although the above are flippant, I’m not trying to say that if you aren’t published, it’s down to nothing but bad luck. It could be just a God-awful novel. If your book is worth publishing, however, there’s a good chance it hasn’t been, yet, because of negative luck.

What can you do? Increase the odds. Don’t give up. Query, query and query again. Then query some more. If your book really is that good, then one day you’ll tip the balance into the ‘high-probability’ bubble, and getting published will be as likely as rain at the weekend (in England anyway…)

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

A Gentleman of Letters

Whilst in India last year, I wrote a very unserious blog regarding the adventures of a Knightsbridge gentleman who found himself in the wilds of India, without service of man servant, or a reasonable supply to gin to suport him.

It proved reasonably popular with my work collegues, but for whatever reasons (laziness!) I stopped after not very many posts.

I tried to resurrect our Gentleman back in March, but didn't get very far. So this is the third attempt. You can follow the latest adventures, here. If you enjoy let me know!

I will return to previous discussions in my next post (Note to self - don't make the mistake of saying tommorrow in a blog post!)

Monday, 1 June 2009

Self Publish, or not...

Only onto my fourth post, and already I’m questioning what I wrote in my second post. A few days ago, I put forward the idea that self-publishing using POD publishers would open the door to a democratizing of the publishing industry, a removal of the gatekeepers and the possible death knoll of the publishing industry.

I developed these ideas after reading a few books on the subject and after reading around the internet, gleaning whatever information I could on the subject, and as the idea of publishing my own book filled me full of vigour, focus and the belief that it was only a mtter of time before I had a number one best seller, I was careful, subconsciously I guess, to only chose the website and write ups that would extol the virtues of self publishing.

Once the initial burst of energy subsided however, I felt it time to explore the other side of the argument. My first stop was of course the excellent Absolute Writers forum, and it was this thread that given me due cause to stop and think.

Within that thread I found a few erudite first person accounts, and good links to other relevant websites. There were good arguments both for and against, and is obvious that to decide between self and traditional publishing is not an easy one to make. I urge anyone who is considering following the Self Publishing route to visit this thread and others within the forum.

I am not about to say that my mind has been changed completely. I still stand by some of the points raised in my earlier post, in that I think with development and time, the act of publishing will become easier for the writer, and that marketing skills will become as necessary a skill as the actual writing, if anyone wishes to meet success using this method. I will say however, that I don’t think I am ready to follow that route just yet.

I have only queried about eight agents with Russalka. I need to follow that path further and put a lot more work in before I am satisfied that I have exhausted that route, and before I can confidently change tack. There is a niggling feeling that to abandon trying to gain success through a traditional publisher is, at this stage, a compromise.

Tomorrow I hope to write a short piece on the virtues of the work by Nassim Nicholas Taheb, one of my favourite non-fiction writers, and how his books on randomness have totally changed my perception of being accepted by a traditional publishing house, in a positive manner.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

The Worst Writer in the World

For an aspiring author, you would expect the discovery that one of your direct ancestors, your great great grandmother no less, was a famed writer who courted discussion and controversy, and whose fame spread to the highest literary circles of the time, would be a matter of great rejoice. Surely, with such a famous and great writer as a relation would enable one to, perhaps, leverage some of this new found fame within the publishing world, find a deal on the back of the families past successes, and perhaps even find my own works being celebrated to the same degree?!

Well, my rejoicing quickly turned to reservation, when I found that my great great grandmother is infact Amanda McKittrick Ros, the famed and celebrated Worst Writer in the World. Doused with alliteration, her writing verged on the incomprehensible - for an example, here is one of her most notorious passages, the opening paragraph to the novel, Delina Delany:

"Have you ever visited that portion of Erin's plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?"

Fantastic :-) Who writes with such ashamed grandeur in this day? Of course, Amanda McKittrick Ros was not lacking of detractors, hence her notorious monicker of the worst writer in the world. She did, however, have her admirers, in the form of no less luminaries than Mark Twain, CS Lewis, and, as demonstrated in this essay, Aldous Huxley.

With further research, I have discovered a wealth of information, an indeed further 'acclaim'. This includes her topping the list of the world's worst writers in this book by Nick Page , being honoured in her home town of Larne N.Ireland with a plaque, and as recently as 2006 being the subject of a discussion during the Celebrate Literary Belfast Festival.

Having only recently found out about my great great grandmother a month or two ago, I am currently still in the process of trying to rediscover this part of my heritage. She was, by all accounts, an eccentric and single minded woman, who was in no doubt of her own genius and eternal place in the world of literature, calling her critics, 'auctioneering agents of satan'. Given that one of her works, 'Bayonets of Bastard Satan' is selling on Amazon for over $700, she has left a legacy that any writer would be proud of.

So my initial reservation at being related to the worst writer in the world, has, the more I've discovered about this strange woman, grown to interest and joy. I am looking forward to obtaining one of her books and, although certain of not understanding a word of it, enjoying every minute.

So even if my own efforts turn to revealing me as the second worst writer in the world, I will at least be safe in the knowledge that I haven't let the family name down.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Writers as musicians...

In the eighties, a revolution occurred. For the first time recording artists where able to cheaply and easily record their own music, with the advent of ‘tape’. As well as filling sixth form common rooms across the land with the Dolby hiss of bad Cure and Sex Pistol covers, the real impact was the new ability and freedom for musicians to produce their own content. Record producers may have disagreed that this was a good thing at first – For every tape they received in the mail that was worth a second listen, hundreds merely added to rapidly climbing C90-Mountain’s. No longer did the A&R man have the power to go to a concert and simply walk out after the first few bars. Now, the content, the musicians, were knocking on his door – not with a guitar and eagerness, but with a tape.

Then a second revolution took place- that of the internet, and the Myspace band. Now bands don’t even need a record producer to distribute their music in meaningful numbers. Anyone with a PC and internet connection is able to produce, perform and record their own music to a high standard, before uploading it to their Myspace site, whilst collecting hundreds of fans who in turn become ready made gig audiences, and eager consumers of their first CD.

The world has gone full circle, but transplanted from a local to a global stage. From the days of a blues musician gaining audiences from one small town to another through word of mouth, to the Math-Rock band who, also by word of mouth now have over ten thousand fans on Myspace, and an equal number of downloads of their music.

The Gatekeepers, the record company executives, have been removed.

It is easy to juxtapose this to the world of the modern writer. By the word ‘modern’ I imply the writer who is ready to embrace the new technologies available, whether it be a blog, a Myspace site, Digg, their own website, indeed anything that will get their work into the public domain and noticed.

With the availability and relative cheapness of Print On Demand publishers, the freedom offered to musicians since those dark Thatcher years is quickly becoming available to the writer. No longer is one who is publishing his own work need to remortgage the house for a print run of five hundred copies that will sit in their attic collecting dust. Instead, the writer has available, thanks to Print On Demand, the ability to order only as many copies as is needed, as is demanded by the public through Amazon, say.

Of course, this doesn’t stop the work having to be good. The cyber hinterlands are littered with thousands of redundant mp3s of terrible teenage bands, in a grossly unfair proportion to those who have made it. Along with the work, is also a new talent for the writer to learn – that of marketing and self-publicity (although some would argue this is still required for those writers with a publisher)

The Gatekeepers of the industry can now be sidetracked. Do you see this as having a democratising effect on publishing??

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Why Write a Novel?

The first question I hear is "what's it about?" The second is "Why did you write it? Why in god's name take so much time and effort to write so many words, that no-one will probably read anyway?" Good question.

To answer, I'll start by paraphrasing something I once read by Stephen King - 'Every novel or story already exists. It is the author's job to merely uncover it'. Like a fossil, I guess. It took me a while to understand fully what Stephen King meant by that comment, but I think, three novels later, I'm close to grasping it.

The process of a novel begins with a tiny glimpse of an idea. Something that may work. Over the next few weeks, months, I would, when my mind had time to wander, let it settle on the growing spot of the idea. Maybe I would make some notes, maybe I would do some research, maybe I would try and write a plan. This would invariably fail. At that early stage, any effort to solidify my ideas would be like an archaeologist digging for a fossil, whilst only knowing which country the fossil is to be found. I tried to write the first chapter of Russalka before I was ready, and it was a laborious and awful affair, abandoned after two miserable evenings.

At some stage though, out of the blue, the fully formed story suddenly appears. For Russalka it happened whilst walking into town one day, listening to the Arcade Fire on my ipod. In a flash, the full story was suddenly there, in my head, a film condensed into a one second flash, every scene downloaded in prefect order and reason. The characters I had been considering either manifested fully, or evaporated into the character graveyard. The settings, the scenes, the detail, the feel of the novel, all wrapped around my idea like a jealous fog. All the themes I had considered connected in one coherent picture, and I finally saw the novel. I'd finally discovered where to dig.

That's what Stephen King meant (disclaimer - for me anyway :-)). The weeks and months of weaving of various ideas and schemes were fashioned impeccably by my subconscious, or muse, if you prefer to retain a mystical approach to writing. It was ready. And once a novel is ready, it has to be written. It's rather inconvenient writing a novel, but it's more inconvenient to ignore it. There comes a point when you have to write the damn thing.

That's why.