Everyday jargonism

Kenning

Last week I talked about Stephen Fry’s The Liar and how it described a world from which I felt alienated. Now it’s time to elaborate on that in yet another book-based ramble. We can but hope that at least one of you will find it interesting.

*Clears throats and adopts lecturing stance*

I’m pretty well grounded in genre fiction: that big, wide tent that covers not only SFF but crime, thrillers, spy novels and horror and, to a lesser extent, LBGT stories. I don’t know so much about literary fiction and, save for inevitable overlap, ‘popular’ fiction such as that produced by Dan Brown and James Patterson. This is another way of saying that I know the ‘rules’ (or tropes) of some forms of fiction but not others.

Knowing the rules is another way of saying that I understand the jargon. I know the shape of a crime story: I understand the differences between a police procedural and a noir thriller. I can instinctively – instinct being another word for experience – tell the difference between epic fantasy and grimdark. Each genre and subgenre has its own shape and structure.

My snobbery is that I have developed a mistrust of literary fiction. I see it as elitist and, to be honest, I’m just not sure what it actually is. Thus I have written off the McEwan’s and Amis’ of the world as being about English professors who attended fee-paying schools before spending three hundred pages agonising over whether or not they should boink their students.

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Martin Amis & Ian McEwan; an image taken from a joint 2014 interview

Which brings us back to The Liar. I felt excluded from this novel – especially in the first half of it – because it described a world I didn’t understand. It was hard for me to feel empathy with its characters because I’ve never known anyone like them. The jargon passed me by, the jokes too ‘in’ to welcome me.

And that got me thinking: this must be what other people feel like all the time.

Literary fictioneers don’t understand genre¹. They feel excluded. All that talk of elves and dwarfs and magic: it’s just another way to determine the in-crowd. It’s easy to pour scorn on something you don’t understand, to say ‘oh, it’s just escapism’ because they can’t imagine that might actually be a metaphor.

Similarly, I don’t get the subtleties of the romance genre. I know a little about the way Mills & Boon, in particular, are written to a formula but I don’t get the subtleties that distinguishes a potboiler from a beloved classic.

But these are little things. Some groups are excluded from the world of books altogether. Which leads us neatly on to Lionel Shriver.

“…literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer from that email that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling.”

Ms Shriver has courted fresh controversy with her complaints against the move for diversity within the publishing world. She worries that welcoming minority groups (especially if it’s a sort of quota system of positive discrimination) into fiction will be detrimental to quality. Why this should be isn’t immediately clear: it implies that the aforementioned gay transgender dropout is incapable of writing quality prose. It overlooks the great advantage that she herself received as a graduate of a private school and all that that implies.

[I last wrote about her views here. Spoiler: I disagreed with her then, too.]

First of all, it’s worth noting that a big reason why literary fiction is what it is because white middle-class men ran publishing for at least a century (and still do, though possibly to a lesser extent). Naturally they gravitated towards books they understood, that spoke to them: that were written in the jargon of their daily lives. Thus the ideal of ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ was to a great extent homogenised, one great circle-jerk of self-congratulatory smuggery.

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So it’s no wonder that minority groups see reading as not for them. When people feel that you’re not allowed to wear trainers in a bookshop², just how off-putting is it for BAME readers to be expected to wade through books with not a single character with a name like theirs?

No wonder ‘working class’ people don’t read when the books they like – the romances, the thrillers, the Dan Browns and James Pattersons³ – are derided as ‘silly’ or ‘simplistic’ or ‘unworthy’. Why should they bother? It’s not that books are uncool; it’s that they’re ridiculed for the books they’re drawn to.

[And this can go right back into childhood. So many girls’ stories are about princesses and boys have only ogres to model themselves upon. I’m not sure if it’s available to watch now, but if you get the chance I’d really recommend this documentary for more on the harm we do children through the small sins of stereotyping gender]

I like myself

People like to see themselves in the books they read. There has to be something they can grasp; some aspect of the character or their world they can relate to. That can be as simple as having a woman as a significant character, or someone not born with a silver spoon in their mouth, or as complex as a world with suspiciously familiar nation-states (or planets) in constant turmoil and warfare. Knowledge and experience all count here.

All this might make you think that I’m railing against The Liar and books of that ilk, but I’m not. What I’m doing is coming to terms with my own shortcomings. People who went to public school absolutely deserve to be served by the stories they read – but so do the rest of us, especially those who are typically unrepresented.

Repeat after me: not all books are written with me in mind and that’s okay.

Publishing has for too long been an Old Boys’ Club. Literary fiction is unduly represented in awards and the status it’s accorded is, in my view, unmerited.

Everyone deserves good books. If you want your writing to read a wide audience (which is not that same as more readers; there’s a reason why genre conventions exist in book covers) it might be worth looking at what you’re doing to exclude potential readers, and what you can do to embrace more people.

Oh and Lionel Shriver can just, please, go away.

***

¹Massive generalisation for the purposes of illustrative effect. I’m sure there’s a Classical term for the way I’m using it but the internet has let me down. Hyperbole is the closest I can get.

²This is taken from a conversation on Twitter initiated by Joanne Harris on 28/05/18 with regard to the struggles of UK chain WHSmiths. Her initial statements are thus:

While it may not be the coolest shop on the High Street, research suggests that WH Smith, and not Waterstone’s, is the place where most working-class people buy books. If we care at all about promoting literacy, we should at least be aware of this.

All the replies from well-meaning, middle-class people saying; “Yes, but it needs to stop selling cheap chocolate and tat” may have missed my point. Some people may like cheap chocolate. They may like the fact that WH Smith provides a nonthreatening, familiar environment.

Research strongly suggests that readers from certain backgrounds are less likely to go into Waterstone’s because it looks expensive and intimidating to them. WH Smiths, with its “cheap chocolate and tat”, looks more welcoming. They buy their books there instead.

But I’m also drawing from the responses to this conversation. I personally have no facts & figures, sorry.

³Like Footnote no.1 this is a massive, crude oversimplification. I don’t think that the ‘working class’ only read blockbusters, and that blockbusters are only read by the working class. Hell, I’m not even sure who the working class are anymore. Please don’t hate me. I’m just trying to make a point

 

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I wanna hold your hand

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Escher, Drawing Hands, 1948

I do not have an agent. This bothers me.

The whispers have it that it’s easier to get a publishing deal than it is to get representation. I don’t know about that, but I do have a book coming out and I’m finding myself somewhat at a loss.

Agents are great. For a relatively modest fee (that you don’t pay up front) they make sure your work is tip-top and that you’re not getting screwed in negotiations.

You don’t actually need an agent to do these things for you: you can find beta-readers for free or pay an editorial company to review your work for you. Similarly, I got The Society of Authors to check the proffered contract for me (a free service once membership is paid), which gives me a little more confidence that I’m not going to lose out if everything goes pear-shaped.

So why am I bothered by not having an agent? Well, at the moment it’s this: what happens next?

I’m a debut novelist: I have a book coming out. I know that I’m expected (and want) to help promote my book. I don’t know how to do this. Am I responsible for sorting out podcast appearances? Launch events? Press releases?

I know I can ask my publishers this but I’m afraid to hassle them. I don’t want to be that person – the one who’s looking over their shoulders all the time asking ‘are we there yet?’ And yes, I know that says more about me that it does about the world; and yes, I’d probably have the same fear about hassling an agent.

There are other things too, though, like the possibility of getting another book published. My publisher has the right of first refusal on my next work. When the hell am I supposed to broach the issue with them? How do I best present myself to get a career and not be just a one-off?

I guess what I really want is for someone to be there for me. I want reassurance. I want someone there to hold my hand.

An agent is not a therapist and I know that what I’m saying here may make all reputable agents black-ball me forevermore. But I want to be good at what I do. I feel like I’m not doing enough to sell myself; that I’m spending too much time on the whole ‘writing’ thing and not enough of building my brand.

I also feel like I’m trapped: that this ‘rights to the next book’ will act as a disincentive to agents in the future, even though I signed the deal knowing full well what I was getting into.

I am worrying too much. This is almost certainly the case. That doesn’t make it better. What I really need is someone to help me organise this period, to tell me what I should be doing, to act as a guide and a confidante.

Thankfully I’ve got Twitter. And so do you. Never has it been so easy to ask for advice, to go direct to the people who a) know what they’re talking about, and b) are willing to share their time and expertise.

Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, I find myself dependent on the kindness of strangers. Now I just need to get over my fears of bothering them.

The wild rumba of revenge

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Someone must own the copyright to this but I can’t track the artist down. If it’s you, please get in touch so I can credit you

So I’m due to have a book published late 2018. I’ve been working for this for over a decade: I got my first full-book request from a publisher back in 2007, I think it was. I’ve sent out well over 100 queries – maybe it’s more like 250, I’ve not kept count. A lot, though. And now finally I have the solid prospect of publication.

So why do I feel so numb? Why am I not screaming for joy, quaffing the champagne of victory and dancing the wild rumba of revenge for past rejections?

Everyone is delighted on my behalf. People keep congratulating me and it’s hard to know how to respond. Of course, good old-fashioned modesty and reserve is part of it, but it’s more than that.

Part of it is distance. Publication is a year away and I haven’t yet got to grips with the schedule; I’m sure things will get exciting as promotions happen; as events are inked in and momentum builds. At the moment all I have is the (not entirely unpleasurable) puzzle of filling in questionnaires and trying to remember what the damn book’s about.

There’s also a degree of scepticism. I have faith in this publisher (in case you’re wondering, I’m holding off from naming them at the moment because I know they’re still working on a dedicated imprint-website and they have their own schedules that I don’t want to hijack) but I know that things go wrong.

A colleague of mine signed with a small publisher in Texas only to find that it was basically a single person who promptly ran into difficulties and the whole enterprise fell into a morass of rights-issues and recriminations. Now I don’t think that’ll happen with me – I was confident enough to sign a contract, after all – but things do go wrong. Money dries up. Backers withdraw. Shit, as they say, happens.

But my reactions are more down to the fact that this one act of good fortune hasn’t made me a different person. I have a promise. I have some degree of status – eligibility to join the Society of Authors, for example – but I’ve not changed. I’m still exactly the same person that I was yesterday; still a jobbing writer who’s struggling to create and to make a career in the field I love. If anything I feel less human as a result of signing a contract, not more complete.

It just doesn’t feel real.

And I’m pretty certain I’m not alone in this. It’s not quite impostor syndrome as I’ve not yet infiltrated the circles in which I might be disguising myself. It’s the emptiness of success. The realisation that dreams are only a start, and achieving them is less than you could ever imagine.

Shepherd

Beware (again) that this business is not all it’s cracked up to be. ‘Success’ is not something you can step into, not something that can be put on like a coat. I suspect that I’ll never be successful because that pose comes from within.

Work hard. Work for your ambitions. Take your luck when it comes and keep, keep, keep on trying.

But remember that success won’t change your world. It won’t complete you. Make sure you have family and friends around you because they’re a much truer gauge of what you are than a name on the shelves. Don’t forget why you wanted to ‘succeed’ in the first place.

 

The kindness of strangers

Hug

Whether you’re looking to publish traditionally or do-it-yourself, you’re going to have to do-it-yourself.

Unless you have the massive good fortune to land a top agent or publishing house who have ‘people’ to do these things for you – and I suspect that streamlining (another horrible phrase, like downsizing, which means ‘we’re no longer going to pay people to do important jobs’) means that there are fewer and fewer bodies that so do – you’re going to have to write your own publicity and provide your own copy.

A few weeks ago I wrote about having to give journalists your own Q&As, but it’s more than that. You also have to write your own book description: not merely the blurb but the longer document which is used to sell the book to wholesalers. You have to write your own biography. You have to provide your own author photograph.

This maybe isn’t such a surprise. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing. At least you keep control – perhaps it’s best to do these things oneself rather than let somehow who knows neither you nor the deep themes and undercurrents of your work.

But there you are, having only just mastered synopses, cover letters and a new year of neologisms, and here’s something new to learn. Can’t they see that all you want to do is write?

Well suck it up, laughing boy. You’re an author now. Ain’t no-one to blame but yourself, and no-one else will do it if you don’t.

A long, long time ago I wrote a piece about the way we’re no longer simple creators but fully-fledged business-twonks. It’s still true. But don’t get too discouraged because there is help out there. You have to do the work, it’s true, but you’re not alone.

First and foremost, you have friends. If you’re reading this then you’ve already stretched out a little and have a greater awareness than just that of your own four walls. You’ll have connected with authors and editors and – whilst they may be strangers to you – most people are willing to give advice, even if it’s only  280 characters long. People like to help. They’re nice like that.

Secondly, other people want you to do well. If you’re working with a publisher or agent they have a vested interest in your success. Got a problem? Ask them. They may not have all the answers but they’ll point you in the right direction. And any self-publishers who’ve used any outside services – editorial, cover design and so on – have people to ask too.

Then there’s the internet. This – as you know – can be a double-edged sword: not only may you be receiving bad advice but you can spend as long hunting down information as the original task should take. And – to my surprise – the internet doesn’t have all the answers. I haven’t been able to track down any information on what’s wanted in a long-form book description. But the internet is a resource. It’s there for you to use.

For my money the best option has always been to rely on the kindness of strangers. There’s always someone willing to help. Just remember, when your turn comes, to pay your debts.

Helping others isn’t such a hard thing, is it?

 

Good news, everyone

Bad news! I’m going to have to change my byline. ‘The unfocussed abstractions of an unpublished author’ has served me well for four and a half years. It’s going to be hard to say goodbye.

But this is because of Good News. I’ve signed a publishing contract, and Night Shift is scheduled to be released late 2018. Hooray and huzzah! And extra special congratulations to anyone who guessed this had happened from my last few blog posts. Aren’t you just the cutest little smartypants?

I signed the deal a few weeks ago but was holding back from telling you because I wasn’t sure the publishers would like it if I went shooting my mouth off. Indeed, that’s why this blog is late today: I wanted to be sure that I could say anything, and if there was anything the publisher wanted me to keep shtum about. Professionalism, see? I’m not entirely sure what it is, but I can still do a respectable impersonation of it.

Anyway, there are myriad slips ‘tween cup and lip and I’m not sure I’ll believe this myself until I’ve got my grubby little mitts on a copy of the book. I’ll tell you more about the project – and my heavily-edited experiences in Publishland – over the coming months.

Good news

On being interesting

Interesting
Part of writing is selling yourself and part of selling yourself is being interesting. This is not easy. Not for me, at least.

Should you have the great fortune to be picked up by an agent or somehow manage to inveigle a publishing contract you become a commodity. The publishing industry needs a package, an angle, a way to attract attention to your work. That might just be you.

You won’t immediately be dispatched to do interviews with the great and the good. Journalism is an overstretched industry and most interviews you see are self-written: the tired journo will give it the once-over, maybe cut a few key sentences and shove it in, a way of filling up a column that otherwise she’d have to think about. Here, done and gone.

Occasionally, though, your life will chime into the zeitgeist. Said tired journo will be struggling to fill her pages and something you mentioned as an aside will strike her as worthy of deeper exploration. Maybe you’ll get that elusive personal chat (sometimes in person, sometimes via Skype or telephone) and what you said on the spur of the moment will be unpicked, stretched, your viscera unravelled in front of you.

This is good. This is what you (or at least your backers) want. It’s your job to think of something you’ve done, seen or been that might attract attention – no matter if you wanted to talk about it; no matter if you’re forced to examine some aspect of yourself you wish was left so far in the back of the closet that it might as well be in Narnia.

More likely you – as a newbie writer – will be mining the ‘local interest’ seam. It’s not the Times Literary Supplement you’ll be aiming for, it’ll be the parish magazine. Think about all the places you’ve lived, all the great bookshops you’ve frequented, the library in which you were raised: that’s your target market.

Example: my parents used to take me to Bingley library every week, until I was old enough to go on my own, and until I was old enough to go to Bradford Central Library on my own. Thus I’d be looking to the local Telegraph and Argus for publicity. They’d find me a lot more interesting than the Shetland Advertiser, especially as I just made that up.

Note that people are interested in people, not work. Unless your story is truly fascinating, a hot-button-clickbait-zeitgeist-relevant-to-everyone-world-shaker, it’s you, not your work, that sells.

Everyone is interesting. I’ve never yet met a single person who hasn’t at least one good tale to tell. And if you’re reading this then you’ve got something I’d love to hear about, be it your achievements, your ambitions or your frustrations. Not yet had the moment to do what you really want to do? The story of why you want to do that one thing, or your reasons why you haven’t yet done it – well, the key word there is ‘story’.

Think of it this way: if you were in a novel, what would you accentuate of your own life? What would you hide? What would people want to read about you?

And then forget all that. Because all people really want to know about is where you grew up.

On honesty

truth

Mikko Kuorinki: ‘Wall piece with 200 letters.’ Quote from David Foster Wallace

If I have a unique selling point it’s this: I’m honest. This blog isn’t about my perfect world. Writing is hard and I don’t mind sharing my struggles with you, my lovely bloggee.

But honesty isn’t always the best policy. I can’t, for example, tell you of every interaction I have within the publishing industry. It would be unprofessional to discuss current dealings, and to criticise an individual agency or organisation is not only rude but might damage my chances with other bodies in the future. Publishers, agents, editors – they talk. A hastily-worded blog-post may not see me blackballed forevermore but it certainly might flash some red lights somewhere. They’re on social media and they scan the profiles of prospective workees. They don’t have the time or inclination to work with arses.

Similarly I’ve read too many horror-stories of writers popping up to argue with reviewers. Nothing good can come of that. Your comments will only drive off potential readers.

I also can’t tell you every little thing about my past work. My best writing is always in the piece I’m working on*. My earliest works are never going to be as good as the last I did and none will be as good as the Ghost of the Novel Yet-To-Come.

And that’s good – great, in fact – but I still want to publish older novels. I still hope for a publisher and still actively consider self-publishing as an option. So to dissect older works in a public space like this – where I want things to be read – is self-defeating.

Honesty is wonderful but has to be balanced by both self-interest and the interests of others. All the thoughts you read here are self-censored; they’re not the unconscious outpouring of genius. I get things wrong. I misstate. And I’m careful about just what I reveal about what I’m doing or plan to do.

Hopefully a little caution now will allow me to be more open later. Sometimes a hesitant or held-back blog-post (I don’t publish everything I write, sometimes for reasons of quality, sometimes because they cut a little too close to the bone) will help me work out how to make my point later, when the issues are in the rear-view mirror. An example is this recent post, which was very hard for me to share. Also, now I read it back, I can feel myself swerving away from and euphemising some of the real issues.

So my advice to you is to be honest, be open, and share your experiences – just not all of them. And not whilst you have an empty bottle of gin by your side, the last remnants of which are still burning in your gullet. Be honest, but be aware that whilst you’re contemplating the void, the void might just be staring right back at you.

 

 

*This is not necessarily true, but a good enough lie to stand here.