29 May, 2013

Guilty Pleasures and Comfort Reads

Are you sitting comfortably? Image by egoforall at sxc.hu
The husband and I are just back from a 10-day holiday, travelling around the north of England by train. Despite minor inconveniences such as a flooded track delaying a journey until after the last train for the day had gone, and a fire causing us to have to move out of our Bed and Breakfast, we had fun! For various reasons we were unable to be as active on this holiday as we usually are, however, this meant we had more time for reading.

While Paul got stuck into Dune by Frank Herbert, I chose something which was pure escapism. In the last couple of years I have waded through Ulysses, War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath and A Suitable Boy. Just before we went away I read the epic (both in scope and length) novel The Pillars of the Earth. For my holiday I wanted something easy to read - a guilty pleasure, something that wasn't high literature and didn't require a lot of concentration. I chose a collection of Agatha Christie short stories.

I love Agatha Christie. Reading her now, as an adult, I realise her actual writing style isn't all that brilliant, but I don't care. I love cosy crime and she is definitely the Queen of Cosy Crime. I used to listen to Christie audiobooks as a kid while doing jigsaw puzzles in my bedroom on wet Sunday afternoons. Reading Agatha Christie is, to me, the book equivalent of wearing pyjamas and drinking hot chocolate while snuggled up in a blanket. Pure comfort reading.

Do you have a guilty pleasure, or comfort read? Helen Walker on Twitter told me she re-reads books from her childhood as her guilty pleasure. I tend not to re-read books very often (though I promise I am getting round toThe Great Gatsby very soon now), but I can see how that might work. Which authors or books do you turn to when you want to switch-off and unwind without stretching your brain?

24 May, 2013

Quotable Friday (10)

As I'm scheduling this post for when I'm away from my desk, I'm relying on you all to make witty and insightful comments without me. I'll be back to check very soon so no misbehaving at the back there.

I love reading quotations. Whether they’re funny, wise or poignant, I love those snapshots into the human mind; I love the beauty of language. There aren’t always easy ways to crowbar great passages from novels or thoughtful quotations into ordinary blog posts, so on Fridays I’m letting them speak for themselves.

Today's quote is another from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. With all the millions of books in the world you would think I could manage to do more than 10 of these posts without using the same book twice, but I can't help myself. I'm in love. Steinbeck wasn't a Nobel Laureate for nothing, and I think one of his greatest skills is characterisation. He draws characters so vividly in only a few words, using interesting ideas and descriptors without being over the top or pretentious. This short passage contains my favourite single description of a character in literature - I've highlighted it in bold. I think it's beautiful.

"She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build laughter out of inadequate materials....She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall."

16 May, 2013

Coverflip: Sex and the Art of Book Covers

I'm a little late to the party when it comes to blogging about Coverflip. For the last week the literary world has been fascinated by a project which was started by the author Maureen Johnson through an idle remark on Twitter. In case you aren't someone who follows this sort of news, let me explain...

The Original Cover...
The idea behind Coverflip is to take a well-known book and re-design the cover as if it was written by someone of the opposite sex. It shouldn't make a difference, right? The sex of the author should make no difference to the way a book is marketed - a plot is a plot is a plot. But it's not true. Female authors usually - not always of course - get given covers which are much more "girly" than male authors would be given. This touches a nerve with me for two reasons.

First reason: I am uncomfortable with feminism. Perhaps it's just because in general, I don't feel unfairly treated (though I'm aware millions of women in this world are) - and I think men can be victims of sexism sometimes too. Don't get me wrong, I am so grateful to the women (and men!) who fought so that I could vote, go to university and work where I want, but I don't think women will really be free until we can choose to be a housewife or a mechanic and be equally respected for both choices. I don't think feminism always helps with this. Forcing women out of the kitchen is not the same as allowing them out of the kitchen. Insisting that we're treated as if we are the same as men is not the same as insisting on being treated equally to men. Therefore I just get a bit British and awkward when it comes to anything that's used to highlight how unfair life is for women.

Second reason: I DO think this part of the publishing industry is unfair to women - I don't want to agree, but I do! I'm sad that it seems almost certain that should my first novel ever be published, it will be marketed as "women's fiction", just because I don't have a Y chromosome. It's not about families or romance or shopping. Maybe a publisher will surprise me, but I dread the thought of it being given a pink cover and called a "summer read". Being pigeon-holed like that regardless of the quality of my writing is actually something that bothers/scares me a lot. The fact that I'll accept it if it means making a career out of what I love, makes me sad. Do you think I need to worry about this or is it a problem that will go away over time?

...Coverflipped by Gillian Berry
I have the very strong suspicion that if a book like The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides had been written by a well-known woman writer, it wouldn't have got half the attention it did. Never mind the distinctly un-girly plotline, the word "marriage" couple with a female name on the cover would've had it in a glittery dust jacket before you can say Chick Lit. The Marriage Plot is one of the books that has had its cover flipped by people inspired by Maureen Johnson. Take a look at a slideshow of some of the beautiful covers - original and flipped - here. I thoroughly recommend it just for the fantastic art!

There are so many more intelligent and worldly people who have spoken about this in the last week, so I won't try to match them. Instead, if you're interested, I recommend this Guardian article about it. Here are a couple of quotations taken from that article:

"I'm sick to death of this. I am so sick of the constant, blatant sexism. And any time anyone points anything out as being sexist, they're accused of 'whining' or 'nagging' or 'not taking a joke. [...] More women read books than men, more women write books than men, but only a small fraction of books that win literary awards are written by women. Women are the publishing industry's bread and butter, we are the backbone of the damn entertainment industry, but we are constantly demoted to 'fluffy' to 'light' to 'meaningless'." Amanda Hocking

"I was critiqued for having 'obligatory romance' in all my books. When in fact, just last year, my book had none. Why is it 'domestic fiction' if a woman writes about family/relationships, but if a man does that, it's Pulitzer-worthy?" Jodi Picoult

Are there other groups of people who you think struggle with being stereotyped in the literary world? Is it just as hard for men who want to write light romances? 

13 May, 2013

Flash 500

I am very pleased to be able to tell you that my story 21 Reasons Daddy's Not Coming Back (and one why he mght) was shortlisted in the Flash 500 quarterly competition. Of course I would've loved to have won a prize, but making the shortlist is genuinely better than I ever expected.

When I first heard of Flash 500 I was a bit dismissive. A competition that runs every quarter I assumed would pull in only a few entries, lacking the sense of occasion annual competitions have about them. How wrong I was. Flash 500 regularly attracts hundreds of entries and, having read some of the past winners, the standard is high. I went from being sniffy about it, to being uncertain whether there was any point entering, I was so sure my inexpert flash fiction could never be noticed in that sort of company!

The piece I wrote was an experiment. I wanted to play around with writing an entire story in the form of a list - not an original idea, but one I'd never tried before. It was also an experiment in trying to write short fiction at the same time as being immersed in novel-writing. My main aim was to make the longlist of about 50 entries, so I was pleased to find out that I had done so. I was even more pleased to find I'd made the shortlist of about 25 entries a week later. It means I might be optimistic and give the story a run-out in another competition some other time.

The winning entry by Karen Jones is wonderful. At less than 500 words long it only takes a couple of minutes to read, so if you've got a moment pop by and read it. If you like it, why not tell her so on Twitter?

10 May, 2013

Quotable Friday (9)

I love reading quotations. Whether they’re funny, wise or poignant, I love those snapshots into the human mind; I love the beauty of language. There aren’t always easy ways to crowbar great passages from novels or thoughtful quotations into ordinary blog posts, so on Fridays I’m letting them speak for themselves.

Today, another little snippet from Neil Gaiman's 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts. The whole thing is really worth a read or listen and you can do both here.

“So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.

And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”

07 May, 2013

I Spy With My Little Eye Someone Beginning With...

A rose by any other name would sell more books?
What's in a name? After discussing the importance and difficulty of a finding a good title for your work last week, it got me thinking about names of authors as well. There's a lot of luck involved in selling your work and some people say it starts with your name. It's supposedly much better to have a name towards the start of the alphabet (I married well there!) so people come across your books as soon as they start browsing the shelves. Do you think there's any truth in that?

A little while ago my friend Suzi, talked about which authors she'd find herself next to on the shelves when her book is published. There isn't a mainstream bookshop in our village, so last time I was in civilisation I took a peek in Waterstones. I already knew who would come immediately after me in the alphabet, but I was intrigued to find who would preceded me. It's Mary Balogh.

Confession: I had never heard of Mary Balogh. Apparently, she's a best-selling author of historical romantic fiction, and she looks jolly friendly on her website (even if the links are written in Comic Sans). So she seems like a good neighbour to have. Have you read any of her books?

As to who comes after me, it is of course the great writer Iain Banks, who has won more awards and had more bestsellers than I have space to tell you about. For the last few years I've half-jokingly told myself that all (all!) I need to do is get myself into bookshops and people would stumble across my books by accident while looking for books by Iain Banks. This suddenly became very poignant, as I'm sure all my UK readers will know, when last month Mr. Banks announced he has terminal cancer and is unlikely to survive a year. He will be a great loss to British literature as well as to those who know him, and I'm sure his books will live on for decades.

Iain Banks actually writes under two different names. Iain Banks is his mainstream novel name, and the fiendishly secretive Iain M. Banks is his sci-fi novel name. This is the sort of pen-name I understand. If you write in two genres, it makes sense to differentiate between them so as not to confuse your readers. Tom Holt, author of wonderfully flippant speculative fiction, also writes historical fiction under the name Thomas Holt. I'm sure there are many more examples.

There are other reasons a pen-name seems to make sense:
  • your real name is the same as a more famous author
  • you started writing under your maiden name and want to build on that platform after marriage (this isn't really a pen-name, I suppose)
  • your name is very long (has a lot of syllables) or difficult to spell/pronounce (and therefore remember)
  • you need a gender-neutral name - although, I don't think there is much need for this anymore. Initials can "neutralise" your name if you think it necessary - think J.K. Rowling (though the K, of course, is an invention as she doesn't have a middle name).
However, I don't get it when somebody chooses a pen-name at the start of their career for no real reason. It seems an unnecessary pretention to me. Do you/ would you ever use a pen-name?

I'll finish with my favourite pen-name story - that of the author Richard Bachman. Most people probably know now that Bachman is the pseudonym of Stephen King. He created it when he wanted to bring out more than one book a year, and to see whether his books were selling because of his name or whether he really had the talent to attract new readers. Unfortunately, he was outed as Bachman too early to draw conclusions, but I admire him for giving it a go. I don't think I'd want to know!

So, who would you be next to on the bookshelves if you had a book published? Do you know any good pen-name stories?

01 May, 2013

This is a Title

Titles are tricky creatures. When entering competitions or approaching agents/editors/publishers, a title needs to stand out from all the other titles that will fall before their eyes that day. A novel called The Dream or Smoke and Mirrors, or something equally generic or cliche is probably not going to win you any points.

As well as titles being tricky, another well-known fact is that writers are terrible at making up titles for their own work. This is why it is usually somebody in the publishing house who decides on the final titles for books, rather than the authors. According the the blog of Publishers Weekly and Flavorwire many famous books have undergone title changes:

  1. Of Mice and Men might have been merely Something That Happened (I actually love this original title for its statement about the apparent insignificance of the lives of migrant workers, but I'm biased. To me, John Steinbeck can do no wrong).
  2. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift was originally published under the name Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts.By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then Captain of Several Ships. Snappy, no?
  3. Peter Benchley's father suggested that his book Jaws should be called What's That Noshin' On My Laig, which, if nothing else, makes me want to know Mr. Benchley Senior.
  4. More famously, Austen's Pride and Prejudice was originally entitled First Impressions.
  5.  Joseph Heller was worried his novel Catch-11 would be forced to compete with recently published Ocean's Eleven and so he doubled up to Catch-22.

In recent years there has been more of a trend for quirky titles. Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is doing the rounds and, even though I read little horror beyond the occasional Stephen King, I am tickled by the idea of reading John Dies at the End by David Wong. Then of course there is Booker shortlisted A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka. Are there any titles that have caught your eye enough to make you want to read a book?

Sometimes I struggle with titles, sometimes one hits me straight away. My titles are occasionally words or lines from the story, or sometimes single word titles which have a double meaning. It's not something that comes easily to me. In no particular order, some of my titles have included: The War of the Last Rolo; Handrails and Parachutes; When All This is Over; The Missing Signs and Wonders; The Last Illusion; Waiting for the Green Man; Doreen and the National Trust Trickster; A Dollop of Mother; The Final Observations of George Postlethwaite. Would any of these make you want to read more?

My novel-on-submission had the working title of Thousand-Word Things - a title which I loved. Several of my readers liked it too, but my agent asked me to change it to something more commercial, and so it became The Art of Letting Go. A couple of years ago I also read a draft novel called All the Night a Song by Andy Stewart, which is now on submission as The Ecstatic and the Thief in the USA. Which is a neat segue into casually mentioning that this week and last Andy is running a two part interview with me on his blog. Why not pop over and take a look?

How do you pick titles for your stories?