Sunday, 29 August 2010
On my first visit to Florida (my honeymoon in 2006) I went into a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Orlando. It was my first visit to an American bookshop and was blown away by how wonderful it was. First off, it was far bigger than any bookshop I'd been into in the UK but that didn't surprise me, because everything in America is bigger. What amazed me was the atmosphere, and the fact that they seemed to want you to be there looking at the books. There was a wonderful colourful children's area with a cute little safety fence around it to stop your sprog wandering off, and plenty of toys and play activities for the children to enjoy as well as the books. There were sofas and chairs, so browsing was comfortable and enjoyable, and even a coffee shop so that you could enjoy refreshments as you flicked through the books.
Contrast that with my experience of UK bookshops which are, obviously, much smaller and won't have any chairs at all, let alone comfortable ones. If you read much more than the backliner the scruffy owner will be at your shoulder to remind you in a menacing tone that he isn't running a library. Moreover, there are no price stickers to be seen anywhere. The price the publishers printed on the back of the book is the price you pay. If you're lucky they might accept book tokens.
But Waterstones in Lakeside has a sofa and two comfortable armchairs. Nearby is a computer terminal with a search facility enabling you to find out quickly and easily whether they stock the book you want and where in the shop you might find it. There is even a branch of Costa Coffee at the back of the store. Best of all, there are price stickers on the books, and offers. I bought a book for £4 when the publishers RRP was £7.99, and also took advantage of the "Buy one, get one for £1" offer saving myself £5.99. There were helpful flyers with suggestions that if you like one particular author, you might enjoy another author who writes in a similar style or genre, and the uniformed staff were friendly and helpful and seemed to rather enjoy being there, and to be avid readers themselves. Everything about it said that reading is a great pass time, and one the store wanted to encourage, even if it was on the premises.
There are many things about America which I would welcome here. Taco Bell and Mexican food in general. Big washing machines and dryers. Basements. Of course, there are other things I don't want under any circumstances - liberal gun laws and private healthcare. But the bookstore that celebrates reading I more than welcome. Bring on the rest of the invasion!
Thursday, 26 August 2010
Last night, at the Twilight Book Club I run (told you I had succumbed) the question was raised as to whether the Young Adult classification put readers off. I may be stupid but I hadn't realised it was a young adult book. It made me wonder whether my current work in progress, Emon and the Empire, is likely to be classified as Young Adult too? We queried what it is about a book, specifically the Twilight Saga, which makes publishers market it to older teenagers rather than middle-aged mothers. These are just our theories, but it came down to three things:
- The book is marketed towards the age of the main protagonists. It is about 17-year-olds, and since people relate more to those like themselves it is therefore considered to be of most interest to 17-year-olds. (Yes, I know Edward is actually 109. One of the many things I love about the book is the expert way the author creates a character who is at the same time a moody, stroppy teenager and a century-old adult set in the traditions of the 1920's.) My character, Emon, is 18 at the start of the book and 25 at the end which, by this criteria, would make Emon and the Empire a young adult book.
- It definitely fits the sci-fi/fantasy/speculative mould, and I think there is some snobbishness out there which suggests that adults are less likely to read such books and more interested in serious, true-to-life stories. I say yah boo sucks to that. Terry Pratchett anyone? And what about Bram Stoker's terrifying original? Plenty of adults love sci-fi, but maybe publishers are still a little wary of marketing a fantasy book to adults. Emon and the Empire is a fantasy novel.
- There are no "naughty bits" in it. Now, I know certain among the Utah contingent dispute this, pointing to the delicately handled scenes where Bella gets covered in feathers and bruises, but believe me, it's very tame compared to the sex scenes in adult literature - and do mean adult with a small "a". Most books marketed at adults include graphic descriptions of sex. I hate that about them. I like Marian Keyes as a writer, for example, but I really don't see the need to have her characters' private fetishes and behaviours documented in detail. The fact that this is the expected norm in books written for the over 20's is one reason I have only written thus far for the LDS market. In the Twilight books, Edward and Bella get married, and only afterwards is there any hint of shenanigans, and even then it isn't described. If leaving out the sex scenes turns a serious novel into Young Adult fiction then I guess Emon is, once again, a Young Adult book.
So by all these criteria it looks as though my current work-in-progress is shaping up to be Young Adult fiction. But that's fine by me. After all, the Harry Potter series are children's books but I loved those too.
Wednesday, 25 August 2010
I'm usually the one being rejected, as opposed to the one doing the rejecting, but this week I got to see the other side of the coin. My day job, as you may know, is with a legal charity, and one of my tasks is preparing the regular newsletter to advise our supporters of what LawCare is up to. Occasionally people send in articles for our newsletter, usually on themes related to our work, and theirs. Most recently, for example, an inpatient treatment centre in Marbella sent me a very interesting article on the benefits of being treated abroad for an addicition. I was happy to publish it.
For the first time recently, however, I received an article which I really felt I couldn't use in the newsletter. The primary reason was that it gave a few stress-busting tips which we had already included in a lot of our literature and on our website so for LawCare at least there was nothing new in it. However, even before I'd read the full content I knew it wasn't going to be publishable. It started with the lines, "Things can be stressful when your a lawyer. As a result here are some tips."
With apologies to the author, this is terrible writing. "Things" is too vague. "Your" is incorrect, it should be "you're". "As a result" is badly phrased - does stress really lead to tips and suggestions, because for all these years I've been saying it results in heart disease and mental collapse.
Despite my conviction that the article really wasn't good enough, I felt horrible writing that rejection email to the eager contributor who had thoughtfully assured me that there was "no charge" for using his article. Was I hurting his feelings? Should I ask him to revise it, rather than rejecting it outright?
But it was a valuable experience if only in showing me how tough it must be to be a submissions editor. There is a lot of really dreadful writing out there - most people cannot write well - but there is also a lot which is quite good, excellent in parts, or promising. But with publishing being such a difficult business, editors must often turn down these manuscripts - books which are good, and which their experiences and well-educated authors know are good, but which just aren't quite to the very high standard required. it must be a very dififcult call to make, and, LawCare News aside, I'm very glad that I don't have to be the one to make it.
Monday, 23 August 2010
I have my dramatic twist at the end ready to go, and I know a few things that are going to happen before I get there, but I am finding the middle a very difficult place to be. However, middles are just as important as beginnings and endings. I don't want my readers laying down the book because they lose interest halfway through. Actually, they won't get the chance. If the agent loses interest halfway through, then no publisher is ever going to get to see it. The standard has to be maintained on every single page.
So my work-in-progress is having a mid-life crisis and I'm open to suggestions about how to overcome it. Skip to the end? Introduce a sub-plot or a new character? Ignore it for a week and hope it will go away? Go back to the beginning and revise what I already have? Plough on and worry about improving it later?
Thursday, 19 August 2010
My second book, A World Away, left a big unanswered "life or death" question at the end, and much of the fanmail I had was along the lines of "I loved your book but did they die in the crash?" People seem not to like unresolved issues or loose ends. As a result, the third book in the series (as yet unpublished) includes a small aside which suggests that the answer is yes, the bad guys were killed in the car crash. And no loose ends at all.
So I was naturally uninterested at first in a short story competition a friend suggested I enter. Organised by the Stephenie Meyer group on Facebook, the challenge was to write a short story based on Jacob and Renesmee ten years after the end of Breaking Dawn. I rather like the end of Breaking Dawn the way it is, and didn't see any need to speculate on the exact nature of permanance of that happy ending. However, a dinner table discussion about unpleasant Russian towns and the realisation that Jacob and Renesmee's relationship would change dramatically from child and protector to romance rekindled my interest in the subject. I wrote the story, and today I entered it into the competition. And I'm pasting it below. (If you haven't read the entire Twilight Saga it won't make much sense, sorry.)
by Anna Jones Buttimore
“No,” my father said gently, hearing my thoughts. “We had to go. Jacob agreed.”
I felt bitterness and blame fighting in my chest. The truth was I had to go. They might have stayed in Forks but for me. The beautiful, devoted newlyweds who didn’t age, with the child who aged enough for both of them. Without me they would have enjoyed maybe three or four more years in the home they loved, surrounded by the family who were devoted to them. With me they had had to keep moving. Always cold, dark, dreary places. Alaska first, then north Wales, and finally here to Norilsk.
Forks, I remembered, had soaring forests that added a green haze to the enveloping mists. Wales had stunning mountains and ancient castles. Norilsk was bleak; the temperature rarely rose above freezing, the population suffered from heavy metal poisoning from the nickel mines, and during winter the sun rarely made an appearance at all. That suited my parents just fine; I craved warmth and light.
But now I was fully-grown, and Jacob, the warmth and light I craved, had come to me. He stood on the open porch of our isolated home, the barren snowy landscape laid out behind him as far as the distant Yenisey river. He was bare-chested and bare-footed, from which I surmised with delight that he had travelled from the station in wolf form.
I could not help but be aware of every part of him, every restless movement, from the bobbing of his adam’s apple as he swallowed nervously to the shifting of his weight from one bare foot to the other and the long, strong arms which hung pendulously at his sides, their fists clenching and unclenching as he tried to ease his anxiety. He was extremely striking, of course, but that was almost incidental to my feelings, as though I would have felt the same irresistible pull toward him even if he had been in wolf form. I should probably feel nervous too, I suspected, given that I had been brought back to Jacob to marry him, but I remembered him well enough that I could never be afraid of being with him. I wanted to be with him. I loved him already, and suspected I had since the day of my birth.
I heard my mother’s tender voice reassuring me. “Nessie, go ahead.”
Without a backward glance I did as she suggested. I took a step forward, through the front door of our comfortable home, towards this man who seemed to draw me like a magnet, seemed to mean so much to me. My betrothed. How was it that he had imprinted on me and yet I found myself so captivated, so fixated, that I had dreamed of him every night over the last ten years? This day had long been the focal point of my existence and I knew that in the same way the short centuries were delineated with BC and AD, for me my life would forever be divided into Before and After Jacob.
“Rensemee?” Jacob breathed, in a voice I could worship.
Close enough at last, I laid a hand on his hot chest and showed him, as quickly as possible, the last ten years of my life and my own joy at being with him again. I wanted to get the formalities over.
“I’ll have to tell you the long way,” he apologised, his big hand covering mine.
“We have time.”
His eyes hadn’t left my face since I had opened the door. “You are so beautiful!” he exclaimed quietly, as though to himself. Perhaps that explained why he hadn’t even looked at my parents yet. Maybe he didn’t need to. I was very like them.
This close to him I could smell the musky earthiness of his blood and hear it pulsing though his veins, but it didn’t make me thirsty; it made me… something else. I wanted him, but not for nourishment of that appetite. I just wanted him. My father sensed what I was going to do the instant before I did it and I heard his nervous gasp at the same time as I stood on tiptoe and pulled Jacob’s perfect head down to mine, pressing my lips against his full ones and feeling them yield, exult, respond. As his strong arms slowly wrapped around me, lifted me off my feet and pressed me to him I rejoiced in the completeness and perfection of our love.
I had been little more than a toddler last time we had been together, and this new dimension to our relationship might have been awkward. But it wasn’t. It was right, and good, and forever. He was vital and living and beautiful; he was my Jacob and always would be.
Wednesday, 18 August 2010
Then later this morning a short story contest with a theme which hadn't inspired me suddenly took on new meaning as I saw an interesting angle to the story. So I've just written a 1,000 word short story which I will enter into the contest.
Funny how some days the ideas come so thick and fast I don't have time to get them down, and other times I can sit uselessly at my computer for hours and only manage to force out a few measly words.
Monday, 16 August 2010
If a book doesn't grab me from the very beginning then this doesn't happen. I can't make myself read something I don't want to. If I'm going to steal time like this, it needs to be worth it. So as a writer, I know that the first paragraph, the first line, is crucial. It's the hook with which you need to catch the reader, especially if that reader happens to be standing in a bookshop debating whether to buy it or not.
The book which most recently turned me into a bad mother was The Host by Stephenie Meyer, which opens with a scene of alien surgery. It was a great book with lots of dark themes and "What ifs" and fascinating characters and startling twists. I already loved Stephenie Meyer, of course, but now I know that her success isn't just down to luck at having dreamed up (literally) the Twilight Saga phenomenon. She is a great storyteller.
I'm now reading Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger which opens with this line:
"Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup."
It's so intriguing! Who is Elspeth? Is Robert her husband? Why wasn't he at her side when she died? I think it's a wonderful beginning, and although the book hasn't yet turned me into a bad mother, I am at least finding it pleasantly diverting. It was a great first line, and there are plenty of other great lines in there too.
Conversely, I recently picked up a book in the library and found that it began midway through the dialogue between a single father and his new girlfriend being brought home to meet the teenage children for the first time. An intriguing and promising concept, but it started; "Don;t worry, I've told them to be on their best behaviour." Too dull - I didn't worry. There's a lot the writer might have done with such an emotionally fraught beginning, and the fact that she didn't made me suspect that the rest of the book was going to be just as blah.
A good first line, from "It is a truth universally acknowledged" to "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" can set the tone of the rest of the book, so it's vital to get it right. I recently changed the first line of Emon and the Empire, my current work in progress. It's also the same as the last line. Still not sure I got it right, though. What do you think?
I am twenty-five years old, and everything has gone wrong in my life. I’m stuck in a strange place, facing an impossible choice, I can’t be with the woman I love and I have no one to call a friend.
Friday, 13 August 2010
Years ago, self publishing used to be called Vanity publishing, and it was pretty much that - someone thought so much of themselves and their book that they would part with thousands of pounds to have it printed and then try to flog it themselves by hawking it round bookshops and calling in favours from polite friends and acquaintances. Apparently in these days of print-on-demand and Amazon things are very different and it is becoming quite acceptable to self publish, as well as much easier to marker your self-published book.
There was a contributor to the discussion who had self-published his book, had it fall into the hands of an influential journalist and subsequently been offered a £2.5 million deal for his next three books. Another had written a book called "The Father's Home Birth Handbook" which he had self-published; it sold very well and he was then offered royalties by a publisher who offered to reprint it. So I guess sometimes it can be OK. Sometimes. I still come down against it for several reasons.
- I have always taken the view that if my manuscript isn't good enough for a reputable publisher to offer to pay me for it, then it isn't good enough. What's the point of trying, researching, working hard to hone my skill and perfect my craft if any rubbish I write could be published?
- One of the contributors on the show - the managing director of a self-publishing company - admitted that they don't read the manuscripts they publish. I think that speaks volumes. Those books could be oscene, inflammatory, misleading or badly researched. There's enough of that on the internet without it appearing in print too.
- The public only have a certain amount of money to spend on books, and self-published dross dilutes the market.
- The book-buying public deserve the best; a book is an investment. As a teenager I bought a book by Rosemary Conley, my favourite fitness guru, only to discover when I read it that it was basically a rehash of her last book. Off I trotted to the shop to return it as unsuitable. Of course, I was told I couldn't return it. Innocently I asked why. "Because you might just have read it and be bringing it back," I was told. "I HAVE read it and it's no good," I replied. "That's why I'm bringing it back." That's when I learned the truth. If any other product or service is shoddy or substandard you can return it for a full refund. Not so books. That's why we need discerning agents and publishers to ensure that the books we buy are worth the price we pay for them.
- Yes, it's very difficult to get published. Yes, it's tough to have a manuscript you've worked hard on rejected. I know, I've been there many times. Even the best authors have a box full of rejection letters. But it's partly the fact that so few people succeed that makes it worth aiming for. These days we seem to be getting rather too politically correct about not letting people experience rejection. It's part of life - get over it. What would be the point of an Olympics where everyone got a medal, or where the losers said, "Never mind, I'm going to pay someone to make me a nice shiny gold medal anyway and that'll be just as good."
- Books enjoy a better reputation than the Internet. It used to be that in order to get a serious work of non-fiction published you had to show your publisher meticulous research and well-reasoned arguments. This, in turn, meant that books could, to some extent, be trusted to be accurate. I decry anything which leads to the printed work becoming untrustworthy and of less value.
- Publishers do far more than simply edit a book. I don't yet know the title of my next book because my publishers are choosing it, and I trust them to do so. They know the market, they have been able to cast fresh eyes on my book and although in this case they didn't edit it, I know that the input of a professional editor is invaluable. They also take care of the marketing - generally the most difficult part of the process.
- Call me old fashioned, but I like to be paid for my work. I don't pay someone for the privilege of sitting at my desk for five hours a day keeping databases up to date any more than I pay my neighbours to have Avon products or look through Avon brochures. If I do a good job, I expect to reap a financial reward, and writing is no different.
I understand what it is to have such pride in your work that you want to see it in print. But if you've watched "Britain's Got Talent" you'll know that not everyone who thinks they are the greatest singer since Freddie Mercury is correct. Humility involves accepting that your best is not as good as someone else's, and doesn't meet a required standard. It doesn't mean paying out to give your ego a boost.
Thursday, 12 August 2010
Here in the UK it is largely connected with popular TV couple Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan who added a book club spot to their daytime talk show, sending sales of the books they recommended into the stratosphere. But even before Richard and Judy picked up the baton and ran with it, book clubs were springing up all over the place.
When I was a student doing my degree in English literature book clubs didn't exist which was a pity because I'd have loved to meet up with others as enthused and eager about Vanity Fair and Tess of the D'Urbervilles as I was. Instead my appreciation of these books was tempered by dry tutorials, long lectures, and essays which analysed all the magic out of them.
The book assigned for September's meeting of the club I just joined is Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger which is, I am told, on sale in Sainsbury's for £4. It probably helps that we don't have sales tax on books, but this is still a wonderful price when I factor in the hours of pleasure (assuming it's a good book) it will give me, not least of which will be the two hours spent eating cake and chatting about it at the book club. But despite a book club being a cheap form of entertainment (compared with, say, a restaurant meal or a cinema ticket) I don't think it's price alone which is making it such a popular social custom. For one thing, the rise of the book club predates the global recession even if it, annoyling, postdates my degree course.
Book clubs are great for authors too. If there are, say, ten people at a book club and they happen to choose your book for the reading list, you're going to sell ten extra copies. Just the fact that these clubs are getting people reading again, going into bookshops and recommending books to their friends is great news for those of us who scratch out a living writing those books.
My next book comes out later this year, and my publishers have asked that I include questions for book clubs to consider at the end of the book. I really enjoyed coming up with the questions; it gave me an opportunity to think analytically about the characters and plot, and I think it very much improved my understanding of my own manuscript.
I'm not really seeing any down side to a book club here. It sells more books, it gets people together to have fun and appreciate literature, it even helps writers with their craft. So if you're not a member of a book club already, I can highly recommend it, and if you are a member, I salute you!
Wednesday, 11 August 2010
I was blown away, stunned by just how good rock music could be. And from that moment I was a Queen fan. I joined their fan club (I finally neglected to renew my membership 20 years later) and went to the local Woolworth's to buy every Queen album (vinyl) I could find. I could only get one - A Night at the Opera - but I played it so many times on my scratchy little record player it's amazing there was any of it left by the time I left it in the sun five years later and it warped.
In 1986, aged 17, I went to my first ever concert and saw Queen (supported by Status Quo and INXS) at Wembley Stadium in London. It turned out to be their last tour - Freddie Mercury died six years later. I'm so glad I persuaded my parents to let me go. For several years my entire wardrobe consisted only of Queen t-shirts and jeans, and my first husband, also a Queen fan, told me that I first caught his eye because of my choice of clothing.
Most important of all, I think, Queen's music inspired me to write. I still haven't finished it, but I started writing a fantasy novel called "Horses Born with Eagle Wings", based on many of the themes, characters and stories on the first two Queen albums. Even the title is a Queen lyric. (Should I mention that my tattoo is of a winged horse called Eagle? I'm a convert, remember...) That led to a general love of writing, and you know the rest.
I thought I'd never feel as inspired by music again as I was by Queen 25 years ago today, but recently my eldest daughter plugged her MP3 player into the car as we travelled together to go shopping, and I discovered Muse. They are well named. And yes, I've just gone out and bought every Muse album, and I'm going to see them at Wembley Stadium in September, with my daughter. I suspect some wardrobe changes are imminent.
As I write this I am listening to "Knights of Cydonia" and I've included lyrics from this, and from "Uprising" (my favourite Muse track) in my current fantasy novel, Emon and the Empire. I'm not the first writer to be inspired by Muse (I can't listen to "Supermassive Black Hole" without seeing vampires playing baseball) and like Sister Meyer I am finding that listening to their music whilst writing helps conjure up the required atmosphere and makes the words flow better.
So I would like to publicly honour the bands whose music has provided the soundtrack to my life, countless hours of pleasure, and the inspiration behind some of my books. Queen - Magnum - Def Leppard - Muse - Thank you for sharing your talent and helping me to share mine.