30 March, 2013

The Magical Addiction of Publishing, by Jayne-Marie Barker

Awesome Mystery novelist and book/publishing addict Jayne-Marie Barker gives insider insight into the publishing process:

When I opened the letter from my publisher notifying me that they wanted to publish my first novel, I literally leapt up and bounced around the living room in ecstasy. It was the moment I had been waiting for as long as I could remember. That one second when your life long dream comes true. Naturally, ambition and hard work had got me that far, but even so, it felt like the world was smiling at me.

Publishing is an interesting business, and one you cannot possibly comprehend until you join it fully. I knew nothing about the world of publishing when the contract for 'Beneath The Daisies' was signed. I learnt, quickly. I learnt the various stages a book goes through when production commences. I learnt that the proof reader could be wrong, and that the editor was not necessarily going to say, "yes, I love your book, I don't want to change a single thing!" Life is never that straight forward.

Proof readers and editors, agents and graphics teams are all on your side, even if you don't realise it at the time! Everyone is looking for the best result, the final product, the finished book. By the time I started the round again with 'Distant Shadows', I was wiser and the whole thing felt smoother. Knowledge is a wonderful thing!

I tend to think of the production of the printed book like a conveyor belt. First, it is added to the publishers computer system. Let's gloss over the editor stage as this can vary considerably from book to book. Secondly, the proof reader reads through and marks the margins with comments, spellings, suggestions, and generally any thoughts they have whilst reading it. Thirdly, the marked manuscript is sent to the author for agreement/disagreement. This processs is repeated, the first round of changes being implemented, and then the proof reader has another go... When the revised manuscript arrives back for the second time, the author must ensure they are happy with it. This may be the last opportunity to make adjustments to the text within the covers.

The final stage of the production is the book jacket or cover as some people prefer to call it. Once the cover illustration and text is agreed between author and publisher, it goes to print... This is the final and most exciting stage, partly because as the author the job is finally completed, and partly because the release is drawing close.

Life as an author is sometimes a surreal thing. When you receive your personal complimentary copies, it's as if someone has handed you a bar of gold. It really is beyond words, which is never a good thing for an author to admit to!

The publishing industry, like most businesses these days, runs on a cut throat scale. Every book must turn its profit and make its mark on the world, but here, the world of publishing ends and that of promotion, marketing and PR commences. This is an entirely new venture for most authors. By nature, most authors are quiet thinking types. By nature, advertisers and people belonging to the world of promotion, are not. This means that authors have to learn how to market their work, how to promote and advertise it. Let's skip back to the safer domain of publishing for a moment and you'll see what I mean...

A publisher is an animal of the modern business sphere. Every publisher must compete with every other. Every book must compete with others in its genre. Every author must write another book better than the first. It's a tough world but one people can't help but fall in love with. Now there's an unusual ending for a crime writer!

Jayne-Marie Barker

22 March, 2013

Messing with Minds

In plodding through my second novel, I've had to garner a very close relationship with a reader's expectations. They always have them, persistent through the narrative. It's like you're saying "Follow me. Follow me," and the reader decides to take your hand. If you stop, tell her you're in a forest instead of on a sand-dune, yell "Fooled you!" or just jerk her arm too hard, she's not going to be pleased. She'll probably follow somebody else and not trust you next time you call from the bookstore shelf. She might even "un-follow" you on Twitter, which as I understand things is, to the latest generation of teenagers, what a punch in the face was to all previous.

That doesn't mean you should fulfill the expectation. Quite to the contrary.

I've actually heard authors say things like "Always give the reader what they want." Or even, "Always take the reader where the reader wants to go."

Smeg. Those sound like some truly boring books. China Meiville, the only author (so far... grrr...) to win three Arthur C. Clarke awards, says something quite different: "My job is not to give the readers what they want, but to make them want what I have to give." That seems a far more ambitious task, and if you want to write interesting, award winning work, you'll need to take on the bigger challenges.

China points to a deep understanding--one of making your work impact upon the reader.

He's also speaking in terms of a very broad concept. If you're a regular reader, you'll know that my tendency as a teacher is to boil those down into something you can actually use.

It was John Steinbeck and Graham Greene who taught me most about readers' expectations in the narrative. For a little reading exercise, you might take a look at "The Moon is Down" by John Steinbeck. I choose it here because it's like 100 pages long. Each character is introduced with just a snippet of exposition, enough that you feel familiar before they start talking. Now look at how every piece of dialogue fulfills that sense of familiarity, and even makes you savour the exposition at the start. It's so constant, they would have felt like caricatures of themselves had Steinbeck done things poorly. Again, ambitious tasks are the hardest, but they pay off the most.

People's minds work along with the story, even on an unconscious level, and as a writer it's your job to understand what they're thinking and feeling. Try to think from the reader's perspective. You're trying to manipulate their imaginations.

When I taught formally I used to, at this point, get my students to pick a short story from their favourite author.  If that author didn't write short stories, I'd say "Use your second favourite. You get the idea." Now make yourself conscious of your expectation. Write it down as you go. Again, your primary focus should not be on the logic. Write what mood you're in, what you expect to feel next. Try to articulate why (there's the logic part).  Now, write a scene, the start of a piece. A shorter piece will work far better, here. You'll naturally use those same senses you've exercised. Once it's written, do the same reading analysis exercise as before.

In class I'd get students to do each others' too, of course. The internet can't quite achieve the same thing, but find a writer friend or even post in the comments below. I know some good online communities and some other subscriber might even want to correspond.

Senses need a lot of exercise, both in study and practise. Don't expect perfection right away. It's like a musician improving their aural skills. They listen to music and keep it in mind, try to hear the notes. Do the same with your reading. Rinse. Repeat. Read and write until your pre-conceptions explode, messily, and new, better ones take their place in your mind. That last bit is where the post's title becomes a pun. See what I did there? See? That's an example of doing things poorly. I didn't maintain your expectation so the reference came out of nowhere and just looked stupid.

20 March, 2013

The Horror

What a clever species we are.

I don't know about you, but Google's latest patent, "Douche-Goggles", concerns me deeply. For my writing, it's not space journeys and scientific sky-pies that interest me. It's the sociological ramifications. Our lack of regard for the non-scientific tells us more of ourselves, and the nightmares we'll walk into, than anything our tinkering engineers will concoct.

Science fiction, to me, provides infinite metaphors of our disregard for the human.
Now, Google's latest metaphor is a powerful one--perhaps more so than any story to which I can aspire, so I'll just sit back in awe. Watch the first video, then spot the similarity three minutes into the second.

If only humans weren't insane. Much as I love Pearl Jam, Nirvana's lyrics hit the nail on the head with, "Empathy is what we lack. Doesn't matter anyways."

To be constantly connected to our virtua-friends is to be less connected to our non-virtua-reality. There is only so much span for attention in the human mind, and only so much time in a life.

A lesser note, and one that critics actually are talking about: what will happen when everyone feels they could be constantly recorded by those surrounding them? Sociological ramifications have been proven many times to be beyond the comprehension of the thoughtless Google think tank. (There's a great Storyville documentary on Google Books, called "Google and the World Brain". I highly recommend it.)

Sadly, Douche-Goggles will still be worn by douches everywhere one day. Perhaps "Ok Glass, deploy parachute!" won't always work when douches are skydiving.

15 March, 2013

I'm Back

First off, sorry to my subscribers for the series of random posts today.  I was trying to figure out how to make multiple pages, which in Blogger, as it turns out, does not involve the multiple page options.

Second, GET IN!  I've just figured out that rather than the aforementioned involving "pages" per se, it's accomplished via post labels and a special gadget.  So much for clarity.

Third, sorry I've been gone for awhile.  I was incapacitated for a week with illness.  I wasn't sick.  I was just completely screwed.  Remember when I said about being a martial artist?  Well, I was pretty hardcore around six years ago.  I tried doing one of my old training routines and I completely did myself in a quarter of the way through.  I was bedridden.  I'm proud that I could push myself hard enough to actually damage my internal organs, but all the same it wasn't exactly wise.  I think I'll build myself up to my old level of fitness slowly and sanely from now on.

So here I am writing again, and existing on the web-o-sphere while I'm at it.

I've re-shaped the blog somewhat.  I'll still post writing advice, but I'm going to include some elements about myself.  Back when I started the blog, narrative craft consumed my entire life.  I studied it voraciously.  I taught it at Kingston University London for a year, and after moving up to the Midlands I privately tutored.  Basically I love writing and teaching.

The week before Everest by Fog started, I was sitting in a pub with my brother, who is real job haver and everything, and I told him that I had a blog and didn't know how to market it.

"You sell stories, right?" he said.


"And your readers don't have anywhere to learn about you?"

"They have.  But I don't know how to market it."

"What's your blog about?"

"Erm... me... and stuff."

"Every teen-aged kid with a computer has a blog about 'them and stuff'.  What do you have to offer that's special?  Give it a theme and market around that."

Aha!  I can offer my one true obsession, and even make myself not look insane!  So off I went, and within one month I went from having 20 views per month to having 300.  Now I'm at 600 and steadily growing.  But I think it's time to move things forward.  There's more going on with me than learning the craft.

I'm studying Sociology, English and Creative Writing for a PhD come September.  I'm going to learn all kinds of cool stuff and I'll have a zillion thoughts on how to apply those things to writing.  I'm completing a novel very soon and I'm going to learn all kinds of neat stuff about the publishing industry from the inside.  My novel research dearths some pretty cool facts.  Especially when I wrote short fiction, which I shall be doing again soon, I constantly scanned about for scientific and political facts that inspire me.  Basically, there's more to me than writing advice and I shall start offering it.

For those of you who just like the stuff about writing, it's all still here.  I'll still post on a regular basis, and I'm sure it will consume the majority of my blog.  For the rest of you, the rest of me will be here too.  Everest by Fog is about "me and stuff" once more.

05 March, 2013

Chekhov's Pistol

"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following act it should be fired.  Otherwise don't put it there."  Anton Chekhov

This is the most common quote Creative Writing tutors use as an example of foreshadowing.  One tutor of mine took it to another level, just saying that it ought to go off by the last act.  That made a lot more sense, and was actually true.  Hannibal Lecter didn't need to have his true nature revealed in Act Two, for instance.

He was going deeper into the true meaning of the phrase, and I'd like to take the interpretation a step further, into the realms of psychology.

A lot of new authors, myself included back in the day, think Chekhov should be referring to something specific.  Not necessarily a pistol, of course.  That would be stupid.  But I did think he meant the stuff you introduce at the start better be the exact same stuff you use later.

"Pluto Nash," I thought.  (Sorry to swear.)  "I've read tonnes of awesome books that don't follow that rule.  Maybe he just meant mystery novels."

But, by Eddie Murphy's career (sorry again), I was wrong.

If foreshadowing only involves specific objects, it cannot persist throughout the narrative.  Your main character is not going to have the gun attached to his face.  Think of it more like a direction of things.  In the first scene of Greene's "Our Man in Havana", Wormold is sitting with his friend in a cafe.  I don't want any spoilers, here, so suffice to say Wormold sees some stuff, has a conversation and then leaves for a reason.  All of these elements set a tone, and establish the nature of the narrative.  Otherwise Greene wouldn't have put them there.  Vital characters are introduced and everything that comes later will make the first scene feel relevant.

For about a year after reaching this understanding, I went about being right in the wrong way.  I thought Chekhov was saying that the beginning had to justify the rest.  That's true, but I was thinking in terms of rationale.  That's not the playdough an artist moulds.

Chekhov's point proves that the pistol analogy makes sense.  I think he was using a weapon simply for emphasis.  The beginning should dramatise the rest.  Click-click bang in the reader's face.

Paul McAuley said to me, "Always refer back."  As always, the reasoning is far more important than the statement itself.  A reader starts with a natural expectation:  that your book is about something and that it will carry forwards.  The first indication of the story isn't even your first sentence.  It's the book's cover.  But your main job starts with the opening scene.  Demonstrate your book's "something" in dramatic fashion, and in every bit that follows, use the drama you've built.  If you find yourself naturally referring back, take it as a good sign.

Another misunderstanding of mine was that I used to think building the drama meant I had to mix things up, change things et cetera.  You have to understand that you start out having the reader's trust, and they're trusting everything they read to feel powerfully, evocatively relevant to what follows.  When a bad novel breaks that flow it isn't just disappointing, it's jarring.  There's a difference between screwing with your reader's head and artfully manipulating their trust.

Just remember that if there's a dancing monkey on the desk in the first act, the reader expects that monkey to empower all that follows.