book reviews, Stories, Writers Co-op, Writers Co-op Anthology

The Rabbit Hole Volume Zero

The Rabbit Hole Vol 0_2-web

The world is weird. If any proof was needed, the first few months of 2020 provided it. But did we need proof? Didn’t we already know that you only have to scratch the surface to see the weirdness beneath? Sometimes it oozes out, suppurates, infects; sometimes it leaps out, takes root and blossoms.

We get used to it, carry on as if it wasn’t there. But we have it inside us – we are weird. What you see as normal is just the sum of abnormalities that you experienced last week, yesterday, this morning – so of course you’ll experience it tomorrow. Or will you?

Zero. Now, that’s a strange number. Its first recorded use was in ancient Babylon, but it didn’t reach Europe till the 12th Century. A round hole of nothing, containing everything. Black hole, wormhole, sinkhole, loophole… is it the beginning or the end? Welcome to the Rabbit Hole. Weird.

Volume Zero of The Rabbit Hole is a collection of texts from 12 invited authors who have also participated, with different texts, in the other volumes. Though published chronologically between volumes 2 and 3, it can be seen as an introduction, offering a good entry point to the series as a whole.

It’s due for release on 17th July, but if you want to read it straightaway, no problem – fill in this brief form and I’ll send you an Advance Review Copy so that you can post an honest review on Amazon when it is launched. Naturally we’re looking for as many reviews as possible, but please note that reviews from friends and family of contributing authors are not accepted.

The volume contains 3 poems and 10 stories ranging from 650 to 18000 words,  170 pages in all. Contributing authors are Art Lasky, Paul Stansbury, CB Droege, Tom Bont, David Rogers, Barry Rosen, a stump, S.T. Ranscht, Marc Sorondo, Mitchell Grabois, Curtis Bausse and Boris Glikman.

 

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About Writers, blogging, book promotion, book sales, marketing, Uncategorized, Welcome, Writers Co-op

Promote Yourself & Your Work on the Writers Co-op

Because some have asked, we are re-printing our first post, by Curtis Bausse, APRIL 26, 2016.

Here we are!

The first post. And to me has fallen the honour. Seriously, it is an honour. Firstly, because it’s a vote of trust from my fellow co-operators, secondly because this post is the first of a long, rich and innovative series (no point starting a blog otherwise, right?). As more posts come, this one will slip out of sight and mind, but it will always remain the first, the one in which the Writer’s Co-op became public. So thank you, Amber, Atthys, GD and Mimi for putting your trust in me.

Let me begin by explaining. The five of us ‘met’ on Book Country, a website where writers post their work for peer review and critiques. Though lately it’s become very sleepy, it’s not a bad site, and it has a discussion board where I’ve found many a useful piece of advice. And some time ago a thread was started by GD Deckard, in which he wrote the following: I’m thinking of a site that new writers can use to promote their books. How, exactly, depends on what the writers themselves want. Writers are creative people, so together we could come up with creative ways to help one another that we might not think of on our own. How would you like to see a Writers’ Co-op work?

Well, it took us a while, but here we are – The Writers’ Co-op. Five people who write in different genres but who all share a similar commitment to the craft and the graft of writing.

But why come together? What can this site do that a personal one can’t? Well, as GD says, for a project like this, many minds are better than one. And the method is in the title – cooperate. This is a site where we swap and share news, opinions and experiences about writing, from first paragraph to finished product and beyond. Especially beyond. Because who wants to write a book and then not promote it? That’s like a painter working for years on a picture, then turning it to the wall. So here in the Co-op we try things out, see what works and what doesn’t, and tell each other about it. And not just each other, obviously. We happen to be the five that started it off, but we don’t intend to stay whispering in our corner. The Co-op welcomes anyone who’s willing to invest a little time and effort into promoting books worth reading.

What can you expect to find here? Since there’s nothing new under the sun, I do admit the innovation bit could be a challenge, but we’ll try our best, I promise. There’ll be anecdotes and analysis, thoughtfulness and humour, awards and recommendations, opinions, rants and wackiness. We don’t expect to work miracles and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. But what we do take seriously is writing itself. Which means we’re also keen to help writers explore whatever path might lead somewhere interesting, and help readers find good writing. If that sounds like a programme you could tune in to, you’ve come to the right place. Drop us a line, tell us what you’re up to. Maybe we’ll end up travelling the path together. Whichever one it turns out to be.

Authors & Editors & AnyOne
at all in the Writing Life are invited to
Promote Yourself & Your Work at
The Writers Co-op.
Email
GD<at>Deckard<dot><one>

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About Writers, blogging, book promotion, book sales, inspiration, marketing, Uncategorized, Welcome, Writers Co-op

Marketing and Promotion—Musings, Madness, and Misgivings

Marketing and Promotion—Musings, Madness, and Misgivings 

In anticipation of an upcoming book release in August, I’ve been thinking more about marketing and promotion. I do not want to repeat past experiences where time and money have been largely wasted in some deep abyss. Of course, I would like to get the best ROI on the time and money expended (this second category has a very modest budget). As opposed to past book marketing and promotional efforts, this time I am working with a mid-press publisher that actually is devoting resources into marketing. I don’t want to duplicate their efforts, but our combined efforts will hopefully achieve some success. I have no misconceptions that this is their sole responsibility. In fact, I think more of the effort needs to come from me. What then is the best way to proceed?

Prompted by an exchange with GD, I am going to list and comment upon a broad array of different tactics and strategies that I am aware of. Some are familiar in so far as I have gone down those roads before. Others are new attempts I plan to try as a way to increase book sales. This is the primary result I want to achieve with these marketing and promotional efforts. I understand that there are secondary goals such as networking, name recognition, media opportunities, film options (one can dream), but the primary focus remains as increasing sales.

Some of the things I list are only pertinent to a new release. I’m sure the list is incomplete. I will not shy away from giving biased opinions on some of the techniques and strategies. As an example, I am generally opposed to steeply discounting books to provoke sales; although, I see a limited role for that particular strategy when doing so as a “loss leader” to hook readers into a series. I’m sure things that have worked for others that I have not found to be helpful are worth considering. I will add that compiling this list only reinforces the morass that many of us are trying to wade through.

Here goes:

  1. Friends and family: an effective approach but the ceiling is low.
  2. Author email list: not a personal fan as I think it requires some effort to maintain and I think the usefulness in generating sales is limited. I do understand some authors will cross promote with each other using these lists. My personal list is small and I make no effort to build a fan base this way. I do have an author FB page (more on that later) and I think that’s my preferred venue to build and maintain a fan base.
  3. Press release: I’m letting my publisher handle this and I’ll blast it out on my modest social media network. Can be used to outreach to local press, radio stations, etc. but I’m not sure how effective that is.
  4. Speaking and presentations: Can be effective. May require some extra effort. Best if you can have a themed talk that somehow relates to your book. For example, chakras and charkra openings are an important element in my story, so speaking about this topic is a way to have a themed talk to provoke some book sales.
  5. Endorsements and blurbs: Great if you can get them especially from well-known authors writing in the same genre that your book is in. Does anyone have a direct line to Dan Brown (not just any person who happens to have that name, I’m talking about the author of The Da Vinci Code)? Please hook me up as this release is a suspense novel that involves secret societies. LOL!
  6. Contests: I think these can be helpful if you win an award and can leverage that into more sales. There are a lot of “fluff” contests out there and many readers cannot distinguish what is effectively a scam contest to prey on authors and what is a legitimate competition with qualified judges. I myself plan to apply for four such award competitions and am willing to devote some of my budget to try and obtain recognition with an award. If anyone is interested, I’ll be happy to share the specific contests and why I have selected them. My publisher may submit to other competitions. Some of the best awards require that your book be nominated. I’m not holding my breath for that.
  7. Goodreads: This has always struck me as a black hole of sorts. I think that authors who are active and “good citizens” of Goodreads groups can leverage that into sales. I am not in that category.
  8. Social Media: This is a big topic so I’m going to break it down. I’ll also cover ads on social media separately.
    • Twitter: I am reasonably active here, but I don’t think it results in many or any book sales. Occasionally some opportunity comes up with a follower, for example an invitation to do an interview.
    • FB: This is where I am personally active not only with posting on my own author site, but also cross promoting with my podcast FB page and other writing related sites. Impact on book sales is hard to judge. Whether or not to have a new FB page devoted solely to this new title is something I am debating. I am more in favor of author branding and not a single title and I really want the traffic and marketing efforts to be on my author page platform.
    • LinkedIn: I use this sparingly to post new content such as podcasts and will make announcements about the book release, share a press release, and that sort of thing.
    • YouTube: I have my own YouTube channel where I post podcast episodes, book trailers, and other content. I find it useful to use the YouTube content on my other social media platforms and I know this has been helpful in driving some sales.
    • I’m not using Instagram, Bookstagram, TikTok, Pinterest, Reddit , or other social media platforms. They may be effective but I haven’t explored and feel I am not inclined to try and go down another rabbit hole.
    • Influencers: If you can hook up with or somehow get picked up by someone with a big following, and have them promote your book for you, that’s probably a great strategy to use.
  9. Paid advertising: Again, let me break this down.
    • FB have used including targeting the right demographic. Waste of money in my opinion but other authors have had success.
    • AMS (Amazon Marketing Services). I’ve had more success with this than FB but not enough to set up and tweak ongoing ad campaigns.
    • Twitter promotions: way over-saturated and not worth the money
    • YouTube: I’ve had some limited success. The ads run through Google and are targeted. I think a well-produced book trailer can generate sales.
    • Promotions run through others. Here I am talking about things like BookBub, Fussy Librarian, etc. Unless you are willing to discount, I don’t think this is effective. I have used a number of different services (never managed to be accepted by BookBub), but I won’t be spending my limited budget this way. A big number of .99 sales has some merit, but coordinating this and getting agreement from my publisher is nightmarish without monetary return.
    • Print advertising. It’s expensive and difficult to track results.
  10. Book reviews: Here I distinguish between reader reviews, paid reviews, and other outlets.
    • The more reader reviews the better up to a threshold, especially if they continue to come in a steady stream following release and especially if they are verified purchase reviews. The number, rate, and whether or not it comes from a purchaser affect the Amazon algorithm that affects your ranking. I am personally trying to get 10 people to commit to a pre-order of the book and a review in the first week of publication (I provide an ARC so they don’t have to rush to read as soon as the book comes out). There is a narrow window to generate hype following a book’s release so if you can line up some preorders and early reviews you get a jump start. [If anyone wants to be in this early group, please email me at victoracquista@victoracquista.com] Continuing to solicit reviews I believe is an important strategy. There are reviewers but in my experience there is a big gap in requesting a review and getting one. I do have access to information (via Where Writers Win https://writerswin.com/ through membership in their Winners Circle) that gives a listing of reviewers by genre and ranking by site traffic. I should also mention that winning  a legitimate award may give an advantage to getting a review.
    • Paid reviews from entities such as Kirkus are expensive but they have distribution to get eyes on your book from ancillary places like magazines, film executives, etc. Ten percent of Kirkus reviews are starred and getting that designation could open some doors. I’m hoping my publisher fronts this cost. It’s also much easier to get into libraries if you have a Kirkus review. I’m not a fan of other paid reviews but I think they can generate exposure and if they are from a credible site, they might provoke some sales.
    • There are other review outlets including magazines, trade journals, newspapers, Publishers Weekly, and who knows what else. I’m relying on my publisher to make these connections.
  1. Launch party: Not a fan
  2. Launch event: If you have a low-cost venue, are budgeted to provide some food, and believe you can get sufficient people, then why not? Book stores are potentially a place to host at no cost.
  3. Prize giveaways: Can be done on your own or in concert with other authors. I did this with my sci-fi novel and found the ROI to be negative.
  4. Personal author website: I have one and will update accordingly. I’m not sure if it drives any sales. Same is true for Amazon author page.
  5. Bookmarks: Low cost and useful to hand out at conferences and other events.
  6. Publicity company: Hiring a PR firm is expensive and putting together a formal campaign is a big undertaking. I’ve done this previously but do not plan to do so again.
  7. Media exposure e.g. TV, radio, podcasts: Potentially useful with the cost being time. Eventual sales depend in part on what audience is viewing/listening to the show.
  8. Book signings, bookstores, events such as trade shows: There are potential costs involved for some of these related to entry fees, vendor space, a booth with banners, business cards, etc. On top of this there may be travel costs, meals and lodging, the aggravation of set up and take down. I think the ROI is more in the category of networking and less so in book sales. I am committed to doing some of this. There are true benefits to having a relationship with a bookstore, particularly one that goes to these trade shows. Then you can attend and have a book signing without actually being a vendor.
  9. Professional organization: I think there are benefits to being part of a writing organization where you interact with colleagues, support one another, attend sponsored workshops, etc. I am a member of the Mystery Writers of America and we have a terrific chapter in Florida. I think promoting one another’s work is one of the benefits of membership.
  10. Celebrity outreach: great if you can get exposure through a celebrity. Celebrity book club selection (think Oprah, Reese Witherspoon) would be huge.
  11. Bloggers: Could be effective. Fortunately, my publisher has a network of bloggers that promote the titles. I’ll probably do some outreach on my own but sifting through the wheat from the chaff seems to me to be a difficult task.
  12. Virtual blog tour: I’ve heard mixed things. Not currently part of my marketing plan. There are companies that will set these up for a fee.
  13. Book clubs: This is something I am currently investigating. How to reach out effectively? I think this has the potential to drive up sales.
  14. Libraries: Fortunately, my publisher has a lot of experience in getting books into libraries.
  15. Advanced reader copies (ARCs): Again, this is something my publisher is very proactive with. They participate with NetGalley and LibraryThing. I know of a recent release that had over 90 very favorable NetGalley reviews before it was even published. Authors can get their books into NetGalley but it’s expensive. Creating a buzz and generating hype seems to me to be an important element in driving book sales. I am fortunate that my publisher has these connections.
  16. Book trailer: I’ve made my own and paid to have one produced for a previous novel. I plan to pay for a professional quality trailer and use it on social media, my website, Amazon author page, YouTube channel and ads. I’m hoping there is a ROI but recognize that might not be the case.
  17. Podcasts: I saved this to present near the end of my list because it seems to me to be a somewhat novel approach. Here I am not talking about appearing as a guest on a podcast show to be interviewed and talk about your book. I started a podcast series, Podfobler Productions, where I narrate my own and other authors’ works. I produce YouTube videos of the shows and use them in my social media posts, FB page for the show, and ad campaigns. For profiling guest authors, I only ask that they distribute the show to their network and when I eventually produce a show about my new book, they agree to distribute that show. Here I am trying to build a fan base and also use the networking power of fellow authors. Will it help to drive sales? I don’t know but it is part of my overall marketing strategy. I just wrapped up season 1 with twenty assorted shows two of which featured co-op members (GD- episode 11 and Curtis-episode 15). Here’s the season one playlist in case anyone is interested: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLpfls08qGbIsHnbp-2-C9r5I8fK8kw24j Incidentally, in case anyone wants to have their work narrated, drop me an email (address in #10 above). I’m currently working on a production schedule for season two.
  18. Fingers crossed for good luck: Napoleon said something to the effect of, “I would rather have lucky generals than good generals.” I know wishes won’t wash dishes, but I do think there is an element of luck that goes into this abyss of marketing and promotion.

Edison said, “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” I’m working this hard and may need to get crowdfunding for deodorant considering how much sweat equity I’m devoting to this. I don’t think success comes without effort unless your stars align in some magical way.

This is a very lengthy dive into a murky territory, a swamp and quagmire full of traps that can swallow you up. I’m sure I missed some categories beyond what I have listed. Comments, insights, disagreements, and commiseration are invited and welcomed. Wish me luck as I get ready to take the plunge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Uncategorized

A poetic inheritance

Royal Collection

I confess that this tale casts poets in general and our art in particular in a poor light. Indeed I have wondered whether, for the sake of my muse, I ought to allow time to draw a shroud over the whole thing. But alas I cannot because the various implications of what was done still ripple through the poetaster community.

It all started with Malwit Needlehow. He called himself a poet, but frankly supported himself as one of those who writes the text for the advertisements one sees on billboards or in the cheaper newssheets. He produced such gems as, “Purchase Borrow’s laxative capsules and give your bowels the pleasure of a smoother motion.”

To be fair to Borrow’s laxative capsules, nobody doubts their efficacy, but honestly, is their description ‘art’? Is there any metaphor? Any subtlety? Any magic in the choice of words? Were you engrossed in the text when you read it?
Perhaps in self-defence Malwit called himself a poet. He wrote some verse that was occasionally better than mediocre. But he did something which is unforgivable in a poet. There are various words for which there are few perfect rhymes. Orange, silver, poem (perhaps ironically), and oblige. Obviously you can invent obscure dialect words or adopt strange pronunciations, but such tricks are unworthy of a true poet.

What Malwit did was worse than that. He named his daughter, Tilver Needlehow. Now some claimed that a doting father can be forgiven much, and given that his wife, even as a young woman, had long silver hair she could comfortably sit on; Malwit could have seen mother and child, framed with the hair and found himself faced with an image he had not the skill to describe.

Had it stopped there I suppose he could have been forgiven, but no, he must inflict upon us a whole series of poems about his daughter. Indeed it was a relief when his employment writing the text for advertisements blossomed and he no longer had time for poetry.

But alas the damage was done. As Tilver grew up, she was lauded in endless poems by a series of lesser poets. In all fairness she was a pretty girl and grew to become a not unattractive young woman. But nobody needs to inspire the sheer volume of frankly tedious verse that she did. Indeed it had a profound impact on her. After all, what does it do to the self-esteem of a girl who is approaching womanhood to discover that she is being metaphorically besieged by admirers who have only the poor standard of their verses in common?
Nobody should be sent as much second quality verse as she was. Even the editors of literary magazines have people to carefully read all material submitted, and these hardened individuals perform a brutal triage. All that is unworthy of consideration is cast into the bin from which papers are drawn for the lighting of the fire.

Tilver rather took against poetry, so much so that she took advantage of her family’s increasing prosperity and studied law. After a couple of years she managed to get a position as a drafting clerk to the Council of Sinecurists.  These clerks are those who produce the final copies of the motions for debate. Thus their words will, eventually, become law. Into a particularly long and remarkably tedious motion laying down a lot of detailed technical specifications to be met by certain craftsmen producing items for use by the city authorities, Tilver introduced a section which banned the use of the name, ‘Tilver’ in poetry. The penalty for infringing against this ordinance was set at one alar.

It was at this point Tilver showed her genius. Had the ordinance been left at that, it would have become a dead letter. After all, who is going to pursue poets through the courts in an attempt to recover money? Given the fact that most poets would regard mere penury as an improvement in their condition, they are almost impossible to sue.

Indeed when the legal profession noticed the extra provision Tilver had inserted in the ordinance, they did discuss the legality of it, and indeed several expressed an interest in challenging it in the courts. But as no poet was ever going to fund such a case, the case never happened and the ordinance remained on the statute book and was not struck down.

But I mentioned Tilver displayed her genius. Yes, written in the ordinance was the provision for the one alar fine to be collected by the Society of Minor Poets, ‘for the alleviation of hunger and poverty.’

Obviously we in the Society were not going to go through the courts, but we’d use every other trick we could think of to get the money that was rightfully ours. We harassed and embarrassed the guilty in the street. We had the notoriously flatulent sit next to them in places of public entertainment. Elderly women exhibiting the signs of their poverty would harangue them at length, elderly gentlemen, leaning on their walking sticks, would express a desire to horsewhip them within an inch of their worthless lives.
Tilver herself retired from the law, having achieved her end. She rediscovered herself as a painter and proved to be quite a good one, much in demand for portraits and similar studies.

And now a brief note from Jim Webster. It’s really just to inform you that I’ve just published two more collections of stories.

 

The first, available on kindle, is ‘Tallis Steelyard, preparing the ground, and other stories.’

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0872GGLF9

 

More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Meet a vengeful Lady Bountiful, an artist who smokes only the finest hallucinogenic lichens, and wonder at the audacity of the rogue who attempts to drown a poet! Indeed after reading this book you may never look at young boys and their dogs, onions, lumberjacks or usurers in quite the same way again.

A book that plumbs the depths of degradation, from murder to folk dancing, from the theft of pastry cooks to the playing of a bladder pipe in public.

 

The second, available on Kindle or as a paperback, is ‘Maljie. Just one thing after another.’

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Maljie-Just-thing-after-another/dp/B0875JSJVM/

Once more Tallis Steelyard chronicles the life of Maljie, a lady of his acquaintance. Discover the wonders of the Hermeneutic Catherine Wheel, marvel at the use of eye-watering quantities of hot spices. We have bell ringers, pop-up book shops, exploding sedan chairs, jobbing builders, literary criticism, horse theft and a revolutionary mob. We also discover what happens when a maiden, riding a white palfrey led by a dwarf, appears on the scene.

 

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About Writers

Your Whole Book Sucks

abbotsford-house

A couple of years ago, staying with friends on the Scottish border, we took the opportunity to visit Abbotsford, home of Sir Walter Scott. As you can see, it’s a pretty impressive place, but Scott could well afford it – he was the most successful writer of his day, his novels enjoying a popularity unheard of until then. Scott can reasonably be considered as the world’s first literary star, ranked during his lifetime as one the three greatest writers in history alongside Goethe and Shakespeare. And who reads Scott today? No one.

‘Which do you think is best?’ I said to my wife as we left. ‘Success during your lifetime and ignored two centuries later or the opposite?’ Obligingly – but not quite convincingly – she said, ‘I’m sure you’ll have both, my dear. Success in your lifetime and in two hundred years.’ Sweet as this reply was, it did nothing to conceal what we both knew: that it’s far more likely I’ll have neither.

As the example of Scott shows, success is a fickle creature. In some ways, that’s a comforting thought – what does it matter if I’m successful or not, since in any case it’s fleeting and overrated and ultimately unsatisfying? Well, yes, but to someone who’s never had it, that rings hollow, like telling developing countries that material wealth is a goal not worth pursuing. As Tennyson wrote of a different topic entirely, ’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

So lauded was Scott when alive that perhaps he was convinced that he was an excellent writer. But on the whole, successful writers are not exempt from self-doubt:

I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. John Steinbeck.

The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now, they will discover you. Neil Gaiman.

I have spent a good many years—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. Steven King

I’m very deeply inculcated with a sense of failure. Joyce Carol Oates.

The list could go on. But what to do about it? How do you tackle a problem that never goes away? You could join the Insecure Writers’ Support Group which now has many activities but was first set up to ‘act as a form of therapy, letting writers post about situations where they need encouragement, or to offer words of encouragement to others if they have experience.’

Personally, I haven’t joined. Not that it isn’t a fine initiative but ultimately, the encouragement I must find is within myself, and that can only come by continuing to write. On the face of it, that’s paradoxical because writing is what creates the doubt in the first place, so all that’s needed for the doubt to vanish is to stop. But in that case, of course, the doubt has won. No way am I going to let that happen. By continuing to write, I may be keeping it alive, but I’m also telling it to stay in its proper place – in a little cage in a corner of the room, every so often sneering through the bars, ‘That sentence you’ve just written really sucks. In fact, you know what? Your whole book sucks!’ Whereupon I turn to it and say, ‘Thank you. Because do you know what? If you weren’t there, I wouldn’t even try to make it better.’

Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound. William Goldman.

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About Writers, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op, Writers Co-op Anthology

(See photo for title)

OKAY, so what have you been doing with all this quarantine time? At first, I assumed we in the writing life would have more time to live it. But I’m not writing more. You?

I spend my time taking walks with my Lady. Or playing table top games. We also watch some TV together in the evenings. I enjoy time with her.

Sci-Fi Lampoon magazine has named me Editor In Chief, at least for the forthcoming issue & until I can foist that job onto someone else.

Volume 3 of The Rabbit Hole is now in the final editing stage and will soon be ready to promote. That’ll be fun. Victor Acquista and Susan Ranscht have contributed greatly to the story selection of this final volume.

But mainly, I’m adrift in contemplation. Interesting world and it must be absorbed before I can seriously write again.

How has the pandemic affected you?

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About Writers, Literary Agents, publishing

What do we write now?

V0042005 The dance of death: the careless and the careful. Coloured a

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned in a comment that I had two virus story ideas I didn’t know what to do with. This prompted a reply from Carl Reed to say that he’d withdrawn his poem Pandemic from an upcoming collection, “fearing accusations of tastelessness and/or vulgar opportunism.” I applauded Carl’s decision, adding that if my stories were finished, I certainly wouldn’t release them now.

But such concerns won’t stop many from writing about pandemics. Confinement has already led to a steep rise in submissions to literary agents, and agent John Jarrold, who specialises in science fiction and fantasy, expects apocalypse scenarios to feature prominently. Phoebe Morgan of Harper Collins cautions against it: “I am advising my authors not to add pandemic into contemporary novels. My reasoning: I don’t think anyone wants to remember this when they’re trying to escape. Fiction is fiction.” The concern there appears to be more commercial than ethical, and she may not be right anyway: the film Contagion, for example, has seen a surge in popularity. Either way, a glut of books on the same theme is likely to be counterproductive, and it will be some time before the better ones get to stand out from the dross.

I have no intention of moving my stories further up my list of priorities, but I have been noting a few references about the current situation which may be useful if and when I do tackle them. I’d already done a hefty amount of research into the science, so most of these articles relate instead to human behaviour – which is what in the end matters most in a story. What we’re seeing now is real life examples of such behaviour in action, and I must admit that as a writer, it’s the morally repugnant behaviour that fascinates me most. Stealing face masks, internet scams, deliberately coughing over people, slashing ambulance tyres – on one level I simply shake my head in disbelief and despair, on another I’m intrigued by the psychology behind it.

There’s nothing new here. Albert Camus explored these issues in The Plague, published in 1947, in which the disease itself acts as a metaphor for the pestilence of the Nazi occupation of Europe. Camus describes a wide range of behaviour, from the selfish to the stoically resistant. While the book is concerned with moral choices, he avoids excessive condemnation or praise: the selfish aren’t decried as despicable, nor is Dr. Rieux, the book’s main protagonist, extolled as heroic. While one behaviour is to be preferred, and eventually prevails, both are understandable reactions to the absurdity of the human condition which the plague merely throws into sharp relief.

One reason I undertook a pandemic story was my annoyance at The Walking Dead. Yes, it was packed with suspense (though even that was wearing thin by episode 972), but I found its depiction of human behaviour shallow and Manichean. With its unrelenting message that man is a wolf to man, it was some way off the subtlety displayed by the likes of Camus. But then I guess that consideration of political and ethical choices doesn’t have viewers gripping the edge of the seat quite as well as a horde of zombies. It’s those very choices, though, which I’d like one day to explore.

To end on a more practical note, Kevin Brennan wonders how you deal with this pandemic in any book purportedly set in the present. With the normal world upended, how do you handle that if your novel takes place this year or next? My current WIP is set in 2018, so I’m not facing that issue – but perhaps some of you are? It remains to be seen if the world will durably change when we emerge from this, and if so, how. Right now, what a novel set in ‘the present’ will look like is anybody’s guess.

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