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Thirsty? Have a taste of this.

In my youth I wrote poems, as I suspect many of us did. Bad poems. At some point, thankfully, I realised this and stopped. These days I write lines that always rhyme, occasionally scan, and for the most part are silly. I don’t grace them with the term ‘poetry’. Doggerel would be more accurate.

The thing about poetry is that it’s incredibly difficult to write. And the apparent ease of free verse is illusory because “no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job” (T.S.Eliot). Which is why, on the whole, I stick these days to prose.

But I still have a taste for good poems and an admiration for those who write them. Several volumes are dotted around my random, unorganised book shelves, but I know where each one is and every so often, I dip into them. Poem are sips of a special brew that slakes a special thirst.

A few poems are scattered throughout the Rabbit Hole volumes. I would have liked more but we didn’t get that many poetry submissions, and when we did, they didn’t correspond to our (admittedly subjective) taste. Volume 0 has one by David Rogers (who also has an excellent story in Volume 2) and a couple by Mitchell Grabois, whose Arrest of Mr. Kissy Face vividly highlights the oddness of everyday moments; Boris Glikman’s clever and playful PS (In Memory Of) aptly appears at the end of the forthcoming (October 9th) Volume 3; Kelsey Dean’s Rabbit Hole Poems (one of which is below) are a delight in Volume 1.

Too often in my view, what’s put forward as a poem is a piece of prose with unconventional line breaks. These poems bring something more – a startling way with words, or an original insight, or a juxtaposition that reveals a hidden truth. When I started blogging, I discovered Robert Okaji. His poems don’t, as a rule, fall into the category of ‘weird’, and he never submitted to The Rabbit Hole, they have the subtle ingredient which slakes that special thirst. Don’t ask me what it is. If I knew, I might do it myself. As it is, I stick to doggerel.

Tea Party by Kelsey Dean

The sugar cubes cascaded down the tablecloth,

And “One lump or two?” asked the hatter –

but actually there were three

that lived and lumbered in the tissue.

“The doctors took them out with knives

and fixed her with needles,” I said.

“And there were tubes and tests tangled in her breasts.”

“How curious!” replied the hare.

I nodded and stacked the cubes neatly in my mouth

while the sparrows nested in my hair;

we sipped and slurped

and the violets twinkled at our toes.

“Another cup?” asked the hatter,

but it was quite the opposite, and I told him:

“No, a less cup actually, or two.”

“Curiouser and curiouser!” sang the hare.

Stone by David Rogers

No leaf left on any tree you can see from here.

It is good to have one’s darkest

suspicions confirmed.

You may keep secrets but you are not allowed

to choose which ones.

Some will be written on your tombstone

whispered over and over

by fallen leaves.

The thing you wanted everyone to know

will be forgotten.

Carve your own stone to say whatever you like

but beware survivors who may revise.

I’d rather trust the leaves:

the other day I met Ambrose Bierce walking

through the woods. I don’t mean his ghost.

The last thing he said to me was

“. . . before it’s too late.”

I’ve been trying

hard to remember the first part of the sentence.

That night I dreamed everyone I knew

wore masks that looked just like themselves.

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About Writers, writing technique

Sterne plans

030718-09-Laurence-Sterne-Literature-History

There has been a couple of mentions of Tristram Shandy on this blog, which led me to have another look at this ‘most modern of 18th century novels’. That’s from the blurb on the back of the Norton Critical edition, which also comes with a number of essays commenting on the work. One of these essays, by Wayne Booth, is called Did Sterne Complete Tristram Shandy?

It’s a good question. Sterne wrote his book in nine volumes released over eight years, the last one a few months before his death. The full title was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, but the narrator, Tristram himself, doesn’t make a physical appearance till almost half way through. For the good reason that he isn’t yet born: the first volumes deal with the circumstances and consequences of his conception.

Sterne is a master of the digression and so bewitchingly precise is his portrayal of his father and his uncle that the reader willingly follows; but at times it does seem that the book is, as E.M. Forster called it, a muddle. Stern was surely the original pantser – someone who writes by the seat of their pants.

 

Nonetheless, Wayne Booth argues that Sterne in fact was a planner. And he points out several examples of foreshadowing that come together in the final volume. I don’t know. It’s not a question I’ve ever asked myself. To me the muddle is entertaining. But in Booth’s prose, it sounds plausible.

These days, foreshadowing is easy, if only retroactively. We can zip back and forth within a text to add the details which give it more cohesion. If I discover late in the book that my character needs a scarf, I can go back and add it to an earlier scene. That wasn’t available in Sterne’s day, at least not to a writer of his spontaneity. The manuscript shows few traces of revision.

As time goes on, I’m drawn increasingly to planning. That might be because I once wrote a long, complex novel, largely unplanned, which took me 20 years. Alas, it didn’t enjoy the popularity of Tristram Shandy, so I turned to crime (well, not literally). Obviously, foreshadowing is vital there: that scarf could well be the murder weapon, so you can’t have it appear from nowhere.

But planning is more than joining the dots. It’s placing the dots in the first place. The number of chapters, the character arcs, the plot beats, the pace. How detailed the plan is depends on each author, but at some point the chapter by chapter outline mutates into the first draft.

My planning has recently become more ambitious. From a single novel to start with, it now stretches over a series of four. It’s the same principle, but dealing with six main characters who feature throughout, so each character’s arc needs to be thought through to the end. I love the challenge of that. But the plan evolves from the idea, not the other way round. I sometimes read about a book’s ‘ideal structure’, but in my opinion, to push an idea into a plan like the one below leaves little room for the organic growth of the story.

book recipe

If you’re thinking of planning a series, here are some useful tips. J.K. Rowling planned the whole of her seven-book series at the start; Emile Zola wrote 20 novels about the Rougon-Macquart family. Me? Four is the limit. I’ve got too many other things to write.

 

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book promotion

90 seconds to convince

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Do you need a book trailer? A short, arresting burst of colour and sound that advertises your book, like they do for Ocean’s Eleven or Mission Impossible? In the arsenal of book promotion tools, it’s one more to consider. You could live without one and be none the worse, but on the other hand, it can’t do any harm (unless it’s atrocious).

I was inspired to experiment when a composer friend asked me to write the lyrics for a song and then sent me the video he’d made to go with it. Though I knew book trailers existed, I’d never given them much thought till then, but I set to work immediately. Now I’ve finished the first, the second is almost done, and I’ve started on the third. My main conclusion so far? Don’t expect any spike in sales, but putting one together is a real blast.

So how does one set about it? Well, the simplest way is to pay someone to do it. But you’re then looking at a budget of anything between $300 (for basically nothing more than an entertaining slide show) to $15000 (for a scripted film shot on location with actors). If you’ve got money to burn, fine. But since I haven’t, I did it myself, and the result cost me hardly anything – except a lot of time. So if the do-it-yourself route appeals, here – gleaned from my limited experience so far – are a few tips.

Start with a rough idea of the content and progression. Keep it simple – go for mood and atmosphere rather than try and tell a story. It’s not a synopsis but a teaser.

Search for the content – pictures, clips and sound. This is the most time-consuming part, and depending on what you find, your rough idea may need to be adapted. The particular image you had in mind may not exist, so you have to go with what does. Here is a list of sites providing videos and photos, many of them free. The ones I use most are Pixabay and Pexels, while Videvo also has sound effects, as does the YouTube audio library.  A wider variety of sound effects can be found at soundsnap, but at a cost – $29 for 20 downloads or $15 for 5. For music, again YouTube has a reasonable selection, though so far I’ve stuck with Purple Planet.

When you put it all together, aim for a clip of 90 seconds maximum, with an opening that grabs the attention within the first few seconds. The editing stage is where my only cost came in, since I used Adobe Premiere Pro, part of a subscription Creative Cloud I share with a graphic designer. But there are free alternatives, listed here. Depending on the software, there can be quite a learning curve involved.

And Bob’s your uncle! Or will be once you’ve uploaded the clip, not just to YouTube but to Amazon (note that certain specific conditions apply), and your own website. So far, those are the only places I’ve put it, but there are others, listed at the end of this article, which also details the various types of trailer that exist.

 

Like everything else, of course, the trailer will only be effective if people see it, so we’re back to the problem of promoting the promotional item itself. But I’m not too bothered about that – I just enjoyed doing it, and if a few people come across it, so much the better. I’m still finding my way around the software, and I’m not happy with a couple of points, but for a first effort, I’m reasonably satisfied. And now, of course, you’re dying to see it – and I’m dying to know what you think – so here it is as it appears on my website. Comments welcome!

 

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Stories, Writers Co-op Anthology

Rabbit Hole 0 pre-order

The Rabbit Hole Vol 0_2-web

It’s here, folks! Well, not fully until the official launch date on July 17th, but you can pre-order now at the special launch discount price of $0.99. That’s for the ebook – there’s no pre-order for the paperback.

Some people say that doing pre-orders on Amazon isn’t a good idea because unlike the other online retailers, Amazon doesn’t wait till the launch date but calculate the sales rank using pre-order figures. This means that on the launch date itself, you’re less likely to hit a top spot in the sales rank because the pre-orders have already been counted. But nice as it would be to be up with the bestsellers, I’m not that concerned about our sales rank spike on launch date. I’d rather see a steady number of sales spread over a longer period.

So go for it! A bunch of great stories for $0.99 – what’s not to like?

Amazon            Apple              Barnes & Noble              Kobo

Later in the year, Rabbit Hole 3 will come out. At that point we’ll organise a Facebook event – games, quizzes, and a bundle of stuff to win. Stay tuned for more Rabbit Hole news!

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About Writers, writing technique

The Weight of Fiction

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‘The two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction’. (David Hare, playwright).

Hare doesn’t elaborate, but it isn’t hard to see what he means. ‘Literary fiction’ is where anything that isn’t obviously in any other genre gets shoved. Literary fiction is perceived as more profound, harder to read, but ultimately more rewarding than genre fiction. As the Dactyl Foundation puts it, ‘The subject of the work is engaged with something that might be called weighty, questioning how we think, how we make meaning, why things happen the way they do, how we decide what’s right or wrong, or musing over what might have been.’ The consequence of such weightiness is that literary fiction sells less well than genre fiction and even fewer writers make any money out of it. To label a book ‘literary’ will have many a reader running in the opposite direction, because what can a ‘weighty’ book be but heavy going?

When I started out writing, I had literary aspirations. I still do in fact, if by that you mean books that don’t fit into other marketing categories. I have several such WIPs on the back burner, but in the meantime, having decided a while back to write books which would, I hoped, be more commercial, I’ve opted for crime.

Why not romance or science fiction? I don’t remember giving the matter any thought – the choice was almost instinctive. If I look for a reason now, I’d say it was Ten Little Niggers (published in the US, for obvious reasons, as And Then There Were None, but I read the UK’s 1963 Fontana edition, and still see the cover in my mind – the UK title wasn’t changed till 1986). Christie’s novel had it all: claustrophobic setting, relentless succession of deaths, gradual elimination of suspects until, utterly bamboozled, I cried out, ‘So who was it? It’s not possible!’ – only to discover that not only was it possible, but the murderer (and Agatha) had fooled me all along. Inevitably, having read that book, it would never occur to me to write a novel called Leonora in Love or Glitch in the Galaxy.

I take issue, however, with the Dactyl Foundation’s pronouncement. There’s no reason why genre fiction, whether crime or any other, shouldn’t also question how we think or decide what’s right or wrong. Consider these excerpts from top crime writers’ analyses of their favourite crime novels:

Val McDermid on Reginald Hill’s On Beulah Heights: ‘Although Hill’s roots were firmly in the traditional English detective novel, he brought to it an ambivalence and ambiguity that allowed him to display the complexities of contemporary life.’

Sophie Hannah on Agatha Christie’s The Hollow: ‘As well as being a perfectly constructed mystery, it’s a gripping, acutely observed story about a group of people, their ambitions, loves and regrets.’

SJ Watson on Daphné du Maurier’s Rebecca: ‘A dark, brooding psychological thriller, hauntingly beautiful, […] but more importantly, this is an exploration of power, of the men who have it and the women who don’t, and the secrets told to preserve it.’

Susie Steiner on Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution: ‘What stays in the mind is the Peak District community of Scarsdale, the investigator as outsider trying to permeate its secrets. And the sheer quality of the writing.’

Jacob Ross on Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park: ‘A crime novel – like any story – succeeds or fails on the basis of character. Renko confirms this for me every time. It is an incredible feat of character portrayal.’

Other choices in the list speak for themselves: Crime and Punishment, Bleak House, The Moonstone… What is striking is the stress on factors other than plot, such as character, mood, and setting. Proof, surely, that a good crime novel is about a lot more than a detective solving a murder.

The same is true, I’m sure, of any genre. Literariness and weightiness are two different things, and for all the supposed profundity it implies, the label ‘literary’ is more of a burden than an accolade. David Hare is right to be depressed.

 

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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

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, 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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Amazon, Formatting manuscripts, self-publishing

Filling the Amazon belly

behenmoth

My daughter used to work for a French stationery company – hardly a flourishing sector when handwritten letters are practically museum items now. One of her tasks was to get their products listed with Amazon, so a meeting was organised in which she expected to negotiate as she did with supermarkets. Not a bit of it. The Amazon people sat down, handed out their document and said, ‘Those are our terms. Take them or leave them.’ Naturally, she took them.

One effect of the current crisis is that Amazon is set to consolidate its already very firm grip (Who needs crisis government when you’ve got Amazon?) on the retail sector as a whole (this brief history of Amazon explains the various tactics used to bring thatabout).

As for books, that grip is now impossible to loosen. It’s easy to forget that the Bezos behemoth only began life 25 years ago, but in that time it’s established itself as by far the world’s largest bookstore, selling 560 million ebooks (89% of the market) and 807 million physical books (42% of the market) in 2018. Furthermore, they know exactly what we’re reading, when, for how long, and any highlighting or searches we undertake (How Amazon tracked my last two years of reading). In short, the Amazon strategy is clever, ruthless and effective (Amazon’s plan to take over world publishing).

The Kindle was launched in 2007, and now has 84% of the e-reader market. I have one myself, though I rarely use it – compared to an iPad, it’s clunky, not very user-friendly and has a low battery life. Ebooks will never replace physical copies – in fact in the past few years physical books have made a comeback (How ebooks lost their shine) – but one thing is sure: as a tool for self-publishers, the Kindle is here to stay. While traditional publishers often set their ebook price dissuasively high (Are ebooks too expensive?), self-publishers make full use of the competitive pricing Amazon encourages.

We’re all targeted as consumers by Amazon, and they’ve set themselves up as champions of consumer rights. But how about as writers? For a self-publisher to ignore Amazon as about as daft as a pole-vaulter disdaining to use a pole. And on the whole, they do a pretty good job of making it as easy as possible. Publishing a book these days is done in a matter of minutes. As we all know, selling any significant number of copies is far harder, but Amazon will help you here too – at a price. I haven’t yet used Amazon ads myself, but I think one day I’ll need to if I want to vault any high (for an overview of how Amazon ads work see here). In the meantime, I try to make sure my Amazon author page is OK, though there’s no doubt more I could do (Optimizing your author pages).

A recent addition to Amazon’s panoply of tools is the free app Kindle Create, which I used to format the ebook of Truffle Trouble. It’s easy to use and the result was fine, but it’s not flexible enough if you want to use different fonts or customise other aspects. And conversion of the file for a print book is still better done using Word, so in the end it didn’t save me any time at all. For an overview of Kindle Create, see here, and a comparison with Vellum (for iMac), see here.

Kindle Create, of course, being a tool that aims to lock authors into Amazon, only converts to mobi, so if you want to go wide, you’re better off converting a Word file with Calibre or Draft2Digital. But do you want to go wide? Again, Amazon entices you not to by offering advantages if you give them exclusivity through Kindle Select (a review of the differences is here). As regards this question, two of self-publishing’s major gurus, Mark Dawson and Nick Stephenson, have different approaches: the first is exclusive to Amazon, the second goes wide. So there’s no obvious answer here except to try for yourself and see what you feel most comfortable with. Personally, I’ve only used Kindle Select once, not because it makes better sense commercially to go wide (80% of my sales, such as they are, come from Amazon), but because I can’t quite reconcile myself to letting the beast swallow me whole.

 

 

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About Writers

On Leaving the Safety of the Self

selfie

We live in a self-regarding – some might say narcissistic – age. The combination of digital cameras, selfie sticks and social media allows us to display as much of ourselves as we want to as many people as care to look at it. So it comes as no surprise that writing too is affected by this trend. As author Rebecca Watson puts it in this article, “Internet ubiquity has bred creativity. It has encouraged us to perform: to use our life material for effect. It’s not a coincidence that the rise of blog posts and Reddit threads has aligned with the rise of autofiction – where the author self-consciously feeds details from their life into the construct of a novel.” The technique was carried to an extreme by Karl Ove Knausgård, who to great acclaim turned the minutiae of his own life into My Struggle, six volumes totalling more than 3500 pages. A similar approach was taken by Ben Lerner, of whom Watson says that he chose to write autofiction “not out of passion for the genre, but out of an aversion to the ‘great American novel’, where the highest goal is to achieve a state of universality through a supposedly omniscient voice that believes it encompasses all experience. Lerner’s form is born of kindness. It admits that he, as a white man, can only write what he knows, that he cannot presume to know what he has not lived.”

Fair enough. But how can we not agree with Philip Roth: “Fiction is a way of asking… what if I was different than I am?” It’s a way of exploring other possibilities, other people; infusing them, I dare say, with traits and foibles and fantasies of our own, but freeing ourselves from the confines of the narrow world we inhabit. As Zadie Smith – who incidentally is a great admirer of Knausgård – puts it “what insults my soul, is the idea… that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally ‘like’ us: racially, sexually, genetically, nationally, politically, personally.” At the risk of laying myself open to the charge of cultural appropriation, I can, if I want, write about a sweatshop labourer in Bangladesh or a Chinese multi-millionaire. Or as Jeanine Cummins did, arousing much controversy in the process, about a family of Mexican migrants.

So what stops me? Actually, as I grow older – and bolder – less and less. In fact the Chinese millionaire is a central character in Mystery Manor – I had great fun writing about his childhood in Guizhou province, where I’ve never been (though I spent many hours researching it).

We’ve touched on this topic before, notably in the comments to a recent piece by George Salis, Falling in the Name of Research. What interests me here is how far your own boldness goes. Assuming what you write is intended to be plausible (i.e. not fantasy, magic realism, paranormal etc), how willing are you to risk the leap into another person’s culture and experience? How far have you gone already, and do you too find yourself getting bolder? Is it simply a matter of self-confidence? My own conviction is that if you do enough research, you can go anywhere. But I’d have to think a lot before deciding that the character I need is worth that amount of research – and perhaps, after all, there are cases where no amount of research can be enough.

 

 

 

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