About Writers, Literary Agents, publishing, Stories, writing technique

Juvenilia

mansfield

I’ve recently read a few short stories by Katherine Mansfield: Germans at Meat, The Baron, The Luft Bad and other equally unknown titles which don’t figure in any ‘best of’ collection of her work. This is because they come from her very first collection, In a German Pension, published in 1911, when she was just 22. They were written during her stay in the Pension Müller, Bavaria, where her mother, suspecting she may have had a lesbian relationship, took her for ‘a course of cold baths and wholesome exercise.’

In a German Pension went through three editions, but then the publisher went bankrupt. Mansfield wasn’t disappointed by this; on the contrary, she no longer liked the stories, and when, after being recognised as one of the leading authors of her day, she was begged by another publisher to let him reprint them, she wrote, ‘I cannot have it reprinted under any circumstances. It is far too immature, and I don’t even acknowledge it today. I can’t go foisting that kind of stuff on the public. It’s not good enough.’ This was despite the fact that she was sorely in need of the money it would have brought her.

Was she right? Yes, I dare say, by the high standards she set herself. The stories lack the depth and intensity of her later work – although, rereading that, I sometimes find it a little febrile, a little too intense. But it would have been a great shame if John Middleton Murry, her second husband, hadn’t included In a German Pension in the complete collection of her stories he edited after her death. They are superbly written, with a deliciously mischievous, biting wit that renders in writing what comes across in the best cartoon caricatures.

Reading it, I thought, ‘Wow! To be writing that so young!’ Writers often repudiate juvenilia, and with good reason, but I would have given my eye teeth to be able to write like that at 21. I thought back to my own beginning: I finished my first novel at 26, about a group of friends in the mid-1970s, driving round France and Spain in a restless search for meaningfulness and adventure. I’d repudiate it now, I guess, but it wasn’t entirely cringeworthy. It earned me an appointment with an agent, who said if she’d read it ten years earlier, she’d have snapped it up. But by then, there were lots of similar explorations of the prevailing counterculture, and it didn’t break new ground. She had her finger firmly on the zeitgeist, and advised me to write a family saga instead, but I never did. Perhaps I should have.

Is there an age at which writers peak? Must good writing be apparent already when young? Mansfield is far from the only one whose talent was obvious so early. This New Yorker article sets the question in perspective, while for those who fear they may be past it already, there’s also ample evidence that it’s never too late to write a book.

Any thoughts on the matter? When you recall your first attempts, do you cringe, puff with pride, or sit somewhere in between?

 

 

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publishing, Stories, Writers Co-op Anthology

A weird problem

genres

Not long ago, I did a Freebooksy promotion for Mystery Manor, fourth in the Magali Rousseau series. To do it, I enrolled the book in KDP Select, then ran a five-day promotion during which it was free. For the second day, I booked a slot with Freebooksy, who promoted the promotion to their email list.

Now, the question of whether a book should ever be offered free arouses a lot of debate, and it’s not my intention to go into that here (I will in a forthcoming post). Suffice to say that although I didn’t recoup what it cost for a slot on Freebooksy, the result in terms of purchases of the other books in the series was encouraging enough for me to think that it might be a good idea to do the same with The Rabbit Hole (RH).

There’s one problem. Freebooksy doesn’t have a ‘weird’ genre, nor even one for anthologies. They stick to highly mainstream genres like ‘mystery’, ‘fantasy’ or ‘romance.’ Similarly, there’s no ‘weird’ category on Amazon, where RH1 is in Fiction: anthologies and Fiction: fantasy: collections and anthologies, and RH2 is in Fiction: anthologies and Fiction: short stories.

Nor is there any BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) for ‘weird’. Draft2Digital, which incidentally does a great job if you’re going ‘wide’ (i.e. not giving Amazon exclusivity), uses the BISAC categories; RH there is in Fiction, anthologies (multiple authors) and I recently added it to Fiction: Absurdist. Whether that’s accurate is debatable, but authors as diverse as Sartre, Vonnegut, Murakami and Kafka have been classified as absurdist, so it could be said that it’s a very broad church. Besides, it doesn’t hurt to be in company like that. I could also add dark fantasy, humorous or alien contact, as each of those pertains to at least a couple of stories in the two volumes so far published. But with multiple authors, there are multiple themes and topics, and no single category covers them all.

For RH2 we defined different themes: weather, science and entertainment. But although these produced some excellent contributions, they don’t fit into a genre. Of course, it’s not because you do fit into one that you make your life any easier, because it’s then that the competition gets fierce. But for RH3, I’m thinking it’s worth a try.

So here’s the idea. When the call for submissions for RH3 goes out in January, it will be for a specific genre, one of three I’ve selected from the Freebooksy list: thriller, romance or horror. Many thanks, then, if you could fill in the poll below. To test this isea out, which of those genres would you like to see adopted in RH3?

Note that whatever genre is chosen, ‘weird’ remains the defining feature of The Rabbit Hole. So if, say, horror is the genre, a story about a psycho hacking people to pieces won’t make it. Because weird as that may be by the standards of normal behaviour, it doesn’t include the surreal, wondrous or out-of-this-world element that makes a story qualify as weird. Similarly, there are many ways for romance to be weird, but a kinky sex story might not be the best way to set about it. Not that we’re averse to sex, kinky or otherwise, but if that’s the only weirdness in the story, it’s not enough. Weird romance, of course, wouldn’t be the same as mainstream romance, so that would need to be made clear in the blurb, but at least it would fit somewhere into the genre. As for thriller, plenty of scope there, though I must admit that handling a thriller, weird or not, in a short story is quite a challenge. But hey, all writing is.

Over to you, then. And feel free to chip in with your own thoughts.

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reading, Stories, Writers Co-op

The Rabbit Hole Volume 2

Rabbit Hole Vol Two cover

The second volume of The Rabbit Hole is every bit as flumbiferous as the first. Which is just as Alice likes, because weirdness abounds and the warren never ends. Are you out for revenge? You’ll need the right app. Or perhaps you’ve done something foolish? Never mind – it can be undone. Would you like to be in a video game? That too can be arranged – at a cost.

All this and more in 29 stories to leave you pondering realms beyond our perception. Unless, perhaps, they’ve been there all along but we just weren’t looking the right way.

29 writers, 29 ways into weird.

Available for pre-order at for just 99¢ at:

Amazon                    Other major retailers

Contributing authors: Edward Ahern, Marie Anderson, Édgar Avilés, Curtis Bausse, E.F.S. Byrne, Steph Bianchini, Jon Black, Glenn Bruce, GD Deckard, Rhonda Eikamp, Brad Fiore, J.G. Follansbee, Steven Gepp, Boris Glikman, Geoff Habiger, Jill Hand, T.A. Henry, Jessica Joy, Simone Martel, Dennis Myers, David Rae, Alistair Rey, David Rogers, Barry Rosen, Kim Ross, JJ Steinfeld, Mack Stone, Stanley Webb, Tom Wolosz

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Literary critique, Stories, writing technique

Briefly Sentimental

crying-while-reading-compressed

A couple of years back, giving an author feedback on a story I had rejected for the Book a Break anthology, one of the reasons I gave was that ‘it veered into sentimentality at the end.’ I wasn’t alone in this appraisal: Sherry Morris, the competition judge, said, ‘it all goes sentimental syrupy at the end. Indigestible.’ The author, whilst accepting my other remarks, wrote back to say that she actually quite liked sentimental stories.

This got me thinking. Were we talking about the same thing? We couldn’t be, I decided, but since I didn’t pursue the exchange, I can’t be totally sure. What I did instead was a little research, and found this excellent article, which gives a thorough analysis of sentimentality, and how the meaning of the word has changed over the years. It’s a long one, so if you’re in a hurry, I’ll summarise it as: it’s a lot more complex than we think.

My own conclusion is that (as with everything else) it all depends how it’s done. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with sentimentality. Decades ago I read Love Story, which was widely panned by critics as formulaic and manipulative, pulling just the right strings to get the hankies out. William Styron called it ‘a banal book which simply doesn’t qualify as literature.’ A snootiness which did nothing, I’m sure, to dent Erich Segal’s spirits – Love Story was in the New York Times bestseller list for 41 weeks. Though I know a mass readership doesn’t equate to quality, I always feel that anyone who sells that number has to be doing something right.

So why did Sherry and I react negatively to what we perceived as sentimentality? The difference between Love Story and the story I rejected was that Segal took the time to put all the pieces in place, get us cheering for the two main characters, before demolishing our hopes with Jenny’s  death. In the face of a disapproving father, the love of a young couple ends in tragedy. Not a bad pitch, is it? Shakespeare’s log-lines haven’t survived but it’s widely thought he used it for Romeo and Juliet.

To get sentimentality right in a short story is hard. Crucial to its success is getting the reader’s emotions in the right place as early as possible. And I realise now that the keyword in my feedback to the author was not sentimentality but veered. In a story which up till then was mysterious, even scary, there was a sudden switch to two people trying to cope with the loss of a loved one. Edgar Allen Poe would have been appalled – it goes against the ‘unity of effect’ he insisted a short story must achieve: decide on what emotional response you want to elicit, stick to just one, and make sure that everything contributes to that end.

Poe’s strictures are seen these days as rigid. There are many successful short stories that don’t follow them. All the same, as a rule of thumb, the unity of effect isn’t a bad one. Where a novel can play with many different emotions, a short story is best dealing with just one. And there’s nothing at all wrong if that one is sentimental – just make sure you nail it right from the start.

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editing, Literary critique, Stories, Writers Co-op Anthology

We read it with interest but…

rejection-letter

I recently had to write a rejection letter to an author and friend whose stories have previously appeared in two anthologies I’ve edited. This time, her submission didn’t make it. Not that it wasn’t charming, interesting and well-written. It just didn’t make the sort of impact we would have liked.

She wasn’t upset. At least, if she was, it didn’t show in the reply she sent. In my letter I had concluded: If it’s any consolation, my own story was rejected too. She answered that she hoped that the rejection I sent myself was as nice as the one I sent her.

That my story was rejected will come as a surprise to my fellow editors, who never knew (until reading this) that I submitted one, as I remove all author names before forwarding the stories to them. But once I’d smashed all the crockery, I wasn’t upset either. And now I’ve taken up the suggestion to write myself a rejection letter.

 

Dear Mr. Bausse,

Thank you for your submission to The Rabbit Hole Volume 2. We read your story with interest; however we feel unable to include it because frankly, the ending sucks.

Now admit it, Bausse, you knew that, didn’t you? So why didn’t you do something about it? Thought you could get away with it, eh? Well, The Rabbit Hole is not that sort of publication – shoddiness just won’t do.

We wish you the best of luck in placing your piece elsewhere.

Yours etc.

 

It’s quite true. I did know the ending was feeble. I’d tinkered with it a bit, made it longer, then longer still, then cut it down to a single sentence. But thanks to my co-editors, I now know that it doesn’t matter how long or short it is, it’s not the right ending. The thing is, though, I can’t think of another one. I regularly make suggestions for other people’s endings, but my own? Zilch.

So here it is. Because there’s one good thing about being an editor here – it may have been rejected but I get to foist it upon you anyway, in the hope that you’ll be able to give me a better ending. Any ideas? (Note the sly presupposition, by the way – that the ending may be crap but the rest of it isn’t. But if you think the beginning and middle are crap too, don’t hesitate to say so. I’ve got a new pile of crockery, dirt cheap.)

 

 

You’re Not Late

 

“Take this day, wear it well, enjoy it, darling, you deserve it.”

Abel’s wife stirred just enough to brush her lips against his cheeks and murmur, “You too, darling, I love you.”

He tiptoed out of the room. It was five o’ clock in the morning.

Once in the car he updated the Carmate Companion, which now came in three different voices: Cindy, Lisa and Cliff. He selected Lisa and told her to find the quickest route to his destination. She asked if he wanted music or news. He chose Mozart.

The streets were empty at that time but he drove with care because every so often a squall of rain would whip the windscreen and wash the town away. Once he almost hit a dustbin that was rolling drunkenly at a crossroads. On the outskirts of town bits of garden had broken out to foray into the unknown. “Be careful,” said Lisa over the music. “Conditions are hazardous due to gale force winds.”

“Oh, yeah?” said Abel sarcastically. He’d have to talk to Giles Roffe about that. No one wants to be told what they know already.

He joined the motorway, heading north. He hadn’t slept well, and the road being straight and smooth, he felt his concentration slipping. “Got something livelier? I need to stay awake. Springsteen?”

“I’ll put you through to Cindy. That’s more her department.” Lisa sounded hurt – You don’t like Mozart? Fuck you! – which Abel thought was something else he’d have to bring up with Roffe. Warmth, solicitude, empathy – fine, bring ’em on! But who wants a Carmate getting uppity?

Not that it surprised him. Roffe had a serious attitude problem. Something to do with his childhood, no doubt – Abel wasn’t about to analyse it – but the man just couldn’t hack authority. A loner, too, which was a shame. With a little more effort, a touch of good grace, he could have been up there with the big boys, working on Carmate Complete. He certainly had the talent – all he lacked was the commitment, the motivation.

“You remember the faces, the places, the names” – thumping the wheel now, belting it out with Bruce – “You know it’s da da da da da the rain, Adam raised a –”

“Accident ahead!” Cindy was under orders to interrupt. “Caution!”

He stopped singing. The sound of the wipers took over. “Serious?” But Cindy didn’t answer.

Whatever causes them – human error, mechanical flaw or something wrong with your luck that day – accident scenes have a logic of their own, and by the time he got to it, the compulsory components of this one were already there: flashing lights, yellow jackets and the dumb, useless tailback in which he was duly trapped.

After some minutes of drumming his fingers on the wheel he got out to assess the damage – not to the vehicles involved, but to his chances of making the appointment on time. He got as close as he could but didn’t linger: a lorry on its side, contents vomited over the tarmac, and half a dozen crumpled cars in the fast lane told him the chances weren’t good.

“Why,” he asked, “didn’t you tell me to get off at the last exit?”

“Why,” said Cindy coolly, “didn’t the police tell you to get off at the last exit?”

“What do you mean?”

“They didn’t have time, Mr. Abbott.”

The answer wasn’t just wrong, it was insolent. The whole point about Carmate was that it reacted quicker than the police. “No one’s asking you to close down a motorway. Just to get me to my destination on time.”

Cindy left a slight pause. “You’d already passed the exit when the accident occurred.”

Abel didn’t answer. He wondered when the Companions had acquired a capacity to lie.

“Have no fear, Mr. Abbott. You can never be late with Carmate.”

Abel jabbed a finger at the screen and switched back to Lisa and Mozart.

 

The thing you have to remember is that every new day is yours – take it for the gift that it is, cherish it, use it well. Every morning, that was the message Abel greeted his staff with, and now he summoned its power to use on himself. Even when you’re stuck in a traffic jam, worried you might not reach your appointment, never forget that every day is a gift. When at last, over an hour later, he was able to squeeze through a gap in the debris on the hard shoulder, he reckoned he should still get there with a good half hour to spare. “I feel great,” he shouted, “you feel great, we all feel great – Carmate!” Then he kept the music low and concentrated on driving as fast as conditions would allow.

“Take the next exit off the motorway… Right at the roundabout, third exit… Straight on at the roundabout, second exit…” Lisa was reassuringly calm, informing him every so often of his expected time of arrival: 8:21, 8:18, 8:14. Once he’d built up a cushion of fifty minutes, he eased off the pace and relaxed.

“Right at the traffic lights four hundred yards ahead.”

“What?”

“Flooding is expected further on. Turn right here to avoid it.”

He slowed to a crawl, deliberately waiting for the lights to turn red. “What do you mean ‘expected’? Is there or isn’t there?”

“The river is rising rapidly, Mr. Abbott.”

What river? This was a major trunk road, for God’s sake. It couldn’t get flooded!

“The lights are green,” said Lisa at the same time as the car behind him sounded its horn.

Abel swore as he furiously swung to the right. “You’d better know what you’re doing, Goddamit! My promotion hangs on this appointment. If I’m late…”

“You can never be late with Carmate,” Lisa informed him, before adding coldly, “If you’d rather be with Cindy…”

“No!” He sat up straight, gripping the wheel tighter. “Just get it right, that’s all.”

“The detour will add another eighteen minutes. Turn left at the next junction, three hundred yards ahead. I advise you to slow down.”

He obeyed. No point risking an accident, after all. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if he got there a little late. He’d say there’d been a problem at home, a burst pipe, a burglary, whatever. He couldn’t say a Carmate Companion had kept him stuck on the motorway for an hour.

Out in the country, the absence of illumination was unnerving: suddenly there’s nothing but the beam from the car, gulping up the dotted white lines, a vague awareness of hedges on either side, trees gyrating wildly, and lashes of rain more vicious now, more determined. Then Lisa made him take a left and it wasn’t a road but a lane, and instead of white lines there were puddles and potholes and branches.

He stopped. “You’ve made a mistake.”

“In two and a half miles, turn right. Estimated time of arrival, 8:42.”

Grudgingly, warily, he put the car in gear. “Eight-forty, my arse,” he muttered. “Be bloody midday at this rate.”

“You don’t believe me.” Lisa’s voice was sad. “I’ve done all I can, Mr. Abbott. I’ll put you through to Cliff.”

“Wait!”

“Goodbye, Mr. Abbott.”

“Hello, Mr. Abbott.”

“What the…? Giles?”

“My name’s Cliff, Mr. Abbott. Please keep driving. You don’t want to be late.”

“What are you playing at, Roffe? Get me back on the road right now!”

“How are you feeling, Mr. Abbott?”

Abel poked his thumb at the screen, trying to switch it off, but Giles Roffe’s voice kept coming. “Don’t get in a state, you feel great, you can never be late with Carmate.”

Abel brought the car to a halt and slammed his fist at the screen. “I’ll get you for this, Roffe! I swear you’re gonna pay for this, you hear?”

The face on the screen smiled. “Don’t get in a state. You’re not late. The minute, the hour, the date. Right on time, Mr. Abbott. Your appointment.”

Abel managed to open the door but not to get out. The oak tree smashed into the car.

 

 

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writing technique

They had met a long time before

Mr Bennet

Mr. Bennet: complex and layered

“We are living in the most terrible age. I know people are worried about Brexit and I know people worry about Donald Trump. But I worry about the flashback.”

So says Colm Tóibín, for whom, as a novelist, this is of course a legitimate concern. He continues “You can’t read any book now – any book – without suddenly, on chapter 2, the writer taking you back to where everybody was 20 years ago. How their parents met, how their grandparents met.” And with great approval, he cites Jane Austen, who “wrote complex, layered characters without ever contemplating a flashback.”

I don’t know about that sweeping chapter 2 claim, but I fully agree about flashbacks (though I do worry more about Brexit). But I understand the temptation: you’ve created a host of characters, and to make them believable, you need to know where they grew up, what school they went to, what their parents did, the relationships they had. I’ve just spent considerable time working on the background to Sophie, the main character in my current WIP, so naturally, I don’t want to see it go to waste.

But it won’t be wasted, even if I don’t put it in the book. Because I know my character much better now, and the way she behaves makes sense because it’s grounded in a past of which I’m aware.

Are there exceptions? Of course. This article cites several novels which make effective use of flashbacks – Underworld, The God of Small Things, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao… But an author needs to know when and how to use them, and that requires experience.

Prompted by Tóibín’s complaint, I anxiously scoured my WIP. I’m happy to report that the dreaded flashback is absent. Phew! Yes, I found brief instances (two or three sentences) relating to a very recent past, when something reminds Sophie about a conversation she had previously. But Tóibín is talking more about backstory, filling in a character’s past. Of that, I found just one, which takes up 58 words.

But surely to be as categorical as Kristen Lamb (Why flashbacks ruin fiction) is excessive. One day, perhaps, I’ll make a conscious decision to construct a book with flashbacks. But I’m of the school that believes that rules need to be mastered before you can break them, and I’ve still got a lot to learn. For the time being then, I’ll stick to chronological, thank you.

And you? Have you experimented with them? Or avoided them like the plague?

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book promotion, Stories

You are invited

party

Invited exactly to what, I’m not very sure. Well, yes, a Facebook event. But my understanding of Facebook is about on a par with my understanding of the indescribable mess that for some reason still calls itself the United Kingdom. I dare say if I took the time to figure it out, Facebook might appear a little less complicated than Brexit, but I’ve never been that motivated, you know?

OK, here’s the thing. A few months back, a story of mine appeared in an anthology, Utopia Pending, and one of the other authors asked us if we’d like to host a slot in a Facebook event. Ever eager to learn new tricks, I said yes, so now I’ve got till Wednesday to think of something to do for a whole hour. Quizzes, prizes, giveaways – that sort of thing. Fun stuff. But don’t worry – I’m just one of several hosts, and they’ve done this before, so while my own slot might be a fiasco, theirs will be slick and professional.

The event is actually for the launch of a mini-series, The Mutation Chronicles, and it runs from 4 pm to 1 am UTC, which is 12 noon to 9 pm in New York and 3 am to 12 noon in Srednekolymsk. Check out the link here.

And what makes a party a success? That’s right – the guests. Since my own Facebook reach extends about as far as the end of my nose, please don’t hesitate to pass the invitation along. As we all know, the more the merrier – I look forward to seeing you!

 

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