Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The stripping down of language

One thing about the English language that constantly fascinates me is the variety of words that in their own nuanced way mean much the same thing. I’m sure most languages are that way – not really speaking anything other than English has a lot of drawbacks – so I have to confine these observations to that with which I am familiar. Regardless, being able to express myself in my native language is an honour as well as a constant delight.

Okay, enough of the rah-rah BS, let’s get down to the point of this post. Since I’m currently writing a novella for Orca Book Publishers Rapid Read Series (see my post from last week), I have been forced to completely strip down my way of expressing myself in prose to pretty well bare essentials. In no place is this more evident than in my choice of words. Anything with more than two syllables has to be looked at for possible replacement. Any word with five syllables is pretty well verboten.

Having to write this way has gotten me thinking about how the English language is deteriorating. I consider that I have a fairly large vocabulary, and I enjoy using it. But whenever I get a bit cocky about this, I just remember back to when I waded through Howard’s End by E.M. Forster. To get through that novel, I actually read two books: the novel itself and my trusty American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, without which I would have been screwed, the vocabulary is that obscure. At points, it seemed as if I had to crack the dictionary at least once per page.

In his time, Forster (and many others who wrote “serious literature” 100 years ago) was considered a giant of English prose. Now, he’s relegated to a backwater because his books are just so dense with words, writ large with lengthy descriptions and imagery. Getting to the crux of the matter, using florid vocabulary has simply fallen out of fashion.

Every year the Oxford Dictionary drops “archaic words and phrases”. New words and phrases are added, certainly, and many laud this effort because it proves to them that the language is growing and changing, ie “it’s alive and well”. But is it? I can’t put my finger on the actual figures, but the number of words in the average English speaker’s vocabulary is dropping every year. If memory serves, most of us know 50,000 words and use maybe 20,000.

To my mind, this is not a good thing. The language is poorer for it. However, on the other hand, try writing a book of any kind with the sort of dense prose style of Forster these days, and you’ll get shot down by nearly every publisher – unless your name is Lord Black of Cross Garters. (Ever try wading through one of his books?)

The causes for the diminution of the available English vocabulary are many and varied. I’m sure we could all come up with at least five, most lists led by a single word: texting, closely followed by “fewer people are reading”.

As writers, can we do anything about it? I like to sneak in the odd “large word” – except in Orca novellas – but they’re almost always flagged by my editors. (“Too obscure. Find another way to express this.”) I don’t ever want someone to require a dictionary to get through one of my novels, but there’s certainly nothing wrong having to resort to one a couple of times in reading 300 pages, is there?

As “usable language” shrinks, so does literature in many ways. Many North American publishers want dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. Description should be kept to a bare minimum (certainly in crime novels), and when using imagery, the author is on a very short leash.

Is this a good thing? Am I just being cranky because I can’t use my 25-cent words all that often anymore? What are your thoughts on the subject?

Monday, April 29, 2013

The joys of conference

This, I'm afraid, is going to be rather a short blog.  After two days at the Crime Writers' Association Conference, with two shockingly late nights in the bar,  I am less than sparkling today.  It didn't help that after I had gone to sleep last night, there was noisy and prolonged banging on a door nearby; someone had clearly  gone up to bed earlier then fallen asleep and didn't open the door when their partner came upstairs. A sound sleeper, clearly, who slept on peacefully through all the noise; everyone else all along the corridor was wakened, though!

It was an excellent conference.  The Lake District showed us all its mood - a sudden hailstorm, as we had a reception on a boat on Lake Windermere, beautiful sunshine the next day and to day the traditional soft, soaking rain and mist, dramatically broken by spells when the majestic hills came into view.

It was a splendid mixture of laughter with old friends, long talks with new members at the conference for the first time and talks that were both amusing and informative.  I learned things I didn't know about the Golden Age of Crime Writing (courtesy of Martin Edwards, whose own excellent books I commend to you) as well as fascinating facts about firearms.  The longest shot ever fired by a sniper (in Afghanistan) covered a distance of 3079 yards - almost 2 miles.  The astonishing thought was that it would take approximately ten seconds to get there and the bullet would arrive at the same time as the sound - and of course by then the target might have moved away.  Theough he didn't.

I discovered something interesting about the writing process too.  I always start writing longhand, before I transfer to the screen; it  seems to me that  it makes my connection with the material much more immediate - it sort of feels as if I can 'hear' better what my characters are saying.

Apparently, that's not as wacky as it sounds.  A neurologist explained that there is a difference in brain activity when writing creatively by hand compared to writing on a machine - the connection is stronger and more direct.   I'm quite prepared to go with my gut feeling even if I don't have a reason for it, but it is nice to have my instinct confirmed.

And now I'm going to go and sort out the washing, catch up with my emails, make a couple of phone calls and then go to bed early!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Books for a Castaway Writer

Sorry to be late today. I'm in the middle of a symposium here at school 

As you may recall, I am now on Twitter (@FrankieYBailey). I am finding it rather fascinating -- not because I have picked up huge numbers of "followers" or become convinced that this form of social media is what I should focus on in my efforts to reach readers. But it is a marvelous place to both follow fascinating people (e.g., William Shatner -- I am still a Trekkie) and keep up with what's happening (e.g., PBS). Lots of writers are there. And sometimes people pose interesting questions that produce almost instant replies. For example, a recent question about five favorite crime films. I was among those who responded to that one.

That question got me thinking about another perennial favorite among such questions. What five books you would want to have in your waterproof knapsack if you were shipwrecked on an island? I admit that I have gone back and forth on this one over the years. But I think I may have finally settled on books that would keep me amused, occupied, inspired, and might help me survive until I'm rescued. Here are my five: (1) The Complete Works of William Shakespeare; (2) Alice in Wonderland; (3) The U.S. Army Survival Manual; (4) War and Peace; (5) Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide.

You're probably wondering about number five. Maltin's annual movie guide would remind me of all of the movies I've seen in my lifetime. I could replay them in my mind. And, who knows? Remembering what Tom Hank's did when he was strayed, in conjunction with my Army survival manual, might just get me off my island. If not, I can finally read all of War and Peace. And then I can settle down to re-read all of Shakespeare and use his work as inspiration for multiple plots for new books that I can write if I can improvise writing instruments and paper. If not, I'll write in the sand and read Alice in Wonderland as my words are washed away by the tide. But I will certainly survive. Sooner or later, someone will see my SOS. And I will be quite sane when they find me. . .

What five books would you want to have in your knapsack?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Heartbreaking Love Affair

A lot has been happening in my daily life, as usual, and it's been hard to find adequate time to write. Especially considering the fact that I'm trying to write two novels at once. Sometimes the day is so packed that I don't write at all, and when that happens, oh, how I miss it.

When my first mystery novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, was published by Poisoned Pen Press in 2005, I was hardly a neophyte author. I had been writing professionally for untold years, and though I had never had any fiction published before, I expected that being a novelist was not going to hold any surprises for me.

My sixth novel, The Wrong Hill to Die On, came out last November, and after six books I’m here to tell you that I was wrong. Oh, I held no illusions about the romance of the authorly life. I knew it was going to be hard, and it is. I knew there would be days when you sit and stare at the screen, unable to type a single word that isn’t crap and you know that you’ll never be able to write again.

I knew that it was going to be wonderful, that there would be days that deathless prose flows so effortlessly that it makes you believe in God and divine inspiration.

I knew you had to have a hide like a rhinoceros and never take your reviews to heart, good or bad. I was perfectly aware that you have to know your craft. You have to practice, practice, practice, like a concert violinist, because it doesn’t matter if you have the skill of your art like Leonardo DaVinci and the genius in your field of Albert Einstein, if you don’t actually sit yourself down and put words to paper with ruthless determination, you ain’t a writer.

I was well aware that, unless the planets aligned and the gods conspired, I was not going to be able to support myself on royalty payments. Thus far, the planets have not aligned nor have the gods conspired.

I knew that you must never give up, even when you wonder why on earth you’re putting yourself through this for so little reward. I even knew how brave you have to be, to persevere, to trust the process, to write what you know you should write without wondering if it’s going to sell. (And believe me, that takes more courage than I sometimes have.)

I even knew that it was going to take over my life.

What I didn’t fully realize is how much writing is like being in love. You do things for it that you never thought you’d do. You long for it when something keeps you from it, and yet you resent how it takes over your life. You break your heart for it. You can’t give it up.

But when it loves you back ... ahh, there’s nothing like it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Woman's Place

Half a dozen blog post ideas are yammering at me this week. I could have blogged about last week's lively, successful Ottawa launch of my latest Inspector Green novel, THE WHISPER OF LEGENDS. For those of you closer to the southern part of Ontario (or upstate New York) the Toronto launch is May 9, 6:30 - 8 pm at Sleuth of Baker Street, one of the last independent mystery bookstores left standing in Canada. If you're within spitting distance, please come! It's only a fun party if people come.

I could have blogged about all the exciting preparations for my upcoming northern book tour with Vicki Delany in early June, and all the hair pulling that entails! That will likely be another blog or two closer to the day.

And I could have blogged about the recently announced shortlists for the 2013 Arthur Ellis Awards. As Rick mentioned, both Vicki and I are shortlisted in the inaugural Best Novella category, and because we will both be in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, when the winners are announced, it should be a lively evening in the hotel bar!

However (I'm getting to it), I decided that a sidebar from these Arthur Ellis award shortlists was perhaps the most important topic to address at this time. The Best Novel shortlist had five men and no women on it.  I want to say at the outset that this is no reflection on the quality of the judges nor of this year's nominees; they are all fine novels. Nor is this a case of sour grapes. I have no stake in this diatribe, because I have actually won this award twice and have no book in contention this year. But as a woman, I had an immediate, knee-jerk reaction of annoyance. If you're a woman, you'll understand these things. Where is the diversity, not only in gender but in style?

I calmed myself down, and being a social scientist who likes my theories to be based on evidence, I started to explore a few ideas. Was this a fluke year? Well, in the past ten years, exactly three Best Novel awards had gone to women (two to me, one to Louise Penny) and seven to men. In the 29 years since the award's inception, there have been nine female winners and 20 men. So the pattern holds. Not overwhelming odds but odd nonetheless. And the shortlist almost always had a ratio of 1 woman to 4 men. Best First Novel doesn't fare much better.

Gender discrepancies in awards, reviews and other measures of success has been the raison d'être of Sisters in Crime since its founding, but within the Canadian context I don't think it's been studied. As Canadians we are too busy worrying about our own insignificance relative to the US and the UK. Again wearing my scientist hat, I decided to do a quick analysis of underlying factors. First question. Of all 79 books submitted for the award, what was the proportion of male authors to female. The answer surprised me: 45 men and 34 women (57% to 43%). Furthermore, this ratio is already biased, because some women I know didn't even have their books submitted, possibly because their publishers thought they hadn't a hope (and the submission process costs).

Even with this suspect ratio, however, in a completely random, unbiased universe, at least two of the five authors on any shortlist should be female. So I asked my second question: what books were being published by whom? My analysis is not perfect, because I don't know every publisher, but when  I divided the books into big publishers vs. small to medium traditional publishers, an even more alarming statistic emerged. Of those books published by the "big houses" - i.e. Doubleday, Random House, Harper Collins, Penguin, etc - 20 were written by men and only 5 by women. Of the small to medium traditional publishers, 20 were men and 13 were women.

The other books on the list were either US-published or self-published, and the gender ratio in both cases favoured women about 7 to 4.

So it appears that in the Canadian publishing scene, there is a marked bias in favour of male authors relative to female (at least in the crime fiction world), and that this bias is most acute in the big houses. This was not a simple matter of awards favouring men. This was a matter of traditional publishing in Canada favouring men. Especially the big guys. And this matters, because the big houses have more editorial and marketing staff to spruce up books, more access to reviews, more literary festival invitations... in short all the tools to help a book gain credibility and profile within the marketplace.

Grumble, grumble.

Why? I asked myself. Do men write "better" books? Are agents more eager to sign them (which gives them access to the bigger houses)? Do men write more "big sales books" likely to make agents and publishers more money? Conventional wisdom has it that women will read across the spectrum but men will only read books by men. I think this is an insult to men, but never mind. Is this an example of "only men's tastes matter"?

A couple of other explanations come to mind. Perhaps the themes that men stereotypically choose (drugs, mean streets, international conspiracies, turf wars) are viewed as weightier and more worthy than so-called women's themes of family, relationships and community. Perhaps men aim higher and are more confident that their work is brilliant and deserves the biggest house. Perhaps men demand more respect.

I don't know the explanation, and I am enough of a scientist to ask the questions without jumping to conclusions. But I believe the question is worth asking, if only to give us pause. And now that I have stirred the pot, I'd love your thoughts on what I have put on the table.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The critical importance of every word

I’m currently nearing the halfway point in my second novella for Orca Book Publisher’s Rapid Read series.

Writing these books is a very interesting intellectual exercise. First of all, I have to submit a chapter by chapter plot synopsis and then stick to it – something at which I’m not always the best. (Sidebar: Boy, would that last sentence get flagged by Orca in a big hurry!) These books, since they’re primarily aimed at adults who don’t read well, must be straight ahead in construction, simple in plot – but not simplistic – and use vocab that’s not past a Grade 4 reading level. And did I mention that this all has to be accomplished in 20,000 words or less?

To anyone who hasn’t tried writing in this constricted a space, I heartily recommend it. Literally, you must pay attention to every single word you throw down on the page. When I started the first novella, since published as Orchestrated Murder, I was filled with self-doubts as to whether I could pull it off.

I learned a lot about myself, vis-a-vis my writing style, in that first outing, and the second one is proving just as enlightening (and easier going). First and foremost, because of the word count restriction, your writing has to be incredibly succinct. My goal (at which I’ll probably fail miserably) is to not have a single extraneous word or phrase. I’m finding that I have to go through every chapter far more than I normally do, plucking out words, phrases, sometimes whole sentences and paragraphs to make sure by the time I approach the end of the story, I’ve still got enough words “in the kitty”.

I find myself constantly considering things like:

  • Can this sentence possibly be simpler?
  • Oops! A four-syllable word. Is there anything I can do about that?
  • Is this conversation really necessary?
  • What about this character?
  • How can I work in this bit of character development without eating into my word count too much?

Descriptive passages, of course, need to be pretty well thrown out the door. Here’s where you have to use a few (hopefully) deft words to sketch a bare bones picture which you have to rely on the reader to fill in, not that we shouldn’t do that all the time, but here it is crucial.

The process of writing these books requires real intensity of purpose. The skills I am developing, though, can be felt throughout my fiction. I now try to focus on every single word, though I don’t have to be niggardly about the number I use. The result is my writing has become more precise (except when I’m blogging!) and, I believe, more impactful.

We’ll have to wait and see how it all turns out this time after final polishing by my editor and me, but having to work in this constricted environment has brought positive benefits to my skill level. It is possible, though difficult, to tell a full-length story simply, and it’s a skill I think every writer should have, so that when word count and simplicity isn’t first and foremost, you can still be economical with your prose and perhaps give it even greater impact.

And I want to end this week’s post by giving a shout out to Type M’s own Barbara Fradkin and founder Vicki Delany for being finalists in this year’s Arthur Ellis Awards for their own Rapid Reads books, Evil Behind That Door for Barbara, and A Winter Kill for Vicki. And lastly, Lou Allin (a guest here in the past) for her Contingency Plan. And get better, Lou!

Monday, April 22, 2013

The (Odd) Things We Writers do

(Note to readers: this post is being written on Thursday, April 18, and will be posted on Monday, April 22, my assigned slot. The thing is – Yay! – I am flying to New York City Friday morning for 5 days of pleasure. With luck, we might get to see a play or two. The Book of Mormon is off our list, though: tickets are going for $300 a pop. And we would not pay that much to spend two hours with Mormon himself. Or is it the Angel Moroni I am thinking of? But we will certainly see a lot of art galleries.)

In my usual pre-post angst, wondering what to write about this time out, I came across a really interesting column on the op-ed page of Monday's New York Times. It was titled Stupid Writer Tricks, and it was by the American writer, Ben Dolnick, author of the coming-of-age novel, Zoology, and a new novel, out soon: At The Bottom of Everything.

And to give full credit to the source of some of what follows below, here is his photo:

(For the actual column, go to: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/15/stupid-writer-tricks/)

The opening paragraph of the piece brilliantly sets the tone:

One day a couple of years ago, when I found my desk drawer so full of microphone headsets that it would no longer close, I realized it was time for an intervention. I could no longer deny it: I needed to stop reading interviews with authors.

Interviews can be addictive, apparently, and a very important source is The Paris Review, which has been conducting them since the long-ago days of the 1950s. The entire collection is online. Online material of all kinds, as we all know, is a monstrous creation, something a friend of mine would refer to as "a snare and a delusion". It calls up the well-worn joke about the person of a certain age who goes upstairs looking for something really important, and along the way is distracted by something else, which leads to something else, and so on and so on, until the original objective is completely forgotten, and s/he finds him/herself downstairs again, wondering why s/he went upstairs in the first place. Being of "a certain age", I know that feeling much too well. 

But, back to Dolnick's riff on author interviews in The Paris Review:

...whole days, weeks, months can disappear as you read about why Ray Bradbury has no use for college writing programs or consider the fact that Janet Malcolm no longer smokes while she writes.

Other gems of creative assistance are noted.
  • Alice Munro writes her first drafts with a scribbler. (I have to wonder what that might be.)
  • Haruki Murakami feels it necessary to exercise like a marathoner in order to sustain his novel-writing momentum. (I ran my one and only marathon in 1982, but my first novel, Undertow, did not appear until 20 years later. What gives here, I have to wonder? Where did I go wrong?)
  • Don DeLillo once typed each paragraph on its own piece of paper. (Interesting. Someone once told me that Michael Connelly dedicated an individual laptop to each novel, and when it was done, put it away in storage, never to be violated again. I tried that in 2006, but the partially completed novel, partly set in Havana, sits there still, along with some 12,000 other partially completed works of near-genius.) 
  • Joan Didion needed to be sleeping in the same room with her manuscript, so as never to lose touch with it. (That technique is now on my to-do list; the problem being that my uncompleted manuscripts, such as they are, are on that famous laptop, and I worry that I might stagger out of bed in the middle of the night, answering the call of nature that gentlemen of a certain age are prey to, and crush the damn thing underfoot. That would be an unspeakable tragedy.) 
  • Philip Roth writes at a standing-desk, but this is apparently for lumbar, rather than for literary reasons. (I might have tried this, but the standing technique has been forever and irreversibly tainted by knowledge that Donald Rumsfeld, a major architect of the 2003 Iraq disaster and other calumnies, worked in the same manner. Definitely a no-no for a writer of vaguely liberal pretensions.)
This writing business - and it isn't much of a business, really, if your books don't take off into the literary ionosphere, and land you interviews on PBS, on Letterman, or some other internationally popular and profitable venue. (The BBC would be my first choice, but that's my quasi-English DNA fragments kicking in.)

Yesterday I had an illuminating session with my accountant. I have an accountant not because my book income is overwhelming and numbered accounts in obscure Caribbean republics beckon, but because I am of a certain age, and my post-retirement, pre-embalming investment portfolio needs translating. My nest egg, modest though it is, is now sufficiently complicated that it takes a skilled numbers guy to make sense of it. The hieroglyphics of accounting and finance render me numb with terror.

After looking at my recent book earnings, outlined in the paltry royalty statements – my gleeful cry that I can now afford to buy that Big Mac Double Cheeseburger with Fries and Shake that I have been lusting after all these years did not impress him all that much – and his thoughtful and kind comment, that this does not really look like a business plan, has now been taken to heart. He appeared to be suggesting that if I wanted to make some real money, I might think about taking a job at MacDonald's, dishing out Big Mac Double Cheeseburgers with Fries and Shake, or consider a job as greeter at Walmart. And it's a fact, watery blue is one of my favourite colours.

Now, semi-sobered by the reality of my financial un-success as an author, but still with the desire to put words on screen, with the ultimate goal – or should that be "gaol" – of seeing said words on paper between covers, I am trying to reorder my thinking and approach to the enterprise. (Not to be mistranslated as "business".) I have tried writing in coffee shops. Doesn't work. I have tried writing on buses, or at least making cogent notes on the well-worn seats, and indeed have jotted down sketches of the people around me. (But James Joyce I am not, and Ulysses is nowhere in sight.)

I have used all manner of implements: the famous laptop; a succession of desktops; pads and notebooks of various dimensions, designs and colours; pencils of various kinds and description and hardness; I have a world-class collection of pens – ballpoints, felt tips, and so on. I even have a Parker 51 ink pen that I bought in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1957, from a silver-tongued salesman who was allowed to flog his wares on the Canadian naval ship, a frigate called HMCS Fort Erie, on which I was billeted during my short but brilliant naval career. None of the foregoing has facilitated the completion of my stalled fourth book.

I am too aware of the old saw that "Writing is easy; you just have to sit there and concentrate until blood starts to seep out of your forehead." Yeah, sure. But I will persevere. Only last week, I saw a nifty laptop in Staples that might just do the trick. It was small, compact, and very light. It had Wi-Fi, whatever that might be; something like a "scribbler", maybe? The Staples salesman told me I should never leave it unattended in an outdoor setting. A gentle wind might catch it, and blow it away. It is that advanced in design. I will certainly keep that in mind, should I take the fiscal plunge.

In the meantime, I remind myself that I need a new supply of ink for that Parker pen. And a blue-tinged writing pad. One of my favourite colours, you understand.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Writing Key West

We are pleased to welcome Lucy Burdette to Type M for Murder.

Lucy is the author of the Key West food critic mysteries, with Topped Chef coming on May 7. She has also written 8 mysteries as Roberta Isleib. You are invited to follow her on twitter or facebook or check out her website. She also blogs with the amazing women of Jungle Red Writers and Mystery Lovers Kitchen.

Writing Key West
by Lucy Burdette

Do you like to see real places and characters in the novels you read? Or do you think reality in fiction falls into the category of “lazy imagination?”

My eleventh mystery, Topped Chef, will be published on May 7. Since this series takes place in Key West, it's very tempting to borrow real places and people from the island and put them in the story. If you can't find interesting details in Key West, you surely must have your eyes closed and your ears stoppered.

In fact, for me writing without actually seeing the scene of the crime has gotten harder. An important part of my process is visiting the setting, either before or while developing the story. When I see what’s there, the ideas start to flood in.

A research outing might go like this: I'm wandering through the crowds at the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square on the Key West harbor, I spot a tarot card reader set up at a card table, wearing a deep blue turban with an enormous teardrop rhinestone bisecting his forehead. My mind begins to spin. What if my protagonist, aspiring food critic Hayley Snow, is addicted to having her cards read because she's insecure about making her own decisions? And what if her tarot reader sees a card scary enough that even he gets rattled? And what if Hayley uses what she thinks she sees in his reactions to dig herself into deeper trouble? And so Marvin the card reader is born as a character. Only then one of my pals says 'who'd go to a psychic named Marvin?' So I change his name to Lorenzo, but later he admits that he grew up as Marvin but who'd want their cards read by a guy with that name?

Then, as I'm walking and biking around Key West, I notice that homeless people are everywhere, including perched on the stone walls around Mallory Square watching the performers and the tourists. After all, if you had to spend your nights outdoors, you might choose the tropics too. And I think about how they blend into the scenery, but probably notice all kinds of things that visitors wouldn't see. And so Turtle, the homeless guy, becomes a character. One cool night, after the crowds have thinned down at the Old Town Harbor, he notices two men arguing. When a man is found hung in a sailboat's rigging later, he doesn't connect the dots. Or maybe he does, but he would never voluntarily go to the police with this information. But Hayley might worm it out of him. Or a bad guy might realize he knows more than he should and bad things ensue.

And then there are names and characters given to me that I can't refuse. For instance, last year I offered an auction item to benefit the Waterfront Playhouse – naming rights to a character in Topped Chef. The man who won the auction sent me a photo and bio of the character he wanted me to include – Randy Thompson, an actual drag queen who performs at the Aqua bar as Victoria. I didn't have the heart to explain that I'd offered naming rights, not character development rights. So I took the real Randy to lunch to chat about the psychology of drag queens and watched him (her) perform a few times, and expanded the character from those points. And then I decided what the heck, and threw Peter Shapiro, the man who’d bought the character, into the mix too.

So you see for me, reality and fiction are wound tightly together. But I’d love to hear your opinions: Do you like real people and places in the books you read – or write? Or do you prefer 100% fiction?

Friday, April 19, 2013


Everything I own detracts from writing time. There’s the time spent shopping for the item to begin with. Then a number possessions need to be winterized, color-coordinated, insured, registered, rust-proofed, synced, tuned, repainted, stored, or protected from breakage. Added to the mix now are surveys asking me to evaluate every purchase from an ice cream cone to a light bulb. Then comes the request to “like” their Facebook page and tweet about the purchasing experience. It’s enough to discourage the most avid shopper.
This month I seriously upgraded aging technology. I have a new Windows 8 desktop computer and a Surface Pro. I love both systems. The Surface Pro is everything I hoped it would be. A small computer with all the Windows applications. It syncs with my Desktop through Sky Drive. Through the miracle of the internet I can pick up right where I left off in my latest manuscript no matter where I am.

If a place has internet capability that is. I forgot about that.

I had forgotten a number of other things. Not everything works. Something was wrong with the Bluetooth speakers. Thinking about number of phone calls involved before I got a return label gives me a headache.
Basically, though, it was money well spent. I started writing when my kids were little and can write about anywhere. The family made a wild dash back to Kansas last weekend. As I am an early riser, it gave me a great deal of satisfaction to be able to slip down to the hotel lobby and work in peace while they slept.
I can't imagine the agony of trying to do extensive revisions on an old manual typewriter. Composite files are heavenly. What did we ever do without global searches to straighten out screw-ups?
But I missed posting on the Poisoned Pen Press blog for the first time because I didn't have the good sense to write and schedule my post ahead of time. I missed posting on Type M too. Part of the problem was that I was messing with technology instead of thinking about commitments. Thinking takes time. Writing takes time. Making stuff work is a real time drain.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that my new systems are better and faster, I'm saying goodbye to buying. I simply don't have the time for much more improvement.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Let the Reader tell the Story

The writers I love to read and the ones I most respect are minimalists -- Ernest Hemingway topping that list -- because I've always felt there's something to be said for conveying much by saying little. In fact, a Hemingway quote hangs in my classroom: "I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen." Listening well requires the ability to infer details and information. This is an important skill for students to have. But it is also one readers rely on and, I would argue, one they desire.

The adage "show, don't tell" is timeless for several reasons. One reason that doesn't get much airtime is: readers like to play a role in the story. That is, a reader doesn't want to be spoon fed information; he wants to figure out things on his own Fiction, after all, has never been technical writing, and some details known by the writer simply do not need to be conveyed.

An excellent example exists in Hemingway's classic story "Hills Like White Elephants." In it, Hemingway describes the girl, Jig, by telling readers she sets her hat on the table. It's 1927. The couple is in Europe. So, given these details, what does the hat look like? I imagine it as a wide-brimmed sunhat. And if Jig is wearing a sunhat, what does the rest of her outfit look like? The reader fills in this information subconsciously. That's Hemingway's desire. And if it wasn't, the great author would have filled in the gaps of the clothing details for us. Similarly, if I write "The cop wore a leather jacket," the reader can infer what the rest of the cop's outfit consists of. And if the reader's inference isn't exactly the same as mine, so be it. The reader should get to make choices and play a role in the telling of the story.

The central questions the writer must consider are: How do people know us, and how do we know others? We are what we do (action) and say (dialogue). But we are also what we wear and what we collect. For instance, what does this room say about the people who live in the house?

A family portrait dominated the eastern wall, and the room's lights seemed arranged to highlight it. In the portrait, everyone wore khaki -- pants for the twins and him, a skirt for her -- and matching white tennis shirts; navy blue sweaters draped over the twins' shoulders. The family stood on a beach somewhere. In the background, the ocean was calm. The picture window offered sunlight that splashed off the cherry hardwood floor and the leather sofa. The editions lining the bookcases were hardbacks, the spines of most seemed never to have been cracked. There was a fireplace along the far wall, but the bricks lacked the charred remains of regular usage.

What can be inferred about this family? Socioeconomic status, for starters. What is the rest of the house like? Can we guess what kind of vehicles they drive?

As a writer, you must decide which details to let readers infer and which to provide. But taking care of your readers means letting them play a role in the telling of the story.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dealing with rejection

Things have been pretty serious around Type M of late, and I’m certainly guilty of a fair bit of it, in fact, I’ll put my hand up proudly to declare that, since the conversation has been elevated and the response from Type M readers pretty terrific.

But maybe it’s time to turn the page just a little. Yes, the current job situation – whether you’re in publishing or not – remains pretty grim, but doesn’t the saying go that “laughter is the best medicine”?

A writing colleague, Deryn Collier (we really must get her on Type M some weekend), posted a link on Facebook to an interesting article from examiner.com about rejections some rather, ah, well-known authors have received over the years. I’ll wait here while you click on “interesting article” and read it.

Okay. All writers will know what this feels like. Getting a rejection letter for something on which you’ve worked on so hard for so long is like a body blow. It is a very hard thing to take. However, when you’re also faced with a rejection where the rejector has worked hard to say something pithy and clever at your expense, it feels far, far worse. In essence, you’re being laughed at. Like many, I’ve had to deal with that. My first ever serious musical composition was labelled by the reviewer as “anal scribblings”, something I’ve mentioned here before. It was absolutely devastating. There were several more pithy comments at my expense in that review, but I was smart enough to read it once and not keep a copy.

When I read the above article, it did bring a smile to my face, though, because having been there, done that and received several t-shirts, it’s just so damned heartwarming to see at least some authors get the last word, their success being the best revenge. The poster child of this has to be JK Rowling simply because of  the magnitude of her success. Think of those agents and publishers who summarily rejected her first Harry Potter book. She’s now made billions of dollars, and if they’d been astute enough, they would have hundreds of millions in their pockets right now. I’m sure she received some kind rejections along the way, but I know that there were others that were snarky or overly clever, as well. Looks good on those bums, doesn’t it?

There is no reason to be nasty when rejecting something or someone. Isn’t it just as easy to say something simple, direct and honest, such as, “Sorry, this is not for us”? If you want to provide a bit of helpful criticism to the writer, then fine, do so. But there is never any need to dump on the poor soul as some of these rejection letters do.

Creating a piece of fiction – actually, any work of art – and then presenting it to the world (no matter how limited that presentation may be) is very much like standing on a street corner and removing all your clothes. You are revealing something fundamentally so personal, it’s a very rare person who can also take the body blows when those to whom you’re showing your work decide to be petty, cruel or downright nasty.

The examiner.com article should provide a soothing balm to any open wound an artist may have. Publishers and agents are not omniscient. If they were, they’d only have best sellers on their rosters, wouldn’t they?

Keep the faith and continue on! You, too, may be rewarded with the last laugh.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Well, why do we write?

It's been very interesting to read Rick's, John's and Hannah's posts in reaction to Amazon's latest scheme to bankrupt authors. I've been thinking about it a lot since my last post.

That old cynic, Samuel Johnson, said, 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.'  Shakespeare, the realist, didn't write plays while the Globe was closed during the Bubonic Plague – and he didn't make his money anyway from being a playwright. The standard payment for the rights to put on a play was around £6. He was paid better as an actor but most importantly, he was a shareholder in the company and the theatres they performed in.

I guess every writer, particularly before they're published, dreams of rags to riches success, when the world discovers their amazing genius.  For JK Rowling and EL James and SJ Watson, it happened.  (Should we all try using initials instead of first names?)  For the rest of us, not so much, and now as the slender rewards for writing dry up further there are some tough questions we have to ask ourselves.

We are hard-wired with the urge to tell a story. As far back as we can go in the history of literature, right back to the oral tradition of the bards and Homer, the ability has been prized by society. Now, with the means of transmission directly to hand everyone seems to be out to prove the old dictum that everyone has a book in them – my husband is inclined to add darkly, 'Yes, but not necessarily one that anyone would want to read.'

So there's no hope of holding publishers to ransom; if you don't want to write for a pittance, there's a line of people queueing up for the chance.

It's a strange thing, money. When I was a young teacher, I had a friend who was a merchant banker.  He had the sort of salary that could have bought our house once a year, but he was always moaning about it not being enough. He didn't actually have a particularly lavish lifestyle – well, he did, compared to us, but that wasn't saying much – and one day I asked him what on earth the money was for. He found it hard to explain but gradually it emerged that it wasn't really about actual cash at all – it was an index of success.

When I get a cheque from a publisher, it validates what I do. Someone else values my work and is prepared to gamble that others will too, in sufficient numbers. I can call myself a professional writer,  even if  I rely on my husband to put the jam on the rather dry piece of bread.

When payment is derisory and an advance non-existent, are we coming into the dodgy realm of vanity publishing? True, we don't actually pay the publishers – or do we? If we costed out our time, we are making them a payment in kind of hours and hours and hours of work – and no minimum wage.

What is it that makes us go on? I have the story-telling bug; I want others to read what I've written and I love the emails that tell me I've given pleasure. I love seeing the concrete book, there in my hands (though I don't feel the same about one that will be transmitted on screen). I love it when reviewers say nice things (and bleed when they don't). I love being asked to talk to people about my books, I love the people I meet because I'm a writer, I love the interesting committees and festivals. I'm afraid all that does seem a pretty good definition of vanity.

There are websites where people who download pirated copies of our books aggressively defend their 'right' to read out books free, as if doing us the favour of reading our words gives them entitlement.  General attitudes seem to be moving closer and closer to the same point.

At the moment I'm still being paid enough to make it worth it. If the point comes when all I'm offered is the glory of a book in print, will I go on? The terrible thing is, I probably will.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Something Extra

Yesterday, I had a facial. I realize this seems to have nothing to do with writing, but give me a couple of paragraphs to explain. It's been years since I had a facial, and I had one yesterday only because my hair stylist, who is also the owner of the salon, had given me coupons for two free facials at Christmas. She requested that I "use them this year." Last year and the year before I didn't. Having been nudged and feeling guilty about not using my gift, I booked my facial during my hair appointment.

Relaxing music, comfortable table to recline on, I settled in to have my face scrubbed, steamed, and exfoliated. When she'd finished applying my "hydrating mask," the skin therapist turned to my hands . . . my neglected hands that had survived a cold winter when I seldom remembered to wear gloves. My hands that never receive a professional manicure, that are plunged into hot dishwater, and take whatever I do to them without complaining. But, yesterday, my hands had a treat -- a deep, finger-stretching massage before being slipped into warm mittens.   

I went in not too interested in having a facial. I came out more than ready to listen when the skin therapist  offered me a leaflet describing a special offered on a three- or four-package of facials. The four facial package was "a bargain" because it included an additional skin treatment. I went out to have my hair washed and trimmed, and by the time my stylist saw me out at the reception desk, I was debating out loud whether to go with the three or four. As my stylist pointed out, and I agreed, the package of four was a better deal and I could schedule my facials in conjunction with my hair appointments. I forked over my money then and there. 

That brings me to what I've been pondering since yesterday. When I thought about it, I realized that all of the people I return to for service offer "something extra". Not an inexpensive giveaway -- although that's always nice -- but more a quality of service. The hand massage is undoubtedly standard practice with facials, and I had simply forgotten. But it was the hand massage delivered with expertise and commitment to making me feel pampered that made it not only a pleasant surprise, but the something extra of the service. My skin therapist had this in common with the contractor who I've been with since I bought my house a few years ago. I wasn't thrilled when I had to replace my roof, but he and his crew found a problem with an electrical wire leading to my house. They built a room divider that I saw on HGTV based on the photo. They not only do repairs in my basement, they remove my heavy air conditioners from my windows. My contractor provided me with the name of a reliable and reasonably priced tree cutter when a giant pine tree in my backyard -- towering over my garage -- became diseased and needed to be cut down. He invites me to his house for his annual party. Now, clearly -- as he jokingly tells me -- since my house is almost a hundred years old, he expects to have me as a customer for a long time. But he, like the skin therapist yesterday, delivers his services in a way that makes me feel I am valued. 

It happens in other places -- for example, the waiter (a.k.a. "server") in a restaurant who knows the details about the preparation of every item on the menu, brings a sample so that you can try the dessert you're debating, has the take-home box ready before you ask. These are the people who offer us a rewarding experience even when we seek out their services reluctantly. The question is how we as writers offer that kind of experience to our readers. Of course, the obvious, and perhaps best, answer is to write a good book. If we're are professionals, we try to deliver on that contract with our readers.

But what about the readers who haven't discovered our books? How do we draw them in? We have the equivalent of coupons for facials -- excerpts from our books, short stories offered for free or almost, or, in one case that I read about yesterday, a self-published author who offered the first book in her series for free to attract readers who would continue with the series (and it was said to have worked).

Still, there seems to be more to this than simply marketing our valuable services as authors who write books that are entertaining and enthralling. What I would like to know is how I provide the kind of "customer service" that extends beyond the book a reader is holding in his or her hand and becomes a relationship. Some writers seem to have the ability to do that with ease. Perhaps that's what social media is all about -- a 21st century way of forging that relationship by being accessible. But I think that it should be more than writing a great book and being friendly and accessible. I think it should be bringing expertise and professionalism and style to the relationship between writer and reader.

In one of her early books, Dr. Joyce Brothers made the argument that to be successful in a career, one should develop a unique cluster of skills and/or knowledge. She had applied the principle to getting on a television game show -- a psychologist who was an expert on boxing. I have applied the concept to my academic career. I'm wondering if I also could do it in my approach to readers. What is that something extra based on knowledge and expertise that I can offer? Surely, I already try to do that in my books. But what can I do in my marketing that gives a potential reader a valuable "sample" of what it is about my writing that will be special? My own equivalent of a promise that neglected hands will be tucked into warm mittens -- that service will be offered with style and expertise and no pressure.

Still pondering -- and this may sound a bit befuddled because I'm thinking out loud -- but that was how I got from a facial to thinking about the relationship between writers and readers. Thoughts?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Going Deep

I didn’t sleep very well last night. I couldn’t go deep. This is a problem I’ve been having off and on for years, one with which I’m sure everyone who has ever been a writer/mother/caretaker/jobholder is familiar. I’ve become hyper-vigilant. I’m always right on the surface, aware even in sleep of everything that is going on in the house. My mind won’t shut off. It’s exhausting.

As I lay awake, thinking about the concept of ‘going deep’ did cause me to spend some time pondering the mysteries of the universe. Physicists believe they have found the basic building block of reality, the smallest thing there is. The elementary particle. The Higgs boson. But for years I have had an intimation that creation is not just imponderably huge, without limit, out there, it is also imponderably ‘in there’, deep without limit. Just as there is no top, there is no bottom.

I recently read Jonah Lehrer's new book called Imagine. In it Lehrer propounds that daydreaming and otherwise allowing the mind to wander aimlessly is the most effective way to tap your true creativity.

I dearly hope that is so, because I would then be the most effectively creative creature alive.

I was listening to the Diane Rehm show on NPR recently and heard one of my favorite if not often thought-of quotes by sportswriter Red Smith: “There’s nothing to writing. You just sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

Ain’t it the truth? I've been working on two books at once lately, which sounds very ambitious of me. Some days I can slog along quite handily, but there are days that I open a vein and nothing comes out. When that happens, it causes me great agony and despair that I can’t whip up the wherewithal to do what needs to be done. On such days I sit at my desk for an hour staring at a pad of paper, or at the computer with my fingers poised over the keyboard, and … nothing. It’s not even that I can’t think of anything to write. I am always writing in my head, and have done for as far back as I can remember.

So I just put down something.  Anything. I figure I can always fix it later.  Then I use myself up on the meal preparation, laundry, chores, errands, doctor appointments.  Or clean something, or garden or dust or cook. Brawny tasks which take only muscle and no opening of veins.

I have author friends who have full time jobs and small children and broken arms and still manage to pound out two books a year. And one of the main tenets of writing that I propound when I teach a class is that it doesn’t matter whether you feel like it or not, you just do it. If what you write is drivel, keep going, and you will eventually attract the attention of the muses.

Anybody can have a good idea for a novel. It’s putting it on paper in a compelling way that makes a writer.

Okay, I’ve inspired myself to try again. Hand me the scalpel.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why Do We Write?

Chiming in late here and adding my two pennyworths as to the dismal state of publishing.

Forgive the short post but I have been traveling extensively these past two weeks and I am a tad jet-lagged. It was all for pleasure—seeing family—and it was whilst I was sleeping in my old bedroom that I picked up The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway.

It was an old edition, circa 1987, published posthumously but written over a period of fifteen years from 1947 onwards. The dates could be a little off since—as I have already mentioned—I am struggling to stay awake as I write this. The story follows the relationship between a struggling writer and his wife on their extended honeymoon in the Mediterranean.

Apart from the fact that I hadn’t read Hemingway for years and had forgotten what an incredible writer he is, the protagonist’s writing life really struck a chord with me. Yes, this book was fiction but even so, he spoke of advances, royalties and printings. Even fifty years ago it would seem that advances and royalty percentages were far more than authors (the regular folks, not the big names) are getting now! There was no social media and yet writers flourished!

We all know that being an author can be very isolating. Today, we have Facebook, Twitter or emailing that allows a constant exchange of information on every aspect of publishing. I have author friends who know all the sales figures of their peers … which brings me to my two pennyworths. If Hemingway were alive today, I wonder if he’d worry about how many followers he had on Twitter.

The role of the modern day author has changed beyond all recognition. For me, the knowledge that is available in the media has not enriched my life or my confidence as a writer. I always feel inadequate; that I’m not doing enough publicity-wise for my writing career and at the same time, wondering if I’m flogging the proverbial dead horse because what’s the point of carrying on if Scott Turow’s article in Monday’s New York Times is true?

It comes back to the question that I’m often asked by non-writers. “Why do you do it?”

I write because there is nothing else I want to do. When I first started, I didn’t think about the business side at all. I just wanted to tell stories. Somewhere along the way I've lost my perspective. 
In Selected Letters Bernard Berenson, 1954, Hemingway said, “I think we should never be too pessimistic about what we know we have done well because we should have some reward and the only reward is that which is within ourselves…. Publicity, admiration, adulation, or simply being fashionable are all worthless….”
Having said all that, I still yearn to give up my day job. 

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Off-topic, but still relevant

The founder and guiding light of Type M for so long, Vicki Delany, has been doing some tweeting the past day or so, and all of a sudden, the media is calling for interviews. Is it all because of her latest novel, or something she’s done as an author? Unfortunately not. This is all about her previous life, working for the Royal Bank of Canada in their IT department.

If you’re not in Canada, you need a bit of background. Basically, the problems RBC is experiencing is due to their outsourcing of jobs. In this case, they’re going to India. The Indian company, iGATE Corporation, who has been hired to take over the same department where Vicki worked for many years and outsource those IT jobs to India. Where RBC really stepped in it was when iGATE brought in foreign workers to be trained for these jobs by the very people they were replacing, colleagues of Ms Delany for many years. For the past two days, RBC has been back-pedaling, trying to explain what actually happened, trying to put a better shine on their actions. But the anger is still palpable right across the country, regardless of how RBC and their CEO try to spin this. Click HERE to get the full story of what’s going on here in overly polite Canada.

The crux of this particular story is not new. Outsourcing has been going on for years. Take the word itself: outsourcing. As usual, some unknown PR genius (probably a contract employee) came up with the perfect way to sugarcoat what corporations are doing: shipping out jobs to countries where workers are paid a pittance, all in an effort to bolster said corporation’s bottom line.

[Sidebar: For a long time, I’ve found it infuriating that corporations that outsource always couch it in such a way that it almost seems a mystery to them as to how it happened, as if it’s all been some unfortunate accident. “We showed up at work today, and guess what? Overnight, all the jobs in our factory were outsourced to somewhere else!” Wouldn’t it be refreshing if a corporation actually said, “We could outsource, but we don’t want to. We will provide you with the best items and the best service and hold on to our excellent and loyal employees. We’ll just have to charge a bit more than our competitors who are putting hundreds out of work in other communities, all in an attempt to get an edge in the marketplace. We hope you understand.” I would certainly line up to shop at a store selling that corporation’s widgets!]

In this present kerfuffle, RBC admits that they are shipping these jobs offshore to bolster their bottom line. What’s getting up Canadians’ noses is that this bank (like the other big Canadian financial institutions) has been racking up huge profits for years now. And it’s not as if other banks haven’t been doing the same thing (the outsourcing as well as the profits). RBC, thanks to some loud, soon-to-be ex employees, found their actions splashed all over the media. It doesn’t help that their very ham-handed spin has only poured gasoline on the fire. It’s been fun to watch them squirm.

The way I see it, this could be the start of a good thing. All across the western world, corporations have been using outsourcing as a way to solidify their positions and make ever-bigger profits. They call it “staying competitive”, and while this is part of the equation, it’s also a bit of a dodge. They are taking many long-time, loyal employees, kicking them to the curb, and giving their jobs to people who get paid ridiculously low wages, and often suffer in deplorable work conditions. In the quest for lower operating costs, everyone suffers – the employees who lose their jobs and the workers in “emerging nations” who take over the jobs. No one has really called these corporations to task for their actions – until this occasion. It is the talk of Canada, and a result has been many depositors shutting down their accounts, and judging by the scuttlebutt, they’re heading for credit unions rather than the other big banks. I would have to think that all banks and corporations are paying attention to how this story unfolds. I, for one, hope the public’s attention doesn’t drift off, as it usually seems to. It’s about time for corporate toes to be held in the fire. There’s some ’splainin’ that needs to be done.

When did it become okay for unlivable wages to be the goal for every corporation? Publishers are no different. When “advances against (future) royalties” were instituted many years ago now, they were offered so that writers could spend their time writing, instead of having to work other jobs in order to live and be forced to write in their spare time. Any writer will tell you that the job becomes far more difficult when you cannot focus all of your energies on writing. Why do you think we lock ourselves away in cold dark garrets in order to put pen to paper?

Now it seems it’s okay to offer a pittance in a royalty advance, a mere token of what is needed.
To me it seems more like a pat on the head or a prize for having your book accepted by the publisher. The whole idea of why advances were originally given has been lost. Very few of the writers you enjoy reading are able to make a reasonable living from their work, and even fewer garner the riches in which the public seems to think we all wallow. How far do they think a $1000 advance will go – especially when it’s given in three payouts over many months as the book makes its way through the publishing pipeline?

What is the same whether we’re writers, bank workers or any workers who lose their employment because of outsourcing is that we’re the bottom rung of the ladder, the most vulnerable. We are the ones paying the price for greed up at the top. In the case of writers, yes, book publishing is in transition. Traditional sources of revenue are drying up, changed by technology, and everything is uncertain as a result. But it is on the bottom, where the creators of the art toil, that the financial ax has fallen hardest.

Just for once, wouldn’t you like to see a CEO whose job is outsourced to India?

Thanks for letting me bend your ear.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Maugham on Maugham - and on Writing

Maugham being William Somerset Maugham, 1874-1965. (Coincidentally, the same birth and death years of Winston Churchill, Maugham's contemporary and friend.)

Somerset Maugham, if it need be said, was one of the most successful writers of the twentieth century. He excelled in writing novels, plays, short stories, travel books, and essays. Although he died almost 50 years ago, at the ripe age of 91, he has not, like some of his contemporaries, been forgotten. Most recently, four of his books have reappeared in movie form; in total, there have been dozens of films over the years made from Maugham's work.

The Razor's Edge, 1984, with Bill Murray and Theresa Russell:

Razors edge 84.jpg

Up At The Villa, 2000, with Sean Penn and Kristen Scott Thomas:

Up at the Villa poster.jpg

Being Julia, 2004, with Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons (loosely adapted from Maugham's novel, Theatre):

Being Julia movie.jpg

The Painted Veil, 2006, with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton:


As someone who has long admired Maugham's writing, it is a particular pleasure for me that he continues to entertain, even if it has been some years since I read any of his work. That changed a few weeks ago when I embarked on a course on 'spy fiction' at Carleton University. (My last post, 2 weeks ago, was on one of the writers we are reading in the course, John Buchan - later Lord Tweedsmuir - author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, a spy thriller from 1915 that Buchan would likely have referred to as a 'Shilling Shocker', the British version of the American 'Thriller'.)

The Maugham book that was chosen for our course was Ashenden - Or The British Agent. This is a collection of loosely-connected stories, in effect a quasi-novel, which could also double as a treatise of sorts on the serious, and frequently sordid, business of espionage in wartime. Maugham, in fact, is John Ashenden, the protagonist of the stories, briefly described in the opening story, "R.", as follows: "It was not until the beginning of September that Ashenden, a writer by profession, who had been abroad at the outbreak of the war, managed to get back to England." (The war broke out in August, 1914.) Once there, he chanced to go to a party where he was introduced to a middle-aged Colonel who asked Ashenden to meet with him the next day. The Colonel, thereafter known as "R", is with the British Government's Intelligence Department. Ashenden/Maugham is recruited as a spy, and continues in that role through most of the rest of the war. In several of the sixteen stories, Ashenden uses an alias, 'Somerset', clearly a play on his own name.

Maugham was a writer who took his craft seriously and, as noted, was hugely successful. Perhaps his greatest financial success was as a playwright;  by 1908, he had four plays running simultaneously in London's West End. His success was such that he eventually owned a villa at Cap Ferrat on the Riviera, the Villa Mauresque, or Moorish Villa. After World War II began in earnest, in 1940 with the collapse of France, Maugham was forced to abandon the villa, and he spent most of the war years in the United States, in South Carolina. At war's end, in 1945, he returned to Cap Ferrat, effected major repairs to the damage the war had brought to his home, and lived at the villa until his death twenty years later, in 1965.

Although Maugham based his Ashenden stories on his own (and perhaps some borrowed) experiences in the Intelligence Department, they are extensively fictionalised. In the Preface to a new edition of the book, written at the outset of the Second World War, Maugham makes this very clear:

"Fact is a poor story-teller. It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion ... it has no sense of climax and whittles away its dramatic effects in irrelevance."

In other words, in direct opposition to the way Maugham writes. His method of writing, as he describes it, "chooses from life what is curious, telling and dramatic; it does not seek to copy life, but keeps to it closely enough not to shock the reader into disbelief ... it makes a formal decoration out of such of the facts as it has found convenient to deal with and presents a picture, the result of artifice, which, because it represents the author's temperament, is to a certain extent a portrait of himself, but which is designed to excite, interest and absorb the reader. If it is a success (the reader) accepts it as true."

This is a variation on the maxim, 'write what you know', but with the advice to package it in such a way that the reader will enjoy the journey; and if it's well enough done, will gain something from the journey that will stay with him/her long after the book is closed and consigned to a crowded shelf.

That espionage, even in wartime - perhaps especially in wartime - is not glamorous or exciting, is something that Maugham is quite definite about. One version might be to suggest that, as in war itself, it is an experience of long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Maugham describes the experience as "on the whole extremely monotonous", and a lot of it as "uncommonly useless". "The material it offers for stories is scrappy and pointless, the author has himself to make it coherent, dramatic and probable."

The Ashenden stories are all of that. I had read them years ago, and reading them again reconfirms my earlier feeling that Maugham, for all his many faults as a person - Noel Coward, another favourite of mine, unkindly referred to him as 'The lizard of Oz' - was exceptionally talented and insightful. In contrast to the "licence-to-kill" approach of some writers of spy fiction, one is left with the impression that Maugham/Ashenden cared about the individuals he was tasked with bringing to ground, and for whom an early and violent death was the likely result of his successful intervention. It was wartime, indeed, and terrible events transpired, but there was no joy for him in successfully outmanoeuvering a German spy who would then face a firing squad when apprehended:

From The Traitor:

"Ashenden guessed that Caypor had been arrested and by now had paid the penalty for his crime. He shuddered. He remembered a dreadful scene. Dawn. A cold, grey dawn, with a drizzling rain falling. A man, blindfolded, standing against a wall, an officer very pale giving an order, a volley, and then a young soldier, one of the firing-party, turning round and holding on to his gun for support, vomiting. The officer turned paler still, and he, Ashenden, feeling dreadfully faint. How terrified Caypor must have been! It was awful when the tears ran down their faces."

Maugham had a long, and by any standard that an aspiring, or even a successful, writer might hope to attain, a very successful one. He had his tribulations. He was a homosexual when that was deemed to be a criminal offence. He did marry, however, and fathered a daughter. His wife divorced him when she found she could no longer cope with his ongoing affair with Gerald Haxton, who stayed with Maugham until his death in 1944. For all of the turmoil in his life, Maugham entered old age with an admirable degree of equanimity.

From the Preface to his memoir, The Partial View:

"I do not believe that I envy anyone. I have made the most of such gifts as nature has provided me with: I do not envy the gifts of others; I have had a great deal of success; I do not envy the success of others ... I no longer mind what people think of me ... Nor do I mind what anyone thinks of me as a writer ... I have often wished that I had written under an assumed name, as I was within an inch of doing, so that I might have passed through the world unnoticed."

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Death of the Author

Rick's and Aline's posts this week respectively offered glimpses at what is to come in the publishing business: the selling of "used" e-books and the steady decline of mid-list authors' careers into what Rick eloquently deemed a "hobby industry."

Their remarks are illuminating to say the least. And also depressing and alarming. Then, again, maybe I shouldn't be surprised. After all, Amazon already offers an e-book share program for Prime members. But selling "used" e-books? That makes little sense to me. What the hell is a "used" e-book anyway? Have I seen one?

I may not be able to spot a used e-book, but I know that as a mid-lister, I'd better beware. I probably fit Rick's definition of the hobby-industry author to a T. I have five novels published. A couple years back, I re-acquired the e-rights to all of them. This allows me to price them to sell, using them as advertising and giving me a small income. Now I'm far from the smartest guy in the world, but I know damn well the selling of used e-books will kill my sales numbers. With the sale of used e-books, for all intents and purposes, I will no longer have control of my pricing -- I'll be competing with those selling the used version of my e-books.

When I was in graduate school, in the early 1990s, death-of-the-author criticism was commonly discussed. The premise of this theoretical school is that the author disappears: once the text is read, all context is disregarded, and the work means whatever the reader wants it to mean. As an MFA candidate taking classes with the lit majors, I always found the premise offensive: What do you mean the author's intent means nothing? On second thought, maybe death-of-the-author criticism wasn't so bad. At least the scholars valued the work the author did.

If only the book industry felt the same way.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

On becoming yet another “hobby industry”

I read Aline’s post yesterday with horror, then spent the rest of the day being rather depressed. We all should have seen this one coming. I don’t know what the outcome might be “copyright-wise”, but judging by how these things have been dealt with previously in the courts, I don’t think the outcome will be favorable to authors or publishers. Being that authors are at the very short end of the stick, the financial implications are pretty terrible for us. The vast majority of authors are going to be further shoved into what I call a “hobby industry”.

In a nutshell a hobby industry is one where the participant does it mostly for love with a small pinch of hope thrown in, hope that your “pastime” might someday pay the freight. It’s much the same as “living the American dream”, which is, of course, pretty well a fairytale. You might as well live your life on the dreams you get free whenever you buy a lottery ticket.

Acting is pretty much a hobby industry. It probably always has been. For every successful Hollywood star there are a thousand actors who wait on tables or drive cabs, hoping beyond hope that they’ll land a big part and be on their way. I'm also sure that fine artists have been hopefully indulging their passion with little hope of adequate remuneration all the way to cave painting days. And forget about musicians. I know dozens and dozens of excellent ones who work hard at day gigs so that they can afford to play for little or nothing on weekends. There are now clubs that demand musicians pay them to play at their venue – and musicians do it in hopes that it will lead to them being noticed.

Bottom line? For the vast majority of artists, being one is a heartbreaking business. You not only have to be good, you have to be lucky. The right people have to notice you – in a big way. And that hope is what we all live on. It’s the oxygen which we breathe while creating.

Getting back to Amazon, what little income is generally made by authors by selling e-versions of their works is now going to be further adulterated. I doubt very much that Amazon is going to hand over royalties for resold e-books, unless they’re forced to by the courts. I’m not holding my breath on that one. Readers will be the winners which is a bit of solace, but for the poor author dangling at the very end of the publishing stick, the outlook is grim. We’re barely hanging on by one hand at this point.

Here’s the bottom line: to produce a full-length work, a writer is going to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours. At the end of the day, your main hope is just to get published. Of course you can noweasily do this yourself, again courtesy of those nice folks at Amazon, but if you want an actual publisher to take you on and pay you for your work, the best you can look forward to is a small advance, hardly recompense for the time you have put in creating your work. Except for a very fortunate few, there are no longer $50,000 advances and three-book deals. You might have heard the phrase, “Five thousand dollar advances are the new fifty-thousand.” It’s true.

I’m sure publishers would like to be able to give more money to their authors, but the reality of the publishing world is that a reasonable “salary” – represented by an advance against royalties – to give an author the time to write and not have to worry about surviving, is pretty well a thing of the past. Getting five thousand dollars from a publisher as an advance for a full-length novel is little more than chump change, especially considering that we’re also expected to shoulder the promotional load. From one publisher, I get one-fifth of that.

So why do we do it?

Because we have to.

Monday, April 01, 2013

April Fool

Amazon. it appears, now has a patent to sell secondhand e-books.  Yes, I know, the concept of a 'used' e-book is hard to get your head round, but Amazon now has developed technology that will mean if you 'own' an e-book  you could resell it when you'd finished with it. ( I have put 'own' in inverted commas, since buying an e-book only means having a license to read it which Amazon could revoke if it chose - the recent case where it had a misunderstanding with an e-book user and revoked not only the book in question but her whole Kindle library proved that.)

The idea would be that as a reader you could agree to have your copy deleted and sold on to someone else. And this e-book, unlike the second-hand copy of a physical book, would be pristine, exactly the same as the 'new' one bought previously.   Within days of a book being launched, it would be possible to buy a precisely similar copy secondhand, able to be downloaded in exactly the same way.  How many readers are going to line up to pay extra for the official copy?  Marketplace has been bad enough in terms of lost sales; this would certainly be worse..

The upside for readers, and for Amazon, is very clear.  The upside for authors and publishers - not so much.  The argument would be that if physical books can be sold secondhand why not e-books?  There would be no royalty paid to publishers and hence to authors.

Ultimately, with revenues from every source diminishing, only the largest and best-financed publishing houses could survive, and it's hard not to suspect that  this is behind of Amazon's plan.  

Of course, there would be the usual protests about copyright but so far there has been little support of either authors or publishers in court when faced with the might of Amazon.  If they choose to put their patent into operation it will be another nail in the coffin of publishing as we have known it and the difficult task of earning a living as a writer for anyone who doesn't write international best-sellers will become impossible.

And since this is April 1st, this is where I should say, 'Ha, ha!  April Fool!'  Only it isn't.