Friday, April 14, 2006

Caught in the Draft

I’m now on the third draft of the short story, and I’ve learned that the narrator knew that his brother was dead before the story begins, that he retrieves the astrophysicist’s body from its lonely orbit around the brown dwarf, and that the alien, All This Useless Beauty, tells the navy garrison about the narrator’s attempt to escape because, for reasons of its own, it wants his story to be more exciting.

‘Draft’ is a very flexible concept in the age of the infinitely malleable word-processed document, but I still write most stories and novels more or less as I did when I used a typewriter: each draft is printed out and marked up with corrections and notes, which form the basis of changes made to the next draft. But unlike my typewritten manuscripts, a considerable amount of redrafting happens on screen, as sentences grow or shrink, move from one place to another or vanish altogether, and I no longer have to retype pages that have more than three mistakes on them, dab on blobs of correction fluid, or make up sandwiches using carbon paper for the final draft.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

You Can’t Make It Up

Further to yesterday’s entry, I’ve just finished James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love, a dense and chewy novel that thoroughly deserves all the plaudits it has garnered. An interview with the author which first appeared in the online magazine Three Monkeys is appended to the end of the paperback, and contains this observation:

I don’t believe in the idea of completely fictional worlds. You can never separate made-up milieux from the words you use to describe them, words which will, unavoidably, resonate in the readers’ heads with the not-made up milieux they have experienced. I read a lot of science-fiction in my early teens and I recognised all the worlds there, every one.

This is something that every reader and writer of science fiction knows, of course, but it’s rare to see it stated by someone from outside the genre. Indeed, science fiction is often attacked by those who have not read it for being entirely made up - an accusation that’s increasingly used by lazy commentators on all works of fiction that are not obviously rooted in the direct experiences of their authors.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

On lacking an angle

The paperback of my novel Mind’s Eye is due out in June. As usual, a couple of months before the great day, my agent asked my publishers what might be happening on the marketing and publicity front. As it happens my publishers have some good news about a couple of promotions by big booksellers, and promise to do their very best to get some exposure in the round-up review columns of newspapers and magazines. So all is cool; unless your books regularly hit the upper reaches of the bestselling charts, you can’t expect a paperback edition to set the world on fire. But part of one sentence in their response to my agent’s routine query did catch my attention. It’s this: ‘there’s no real feature angle regarding Paul’s own experience to exploit re this book.’

Now, I’m not about to diss my publishers or publicist. Far from it. It’s a routine response that reflects an admirable realism about the media climate in which they have to operate. And it’s that climate that I want to discuss.

Y’see, as far as the British mainstream media is concerned, it isn’t enough for you to be a novelist who just happens to have had a novel published. Yawn. Big deal. Happens all the time, and novels aren’t, well, y’know, sexy or immediate, are they? And that’s why no journalist wants to talk to a novelist unless either he or she has incorporated some raw and bleedingly obvious chunk of their own life in their novel, or unless he or she is notorious for some reason that has nothing to do with the book they happen to have written. Far easier, after all, to sell an interview with someone notorious or famous, (and do the research via the clippings library and Google), than an overview of somebody’s writing career (and read the bloody books). And so most of the novels that win the attention of the Sunday supplements, glossy magazines, and TV and radio are: (1) those (almost always written by journalists) that lightly fictionalise some current ‘issue’; (2) those in which, as in the self-help positive-thinking psychotherapy industry, the author works through a trauma in his or her own life; and (3) those which are part of a package of products exploiting the brand of someone famous for something other than writing books.

This isn’t, I say again, the fault of the publishers, who can no more influence the media than they can the weather, or the buying policy of big-chain booksellers. No, it’s the fault of a muddy collusion between a facile, money-driven PR industry and lazy journalists and commissioning editors, and it’s why all too many high profile novels are little different from misery memoirs and the ghostwritten ‘autobiographies’ of celebrities who have ‘triumphed’ over what others might think are the usual traumas of childhood, and why the articles about their authors always tread over the same already well-trodden ground.

But listen - here’s a secret. All novels embody in some form or another the author’s experience. That’s why there are no novels written by babies. It isn’t because babies can’t write (celebrity novelists can’t write either - that’s why they have people who do it for them); it’s because babies don’t have any experience. They don’t have anything to write about.

It’s quite true that there’s no feature angle regarding my own ‘experience’ to ‘exploit’ re Mind’s Eye. Nevertheless, Mind’s Eye does contain a good deal of my own experience - my own life. To take something bleedingly obvious: the hero of the book, Alfie Flowers, lives around the corner from where I live. He slouches around the same streets, wears the same kind of black leather jacket, is a regular in the same pub, and talks to the same kinds of people as I do. Not only that, but like me his grandparents loomed large in his childhood, and he was close only to one parent (his mother died when he was very young; my father was never much around when I was a kid, and he eventually divorced my mother). But Alfie Flowers isn’t me, of course. He isn’t the author. He’s this other character, Alfie Flowers, who insists on having his own hang-ups and his own agenda . . .

Wait a minute - I’ve just realised something. The fact that I don’t have an angle is all Alfie’s fault.
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