Let’s get personal

800px-QWERTZ_swissNow and again people will tell you that some of the best writing comes from personal experience – to which I would add, yes, and some of the worst as well.

People tend to overestimate how fascinating their own experiences are to the reader – if you are not careful you can lose the dispassionate quality you need to write well because you become too wrapped up in writing about yourself. It can be done of course – but fiction should be just that, it doesn’t have to be real.

Of course, the basic notion that, if you write what you know, you are less likely to make catastrophic and often comical errors of fact or tone has some basis in reality. But it ignores the fact that most decent writers are capable of doing the research required to fill the gaps in their knowledge which would allow them to write convincingly about a topic.

In the internet age everyone has a huge depth of knowledge a mouse click away and, unless that person is too lazy to live, they don’t need to worry too much about what they don’t know at the outset. That’s before they have even walked down the road to the library.

So you don’t need to be a train driver to write about driving a train. Which is very handy for crime authors in particular who don’t all have to commit mass murder in order to turn out their thrillers. That’s not to say that a deep and immersive experience of some aspect of life might not give you more understanding of it. But a writer’s trade is primarily writing – and research, getting inside a topic, is a crucial part of that.

The ‘write from experience’ advice is often given to kids in school when they are asked to tackle some rudimentary creative writing – I remember being given it as gospel myself. And, if you took it to heart, it would close down so much of your imagination. Fantasy writers would be particularly at a loss, few of them having had personal experience of interacting with orcs and dragons.

So take it with a sack of salt I would say kids.

But, while I’m arguing that personal experience isn’t that much of a big deal for a writer – I simultaneously believe it is very important indeed.

The tension caused by believing these two contradictory things at once is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. And no, I’m not a doctor, I looked it up on Google – works like magic doesn’t it!

The type of experience I think is crucial is life experience. Though we can deftly summon up a dragon or a murder through a combination of imagination and reading around the subject, do you think it would be possible to write convincingly about being in love if you never had been? Or to write about jealously, or rage, or joy?

432px-William_wordsworthEmotional authenticity in a book does not come from reading a Wikipedia page it comes through living and the process of getting it down on the page is perhaps what Wordsworth was talking about when he referred to ’emotion recollected in tranquillity.’

It’s not as though you often sit at a word processor thinking – ‘right – let’s describe sexual jealously for this bit’ but you might often have to know how a character feeling that emotion behaves, what they do, what they say or don’t say – and how their behaviour impacts on the world around them.

This emotional intelligence is what you can’t fake and can’t research as a writer I believe, it leaves a gap and that’s where your personal experience floods in.

ImageDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

 

Song of the Sea God – review of the week!

chrishillauthor:

Writer Anita Dawes was kind enough to invite me along to her blog to talk about how I came up with the idea for Song of the Sea God – here’s the piece.

Originally posted on AnitaJayDawes:

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This week we have as our guest the wonderful writer of ‘Song of the Sea God’, a very unusual book that I enjoyed reading very much and will probably read again.
Hello Chris, and welcome!
                                                                                          ***
Thanks for having me along to your blog Anita, it’s a delight to be here and always a thrill to talk to other writers and readers. You were asking about my book Song of the Sea God and how I came to write it. It’s an interesting question for any author I think – partly because in some ways it is such a hard thing to pin down.
As a writer it can feel as though you start with a blank page and finish with a book on the shelf and you are not quite sure how you got from one state to the next. Perhaps this is because a book doesn’t…

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It’s never too late!

Halfdan_Egedius_-_The_Dreamer__Portrait_of_the_Painter_Torleiv_Stadskleiv__-_Google_Art_ProjectIt is never too late to follow your literary dream – and as dreams go, that’s one thing I have always loved about it.

If you have lived through your twenties then you can pretty much give up on your dreams of playing professional football or winning an Olympic Gold. You are also unlikely to set the pop charts alight or fill Shea Stadium with rock fans waving their mobile phones at you. If your heart fluttered at the thought of being a fashion model then you can wave that goodbye as the years pass too.

But if you dream of literary stardom then yours is a dream with some degree of longevity.

There was once a guy who held down a dull job as an oil company marketing executive – he stuck it out well into his forties though he can’t have found it much fun as eventually he got canned for persistent drunkenness.

9780140108927So he took to writing detective fiction and selling his stories to magazines. He found it suited him but he was fifty years old by the time he managed to get his first full length book published. It was called The Big Sleep and after that everyone had heard of Raymond Chandler.

Annie Proulx, there’s another one. The famed author of The Shipping News had a productive career as a journalist and had a track record as a short-story writer but she was 57 before her first novel was published. There are many more examples.

491px-John_Keats_by_William_HiltonNow, of course, there are always some precocious young tykes around the literary landscape. John Keats had scribbled his last stanza and kicked the Grecian Urn before he was 25. But, on the whole, a few extra miles on the clock can benefit a writer. More years can equal more material, they can also equal more life experience – not only more to write about but more ways to write about it.

It’s true that publishers and agents may not see you as having rock star appeal if your hair is turning grey – they would much rather have someone young and pretty, with more productive years left in them.

But, in the end, what matters is what is on the page rather than how many candles there are on your birthday cake. And, I don’t know about you, but I rather like that.

It gives those of us who are nearer in age to Chandler than Keats a chance to bloom late but gloriously like Pulitzer Prize winning Annie. And for younger writers, it simply means they have time on their side.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

 

Why reader reviews matter

Ok so, reviews. Reader reviews are massively important for writers like me because they are the only way anyone will know my book is any good.

It’s the writers with the big publishers and agents whose books get reviewed by newspapers and magazines. At my end of the food chain, published by a small press, these types of reviews are thin on the ground. Which is why it matters even more to me that readers have given their feedback.

Boeken_Kringloop_Woerden_03It’s strange how print media reviews of books have died off in the last few years. The number of papers and magazines which put serious effort into book reviews has tanked. Here’s an example. Back in the day, when I was a reporter on local newspapers they used to carry a fair few book reviews, especially if the author was local – in fact it was a big deal to make sure books with a local link got a review and a reasonable amount was made of it. I know this because, often, I used to write the reviews.

When my publisher sent a copy of my book, Song of the Sea God, to my home town paper they ignored it for a month or so and then gave it away as a reader prize. Presumably someone in the features department found it at the bottom of the in-tray and thought ‘blimey – we’d better do something with this!’ short of actually reading it of course. (To be fair, before all this they did interview me about the book and do a decent story – I’m not having a go, just talking about the demise of book reviews).

Where have they gone? Perhaps it’s a symptom of the post-literate society, people would rather browse the web than read books, and that filters into newspapers just the same as everywhere else.

Of course the posh, broadsheet national newspapers still do reviews – but how many of us get in there? Only the chosen few.

So most of us have reader reviews. They are part of the digital revolution – and a fantastic part of it in my grateful opinion. All of a sudden, with the advent of the interweb, we all get to say what we think about books we have read – the reader has a voice! Not just the reviewer from the Sunday Broadsheet who went to the same private school as the author whose books he reviews and their agent and their publisher – but the actual reader. That’s you and me.

Receiving these reviews has been one of the best parts of seeing Song of the Sea God published. I had steeled myself before it came out for the possibility of bad reviews. I was determined to take them on the chin, realise people were criticising the book not me, and not take it to heart.

As it turned out I needn’t have worried – the reviews have thankfully been very positive.

800px-Skrifmaskin,_Smith_Premier-maskin,_Nordisk_familjebokThe main place people do them is on Amazon, both in the UK here and USA here. It’s become such a colossus in the book selling word that many people bought their copy from them – and the traffic through these pages means that they are a great place to let prospective readers know what you think of a book. But I also get reviews on Goodreads here, and on people’s own blogs and websites.

I value them all hugely for the simple reason that I know people can trust them. It’s the easiest thing in the world for the author of a book to tell everyone how wonderful it is – or indeed for their publisher to do so on their behalf. Personally I don’t bother telling everyone how fantastic my work is – what would that be worth after all? Nothing really.

It’s much more important if readers, who have no connection to me and have shelled out their own good money to buy my book, take the time and trouble to give it a vote of confidence. That’s a vote you can trust.

So that’s one key way that they do matter very much indeed – they shape the fate of a book like mine – they give it the support and back-up it needs to survive and thrive.

But they matter in another way too in that they salve the fragile ego of the author. The truth is, when you write a book, you can’t be entirely sure if it’s any good or not. You might tell yourself it’s a towering work of genius but it’s not what you think that counts – it’s what the reader thinks.

Getting positive reviews is about more than continued success of the book – it’s about letting the author know that their work has been acknowledged and appreciated.

So a massive thank you to all who have reviewed Song of the Sea God so far and please – if you have read it and are thinking of posting a review – do so. They are always important, always needed and always very gratefully received.

Here are a few of the things people have been saying about Song of the Sea God in their reviews:

“This is the most remarkable book I have read in a very very long time. Its not surprising that this book took Chris two years to write. Its a complete Feast of Words!”

“This would make a great movie incidentally in this modern era of the dark comic twist.”

“This is writing at its best. I was immediately taken with the narrator ‘Bes’, a mute dwarf, and wondered how Chris Hill was going to be able to maintain this particular dialogue throughout the rest of the story. He achieves this exquisitely.”

“This book is one of the best I have read in years. Could not put it down as the subject matter is so unusual.”

“I became engrossed in the novel from page one and remained that way until the very end. Honestly, I didn’t want it to end.”

 

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Six more things I’ve learned as a published author

Ok – here’s a second blog post about things I’ve learned since my book was published. I thought these posts worth doing because quite a lot things have come as a big surprise to me! I didn’t really know what to expect, except the unexpected, and I haven’t been disappointed. You can read five things I’ve learned since my book was published here. Now here’s a few more.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe community of writers, and readers, is remarkably strong.

I’ve been delighted by this – I really didn’t expect the warmth and sense of community I’ve found since my book came out from people online and on social media. People are only happy to offer a kind word, advice or simply support when you are negotiating the sometimes baffling world of letting people know about your book. This is something which runs through Twitter, Facebook and through the comments you get on your blog. The community of writers and readers has become truly international too – I’m as likely to be chatting to book lovers in any part of the USA, in Europe, Australia, Africa, Asia – anywhere in the world in fact. And isn’t that an amazing thing?

Being published once doesn’t make finding a home for your next book any easier.

I suppose this is an extension to the indifferent world point I made in my last round-up. I’ve found that having a little bit of a track record doesn’t count for very much. Just because you have a book out, doesn’t mean publishers suddenly see you as a great prospect – you are still just another manuscript on their massive pile – and another rejection slip to send out. I suspect, and hope, this might change a few more books further down the line – success usually breeds success after all.

There really is no money in it.

US_Dollar_banknotesNo really – none at all. Especially if, like me, you write literary fiction which is hardly a mass market proposition. If you want to chase money as an author I think you would probably have to make that your main and central aim – write purely what you thought would be most commercial and work hard on the selling side. Even then I suspect all but a few authors make very little compared to what they would if they put the same amount of time and effort into a regular job. So it’s a good job we don’t do it for the money then isn’t it?

There are people out there who really get it!

It’s a fantastic thing to hear about people who have read your book and really enjoy it. That’s the payoff for an author I think – reaching readers in that way. It’s a huge pleasure for me to read a review of my book from someone who has really engaged with it, or a discussion on a blog or website about the themes in the book. A big surprise for me was to find that there are people out in the big wide world talking about my work, often quite unbeknown to me. I’ve quoted Dr Johnson before on this blog saying: ‘A writer only begins a book, a reader finishes it.’ And that quote has been brought to life for me by the articles that have appeared on my book like the ones:
Here
And here
And here

You will have to market your book

Chris Hill, Waterstones signingI suspect a lot of soon to be authors will think what I thought – once you have a publisher they will handle the marketing of your book and you can get on with the writing. Unfortunately that’s not true. Publishers, large and small, have a lot of books coming out and not much time to promote them.

A publisher will only accept your book if they love it, and of course they will do everything they can to promote it but the truth is, unless you want your baby to disappear without trace you have to take responsibility for letting the world know about it. This means putting a lot of time, work and effort doing things like building up your presence on social media (in my case I had to build it up from absolute zero). It might also mean writing a blog like this one, taking part in interviews both on and offline, writing guest articles for other people’s websites, appearing pretty much anywhere they will have you. And so on. Which brings me to my final point.

You will be really busy!

You have all the writing to do that you had before of course, and all the querying of agents and publishers. But now you also have a blog to write, Facebook and Twitter accounts to update, readers to interact with and so on. Of course – that’s what you signed up for – so let’s not grumble about it! After all, the alternative is that you didn’t get published – and then you’d still be trying to make it happen.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Q and A – What do you read?

Today a question from L.R. Ryan, scriptwriter and author from Florida, who was kind enough to favourably review Song of the Sea God recently. You can take a look at Mr Ryan’s website and find out about his work here. If you have a question for me on writing, my book or anything else then please let me know in the comments below and I will do my best to answer in a future post.

I would like to know where your reading interests lie, when you are not busy writing such a good book as Song of the Sea God?

L.R Ryan, Florida.

780px-Carlo_Dolci_-_St_Catherine_Reading_a_Book_-_WGA06372Thanks L.R – great question. I think reading is a tremendously important thing for any writer – in fact I would go so far as to say that you should never trust a writer who doesn’t read!

I’ve always loved literature, it’s been a passion of mine since I was old enough to read. Since then I’ve read constantly – mostly novels and short stories with a little poetry too. I tend to go for literary fiction rather than genre fiction, it’s just my personal preference.

I also read non-fiction, often I switch to this more or less unconsciously once I’m working on a book – perhaps so the fiction I’m reading doesn’t too much influence the style of what I’m writing. During these periods I’ll read history, biography, philosophy, popular science books of different kinds – all sorts of things. Some just for personal interest, others because they are research for what I’m writing.

infiniteCurrently I’m in a fiction reading period and I’m tackling Infinite Jest by the late lamented American author David Foster Wallace. I seem to have been reading it for an infinite amount of time. It’s a mammoth tome, a thousand pages of tiny type before you get to the notes. The end is in sight I’m happy to report! It’s regarded as a modern classic and I am enjoying it – I’d describe it as brilliant in parts – there are sections which take your breath away, but it’s a long road.

I’d say the first set of books I remember affecting my writing style and making me want to write like they did were the novels written by the generation of American novelists now recently departed. I was very influenced by authors like Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, John Updike and many more. These were writers with a powerful and distinctive voice, a great sense of humour and a willingness to tackle big issues with flair and gusto. I wanted to be like them. At the same time, as a short story writer I was swept away by the brutal honesty and deceptive simplicity of Raymond Carver. I still admire all of these writers. But they are just the tip of a rather large iceberg.

In terms of books which influenced Song of the Sea God, it’s quite a wide group of novels I would say. People often compare Sea God with either Lord of the Flies by William Golding or The Wicker Man, which most people remember more as a film than a book. But my own go-to comparison for Sea God is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. If I’m trying to impress posh interviewers I sometimes say I based Sea God on The Tempest. It has an island, magic, a Prospero, a Caliban.

439px-CarsonmccullersBeyond that though I know there are a whole raft of books which influenced me in various ways in writing the book. These would include The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, The Magus by John Fowles. There are key aspects in the plot, the characters or the telling of all these wonderful, luminous books which have made their way into Song of the Sea God.

Yet I don’t believe my book is too similar to any of these – I have taken something of their essence and tried to use it in my work. That’s the fantastic thing about reading – you are never alone when you write. You are part of a literary tradition. You produce an original book – but it depends on the wonderful work which has gone before it.

Hope that has gone some way towards answering your question LR – and thank you so much for asking it!

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

The funny thing about comic writing

What makes a book funny? That’s a tough question isn’t it.

Personally I think that if a novel describes itself as comic or funny, then it probably isn’t going to be. We all know the sinking feeling when we see the try-hard humour books – or humor if it’s an American one. The more they promise rib-tickling chuckles between their garish cartoon covers the more we are likely to fear the clammy hand of disappointment.

There’s just a whiff of desperation there isn’t there? You shouldn’t have to tell people ‘this is supposed to be funny’ any more than you should have to tell people ‘this is supposed to be sad.’ The reader either finds a book funny or they do not, and that is up to them.

I think part of the issue is that different people find different things funny. Broad slapstick, subtle wit, a million variations inbetween. What makes us laugh is quite a personal thing, perhaps more so than what makes us cry.

What I try to do, in this most difficult of literary balancing acts, is to be funny incidentally. Rather than try to make the whole book laugh out loud I attempt to slip in a few chuckles along the way. Often laughter emerges out of the scene you are in, so rather than being some kind of set up gag, the joke is organic. And very often it is the way something is written which makes it amusing – the point of view, the words you choose, the order, rhythm, the timing.

I also consider what I am using humour for. Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to be funny for it’s own sake – it’s a gift and something to treasure. But if your book is trying to deal with difficult issues, for example, then humour can be a wonderful way of making them palatable.

Here’s a few of the books which have made me laugh.

moneyMoney by Martin Amis

Here’s a book crammed with glittering phrases, many of them laugh out loud funny. Amis knows how to spin a wonderful anecdote, build up characters in order to knock them down. But for me it’s the turns of phrase which are gold dust. He’s one of those writers who you can’t imagine writing a bad sentence. It’s hard work being that polished, and one of the things he regularly achieves is to make the reader laugh.

slaughterhouse 5Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr

Quirky and delightful, taking science fiction of an obviously kidding sort in order to deal with tough issues of death, war and mortality. Often the humour comes from seeing the world in an entirely different, unexpected and unique way, seeing it his way, which is not like anyone else’s.

untitledCatch 22 by Joseph Heller

‘Laugher in the dark if ever I heard it’ said one reviewer and Heller, as well as being another masterful spinner of words and phrases, can make us laugh at things which on the face of it, simply are not funny. They are horrifying, devastating, still he makes us laugh. Often we are laughing at the absurd, and at things which might just as easily make us cry. There’s a bravery in this kind of humour, a resilience.

jeevesPretty much anything by PG Wodehouse

He was a master, I think, of humorous writing and so many of his laughs relied on pure language – the phrasing of a sentence, the deployment of an unusual word. His world was entirely his own invention, full of wise servants, fearsome aunts and simple upper-class drones. In Wodehouse’s hands comic writing is like music – not a note, not a phrase, out-of-place.

hitchikersThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Like Vonnegut before him he found a way to play science fiction for laughs and subvert an often slightly pompous genre. He finds humour in the gap between the high-flown expectations of space exploration and the majesty of the universe and the tawdry reality he paints. In his hands it is full of bathos, it has people in it, or aliens who behave like people: messy, stupid, rude, ungrateful, lazy.

What all of these writers have in common I think, apart from the fact that they are very funny, is a love of the language. Perhaps a facility with language and being able to do comedy well go hand in hand? It’s quite a technical skill writing in an amusing way – it depends very much on the right thing said in precisely the right way at the right time. Good comic writers have the rhythm of poets.

Who are your favourite funny writers and why?

Song of the Sea God visualSee if my book is among those which will make you laugh – take a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.