What matters, the book or its contents?

800px-Harvard_college_-_annenberg_hallThe vast and labyrinthine libraries of Harvard University in Massachusetts, USA, have within their collections at least three books which are bound with human skin.

These types of volumes – though understandably rare today, given that they give right-thinking people the heebie-jeebies, were not unknown up to the 16th century. The practice even had a name – Anthropodermic Bibliopegy. The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the executed convict for example.

It’s the most extreme example I could muster of a point where the physical book itself, rather than its contents, becomes an object of interest. A more savoury example of course would be the historic books held in the treasures of the British Library – the illuminated medieval gospels, the original Beowulf manuscript and the rest. With these items the book itself is as important as the words with in it.

Whether it’s wondering at the wonderful illustrations, marvelling at the historic value of the work or indulging in a ghoulish fascination that the binding was once someone’s skin, we would look on books like these primarily as objects in their own right rather than holders if information.

Personally I’ve always considered that the content of a book is all which really matters to me. I’ve always bought paperbacks rather than hardbacks for example, because I’ve never understood why one would want to pay more to read the same thing.

I would never be the sort of person who would collect first editions or historic books – I’d rather have a nice new one where the print was clear and the pages didn’t smell musty. And, though I keep the books I’ve read, I do so because of what’s in them rather than what they look like or feel like.

Given all this I should be a great lover of ebooks. After all, what greater statement could there be that the physical book isn’t important and its content is king than to dispense with the book altogether? And I do like ebooks. But part of me still yearns for physical books too, and I buy many more of these than I do downloads.

I don’t value the book as an object so much as I value ‘books’. I like the feel of them, I find them easier to read for long periods than a screen, I like the way they can be handed around – which you can’t really do with downloads.

I can see why a special, beautiful or ancient book deserves to be in a museum. I might even go and take a look at it (except for the skin ones) but for me the point of the book, its beauty, its truth and its value, will always be what it contains.

 

 

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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!

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.

anita dawes and jaye marie

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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!
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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.