If it’s difficult to read, put it down – Nick Hornby says it’s ok

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Nick Hornby. Pic: Joe Mabel

So Nick Hornby says if we find a highbrow book tough going and are not enjoying it then we should stop reading it – now, what do we make of that? It’s an interesting one isn’t it? And liable to divide opinion I’d have thought.

Reading shouldn’t be a chore he says, you shouldn’t do it out of a sense of duty. It should be like watching TV – something that you want to do.

You can read a piece which explains in more detail his point of view and puts it in context here.

My view is that it’s an easy, populist thing for him to say, and that it also fits nicely with the books he has for sale as they are fairly easy reading. Though in saying that I don’t intend to denigrate his work which I’ve always found very worthwhile and entertaining.

A cynic might hear the subtext of what he’s saying as: ‘Don’t bother with all this highbrow nonsense, read one of mine instead.’

And it’s a tempting offer isn’t it, not to have to read anything which challenges us? But when I think back over the books I’ve read I realise that sometimes, the ones I found most challenging gave me the most back in the end. They revealed more to me about what it is to be human and they stayed with me longer after I had put them back on the shelf. If I’d listened to Nick and his quick fix I’d never have finished reading them.

And what else in life should we stop doing because it’s too tough? Generally speaking it’s not fantastic life advice. It reminds me of Homer Simpson saying to Bart:

“Son, if something’s hard to do then it’s not worth doing.”

Great advice Homer and Nick!

Swerving fiction because it’s difficult to read also tends to stop us reading anything which is not contemporary. Because even popular commercial fiction written in another age sounds unusual to modern ears and it’s a struggle to adapt until you get used to it. Get in your literary time machine and travel back even one hundred years and you will find this to be true. But travel further back and you find, for example, Shakespeare’s popular crowd-pleasing comedies, which no doubt were crystal clear when he wrote them, but which now present the reader or listener with a challenge to give up on.

I think it was Philip Larkin who pointed out that people love contemporary poets much more than even far greater poets from a bygone age because they speak to them in the language they use in their daily lives.

So we’ve ruled out all of literary history – but even confining ourselves to present day fiction we might find some of it a bit of a chore. Unusual words to wrestle with, concepts we might find take us out of our comfort zone. Some of us might even find Nick Horby’s work too much to handle. So why bother with it? Let’s just watch TV instead, it’s a lot less challenging after all.

Nick Hornby says he wants everybody to be reading something that they love, it‘s an honourable ambition. But doesn’t that require some effort on the part of the reader? Some level of commitment? The fact is that reading challenging work can be an effort – but it has its rewards too and, in my view, it’s a bit of hard work which repays the reader many times over.

What do you think? Share your views in the comments below.

Song of the Sea GodIf you get a moment to take a look at the (ahem) award-winning 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.

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The gentle art of editing your book

2000px-Ryanssandbox.svgI’m currently working with my publisher on editing my next book, The Pick-Up Artist, ready for its publication in February 2015.

It’s part of the process I enjoy – but then I think I’ve been lucky both with this book and with my previous novel Song Of The Sea God to have editors whose work and opinions have brought out the best in what is there. It can be a curious feeling to have your work looked over and commented on by somebody who you don’t know – but, given that it’s going to be published and read (hopefully) by lots of people you don’t know it’s best to get used to it at this early stage!

I had a head start on this, even before Sea God found a publisher because for years I was a newspaper journalist so I was used to having my copy go through the hands of news editors, sub-editors, feature editors and of course editors all of whom, from time to time, would have an opinion on it and changes to make. You learn not to be too precious – to take criticism on the chin and you learn that good editing can improve your work. That said, bad editing can ruin your work – but that’s another story, and not one that I have had any experience of as a fiction author thankfully.

So you hand over your book, your baby, to a stranger and she or he hands it back at length with suggestions for changes. She doesn’t actually make the changes, that’s your job, but points out areas which might be improved, and sometimes gives suggestions how.

With the Pick Up Artist what I’ve found is that all the changes suggested by the editor at my publisher Magic Oxygen were things which I agreed with. I could see how they would improve the book over all and in some cases they were even things I’d half thought myself but not got round to tackling or had put to the back of my mind. Perhaps that’s a sign of good editing, that it feels organic – part of making the book what it should be.

With The Pick Up Artist I also had a couple of friends whose opinons I trust and value read a draft of the book at an earlier stage and provide their feedback, large parts of which I took on board in later drafts. I didn’t do this for Sea God and I’m not sure why. Maybe because it’s quite a quirky book with a vision that is uniquely mine. With the Pick Up Artist I was aiming for something a little more commercial and I wanted to ensure I was on the right road before travelling further down it.

Once they have been handed over to the publisher both my books have undergone a thorough examination but it’s fair to say that neither has been very dramatically altered at this stage of the process. Perhaps that’s partly because they go through many rewrites before I let go of them.

How would I react if a publisher did want me to do a major overhaul on one of my books, or they were set on doing one themselves? I really don’t know. As I said above I am someone who is used to being edited and sees the value of it. However I do have a much stronger emotional attachment to my fiction than I do to copy I write for work – there’s more of me in it so of course it matters to me.

I think it would come down to how much sense I saw in the changes, which I would want to do rather than having them done for me. I don’t know whether I could go along with a root and branch overhaul of my work if it was taking the book in a direction I didn’t agree with. Thankfully that’s not been an issue so far and I have nothing but good things to say about the way both of my books have been handled!

Raymond_CarverI remember one author telling me about her play, which had a successful run in London‘s West End. It was a drama set in the trenches of the First World War and, as is the nature of these things, at the end, everybody died. At least they did in her version. In the version which was staged everybody lived – because that was a more cheerful and optimistic ending apparently! That’s the sort of thing I would struggle with I think.

What if changes are made by an editor which are significant but improving? The great story writer Raymond Carver had a tough editor behind him, Gordon Lish, who used to cut his stories very heavily, sometimes making them very different from Carver’s original version. Carver didn’t like this one bit, but he did accept the edited versions were often better, and added to his reputation as a writer. It was something he had to wrestle with – I know I would wrestle with it too.

Song of the Sea GodIf you get a moment to take a look at the (ahem) award-winning 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.

An award for Song of the Sea God

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I came back from my hols this weekend to the very welcome news that Song of the Sea God has won an award. It’s been named Best Literary Fiction novel in the eFestival of Words Book Awards. You can see the full list of winners and a natty little video if you click here.

I’m particularly pleased because, for these awards, the nominations are made by my fellow writers and by publishers, and the winners are chosen by the readers in a public vote. So, in the same way as the reviews Sea God has received on Amazon and Goodreads, this is an accolade from the only people whose opinions really count – those who have read the book.

A huge thanks to those who nominated my book for the awards and those whose votes helped it to win!

Having an award of this sort doesn’t change much for me of course – it’s not like winning the Man Booker prize where the winner gets their mouth stuffed with gold, but those sorts of award only ever seem to go to authors signed with the small cabal of giant publishing corporations anyway. I get a little badge to stick on my blog and the knowledge of a job well done.

I’m pleased for the book, if that doesn’t seem an odd way of putting it. Song of the Sea God is a decent effort I think – people get wrapped up in it, it stays with them after they have read it and they often have views to share on it which add to the book and nourish it. I’m pleased that its success has been acknowledged in this formal way. Before it was published it was short-listed for a couple of awards – the Daily Telegraph’s Novel in a Year award and the Yeovil Literature Prize for best novel, but this is the first time it has actually won anything. It’s done ok for a book published by a small press without the industry clout and marketing budget of the big boys.

It also feels like a fitting tribute for Sea God as I move on to final edits for my publishers on my new book, The Pick-Up Artist, which they plan to release in February next year. It’s a very different kind of book but, if it shares one thing with Sea God then I hope that will be the warm and generous reception it receives from readers.

Song of the Sea GodIf you get a moment to take a look at the (ahem) award-winning 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 death of the novel is greatly exaggerated.

WillselfauthorI was reading an article recently by the  literary novelist Will Self in which he proclaimed, if not quite the death of the novel, then certainly the demise of literary fiction. You can read his full piece here.

His central argument is that the serious literary novel has been pushed from the mainstream and has become more like classical music, the preserve of an interested minority.

While I do believe the novel, and reading generally is being changed by the digital age, I’m not sure I buy his idea about this shift in the place of the serious novel. I mean, it was always a minority interest wasn’t it?

41P7822EM1L._Does anyone really think coal miners got round a table in the pub in 1913 to discuss how DH Lawrence had portrayed their lifestyle in Sons and Lovers? Then as now the serious novel was the preserve of the few who felt motivated to pick up the books.

And, in the days when literacy rates were a lot lower than they are now, it was also the preserve of an intellectual elite.

Probably still is come to think, that hasn’t changed. If you have never been exposed to the magic of great books then sadly, you might never discover it for yourself.

But what impact has digital technology made? The temptation is to say that it has stopped people reading books – we stare at tablet screens and mobile phones now, we are hooked up to laptops and video games, even television is feeling the pinch, never mind fusty old reading.

But, when you examine things closer, reading books as an activity seems to be in rude health. No writer, or reader, could immerse themselves in social media today without coming to the conclusion that there are an awful lot of other readers and writers out there.

Doubtless the business model for publishers and writers is changing significantly. Will Self alludes to this in his article when he’s talking about the difficultly of making a living out of literary fiction and the need to do something else, such as teach creative writing, to make ends meet. But again, wasn’t it always difficult to make a living as a writer? And the more serious your work, the more you cut down your potential pool of readers by aiming at a small proportion of them, then the fewer books you would sell.

Now at least there is a connected community of readers around the world – so, as a writer, it is easier to reach your readers than it ever has been before. And those readers can be truly international, even for first time authors like me.

Perhaps it is the case that, overall, fewer people are reading books, and perhaps it is also the case that the books they do read have taken a dive down in class on the scale from literary to pot-boiler. But it is also the case that those people who are interested in the literary novel, and in writing as an art form, can find new books and connect with their authors more easily than ever before.

Song of the Sea GodDon’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 USAhere.

Literary criticism from The Simpsons

I was watching an old episode of The Simpsons the other day which had a scene set at a literary festival. As authors stood disregarded by their piles of books there was one long queue in the whole place.

John_Updike_with_Bushes_newAt the head of it was Krusty the Clown touting copies of his latest biography. He pulled back a curtain to reveal his ghost-writer – the late John Updike, esteemed literary novelist, a man acclaimed as one of the greatest writers in living memory. Krusty roundly abused Updike as a cheap hack and Updike humbly took it – happy to be earning a living churning out celebrity dross.

It was funny, perhaps a little cruel. Like all good satire it had a sliver of ice in its heart.

It made me think about the way that our culture actively discourages people from writing at all, and particularly from writing good quality books. If you want fame, success, significant financial rewards then, first of all, you are better off not writing books of any kind and, if you must write, then you are better to write what sells which is celeb biogs, mechanically written romance novels, self-help books, genre pot-boilers and the rest.

Heaven knows, there is a place for all of these, and if people want to read them then well, I’m just glad they are reading something in this age when not reading books at all seems to have become the default setting. And I also think that there are writers producing all of the above types of book who do so professionally and well and produce great reads.

But writing surely should also be an art form where the aim isn’t just to make money but to produce good work. Work which resonates and adds something to the cultural debate and has a chance of lasting. That’s the part I fear we are losing in the modern age.

I have said before that one of the big surprises for me since my book was published is how many writers there are out there. How the explosion in self-publishing has lead to a huge surge in the number of people producing books. The ought to be a good thing, and in many ways of course it is.

But I think we should be concerned about the quality of a lot of what is being created and, in some cases (not all) about the mind-set that has gone into creating it. So often I hear writers boasting about how many words they have been able to churn out that day on their ‘WIP’ (the jargon shorthand some have started using for work in progress). Or how many books they have managed to produce already in their series of genre novels. The assumption seems to be that more is better, that quicker is better. There is never once a mention of quality, never a word about the joy of writing well.

The whole thing has the feel of a mass production line – a literary McDonalds, a fast-food for the soul. Is this really what we want to be as authors?

What I believe is this – if our dream is to write then that’s fantastic but please, let’s do ourselves, the reader, the world, a favour and set our sights as high as they will possibly go. There are so many bad books around and more coming every day. Why add to that pile? Society makes it difficult enough for writers without us adding to the problem.

Be the best writer you can be – that’s all anyone can ask of you, all you can ask of yourself.

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.

 

Elmore Leonard’s rules

682px-Elmore_LeonardThe late great crime writer Elmore Leonard had ten basic rules for writing fiction, which I think all writers should be aware of, whatever kind of fiction they write. Here are Leonard’s rules:

1. Never open a book with the weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

I think if writers at least bear these in mind as they are working they will usually be doing themselves and their readers a favour.

They are a curious mixture on the face of it aren’t they? Some are pretty much standard advice – how often do we hear the tip to avoid adverbs where possible? Others strike you as quirky on first reading them. ‘Never open a book with the weather’ being a good example.

I think with this weather one Leonard is offering us two things. Firstly he is helping us avoid cliché. The all-time worst opening line of a book is often held to be ‘It was a dark and stormy night,’ the first line of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford. It is so often mocked that there is even a Bulwer-Lytton competition now for the worst opening line you can come up with.

So best avoided for that reason alone. But I think Leonard is also encouraging us to get to the point and, more importantly, to get to the people. Novels are so often more a success at describing emotions than they are at describing things. I’ve mentioned before how Yann Martel describes the shipwreck in Life of Pi in one line ‘The boat sank.’

I have a weather scene – a storm, near the start of Song of the Sea God. But it’s not right at the start. The opening belongs to the narrator Bes who is under the impression he is dead, but turns out to be mistaken. Somehow I thought it best to talk about people first and save the wind and rain for later.

The tip to avoid exclamation marks also seems a little quirky. But it’s advice I know well, because we were also given it as young newspaper reporters by wise old sub-editors. In newspapers, exclamation marks are often used in headlines (we had a rude name for them used in this way, referencing a dog’s anatomy, but I will not include that on this ‘safe for work’ blog). But they are much less often used in copy. Where, I remember an old hand on the subs’ desk telling me: “They simply serve to highlight the wide-eyed incredulity of the reporter.”

In fiction they simply serve to show the author thinks something is exciting or amusing, and that the reader ought to think so too. But the reader will make up her own mind – exclamation point or not!

Perhaps Leonard’s key rule is the last one – leave out the parts readers tend to skip. We would all like to do that wouldn’t we? Leonard’s feeling was they don’t tend to skip dialogue – and he was a genius at that. This point is advice about rewriting I suppose – cut out the bits which are not good, leave the bits which are.

So there they are, Elmore Leonard’s rules – food for thought for all of us I think.

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.

 

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.