What I’m really thinking: the failed novelist – A Response

I was saddened, humbled, and moved to respond to this week’s column in The Guardian’s ‘What I’m really thinking’ column this week, written by ‘the failed novelist‘.  It’s such an emotive word, ‘failed’, isn’t it?

I could have written that column myself. At least a good part of it. Feeling that writing was ‘my destiny’. Having a reputable and confident agent. The flurry of initial interest from publishers. Writing a second novel that was better than the first.

And in particular, I lived every word of this paragraph:

But, over several months, my manuscript was rejected for reasons that bewildered me: often because all the slots for debut literary fiction that year were taken; once because I was a woman; but mostly because editors “just didn’t love it enough”. When I took the call from my agent saying we had no deal, I cried like a little girl.

I also understand the feeling of being scarred. There is something very perilous about putting your novel, that very personal part of yourself out there for public scrutiny, even in a world of social media heart-on-your-sleeve exposure where there are seemingly no boundaries of the personal any more. It feels like trolling, when an editor says they just didn’t love it enough.

The emotional, intellectual, psychological and professional investment that goes into writing a novel and asking others to judge it is perhaps unlike the production of any other art form. I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about what self-publishing and KDP has done for levelling the playing field a bit, and that was a solution that helped me. But it would be trite of me to advise the author of that Guardian column to self-publish and be damned. It might be seen as patronising to suggest that writers are people who write, rather than only being those who are read by others.

We are watching a bereavement here, the passing and grieved-over loss of an aspiration. I have seen it many times before across many other professional lives outside writing. The inability to look with anything other than pain on the success of others, the incomprehension at the changing landscape, the feeling of neglect by ‘managers’ who should know better. These feelings are not unique to writers who have not been swept up by a publisher.

But when I look at those tables of books by new writers and new books by old writers and manufactured books by celebrities and those with talents in other fields that splurge into the literary realm, I don’t feel “pity and scorn for people with dreams”. I am just glad that I actually can write. Plenty of those I work with in all my other jobs struggle to communicate the things they want to say, in written or verbal form. The pleasure for me of writing is exactly that. The ability to say exactly what I want to say in the way I want to say it. How lucky I am. I would love for others to share in what I write under my other name, but it’s still a talent of its own that has brought me much joy, whether I am read widely or narrowly, whether I am praised or pitied.

And that joy, for all I have lost and mourned my once dearly-held aspiration, is still something I want to hold onto.

*****

Cover Design for Equilibrium by Evie Woolmore Evie Woolmore is the author of magical realist historical fiction. Her novel Equilibirum was likewise signed by an agent and not quite loved enough by editors. But she loves it still.

Restoring the equilibrium

When you write for a living, sometimes you forget that not all writing is the same. I’ve spent much of the last 24 months writing non-fiction for work, creating masses of new material for lots of different contexts.

It’s all had a lot in common with writing novels in many ways: strong voices, understanding your audiences, great structure, readability, distinctiveness, imagination. But even for someone who writes as quickly as I do, it has felt mechanistic, process-based, and – paradoxically – very uncreative despite the enormous amount of innovation involved.

But I have missed my own writing so much. So much it has almost broken my heart. And although I have retreated to the short form of songs to keep assonance, rhythm and, above all, storytelling in my words, there is nothing to replace the all-consuming encompassing soul-enriching obsession of writing a novel.

BMv6finalLowQ

Writing fiction has always been a matter of equilibrium for me. I have written for so many years alongside other work that it has always balanced out my service to others in my job with my service to myself in writing. It has been my sanity, my passion, my escape, my sense of perspective, my abandonment of logic, my beliefs, my cynicism and my way of working out what matters. Does that mean that when I was writing only for others that I lost those things? Well, the songs gave me back my sense of perspective and a way of working out what matters. And, to be truthful, when things have not gone well of late the first thing I have done is write a song.

But now it’s time to go back to novels. It is time to prioritise my sanity, my passion, my escape, my sense of perspective, my abandonment of logic, my beliefs, my cynicism and go back to my way of working out what matters. As a writer, I have lost my equilibrium by writing for others and by prioritising their stories in my life.

Is writing for myself, my themes and my stories selfish? Perhaps.

But am I a better person when I write for myself? Oh yes.

Lucille, where have you got to after all this time? I hope you’re still around, because I’m coming home now.

EJ Knight’s Monthly Crime Reviews: October 2015

This month, EJ Knight kicks off a series of crime novel reviews with a diverse selection of serial characters.

When do you finish writing a popular series? Sue Grafton appears to have made her decision from the first novel as she gently winds our way with Kinsey Millhone and the alphabet series to ‘Z’; Janet Evanovich seems destined to go on forever and may be, even now, pondering what adjective or adverb to go with infinity; while Lindsey Davies took the clever step of a spin-off from the Falco novels. I found myself pondering ‘the end’ while I was reading The Survivor by Kyle Mills. Mills has been brought in to continue the Mitch Rapp series after Vince Flynn’s death. And, he almost pulls it off. The Survivor picks up immediately from where The Last Man finished and the race to find top secret material before it is posted on the internet. The action, as one would expect from the series, is unrelenting and the story, although predictable, is exactly what one reads this type of book for. But, for me, the characters were just not quite right – too introspective whilst, at the same time, being too flat. I’d completed the book before realising that Flynn had died and Mills was taking on the series and, as I read the last page, I wondered if it had been a book too far in the series. There is only one Mitch Rapp; and there was only one Vince Flynn to give him the right voice.

So as one series hits the ‘do not buy again’ list, I’ve discovered two new series this month which I would definitely read again, one which I’ll consider, and one which I may have caught as it finishes. Cover Shot by LynDee Walker is the fifth in the series featuring Nichelle Clarke, a journalist in a local newspaper who, in the pursuit of the full story, finds herself investigating murder, hostage-taking, and fighting for her own life. It’s the usual plot of an amateur detective but that would be to undersell what is a really well-written, well-paced and compelling story. I liked Nichelle and I wanted her to find out who had killed the doctor and why. I really did. And so what if I thought it was a little derivative of Evanovich? It was still a great read and I’ll read the earlier ones in the series now. The same is true for Rose Strickland in Diner Knock Out by Terri L. Austin. This time the main character is learning how to be a private investigator and, out of pique with her employer, takes on a case without telling him. Surprise, surprise – it turns out to be more complicated than she realised and she needs his help to solve the murder(s). As in Cover Shot, there is a criminal boyfriend whose heart is in the right place and there are side-kicks who are also colourful friends. But, again, it really works and I found myself rooting for Rose, wanting her to sort out her love life and solve the murder. And survive the threats to her life so that there would be more books in the series.

By coincidence, the fourth book in this review is also set in the US. Brother can you spare a dime by Jack Martin is set in the Depression. The main character, Henry Bierce, is an enigmatic member of the FBI, with a twist which is strongly alluded to but never quite stated clearly. I’m not going to say more because Martin introduces the hints with great subtlety and a very deliberate pace and, it would give away much of the suspense to know the twist before reading the book. In trying to identify the conspirators behind an attempt on FDR’s life, Bierce has run-ins with Bonnie and Clyde and other gangsters of the period – all of which give an interesting twist to the known stories of the time. This is the first in the series and it doesn’t quite work in places – I found some of the pacing uneven and there was sometimes too much setting up of series story-lines at the expense of successful novel resolution – but I am certainly looking forward to the next in the series and getting to know more about Henry.

And will I ever get the chance to know more about Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May without going back to the previous 11 in the series? The Burning Man is number 12 and, given the way it ends, it has a sense of finality to suggest that Fowler has decided to call it quits. Or has he? Because the Kindle edition suggested that there may be more to come. If there are, I shall be reading them. Bryant and May may not need much introduction since they were introduced in 2003 in Full Dark House. The two members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit live and work in London and, in this novel, rush to find an arsonist and murderer before anarchy spills over from the City to the rest of London. I read this with that feeling of being the newbie to the meeting – the person who has to learn who is who and ‘why things are done this way’ but it didn’t detract too much from the clever and contemporary plot.

*****

All the books reviewed here were free from NetGalley in exchange for impartial reviews.

EJ Knight will be publishing a monthly review of crime fiction. If you would like your book to be considered, please email at allonymbooks@gmail.com. EJ Knight’s novel Broadway Murder of 1928 is available from all Amazon websites.

Magic Realism Blog Hop 2015: Heightened senses of reality in the magical realist novels of Sarah Addison Allen

allonymbooks magical realist author Evie Woolmore peeks, sniffs and cranes to hear the faintest hints of sensory perception for this year’s Magic Realism Blog Hop.

blog hop 2015 dates

Magical realism is often about stretching our definitions of reality, but one of the things I most like to do as a writer of magical realism is to plunge the depths of the most tangible features of our reality: our senses. The magical aspects of MR are often enabled by challenging what we see or hear, or harnessing the sixth senses of intuition and perception beyond the other five. But there is a kind of enchantment to be found in the most everyday of the senses, particularly smell and taste.

I mentioned in last year’s Blog Hop that that is one of the qualities I most admire in the novels of Sarah Addison Allen. Her plots may be uncomplicated with respect to some of the storytelling in the genre, the settings domestic, the life challenges identifiable, but within them lies the magic, much of which is crafted by the way Allen uses the senses to describe her characters’ experiences.

Food plays an important part in Allen’s books, indeed Garden Spells is essentially a love letter to the sensory pleasure that food can bring, and many characters cook or bake, seducing themselves and others into states of calm, romance, safety. Allen uses flavours and scents to evoke memory, which isn’t in itself unusual: “cinammon…was a calming scent, reminding him of mulled wine, baked apples, and winter nights.” (Lost Lake).

But it is not merely one sense that Allen uses but senses in combination, connected, fused together.

“His words surrounded her like perfume.” (The Sugar Queen)

“Snow flurries began to fall and they swirled around people’s legs like house cats.” (The Sugar Queen)

“Lisette loved the flavors of old, simple recipes…[that] tasted soft and sure of themselves.” (Lost Lake)

“Her mom used to take her coffee like this. So sweet it could kiss you, she used to say.” (Lost Lake)

Incidentally, that same fluidity between states of sense is also found in Allen’s management of time in her books. Time is crafted, manipulated, rewound to reset the past, the present and the future, and memory and anticipation, the past and future versions of ourselves are also key to the magic of Allen’s story-telling.

I could write all day, picking out lovely sentences and ideas from Allen’s books. But I suppose the reminder for me in my own writing is that magical realism thrives on creating the imaginative and extraordinary from the everyday components of experience.

The Salt Factory by Evie Woolmore

Evie Woolmore is the author of three magical realist novels: Equilibrium, The Salt Factory, and Rising Up. You can find out more about Evie here on the allonymbooks website and buy her books on all Amazon sites.

*****

This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2015) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the button below to visit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.

*****

You can also read Magic Realism Blog Hop posts by allonymbooks authors from previous years:

Facts and Fiction: Historical Magical Realism – 2013

Evie Woolmore on the Six Senses

Magical Realism for Men? – 2014 (Cadell Blackstock)

Crime Novel Review: A Man of Some Repute by Elizabeth Edmondson

This week, allonymbooks author EJ Knight reviews Elizabeth Edmondson’s period crime novel, A Man of Some Repute.

Period tone is always a controversial area for writers, actors, directors, filmmakers and musicians. We pursue authenticity relentlessly, and yet sometimes only hindsight makes it possible for certain stories to be written. An opera buddy of mine refuses to see any productions of operas which are set in ‘modern’ productions, hating the reinterpretations of what he sees as classic stories and music against the framework of anachronistic contemporary values. In a similar vein, a piece about British actor Benedict Cumberbatch in The Guardian quoted director Marilyn Imrie on Cumberbatch’s uncannily accurate and rare grasp of the post-war vernacular in both movement and dialogue style: “he has that rare thing in a younger actor – he can summon up that quality of post-war Englishness that a lot of actors under 40 really can’t capture.”

One considers many of the same issues when reading Elizabeth Edmondson’s crime novel set in  1953. Hugo Hawksworth relocates to deeply rural Selchester Castle, still adjusting to an injury he received when undercover during the war. With his 13 year old sister, Georgia, he is seeking stability of a sort, and yet he is not a man to settle easily. Nor, it seems, are the bones of Lord Selchester which are found shortly after his arrival in the Castle, giving prospect to the solving of his disappearance – and, it seems, murder – six years ago. In the company of the last remaining resident of the Castle, Selchester’s niece Freya, Hugo explores the background to Selchester’s death, driven partly by Freya’s insistence that she is innocent, and partly by some murky business that he must undertake on behalf of Sir Bernard at The Hall, a local outpost of the intelligence community. Hugo, keen to prove his worth despite his injury, uses his natural investigative instinct, aided for the most part by the zealous and enthusiastic Georgia, and eventually by Freya who must face the fact that the Selchester she thought she knew had clearly made an enemy.

Making a story period is, however, about much more than just inserting period details. Edmondson is thorough with reference to the stringencies of post-war life, from ration books to clothes, rural poverty, switchboard telephony and modes of transport. There is also detailed historical framing, particularly with reference to social themes regarding sex, adultery, homosexuality, secrecy, and the financial independence of women, as well as the political landscape of post-war Britain, America and the Soviet Union. And it is here that the challenge for the historical novelist starts and ends. To what extent can motives, motivations and morals of a period be authentically employed by a contemporary writer?

It is easy enough for us to research and review what we know about lives lived before, and create plots from what we understand to be the complexities of life, but the truth is often that the sorts of themes we write about now would not have been written about then. The paradox of Edmondson’s novel is, to me, that she has written in a very authentic period voice, but that the plot itself is redolent of a more contemporary interpretation of social motivations and thus motives for murder. Indeed, the main opening of the novel is so period that I had to check that it wasn’t actually written in the 1950s, for it has the flavour of the style, a sort of Tommy and Tuppence scent to it. (I would note that Edmondson’s editor has let one or two verbal oddities escape: there is reference to ‘ultra casual’ which is surely a 21st century modifier, and a ‘soft drink’ which, if it is not an alcohol-awareness label, surely sounds anachronistic enough to stick out.) But if I have a criticism of this novel which otherwise flies along in dialogue terms, albeit with periodic down time for extensive description which does slow the pace, it is that it feels slightly forced from the plot point of view. And there is a faint hint of stereotype about the characters with motive for murder, all of whom stack up very plausibly in terms of motive, but whose secrets are so because they belong to the period. 

*****

EJ Knight’s historical crime novel Broadway Murder of 1928 is available from all Amazon sites for Kindle. Broadway Murder is the first in the Lucille Landau series.

Preserving Hell for All Eternity?

This week, Cadell Blackstock ponders the wisdom of drawing from the worst of life for one’s fiction.

Years ago, when I first began writing, I had a co-worker who was terribly difficult to get along with. He had a number of professional strengths, but also some crippling weaknesses, one of which was to put anyone else’s idea down almost before it was out of your mouth. He was also somewhat distinctive to look at, and I observed to a friend at the time that I was so annoyed with this co-worker, and so often, that I desired to seek an element of revenge by writing him into a book one day, thus enabling me to do with his fictional alter ego whatever I fancied. My friend, a poet, rather sagely observed that it was all very well to have that as a resort, but then the annoying co-worker would be preserved for all eternity in one of my books, and I would never be able to get away from him.

Years on, and I find myself in a similar position, albeit not in my own life. A close friend has suffered what is evidently a raging injustice, and one which is unanswered by any of those who could actually fix the mess. The context is narratively vivid, and there are a number of key personalities involved, each of whom would make a stunning character in their own right. There has been morally dubious behaviour, and the situation is rich with dramatic dilemmas that require resolution. He has all but begged me to restore his world to rights in a fictional way, thus providing the outcome that he will never get in real life.

I find myself uncertain of what to do. My friend has given me carte blanche to write the story’s ending in whichever way is most fitting, with the only caveat that at least one of the ‘villains’ will get a comeuppance. My friend doesn’t even have to appear in the book, he says, but he is desperate for wrongs to be made right in the fictional world because he has absolutely no ability to achieve that in the real world. I have no fear of writing fiction which will magically convert itself to fact in the real world – although there is a supernatural element in my stories which is absolutely begging to be let loose on this situation.

No, it is more that I wonder whether writing my friend’s disastrous life experience into a novel will prevent him from ever moving on from it. There will be no real resolution, not one he can draw any satisfaction from, and while we have all read books with the desire to see them come to life in some way, won’t the frustration with the real world be all the more acute? And won’t I be making the situation worse by reminding him for all eternity of the hell he has been through? My allonymbooks stablemate Evie Woolmore would no doubt say that it is a matter of playing my part in restoring his equilibrium. But I do wonder if I would be helping him or making things worse. And what do I do with this great idea for a new novel?

Indie Book Reviews (14)

This week, allonymbooks magical realist author Evie Woolmore reviews a light paranormal yarn, Restless Spirits by Kathy Bryson

Marilee Harper, jobless and locked in a complex relationship with her mother, is introduced to the somewhat mysterious and disconcertingly attractive John Smith, who is renovating an old hospital into a new bed and breakfast. Their unease around each other seems to infuse the atmosphere, which is increasingly unsettled by strange goings on, but Marilee and her mother move in and set about helping John with his project. But nothing is straightforward, for amid the romance is a sprinkling of mystery and the sparkling presence of Fair Folk, and what starts out as a journey of self-discovery becomes much more than that for Marilee.

I had the good fortune some years ago to spend a few months living in a small New England town, and anyone who has lived in a small town anywhere will instantly recognise the strong sense of community that pervades this book. Ms Bryson has peopled her novel with a large cast of well-defined characters whose interdependence and individuality form the nucleus of both a successful community and a fictional world. What sets this novel apart from other small-town romances is the paranormal twist, and with due reverence to Shakespeare, Ms Bryson has embraced the possibilities of fairies and the Otherworld. Indeed, it is just as well that Marilee has ‘a high threshold for the bizarre’ – although she revises that statement immediately to a low threshold, she has a curiosity for what motivates, ensnares and defines those around her, which I’m sure reflects the author’s own interests as a writer. This is a study of people, and there are many to keep us intrigued.

Marilee’s growth as a character is certainly key to our desire to keep reading. With my editorial hat on, I felt it could have done with a ruthless edit in the first half of the book: the pace is slowed by Marilee’s detailed self-reflection and self-analysis, and the sort of small town minutiae that are essential to local narratives don’t always translate as effectively to the fictional narrative where we need merely enough to delineate the boundaries of the story. In her gloom, Marilee also has a tendency to go round in circles at times, and though this is a good reflection of how her circumstances have trapped her, and how depressed I think she genuinely feels, it can at times have the effect of alienating the reader who relies on Marilee to drive the first person story-telling.

Nonetheless, this is a vividly drawn novel which will immediately enchant anyone who recognises themselves, their community or the twinkle in the eye of someone who is not quite what they seem!

*****

Evie Woolmore’s historical magical realist novels have a strong infusion of the paranormal, perfect for the Hallowe’en season! Find out more at her Amazon page or here on the allonymbooks blog.