Litfic, Popfic and All That Jazz

By accident, I entered the murky world of literary debate over the weekend, becoming entangled in a discussion about the difference between literary and popular fiction – henceforth to be known as litfic and popfic.

Now I’ve always thought litfic to be just another genre of a sesquipedalian nature, centred on the human condition (whatever that is…a worldwide outbreak of dandruff?)with characters who are unlikely to live happily ever after, if they survive at all.

Of course I’m dispensing both igorance and prejudice in roughtly equal amounts here but I am genuinely intrigued by this concept of litfic.

Who decides what is litfic? The Writers and Artists Year Book reveals that there are agents and publishers who only…shock, horror…deal with literary works. So, is The Life of Pi litfic or popfic? What about the Kite Runner or Cloud Atlas? Do unfamiliar situations and characters a litfic make? Some in this weekend discussion held that litfic doesn’t have a strong plot and hence meanders aimlessly and bores the reader.

Are the classics litfic? If Jane Eyre were to be updated – young girl falls for married man and wanna-be bigamist; takes off for a gap year doing voluntary work with disadvantaged Northern kids, discovers her true heart through a slightly spooky moment and scampers back to now-widowed and redeemed man. Would this be litfic or chiclit. It’s all beginning to sound like varieties of chewing gum isn’t it?

Those who bat for litfic say that the genre is transformative – the reader is somehow changed through the experience of reading the book. Yet doesn’t popfic leave the reader happy, uplifted, satisfied?

I’m confused.

Oh for goodness sake does it matter? Well I suppose if you set out to be a litfic author maybe it does when you see the sales figures of some of the popfic authors. Then again I’m reminded of the Somerset Maugham short story – The Creative Impulse – in which for various reasons, Mrs Albert Forrester – litfic dame par excellence – decides to change genre and…well read it for yourself.

Isn’t the purpose of literature or even art as a whole to provide the reader, viewer, listener with an “experience” be it transitory or transformative,pleasurable or painful, satisfying or ambivalent, uplifting or depressing, sesquipedalian or terse (that’s just so you don’t have to look it up). I could go on but it’s time to leave the stage and go back to writing non-fic.

Wrestling with the Heroine

So far, so good. The Easter weekend actually felt spring-like at moments but I wish they wouldn’t fiddle with the clocks – it upsets my natural sleeping pattern. However sleep has been disturbed of late as I wrestle with my leading lady.

If anyone has been paying attention, they will be aware that I’m writing (struggling with) a novel; a family saga in three parts, starting in France, moving to England and ending in both. It covers the century 1820 – 1920…ish. This is the longest piece of writing I’ve contrived ever and to some extent I approach it pretty much like my life…what will be, will be. But actually what is, is that I’ve realised I don’t like my heroine. Even taking into account 19th century French culture and restrictions, she’s a wimp, a wuss, a mademoiselle sans gumption. Sacre bleu, how can this be?

She started off as a personable young lady living a sheltered life in difficult circumstances. At one time I thought her a little too feisty for the period so I toned her down. Result…I don’t actually like her any more. In fact she’s so feeble she’d struggle to take the skin off a rice pudding. I don’t feel like rescuing her from her grasping Uncle who may well (if I have my way) lock her up in a nunnery.

The truth is I infinitely prefer her ambitious, ruthless uncle and her rakish, philandering cousin. They are far more real to me. I confess I talk to them, just now and again, nothing serious you understand.

But what does that say about me? Is it proof of some deep psychological misalignment? Wish fulfilment?Perhaps I do need to get out more. But what is to the point, is what on earth am I going to do with Mlle Prissy. From where I sit, the nunnery looks enticing but then who is going to star in the next two books? Somehow I have to redeem her. Any ideas?

What a Fantastic Tale!

Many many years ago in a land far, far away a young writling attended big school. There she came under the tutelage of Miss Grey (unrelated to Mr Grey and his Shades). By day Miss Grey impressed on her young apprentices the necessity of punctuation, spelling and grammar. By night she played the violin and made cocoa before bedtime.

On special occasions, she permitted her young charges to practise the art of composition. She gathered them around her, watching their little faces for signs of instransigence or rebellion and flourished her magic stylus (aka chalk) to conjure up the Special Inscription – a rule of such goldenness that to infringe it would bring the world as we know it to an hideous end or at the very least invoke detention and a hundred lines for those miscreants who dared infract it.

And the words of The Special Inscription were:

“WRITE ABOUT THAT WHICH THOU KNOWEST”

But the young writlings, flush with the arrogance of youth, thought they knew everything anyway…so no problemo maestra. They constructed tales of derring-do, with elves, witches, wizards and flesh-eating monsters with nasty little pointy teeth. Their heros (it was an all-female big school) quested, sought, snuffled out and just plain found the key to the universe and lived happily ever after.

“This will not do” quoth Miss Grey “From now until the end of break time, you will confine yourself to adjectives, adverbs and gerunds.”

Eventually, in time-honoured, weather-worn and cliche-laden fashion, the apprentices were released from the care of their nurslings and dispatched to the four corners of the known world to make their way in life. Most were selected for higher training in the dark arts; the rest became fodder for the bureaucratic machinery of the land – i.e. clerks and secretaries.

One such female writling shuffled papers by day and by night, imbued heavy doses of magic pictures on the magic picture box. However, one night, a raven tumbled down the chimney and croaked (with a minor speech impediment):

“Why wasteth thou thy life in thuch a manner, young writling? Thine orbs taketh on a thquare shape and glathy hue. Isth there nothing thou canst do of more profit to thine self?”

The young writling, suitably chastened and ashamed replied:

“oh thou glossy black raven. I wouldst fain practise the art of the wordsmith yet how can I? Meastra Grey shewed me the Special Inscription – “WRITE ABOUT THAT WHICH THOU KNOWEST”

“Bah humbug – tha knows nowt anyroad” croaked the Raven, now transmogrified into a gruff Yorkshireman, “WRITE ABAHT WOT INTERESTS YER and bugger t’Special Inscription.”

And so, the writling followed the advice of the Raven and lived happily ever after…well almost

(Apologies to all Fantasy writers everywhere – as you can easily surmise, I’m not your competition, please don’t turn me into a toad)

Have a good weekend everyone – I’m off until Monday.

Books on Botox…The Enhanced E-book?

During a period of prolonged www fossicking I came across the latest thing in e-books – enhanced e-books. Well I say latest but I don’t get out much so it could be old hat to some of you. But I’ve only just digested ebooks so what is this enhanced version?

Now just to prove I’m no Luddite here are a few snippets I’ve garnered.

Audio – if you want to quote an extract of a speech say by Winston Churchill or Abe Lincoln why write it? Why not insert an audio extract, possibly of the great man himself if you can get the permissions.If your recipe book includes instructions for simmering your soup why not have the steady “gloop gloop” noise playing in the background to illustrate the process. If your hero is caught up in a great conflict why not have a bit of background bang and crash to help make the point?

Video – travel writers you could show people, places and events using short video clips to enhance your words and make them come alive. Instead of static book covers we could have a little vid clip – Orcs slobbering, masked killer about to strike, heaving bosoms as heroines meet heros…your imagination’s the limit.

Author Interaction – not enough just to write the ebook we all need to give additional interactive material – our reasearch, where we get ideas from, where and how we write. We could even share our notes, plot lines and characterisations. Talking of characters…

Hyperlinks – internal hyperlinks inserted say for a list of characters so readers can tag along with them or find them quickly in any part of the book. External links too can take the reader to other sites, resources, people or places.

Then, one of my favourites – tables. When I wrote Time for Your Life it was replete with tables that the lovely Steve at http://www.kindlemybook.co.uk had to convert for me to make them more Kindle friendly. But no more…embedded pdfs, that’s the way to go so I now can have tables, graphs, graphics of whatever sort for my ebook.

All of which creates a multi-media, multi-sensory reading experience.
Does it mean writers will need to add other techie type skills to their profile?
Or will books become collaborative efforts with people with different skill sets sitting round a table to produce an enhanced ebook?
If we have an ebook can we still be said to be reading? Yes, but not as we know it, Jim.

I guess it’s a bit like cosmetic surgery – it all depends on how judiciously we use these enhanced features, which by the way, only Apple and B&N readers support.

Whatever will happen to curling up quietly with a good book?
The runes are there to be read or multi-media’d.

Of Reviews and Reviewers

Just been reading an interesting post from Slepsnor at Legends of Windemere about book reviews.

It seems there are a nasty-minded numbnuts out there, savaging authors’ books just for the hell of it.

The post got me thinking about reviews and how important (or not) they are. Certainly when I’m a prospective purchaser of anything other than books I will check out reviews and I can think of a couple of occasions recently when a review has influenced me not to buy.

When it comes to books however I’m not really interested in reviews. Whether I (or anyone) likes a book is almost totally subjective and subtly influenced by other factors such as curiosity, what friends are reading, price, cover, any other books by the same author and genre.

I bought and read The Da Vinci Code and 50 Shades of Grey for no other reason than curiosity and because friends were reading them. I didn’t like either of them for different reasons but I never felt the need to rush off and write a destructive review.

I find well-thought out constructive criticism is often more helpful than paeans of praise; a thoughtful opinion whether for or agin a book, short story or article helps me to see and get to grips with other perspectives. However a mouthy infantile slagging handed out to an author deserves nothing but contempt. I say handed out to the author because I do believe that the author is the real target not the book.

To me there is something quite cowardly about writing a review that aims to destroy a book and make nothing of it and its author. It is the act of a bully and a bully usually protected by pseudonym or anonymity. Thankfully whilst they may seem to shout loudest they are not the majority.

Is it envy, a sense of their own inferiority, scatter-gun malice or just plain stupidity that motivates these type of reviewers? Are they looking for five minutes of fame? I neither know nor care. The best medicine is silence – a total refusal to even acknowledge their existence.

The “Real” Book is Dead, Long Live the “Real” Book

A new day and I’m not as grunty as I was yesterday…it’s the artistic temperament dontcha know. I’m still musing over a chat I had yesterday with a group of participants at one of my workshops. It was break time and good for dropping the oh so casual hints about THE book. There was apparent interest – apart from one guy whose eyes had glazed over the moment I started the workshop and who slipped quietly into a state of catalepsy as the session continued. I had to proddle him awake at the end of the afternoon and he had the nerve to tell me he thinks better with his eyes closed. But I digress.

The question most asked was “can we get a copy?” I explained it was an eBook available from Amazon, hastily adding that if they didn’t have a Kindle they could download a reader for free onto their PCs/Laptops. Their disappointment was flattering although I harboured an unworthy suspicion that it might have had something to do with their assessment marks but I like to think not. What this particular group wanted was a hold-in-the-hand, curl-up-by-the-fire “real” book and they wanted it signed. (Note to self – query possible sycophancy?)

Driving home I thought about why I had chosen to be Kindled. Apart from the fact that all the publishers out there seemed to suffer from a distressing form of myopia when it came to my book, the royalties from Amazon do at least offer an author the possibility of bread and dripping rather than one or t’other.

Last night I had a little Google (no scatological or salacious comments please). I found that there are certain genres – fantasy, sci-fi, romance, crime and thrillers that all do well as eBooks but non-fiction and more literary fiction do less well. It seems that many people consider eBooks to be disposable whereas they seem to regard non-fiction to be for keeps.

So which way to go? Do I want to go down the road of hard-copy publishing? Time to put the brain in gear. You know, I definitely think better with my eyes closed.

My Carnation Condensed Milk Moment

There’s nowhere to hide. The house is in chaos; a century of black dust swirls around, settling then rising and falling again into a different pattern. I’ve got the builders in. I’m not the world’s greatest visualiser so I live in hope rather than expectation that the end will justify the disruption and I’ll have smooth plaster instead of leprous lumps; safe electricity rather than the hissing switches and a fab bathroom just as I wanted it.

This whole building process – design, plan, destroy, build, destroy again and re-build – reminds me of the way I deal with ideas. They float around in my head, specks of untold possibilities bumping into each other; sometimes conjoining, other times repelling. Truth be told its a bit of a war zone and I know enough to be wary; gather those thoughts together too soon and they go “pouf” and vanish into the ether; leave them too late and they go stale on me and lose their sparkle.

The art of knowing when to start putting a piece of writing together still sits on the dark side for me but when I do get it right there’s no greater satisfaction. The words come at just the right pace, everything flows and melds. It’s like pouring a shot of sweet smooth Carnation Condensed milk down my throat (still one of my enduring childhood loves). How I feel about a piece I’ve written generally is a good indicator of whether it will sell (and I make no apologies for being “commercial” about it). Often I choke up a bit when I read the finished piece and whenever that has happened I’ve had success. I don’t know yet whether this is some subtle subconscious crystal ball or just plain happenstance – time will tell.

However if any of you are moved to tears by now and you are sure it’s not down to the tortuous segue between first and second paragraphs, then perhaps this piece works for you too.

Twice in One Week!

Oh my goodness; twice in one week! Whatever’s going on?

I refer of course to yet another light-bulb moment; an ah-ha with bells and whistles.
(What did you think I meant?)

Writing is a learning process!

There I’ve said it. Bet you never thought of that.

The back story goes: coach working with client; client learning new skill; client finding it really difficult, harder than she thought; client much discouraged has thrown in the towel and is back to square one.

This back story reminded me of my own approach to writing…not forming my letters writing but write-writing …things; stories, plays; articles. It went something like this.

In the beginning was blissful ignorance – I didn’t know what I didn’t know about writing; I thought I just needed to pen words of whatever and the world would fall at my feet. I was quite cocky about it.

After my first few attempts to both write and sell my work I got a bit of a reality check. I began to understand what I didn’t know. It was quite daunting. My confidence started to evaporate as I realised there was far more to this writing lark than I’d previously realised. I discovered
a) there’s a lot to learn
b) I’m not very good at it and
c) others are better at it than I am.

It was at this point that I put aside the pen and paper, the little blue Olivetti portable typewriter (every serious writer’s accessory at the time) and got myself a proper job.

Umpty years later I pick up the pen again; I start to make a little progress, steady-as-she-goes type progress. I think I’m developing some writing skills; it takes me a long time to generate even 300 words; I have to really concentrate but my confidence is in the ascending.

I believe there is a fourth stage, Nirvana, when everything will just seem easy. Plots, characters, language, continuity – the whole works will become as natural as breathing. I see myself pouring out the words without conscious effort. This will be the peak of my confidence and skill.

Then I wake up.

Some of you may recognise this as a pastiche (I’ve always wanted to use that word) of the conscious/unconscious model of learning. If you do, just remember, no-one likes a smart-arse.

Happy weekend.

Book Sales, Telephone Repair Man and Me

At last, normal service is resumed; the world is at my fingertips once more and guess what? It’s been a day of firsts.

I’ve just sold my first copies of my first book; I have my first two 5* reviews for it ( no I haven’t bribed my friend or neighbours) and I’ve got my first commission this year for a magazine article.

Woohoo – I’m on a roll. I’m pleased. No what am I saying… I’m as happy as a church mouse that’s discovered a stash of Double Gloucester in the vestry on the cat’s day off.

However, the idea of someone, a real person buying the book really tickles me. I’ve sold articles and the odd short story but never a book. It feels more personal – an act of faith on the part of the reader. I wonder if it will bore, amuse, irritate or even get read at all? Will they delete it or file it for posterity? Perhaps they’ll say it was all a mistake; that they got their cursor crossed and really wanted “Time for Your Lies – a Beginner’s Guide to Telling Porkies”.

I mentioned the book to Telephone Repair Man this morning. I’d made him a cup of copper-coloured tea after he’d been freezing his whatnots off up a ladder fixing the phone line.
“Have you made any brass from it?” he asked in typical direct Yorkshire fashion.
I had to be honest about the anaemic sales figures.
“Thought not.” He supped his tea.
“Are you famous at all?”
I admitted the path to my door was unbeaten.
“Thought not”.
I bridled inwardly (is that physically possible?)but I’ve picked up the gauntlet along with several dozen bits of snipped off wires. I’ll show him. And this is where I’ll need your help.

All you need to do is click on this link http://tinyurl.com/d2wfbb7 and make the appropriate donation to the Make Sheila Famous and Confound all Telephone Repair Men Fund.

Ta very much.

Hearing Voices Revisited

I’m in yet another quandry with my characters and the use of accents, regional and national, in my dialogue. At the start of the book the action takes place in France and, not unreasonably, most of the characters are French. So the question vexing me is what to do with the dialogue? Is it enough for the reader to know that the characters are French and so write the dialogue in the normal way. Or iz it zat zee words needz to ‘ave lotz of zee’s? Peut-etre mes amis, it would be better just to throw in a few well-known French phrases, n’est-ce-pas?

Then again, what about the regional accent? In historical novels and family saga types, dialogue containing regional accents seem to be used in many cases to denote characters of, shall we say, lesser status? The faithful servant, humble henchman and their ilk. In Space Opera a sprinkling of made-up words and an accent is permissible and of course in edgy, gritty Northern (England) based tales it’s obligatory.

I’ve checked out Austen and the Bronte’s. Austen never permits anything but the King’s English whilst the Bronte’s allow their menials to mangle their vowels. Perhaps I should be guided by Charlotte B who allows Mr Rochester’s French ward the odd phrase – tiens, oh ciel .

I turned to TV to see how scripts are handled and listened to an episode of Agatha Christie’s OCD detective Poirot, admirably played by David Suchet. What gives him away is a sprinkling of French phrases, a few literal translations and the rearranging of words in sentences. So we get, “tell to me if you please, mon ami, how is it that the butler was to be found in the library?”

I suppose script writers don’t have quite the same problem – I guess they would only need to indicate some verbal idiosyncracy like “he speaks as though chewing a mouthful of walnuts”. It would be the actors themselves who decide how to deliver their lines.

So, iz a puzzlement. I must set the little grey cells to work n’est-ce pas?