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?

Nostalgia Smells Musty

I’m about to hit the finishing stages of Phase II house renovations. The builders have left, snagging completed and I am now the proud owner of acres of newly plastered walls, ceilings and panelling. All of which has to be decorated by my own fair hand.

In preparation I started to clear and tidy the boxroom where I will store all the decorating materials. This is quite literally a box room – packed full of…yep, you’ve got it…boxes. Stuff that when I moved 18 months ago I’ve never unpacked. It’s a slow process because being a go-with-the-flow type of gal (i.e. lazy besom), I never actually labelled the boxes. So, it was inevitable that I got delayed in my clearing task by poking around in the contents of each box.

I came across a rather tatty box file and inside were yellowing pages of typescript. Each set of pages was neatly pinned together with one of those gold-coloured paper fasteners. The paper curled up at the corners and had a musty-mousy odour; the typescript was faint and peppered with handwritten corrections. Clearly I was a hunt-and-peck typist in those days for these were my first literary outpourings from 30-odd years ago when I decided I would write for a living.

Ah yes, I remember it well – the summer of 1976; drought and a heatwave in the UK, of a type never seen since. I was taking a year off work to establish myself as a writer thanks to the indulgence (and not a little condescension)from my now ex-husband. Every morning I sat at the kitchen table banging out stories and articles on my little blue Olivetti.

Rejection after rejection followed yet never daunted me – the optimism of youth! I got hold of an old copy of the Writers and Artists Year book and I’m sure I must have approached every literary agent in the listings, sending them shovel-loads of my work. Of course it was all returned with stiff little notes – now stashed at the bottom of the box. I picked up one from an agent who was obviously frustrated and irritated with me, for her note, scrawled on a compliments slip read “where do you expect me to sell this material? There is no market for it.”

Last night I read some of the stuff I’d written. Most of it was horrible; short stories trying but failing ingloriously to be some sort of hybrid Somerset Maugham and Guy de Maupassant – both of whom I still rate as short story writers. Quite clearly I hadn’t found my own “voice” and from the tenor of many of the rejection notes the literary world hoped I never would.

Nevertheless I have a fondness for the person who wrote this stuff – the person I was then. I wouldn’t choose to go back in time and become her all over again. My wrinkles have been hard earned and I don’t care for repeats. Do I wish I knew then what I know now? Nope – the joy of life is in playing the game as it is served – aces, mis-hits, net cords and all.

So what to do with this file of youthful indiscretions? Keep it? Stash it away again? Put it out for recycling?

Haven’t decided yet, but I’m having a bonfire at the weekend. Perhaps it’ll be the Bonfire of the Vanities?

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.

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?

Competitive Spirit

In another life I once worked with a guy who was competitive, very very competitive. His whole life was a great, winner-takes-all competition. He competed against his boss, his colleagues, his wife and even his children. He turned everything into “I betcha…” He was a tiresome creature to be with especially on those occasions when, on winning whatever infantile comp he dreamed up, he would wiggle his backside in your face chanting “I won, I won”. Of course he always won because no-one ever had the energy, will or interest in standing against him. I think he was probably weaned too young.

I still bear the scars that resulted from working with this guy and it really turned me off any sort of competition. Besides I don’t think I’ve ever won anything much. I vaguely remember winning a Basildon Bond letter-writing set when I was about 7. I think it was for neat hand-writing. Oh yes, I won a third prize yellow rosette in a best turned out pony class. Let me rephrase that…my pony won a third prize yellow rosette etc. After that my luck changed; zilch, rien, nada, nothing and nowt (as they say in my part of the world). I decided I was behind the barn door when the “Competition Success” parcels were given out. I was pretty sure that even if I were the only entrant the prize would go to the judge’s cat. I gave up competitions and retreated to the hills.

That attitude endured until recently when I was a trifle discombobulated by the idea that entering writing competitions is a good way to hone your writing muscles, whip yourself into disciplined writing mode and give yourself another possible outlet for your short stories. The author of these wise words,Iain Pattison in his book Cracking the Short Story Market, makes a persuasive argument for writers of short stories to enter writing competitions. He does say that some skill may be required oh, and the ability to tell a great story. But what the heck. Now that I’ve come down from the hills, I think I might have a go.

Anyone got a bottle of luck for sale?

Time for Your Life on Kindle

It’s there! The Book. It’s up on Amazon and I can’t believe how quickly affairs have moved. From having the final, final, final draft of the manuscript to it being uploaded and available has taken little more than 36 hours.

I’m sitting here at 7.30am, having a cuppa, just staring at the cover page and feeling a little tearful. It’s almost as though I’ve lost a bit of myself. Silly I know – I’m just getting sentimental in my old age.

Part of my professional training and background is always to ask two questions after the completion of any project:
What have I learned?
What would I do differently another time?

It’s a little bit too soon to answer those questions; there are some very practical things to understand about “Kindling” and also some “touchy-feely” stuff. I’ll come back to them in Monday’s post when I’ve had time to reflect.

However, one thing stands out above all: there was no buffer between me and the publisher. There was no editor with a sharp blue pencil to cut our the persiflage and waffle; no-one to correct grammer and other howlers; it was all down to me and I found this the hardest task of all – to be objective and distance myself from the writer’s viewpoint. I did ask a chosen few for their feedback and it was always very positive and helpful. But I noticed that the closer the book came to completion, the less I trusted anyone’s opinion, especially my own. That may just be me – I do have the odd kick in my gallop from time to time – and then maybe a collapse of self-belief is a quirk that most writers endure?

Anyway, ’tis done.
If any of you kind readers are interested The Book is:
Time for Your Life by Sheila Williams and you’ll find it on Amazon.

I’m signing off now for the weekend – back on Monday.

I just got Kindled

Yesterday my first book got Kindled. When I got the email to say it was ready I confess I got the shakes a bit. There’s no going back. It’s not a huge 100,000 word blockbuster rather a modest twenty-odd thousand words of self-help type but it’s mine and I’m proud of it.

I’ve lived with this book for more than six months in between the day job – first in the research and then the writing. Sometimes it flowed easily; sometimes it was sluggish. But the most fiddly part was the editing and like the guy in Camus’ The Plague I got stuck writing and rewriting the same sentence. Then I was gripped with this fear that I might have inadvertently nicked someone else’s words or phrases. The subject of the book – making time for the things you want to do in life – is by no means original and the internet is larded with articles, blogs and references. I know I’ve read some of them. I spent last night checking over the mss for possible copyright breaches – for the third time.

All that is left now is for me to write a few persuasive sentences for the advertising blurb and decide on key words for searches. Despite all the anxieties and neuroses it’s brought out in me I feel…not exactly satisfied – I’m never that – but perhaps elated. I’ve done what I set out to do, as well as I could do it. Whether it burns with a bright flame or fizzles out remains to be seen.

I’m also relieved that I can move on. For sure I’ve got work to do in marketing and selling the book but my head’s stuffed full of other ideas and projects all crying to get out.

Clearly I can’t give my Oscar speech since I ain’t sold a single copy yet but I would like to publicly thank Steve at for his support and help. I gave him the worst possible example of a mss for Kindle – full of formatting, tables, illustrations – all the Kindle no-no’s. He took it all on the chin and worked his magic in no time at all.

Now, I need 5 or 6 sentences to promote the book – how hard can that be?

Research is what I do when I don’t know what I’m doing*

Yesterday I took myself off to a local landmark called Spurn Point – a sliver of sand and grass hanging off the southernmost edge of the East Yorkshire coast. I went there, not because I wanted to skive off but because I needed to experience the atmosphere. I wanted to understand what it felt like to stand on this sand spit, with an angry sea on three sides, the wind howling down all other sounds, rain and sleet lashing at my face. I’m no masochist and nor do I wish to die for my art – I just like to research my writing and sometimes the only way I can do it is to experience what I’m writing about.

I enjoy doing the research – apparently many writers don’t. But I love where it can take me, what I can learn and how it can add that touch of authenticity to my work. I divide research into two types – outward bound like yesterday and deskbound when I’m on the PC, reading or in a library.

My outward bound research covers observing, doing and interviewing. So, I visit places, museums, country houses, gardens and so on. I take a camera and notebook and, most important, a list of questions for which I need to get answers. Sometimes I’ll interview an expert and it’s amazing how people will give of their time. For example, recently I’ve interviewed a poker champion, a lady who trains animals for TV and film work, an expert on Daphne du Maurier and my GP to get some medical info. On the same lines I’ve spent a day on a grouse moor working as a beater and done a stint with a hill shepherd during lambing time. All of this gave me some great material for magazine articles and short stories.

Deskbound research, particularly on a cold, snowy February day is an attractive proposition. The quantity of information off the Net can be a bit daunting and the quality of some of it throws up warning signals. However, I find the real risk with www. is the way links lead to links and to more links and I lose myself in a mass of fascinating yet irrelevant facts and figures. For all of that it’s a million times preferable to those readers they used to have (maybe still do) in libraries. I remember spending hours bent over one reading old newspapers to get material for some work I was doing on the Luddites. I blame my poor eyesight on them.

Research offers added value too – not only does it open a window on worlds I know nothing about, it also provides ideas for more writing and prods my sluggish imagination into action.

Now where did I put my specs?

*Title quote from Werner von Braun

Kafka with Kofte

For the last couple of days I’ve been working in London and whenever I’m there I meet up with a bunch of friends for a big fat Greek supper. We’ve know each other for yonks and we have the kind of relationship where no matter how long the gap, when we meet we just pick up where we left off and, as they say in the US, we shoot the breeze.

We talk books, literature, fave authors, where ideas come from and how come we always have too much month left at the end of our money. At this point, I usually look at the faces round the table and wonder which of us is going to pose perennial question number 1:”How come none of us have made it as writers yet?”

By “made it as writers” we mean earn the greater part of our livelihood from some form of writing. Of the five of us one is something mysterious in the City, two are civil servants, one is in PR and there’s me a business and life coach.

Out come the old chestnuts about not having time: having a large dog and mortgage to keep; waiting until the kids have left home. None of us can claim to have earned much more than a few hundred quid from our writing in the past year. Yet we are an intelligent (well mostly), articulate, inventive bunch and for my part I genuinely (friendship aside) enjoy reading what they write.

By mid-way through the evening we have disposed of a fair amount of increasingly mellow-tasting red wine but we’re not maudlin…yet. How do I know this? Well because we’re true to our traditions. We have yet to pose perennial question number 2: “Are writers born or made?”

Once we’ve bludgeoned the question to death for the umpty-teenth time, then and only then do we allow ourselves the luxury of drifting into a wistful sort of melancholy which usually ends with bleary promises to each other to do better before we meet next time.

So, are writers born or made?
Can only those who showed a burning passion to write from the moment they could hold a crayon in chubby fingers be successful writers?
Is there some latent writing gene we need to activate or are we just a bunch of panty-waist dilettantes, playing at it?
Answers on a postcard please.