Saturday, 31 October 2015

A spooky Severn Valley Authors' gathering to discuss small-scale tyranny and deleted expletives

The SVA met at my place for an (almost) Halloween meeting.  Spookily, Chris (whose extract we had gathered to discuss) emerged via the dark alleyway that runs alongside the house.  To park his bike round the back he had to contend with dustbins heavy with garden rubbish, so ominous rumblings of wheelie bins and mysterious flashes of LED lights presaged his apparition. 

Annie was unable to join us this week and the remaining five of us had little news to share. There was talk of taking part in National Novel Writing Month (see‎) from Rob, and of helpful advice received from an editor (Linda), of ongoing bloggery (Izzie), submissions to short story magazines (Tony) and a finalising rewrite (Chris). There was also a lot of debate about a mutually convenient meeting time. The consensus seems to be to stick with the second and fourth Monday in each month, starting at 8pm but ending promptly at 10pm. We agreed we would need to be brisker in both our sharing of news and our giving of feedback, avoiding repetition of comments and generally being pithier. 

And, in this spirit, Chris read us an extract from Chapter 13 of his Karl Marx and Careful Driving. The text was full of profundity and humour. In one section, Chris observes that road users are "alienated both from their humanity and from each other by the state's partition of time and space because only the surrender of time and space without direction from another can bring a smile from a grateful stranger." Elsewhere, Chris describes a manager who "might easily be dismissed as a buffoon, but even small-scale tyranny is no joke for those subjected to it."

 Izzie found Chris had a gift for making "complex theories  palatable" while Linda appreciated the improved balance between personal experiences and the history and philosophy sections.  Rob also liked the balance between 'theory' and 'driving' but suggested each chapter could end with a short summary of where the narrator had got to, so far, in his thinking ... and where this might be leading us next. I also enjoyed the frequent switches from macrocosm to microcosm, from the sublime to the mundane and, sometimes, ridiculous.  

There was a lot of discussion about the use of deleted expletives, or rather the inconsistent use of, or expurgation of, expletives. Chris's rationale was that some obscene language was admissible, and some was just too obscene to spell out, but the group felt, if you're going to include some obscenities, you can't be this selective. D H Lawrence paved the way for authors to use such language more freely, although sometimes, in print, it still has the power to shock.

The meeting ended with a brief discussion planning Christmas celebrations. And so - though it's eminently subject to change - the plan for now is as follows:

Forthcoming meetings:
Monday 9 November     Venue:  Izzie's     Izzie to submit
Monday 23 November    Venue:  Annie's    Linda to submit
Monday 14 December or Thursday 17 December:  Christmas meal  (Venue to be confirmed)
Tony Gillam

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Rejection and Inspiration

On Monday 28 September we met at Rob's to discuss the latest development in his novel-in-progress The Petrified Fountain. Izzie and Tony were away on holiday and unable to attend.

Linda reported that the Guardian Master Class 'How to find a literary agent', hosted by the literary agent Juliet Mushens and Jessie Burton (author of The Miniaturist), had been worth every penny of the fee and the return train fare to London. Among the useful tips she gleaned was that a submission to a literary agent should be 90 per cent about the book and 10 per cent about the author; that the synopsis is a technical document limited to a formal summary of the manuscript's content and that the introductory letter is the place for the promotional 'elevator pitch'; and that authors shouldn't be disappointed that the name at the bottom of a standard rejection slip isn't that of the editor you sent it to: readers appointed by agents and publishers are extremely well qualified and know exactly what they are doing.

Hmmm. A quick Google search reveals that

Agatha Christie (book sales in excess of $ 2 billion) suffered five years of continual rejection;

J.K. Rowling's agent received 12 rejections from publishers for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (I assume that J.K. Rowling would have previously received several rejections from agents)

C.S. Lewis suffered years of rejections for his Chronicles of Narnia (over 100 million copies sold);

The Tale of Peter Rabbit (sales of 45 million) received so many rejections that Beatrix Potter self-published 250 copies;

Gone with the Wind received 38 rejections from publishers before going on to sell in excess of 30 million copies;

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is in The Guiness Book of Records for receiving 121 rejections - more than any other best seller.

There are umpteen more examples of spectacularly poor judgement by literary agents and publishers listed on but the following is my favourite:

'To prove how hard it is for new writers to break in, Jerzy Kosinski uses a pen name to submit his best seller Steps to 13 literary agents and 14 publishers. All of them reject it, including Random House, who had published it.' 

Jerzy Kosinski's experiment seems to confirm the worst of our fears: that for many agents and publishers what you write matters a great deal less than who you are, in which case we unknowns might as well give up. The lesson to be drawn from the examples listed on, is that the authors never gave up. Never stop believing in your talent (despite the advice of the 'experts') and above all, persevere. It only takes one person to see what all the others have missed.

Linda brought along two introductory letters handed out by Juliet Mushens. They were sent to her by authors who subsequently went on to have their books published.

And so to The Petrified Fountain. The central character, Mr Cross, has discovered that he has a cousin living in Lisbon. The previous chapter dealt with Cross's flight to Lisbon and his initial meeting with his cousin, Luis Fonseca, at which they agree to meet for dinner. Rob's submission begins with their meeting in a small restaurant, in which Cross learns from Fonseca something of the family's history. They return to Louis's apartment and agree to meet the following morning to visit Cross's grandfather's grave in one of the city's cemeteries. The narrative continues at a good pace with authentic descriptions of Lisbon, well-handled dialogue, further insights into the personalities of the two men, and some humour in the battle for space at the restaurant's tiny table 'the size of a tea tray'. I noted that there were occasional problems with tense: the narrative is set in the present tense, which works well for me, but occasionally slips into the past or even the pluperfect tense (which has no place in a narrative set in the present).

Annie stated that the chapter had a good pace and the she wanted to know what happens next. She enjoyed Rob's development of Cross's fussy personality but also had issues with the tense.

Linda felt that the story moved along well, with strong characterisation, good dialogue and a good sense of place.

Linda and I both had problems with the punctuation in the following sentence(s):

'Of course, you have not been let down by your powers of deduction - ' We bow heads in unison saluting the word's correctness. ' - I do like to be on time. It's an important courtesy.'

I suggested the following change:

'Of course, you have not been let down by your powers of deduction;' (we bow heads in unison saluting the word's correctness) 'I do like to be on time. It's an important courtesy.'

Rob prefers his version and I'm not sure if mine works any better. One of the blog's legions of followers might like to suggest a solution.

Rob said that he'd probably address the problems of the tense by transferring the whole narrative into the past tense, which he feels more comfortable with. He added that William Kellie Smith, Cross's grandfather, was a real person, a Scottish expat who built a castle in the middle of a palm-oil plantation in Malaya. He died in Lisbon from pneumonia in 1956. Rob's visit to the castle in 1990 was the inspiration for The Petrified Fountain.

Next meeting will be at Tony's at 7.30 pm. Chris will be submitting.