It’s a mess…

It’s a mess…

A literary agent I know in New York related the following horror. In the days before PCs, the average NY agent received about 300 manuscripts per year. He or she would skim them all, and read about 30 manuscripts in their entirety before making a publishing decision.

Now a NY agent receives over 3,000 digital manuscripts per year.

He or she still reads about 30. And those are the one that have been recommended by a trusted third party, or whose opening page is so compelling that the agent is sucked in.

What happens to the rest? I suppose they end up in the drawers of great disappointments on the hard drives of their owners.

There are interesting economics to be applied here. There has been no substantial new increase in the reader population (and it can be argued that there are less, with people’s attention now being leached by other digital delights like video on demand).  Bit still, the old supply and demand curves no longer apply

And herein lies the rub.

With the certain death of printed books (most pundits agree that they will be gone in 20 years), there is no longer any compunction for books to be constrained by either length (300 pages average), genre (publisher and retailers always favour the genre du jour – noticed how many 50 Shades knock-offs are out there?) or any other historical tether to the publishing value chain of old.

In other words,  it is becoming a free for all – flash fiction, Kindle Singles, graphic and animated books, poorly written best sellers (50 Shades would never have seen the light of day before digital), etc.  Leaving traditional authors of the 300 hundred page book bewildered and insecure, wondering if their markets will simply get gradually sliced away, as agent/editor gatekeepers lose their authority.

And, as a warning shot over to industry, a couple of weeks ago David Mamet, one of the world’s most successful playwrights and authors recently dumped his publisher.  Because he no longer sees the need for one.

To add a final despondent note – their are apparently no new contemporary novelists in Russia, because pirate sites release the books on the day of their physical print launch, make the profession of book writing simply un-remunerated slog.

It’s just a mess, and it is going to get worse.

Just thought i’d brighten your day.

Boston – the stuff of fiction

Boston – The stuff of fiction

This morning TV news was awash with braying Boston college students mugging for the camera ‘Boston, Boston, Boston’ to news of the capture of the 19 year old who partnered in the Boston excrescence.  My first reaction was to be appalled – the deaths and underlying boil of global politics which resulted in the slaughter of innocents in a pornographically public series of bomb shots should somehow deserve more gravitas than a bunch of inebriated students cheering at what would seem like a sports victory.

But my reaction was soon muted. How else to celebrate the lifting of the curfew, the success of the security apparatus, their speed, their competence? These are students after all, any excuse for a party, and this was a big one.

If one had dreamt up this story, a scaffold of plot (3 acts – disaffected immigrant, turns to a the stern edges of religion, enlists and manipulates his adoring younger brother, commits an act of public horror, whereupon the FBI, presumably led by a craggy Bruce Willis extracts swift justice, leaving a lone and bewildered 19 year, barely beyond his first shave, facing the wrath and cackles of a pissed off nation), one would presumably write just as it happened.

It is a rare sight this. The homily of life imitating art is a usually cringing cliche, a one-liner of little consequence.

But here we have it. The last chapter (or camera shot), a pale-faced bewildered boy, his life over, both driven and felled by forces beyond his youth and ignorance, his name destined to  fade into footnote, while Boston college students shriek and perform and drink in the ample bosom of American freedoms.

Advice for the publisher-lorn

Some survey I read recently estimated that over 80% of Americans would like to write a book some day. This is astounding, given how many will actually do so, and how many of those will actually see the light of day. I suppose that everyone has the most basic tools, which is language and a pen or PC. I recently attended two events which caused me ponder the aspirant writer conundrum (in whose multitudes I mingled until recently). The first was Alison Lowrie and Tracey MacDonald’s Suitcase Under the Bed workshop, basically a day of guidance and advice for aspirant authors on how to get published.  I was one of the presenters, and I talked about the strange and elusive concoction of luck, talent and contacts which might conspire to help you along. You can get published with only one of these, but having all three creates exponential leverage. More on this later.

Then I went to Lauren Beukes’ launch of The Shining Girls at Exclusive Books in Melrose Arch. She added hard work to this list. Indeed, writing even the most unpublishable of books requires many hours of speculative and unremunerated labour behind a keyboard, often in a state of anxiety and insecurity.

So – dispensing with luck first. Nothing much to be said here. It either smiles or doesn’t.

Talent –  two kinds here. First there is the requirement of a writing talent, or at least competence. Without that you don’t get off the starting blocks. And it can be burnished, contrary to popular belief, by reading and reading and reading. A friend of mine quit his job to become a novelist. When I asked what he read, he responded – very little. We know where this story is going to end.

There is another kind of talent, I suppose. The ability to spot a market that no one else has seen. The more explosive the demand, the less important the quality of the writing. 50 Shades of Grey. QED.

Then there is the precious gemstone of all human activity – contacts, and this is the rub. If you have none, you can get some.  Cajole, nag, push, beg, grovel, charm and flatter. In face and online. They can be acquired. You want your stuff to get read by someone of influence, and you have to get that first paragraph in front of them. It takes acts of the worst sort of indignity, self-abnegation and cringe-worthy brown-nosing sometimes, but hey. The alternative is quiet anonymity.

And no one who has a story to tell seeks that.

The Next Big Thing Blog Hop

Doing the rounds on the blogosphere is the The Next Big Thing Blog Hop

What is a blog hop?  Basically, it’s a way for readers to discover authors new to them. Authors are asked to respond to the ten questions below on what they are currently writing, and then tag more writers and ask them to participate.

Here are my answers:

1. What is your working title of your book?
2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
Sometimes I feel beset by dread. I want my character to be beset by dread. Then I will feel better. The panacea of fictional Schadenfreude.
3. What genre does your book fall under?
Aah, jeez. Comedic literary fiction? Is that even a genre?
4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
A very young John Malkovich.
5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Meyer is filled with dread, believing the sky is about to fall on his head – and then it does.
6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Picador Africa, 2014
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
6 months, then spit and polish for another 6 months.
8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Anything by Mordecai Richler
9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Existential angst of the humorous kind.  Which is kind of an oxymoron, but fiction is forgiving in these matters.
10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Ever had a really, really bad few days? Weeks, months, life?


On writing stories based in the US…

A few interviewers and reviewers have questioned why I, as a South African, have set two (and my upcoming 3rd novel) in the US, instead of here, in SA, where I live. The questions have ranged from the curious to acrimonious (such anger, damn, it’s just fiction).

Nevertheless – an explanation.

Firstly, I am only partially South African. My mother was from New Jersey, and although I grew up in Johannesburg, my US passport and my mother’s heritage blazed brightly in my consciousness. The US was Camelot to me, and my mother fed me a diet from the golden age of US literature – lighter stuff first, when I was young, like Michener and Haley, but then graduating to Heller and Roth and Updike and Mailer and Bellow. For me, fiction became inextricably bound up with the great American novel.  It was also a time where South African fiction was deeply impoverished – there was Paton and precious few other professional SA novelists.

Secondly, I left SA in 1978 to seek my Camelot, arriving as a fresh faced youngster in LA, and foraging there for more than 17 years. I oscillated from career to career, roomed with Rian Malan, argued politics and art and science, supped with urgent and wild dreamers, did things that I shouldn’t have (some of which have found their way into my books), sampled the best and worst of the post-Vietnam era, and loved the place, blemishes and greatness both.  Still do.

Thirdly, the fiction I write (and like to read) is often untethered to location, and the stories exist and play out against the unpredictable foibles of people, and could happen anywhere. That being said, there are great SA novels, especially over the last 20 years, in which SA is in and of itself an important character, freighted and charged with its own peculiar wounded histories.

But I think I am done with the US for the meantime. Next book will be UK or SA. So for those of you who were offended by my choice of fictional location, I am coming home soon.



Some thoughts about the writing process…

I spent decades reading fiction before I sat down to write my first novel. One of the things that had always struck me as magical, and even inimitable, was the process by which these authors were actually able to do this – invent a story, write it down, and have it be good enough for a publisher to pay hard money for the rights to shepherd the book to market.

Post-it NotesNaively, I believed that the process went like this – think of a story. Specifically, think of a beginning, a middle and end. Think of the characters who will populate the story. Plot the scenes, the arcs, the expositories, the back stories, the surprises, in detail, on little yellow post-its and line the walls with them. Pace around muttering dialog. Re-plot. Lie awake at night linking it all together. Drink a lot of coffee. Then sit down and write from morning until night until a first draft emerges. Then buff and polish, buff and polish, buff and polish.

It was not like that at all. Although, on having done some research on the writing process, it is exactly like that for many authors. But there are numerous other approaches (apparently John Irving starts with the last sentence of the book and reverse engineers the plot, although I suspect that this story might be deeply exaggerated).

In all three novels (third to be published 2014), I began with a character that I found interesting (Jared Borowitz, the grumpy physics professor in Entanglement, Harold Cummings, the imploding retiree in Stepping Out). And each of those characters were scaffolds for me to probe a series of topics that I found interesting. So the other characters, the plot, the arcs and all of the rest simply seemed to coalesce around the unveiling of my primary protagonist in the first chapter. The plot revealed itself in pieces, never all at once, and in all novels I was more than 50% done before I could even glimpse how it ended up.

I also wrote in the gaps (an hour here, thirty minutes there), but I tried to write every day, even if it was only 300 words. And I never wrote for more than 3 hours at a time.

I had my wife (a writer and editor) read the first draft, and was lucky in this respect, because the writer’s proximity to his work causes the most distorted myopia (It is too terrible! It is Nobel quality! No, it is stultifying! Geez, actually not bad! OMG, what rubbish!).

Finally, the whole buff and polish thing? Beware, that can go on forever. I quickly learned to tie a bow around paragraphs and chapters and not to go back. I wanted to publish before I died.