Saturday, 30 November 2019

Not in Our Stars...Some Thoughts on Reviews

Mixed messages for Shakespeare from these reviews...

Today I thought I’d blog about a subject every author worries about far too much, yet which most readers probably never give a second thought to: stars. 

Authors would do well to take some advice from the Bard, who cautioned us that “the fault…lies not in our stars but in ourselves.” That said, I’m not sure I’m going to take advice from him because his works, in their various forms, don’t have nearly as many reviews on Amazon as you would expect and they aren’t always that great or, indeed, that logical. (“Bought for a student as present very pleased with it” 1*.)

Of course Shakespeare’s reviews are largely not about the plays themselves but about the edition — poor formatting gets your book marked down and easy navigability gets it marked up. Equally, reviewers award ratings for the introduction and the commentary rather than for the wonderful work which forms the main part of the book. 

Apart from the odd moment of dismay, I tend to be rather sanguine about bad reviews — and in fact I think authors worry too much about them. We expect them to be focussed entirely on the content, but for the reader they’re about the whole process of buying and reading a product. Shakespeare’s experience, if you call it that, demonstrates this neatly. 

There is often a disconnect between the review and the star rating. Some of my four star reviews have been very much better than some of the five star ones, for example. Again, there’s no point in moaning about them because they reflect the reader’s response. As a reader I don’t review that much but when I do I’m not always that consistent. Sometimes I rave about a book that isn’t, in objective terms (as far as objectivity is possible) very good or don’t enjoy  book that is, by every measure, a classic. 

Why? Because if I enjoy a book the quality is only part of it. It will be the right book for me, at the right time, and as a result I will enjoy it far more than I might have done under different circumstances. Or it might be set in a place I know and love, or one of the characters might chime with me for a particular reason, or what have you. 

I try and be kind when I review but not everyone does and they don’t have to. So my advice to the author reading a bad review is not to take it to heart. Not everybody’s going to like your book baby — and a bad review does’t reflect a poor quality book, but the fact that a reader didn’t enjoy it. Focus instead on the ones who did.

Friday, 22 November 2019

TO BE OR NOT TO BE ..... Linda Mitchelmore

There can be few writers who haven't had a rejection at some point in their careers, and I've had a fair few myself. How, I wondered, do my fellow novelpointsofview contributors deal with a thanks, but no thanks, letter? Here's what Jennie Bohnet has to say:- 'It's not personal, it's business'. I've lost count of the number of times I've muttered that famous quote from The Godfather to myself in an effort to keep yet another rejection in perspective. Except - when you're a writer - it does feel personal and it's extremely hard to accept that something you've slaved over for hours, tweaking, editing and making it the best you can, only to find that some unknown editor has decided it's not good enough for publication. Self-esteem and confidence fly out of the door at hurricane speed the minute the 'thanks but no thanks' email arrives and depression can quickly hurtle through the open door. It's no wonder so many writers drink! These days there are a couple of rules in our house regarding rejections. I'm allowed to shout and scream over the unfairness of a short story rejection for an hour if I really must. Then I can either put the story in the bottom drawer or I can work on it and send it back out again. Afer all a rejection can be an opportunity for another market. Novel rejections are much harder to deal with. A lot of time and energy have been invested in writing eighty thousand words over several months. I give myself a whole day to sulk and scream and despair of ever writing another word that will be publishable. I stay out of my office, go for a walk, drink wine, and try to stop the black dog of depression getting past the door. The next day it's a case of man-up and get over it. Approaching another publisher and selling a rejected novel that becomes a bestseller like my latest 'Villa of Sun and Secrets' has done is, of course, the best boost ever to dealing with and getting over a rejection. So I'll leave you with a positive picture!
And now Rae's take on things:- I may have worked on, or re-drafted, and completed three novels, but I've yet to send one to an agent or publisher. So I can honestly say I've never had a novel rejected, but perhaps far worse is that I've never tried. (That's a whole separate post) However, I have entered short story competitions, only to realise when the announcement date of the winner sails by without the congratulatory email lighting up my inbox, that, this time, first place wasn't for me. So what do I do then? If the winning story or stories are online then I like to read them, trying to learn what I can from their writing. But occasionally, perhaps when family life also throws a few curve balls in my direction, I can become despondent believing I will never be a 'proper' writer. And that's when I re-read a stash of notes I was given by friends. Several years ago I was lucky enough to bag a spot on a course with a band of local writers who have become my go-to support. On the final day of the course we were asked to write something positive we had gained from spending time with each of our fellow scribes. So when my writing mojo goes walk-about, I dig out those crumpled scraps of paper and think of the warm friendships I've made through writing. And that reminds me that what I have gained by being part of this community is more special than winning any prize!
This is how Kath McGurl looks at things:- I began my writing career with short stories for women's magazines. Rejections were frequent and numerous so I had no choice but to 'deal with them'. I kept detailed records of what story I had sent where, and when, so when the rejections arrived there was always a bit of admin to do. And then I'd consider whether the story would be suitable for some other market, maybe if I tweaked it a little ... or was it time to shrug my shoulders and say well, this one's not right, give it a rest. Acceptances were much more fun and generally involved a bottle of wine to celebrate. After maybe ten years of writing short stories I moved onto novels. Of course there were loads of rejections initially - often they weren't explicit rejections but simply a 'if you don't hear back in twelve weeks assume it's a no'. Again, detailed records helped me keep track. Finally I landed myself a two book deal, and ever since then I've managed to get three further book deals from the same publisher. So I'm in that happy place where needing to cope with rejections is in the past (and long may that continue!). When I started writing a very wise person told me that rejections mean one thing and one thing only - they are proof that you got to the point where you were able to submit a piece of work. And that's no mean feat. So really, they should be celebrated as simply a step along the way.
Jennifer Young sees it like this:- When Linda asked us to contribute our thoughts on how to deal with rejection,it took me ten minutes to stop my bitter laughter and think about it. People actually manage to deal with rejections???!!!! This is a blog post I definitely want to read. Rejection is a mian part, possibly the main part, of being a writer. It happens all the time. Sometimes it's the ringing silences, weeks or months long, of a submission never acknowledged. Sometimes it's an email, whether blunt or charming or (usually) in standard format. They didn't love it enough. The list is full. It's not my genre. They loved it but ... And rejection takes other forms too. It's when readers don't like your book. It's when it doesn't sell. I have to be honest I don't deal with rejection well. I'm not one of those fighters who hurl themselves back in the fray shouting 'I'll ******* show you!', or someone who knows every agent or publisher who ever rejected them and memorises every word they used, just so they can drop it into conversation with those poor unfortunates once the Booker prize is in the bag. The only way I can get by with rejection is ignoring it. I read the emails once and then file them in a place I never revisit. I never check Amazon ratings and I'm training myself out of an obsession with reviews. If I tried to carry the weight of rejection it would break me. So I don't. Jennifer didn't provide a picture to go with her comments so I've decided, that as she's had more than a few acceptances along the way that she deserves some celebratory champagne.
Victoria Cornwall's very honest response to my question follows:- It's been a while since I submitted to an agent or publisher, but the memory of their rejections are still fresh in my mind. Anger ... frustration ... despair, and a depressing nausea as my heart sank to the pit of my stomach. It's hard to deal with rejection whatever form it takes, and at first I didn't deal with it very well. The rejections almost crushed my motivation to be a published author as I believed the barriers in my way were insurmountable. Eventually I decided that I shouldn't let a stranger dictate the path my life would take. A stranger, I might add, who has their own agenda, pressures and preferrred genre, none of which have anything to do with my skill as a writer. So I decided to take their rejection, turn it around and use it to benefit me. I used the anger, frustration, and depressing nausea to motivate me to get published by a traditional publisher and prove them all wrong. So I dusted myself off and kept going, picking up tips and, hopefully, improving along the way. A published author is a stubborn writer who didn't give up.
And now me. I can probably knock all the others into a cocked hat with the number of rejections I've received over the years. Fortunately, I was given a very valuable lesson in rejection at an early age. When I was about ten years old there was a fund-raising competition at Sunday School, the prize for which was to be centre stage at the presentation of collected funds. I made cakes and sold them at the gate, I badgered neighbours. I did jobs for anyone who would pay me sixpence for doing them. I sold off unwanted toys. And I raised loads. We children compared tallies. I was well in the lead. But then ... Pamela said she wasn't doing anything because her dad was going to put some money in. He did. £20. A fortune back then. So Pamela got to be the one in the fancy frock, centre stage. I wailed and wailed to my dad - 'It's not fair, it's not fair'. And he said,'No sweetheart, it isn't fair but life's not fair and the sooner you understand and deal with that the better it will be for you'. So I did. And generally I still do. Or as my husband puts it,'It's a bit like ice-skating competitions, and Strictly Come Dancing' ... it's only someone's opinion. All subjective.' When I first joined the Romantic Novelists' Association's New Writers' Scheme my first submission got a glowing report from the reader and went to a top agent. I was on my way! Well, maybe not just yet, because she didn't take me on. At the first RNA party I attended I was introdcued to a big name writer (who for the purposes of this exercise will remain anonymous) who asked what I was writing. So I told her I'd just had a 'thanks but no thanks' letter. 'Oh, don't let that get to you, darling,' she said. 'I've had loads. And what I do to get over them is go out and buy a pair of teeteringly high-heeled shoes, impossible to walk in, but glorious. I call them my 'fuck-me' shoes.' Sometimes only that word will do in writing so I'm leaving it. I've never bought shoes because I don't think I could cope with the follow-on these days .... but I do have a very nice collection of earrings! Onwards, ladies and gentlemen!

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Guest blog - on living with a writer

This week was my turn to provide a post from a guest blogger. I looked about me for inspiration and my eyes alighted on my husband. 'Dearest,' I said, 'would you...' 

It took a bit of persuasion, but here Ignatius McGurl has written us a post on what it's like to live with a writer...

The start, the idea, the research, the excitement of a new book in gestation, it's all very exciting at this stage, lots of enthusiasm, no mention of sticky middles or character arcs not being right. Requests for character names, what do you think of this idea, what do you think of that idea, would that work or is this better? This sounds easy, I'm sure she'll have this book written in no time. It all settles down with occasional mentions of "I've written a zillion words today."

Then a previously written book comes back with editor feedback. Always opened with a certain amount of trepidation ever since the 'suggestion' to take the ghost out of a ghost story novel. Editor feedback always arrives late on a Friday afternoon. Usually mumbling and grumbling about sorting out character arcs, making some character more likeable, changing the start, the ending, the middle. Or all three. Often seems like a lot of work but usually nothing that some wine, hugs and reassurance can't help overcome.

The current book is put on the back burner and I'm expected to remember some characters and plots from what seems like the dim and distant past in order to have some sympathetic input into the editing process. I don't have the writer's ability to pigeonhole them separately to the lot in the book being currently written. Edits get done and she's back to the current book. Hurray all plain sailing now. Oh I almost forgot - the sticky middle. Sticky middle, all gets bogged down, she's never going to finish this book.... but I know better. We've been here with every other book. No matter how bad the sticky middle is, it always works out in the end. Just have to hope the sticky middle doesn't go on too long.

The end, the book is finished, the title is agreed, the cover is chosen. Just cover reveal, publication date, blog tours, social media promotions and the like to go. Who'd have thought there was so much more to writing a book than writing? Did I mention five-star reviews or heaven forbid, a one or two star one? Rankings, or the excitement of having two books on the same page of some American book chart.

The great thing about living with a novelist is the sharing of the the joy and excitement, the ups and downs of the creation of a novel without having to do any of the hard work. However it's somewhat similar to the male role in childbirth... a tad underestimated!

Good to see things from the opposite point of view at times! And yes, I do very much appreciate all the support. Can't be easy, especially not when I am in the sticky middle!

Saturday, 9 November 2019

A Head full of Stories

How many books do you have 'on the go' at one time? How many stories do you need to keep in your head at one time, because you are part way through them?

For me, the answer is usually 'too many' but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Reading, I have an 'upstairs book' and a 'downstairs book'. Even when we are away in the motorhome (like now), I have a book I read in bed, usually on my kindle, and another I am reading in spare moments in the day time. Typically the 'upstairs book' is a novel, often written by one of my many writing friends, and the 'downstairs book' is non-fiction, possibly researching my next novel.

Writing, I often have two books on the go. Right now there is the one I am revising in line with my editors comments, and the one I am half way through a first draft of. Beyond that, there are vague ideas beginning to float to the surface for the next novel, and I've brought a couple of research books away in the campervan with me to help get that one started. I also have a notebook with some scribbled ideas for the novel after that...

When you add to this the TV series we've been watching, whose storylines I also need to keep in my head, it's no wonder I get stories muddled at times! Thankfully The Dublin Murders ended just before we left home so I can forget about that one (started well, went weird, unsatisfactory ending). I probably won't catch up with The Name of the Rose (loving this adaptation of one of my favourite books) until we are next home, around Christmas. We've brought a DVD box set of Peaky Blinders to watch on this trip, and will probably get started with that soon.

The Name of the Rose

I know many writers who only ever write one book at a time, and don't start a new one until the previous one has been revised and gone to proof-readers. And some writers refuse to read novels while they are first-drafting a book. Maybe that's a good idea to help keep characters and storylines straight in your mind... but I rather like the jumble of ideas, the mixed-up dreams in which a character from my novel finds herself in a medieval Italian monastery, my head always packed to the brim with plots.

A view inside a writer's brain

How about you? How many storylines are you keeping track of at any one time?

Saturday, 2 November 2019

IT’S NOVEMBER. ‘The month of the drowned dog’. Ted Hughes.

As I write this it is November 2nd. Halloween here in France has passed almost unnoticed in my corner of Brittany despite the proliferation of spooky plastic spiders, witches hats and fake cobwebs on sale in Gifi. Does anyone really have to buy fake cobwebs by the way? Maybe I could offer to supply real ones next year as there is always an abundance in my house. (Gifi is France’s answer to the UKs cheapjack shops in case you were wondering.)

Here in France, Halloween is considered an American celebration - ignoring the fact that it actually started in Europe and was Celtic in origin. To the Celts, November (originally the ninth month of the Roman calendar) was the beginning of the New Year marked by the festival of Salhaim which started on October 31st as the old year ended. Bonfires were lit and superstitious rituals were practised against the supernatural activity that was believed to be abroad on that night. Many of those beliefs and customs have come down through the years and are now associated with Halloween.

But while the French tend to ignore October 31st, the following day is a national holiday and holds an important place in French social culture. La Toussaint, November 1st, is the day when ‘all saints’ are remembered and families gather together to visit the graves of family members. People travel miles to pay their respects - family members of my elderly neighbours who live in Paris make the eight hour return journey here every year to take tributes to the local cementry where grandparents, parents and other close relatives are buried. 
Flowershops, supermarkets and garden centres do a roaring trade in the days leading up to La Toussaint selling pots and pots of chrysanthemums and cyclamens as these are regarded as funeral flowers. French cementries tend to be a riot of colour in November more than any other time of the year.

In the title of this blog I quote a line from the Ted Hughes poem ‘November’ and that was because I’m currently feeling rather ‘drowned dog’ like. The builders finally came in October to re-roof our cottage - they had two and a bit days of dry weather when they started three weeks ago and since then the weather has steadily got worse. Gales this weekend have added to the joy! So to cheer us all up I’m going to leave you with a lovely photograph currently doing the rounds on social media. Batten down the hatches and happy writing in November - I'll see you on the other side with a new roof!

                                                                                                             ©Tanja Brandt