Thursday, 26 March 2015

Writing from the Heart, the Head or the Wallet? by Ruby Barnes


I am nothing if not modest. In fact, modesty is the greatest amongst my many talents. I lay claim to an average level of proficiency in most physical pursuits, with the exception of gymnastics, ice-skating and throwing a ball, all of which I'm pretty crap at. But I can twirl several martial arts weapons with a worrying degree of almost efficiency. When it comes to tastes in music, I like a bit of everything – the latest tunes on the pop transistor radio station, classical pieces by people in suits, bluegrass by folks with no teeth, heavy rock by hairy ones. Stick a label on it and I've probably got examples in my music collection. I myself can play fairly averagely well on several musical instruments – guitar, piano, trumpet, anything that plucks or blows. Regarding TV, films – I'll watch Downton Abbey, Dr Who, Lillehammer, The Middle, almost anything. Reading – contemporary fiction, classics, crime, thrillers, science fiction, misery lit, I lap it all up. Not a big fan of non-fiction as I like to escape the humdrum roundedness of normal life.

seilf emit

A Jack of all trades and master of none, I first realised my inclinations as an author were similarly tainted when I joined a one year creative writing course here in Ireland (which became three years and has never really ended, in true Hotel California style). Without exception, every other course participant was firmly entrenched in a genre. That led to many a teething trouble between fans of different genres as we developed our peer group critique dynamic. I found I couldn't stomach cutesy stories about cats and doves or political diatribes dressed up as fiction, but I could still see the appeal of all the genres I like to read. The result for me was a writing direction that didn't fit neatly into a pigeonhole. We were schooled in submission letters to agents and publishers, advised to make our work look commercially appealing. I became a genre contortionist. Without much success. So I went Indie and eventually founded a small Indie publisher – Marble City Publishing (enter their freeKindle Paperwhite draw here!) – that specialises in those pickled eggs (you'll have to have clicked and read the genre contortionist to get that reference).

pickled eggs on the bookshelf

Fast forward four years and reviews of my first novel Peril have attributed such labels as noir, gritty urban and picaresque. Many folk agree with my modest author viewpoint that it's not a bad read at all (even if the most liked reviewer says they want to punch the MC narrator in the head) but when I try and think of other novels or films that are on a comparable theme I find obscure, financially unsuccessful cult offerings such as the Coen brothers' Big Lebowski of 1998 – "a crime comedy". I flatter myself of course (another of my great talents along with that bucketful of modesty, and flattery is always effective, even if it's not sincere, even if you do it to yourself in a bout of flattery onanism).

Before the end of that writing course I had embarked upon a new novel which became The Baptist – a psychological thriller centred around a mentally ill MC with religious mania. Something along the lines of Shutter Island. In my adventurous genre-bending style the narrative was delivered first person, which meant the reader was inside the crazy head of John Baptist. Couple this with lack of happy ever after and the result was described by reviewers as a demanding and disturbing read. So enough weird stuff, back to a sequel to Peril, and I wrote Getting Out of Dodge, more picaresque chuckles and dead bodies.

The next step was to attend a writing weekend with a crime fiction bestseller who described how best to keep things on track. “Read what you write, write what you read,” he said. So I drafted a cozy mystery, went home and re-wrote an old political conspiracy thriller, Koobi Fora. Having got that out of my system, I resolved to write a further follow-up to Dodge, as I could then start to market it as a serial. Instead, a nonsense novella about a solemniser (try saying that in polite company) materialised in the form of #AllUsers.


This year I had mostly been trying to get back on track with something serial for Dodge or The Baptist. Then I took a trip to Dublin to visit my elderly outlaws who were both in a semi-lucid non-life-threatening state of consciousness. On the way back home, Mrs R and I calmly discussed the best way forward for my writing career and quickly formulated the backbone of the latest blockbuster-to-be. Not to worry that I’ve long missed the genre boat with this new offering. The most important thing is I’m enjoying it and the words are flying onto the page. In five weeks I’ve managed to hit the 30k mark and this first of a series isn’t going to be much longer than that. Yes, writing from the heart, breathing new life back into my work. To Hell with the head and the wallet. Ruby Barnes is writing a zombie novel, of course. With humour and a picaresque first person narrator. Should sell a million.

7 comments:

Jenny Alexander said...

Yes, yes, yes - always write from the heart! I bless my agent every day because she takes the same view, even though my complete inability to build a body of work in any specific area must make me hard to sell and mean I'm never going to have any kind of profile in anything. Your books sound amazing :)

Chris Longmuir said...

I liked The Baptist so much I included it in my nonfiction book Crime Fiction and the Indie Contribution (but you don't read nonfiction). I think I described it as 'a psychological thriller of the highest order'. Good post Ruby.

@Ruby_Barnes said...

Thanks Jenny and Chris. I forgot to mention that John Baptist plays a pivotal part in the upcoming zombie novel, as does D.I. McAuliffe from Peril and Dodge ;-)

Jan Needle said...

i like a modest man, ruby. i've just signed up for your website, entered your free kindle competition, and will shortly read one of your books. how much is the accomodation in kilkenny? it's far too long since i was in ireland.

Lydia Bennet said...

blimey Ruby you've made yourself sound so good, Jan is thinking of moving next door! ;) Good for you, always write what you want to, and whether it succeeds or not is not up to any of us anyway whatever some would have us believe. I've never done the 'right write' thing either. Enjoy your zombies and I too will look up your links (ooh matron!)

Reb MacRath said...

Well done, Ruby. I couldn't agree more. And the post is especially timely for me...as I continue on a WIP that sounded an irresistible call but that I knew to be risky. Would have been much safer to do another entry in an existing series.

@Ruby_Barnes said...

Jan, accommodation is free in Kilkenny. Free, I tell you, free!

Lydia, ooh er missus! The zombies are taking over. I never thought I could use a zombie story to bring all my characters together. It's great fun!

Reb, I agree with your agreement. The road less travelled is always attractive to the contrary traveller. Why follow good sense when you can follow your heart, and never the twain?

I'M NOT A ROBOT. Oh, I don't have to type that?