Friday, 30 August 2019

How Do You Cope with the Business of Being a New Author ? #YouBeneathYourSkin

I'm a new entrant to the Authors Electric group of writers/ bloggers. 

Not just that, I'm also new at this thing called authoring. 

My debut literary crime novel You Beneath Your Skin is due out on the 17th of September, 2019 with Simon & Schuster IN. As anyone who has done this can probably imagine, my life is all mayhem at the moment. So many uncertainties, to-do lists a mile long, everything running way behind schedule.

When I started writing more than a decade ago, I hadn’t a clue a writer’s life could be like this. Naively, I just wanted to tell stories, enjoy writing them, and maybe share with a few friends. Wanting to learn better, I went ahead and joined workshops, communities, took classes. My writing improved, I began to have stories published in anthologies and journals. Then I made a decision that changed my life. Writing a novel.

Again, as novelists know, it is an agony and an ecstasy, a marathon (unless you get one gargantuan lucky sprint) and a constant in your life, almost like a chronic illness. I got used to that, but then came the stage where I needed an agent. I found one with spectacular ease, three years ago. The fact that I’m only debuting now might tell you something of the story after that.

Through it all, there has been one constant, my writing. During all the endless submitting and waiting that is a traditionally published writer’s life, I kept one place sacrosanct, my notebook, where I would scribble every once in a while.

For the past few weeks, that space is gone. Even when I carve out the time, I'm unable to focus. There are simply too many demands upon my time and attention for me to be able to do what is crucial, the only thing important for my mental well-being.

To the veteran novelists at Authors Electric and everywhere else, I suppose my question would be: how do you do it? The answers would help me but also others like me, struggling to protect their writing lives

My life now is like being on a carousel that won’t pause, and from which I’m too frightened to get the hell off lest I offend or let down those who made You Beneath Your Skin possible. 

How do you keep writing amid the crazies of book promotion, the cover reveals, the marketing strategies, the drone of ceaseless noise and constant interruptions that won’t let up?
 Damyanti Biswas lives in Singapore, and works with Delhi's underprivileged children as part of Project Why, a charity that promotes education and social enhancement in underprivileged communities. Her short stories have been published in magazines in the US, UK, and Asia, and she helps edit the Forge Literary Magazine. You can find her on her blog and twitter.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Living narrative: N M Browne ( first published ABBA 2010)

Do you live in narrative? Are you someone who always has a little voice in her head interpreting,describing, novelising your daily life?

If you have such a voice are you a) mad? b) possessed? or c) a novelist.

I now think the most usual answer is c) but as a child I did worry that it was a) or b). No one ever talked about it and, fearing that this endless descriptive flow was at worst mad and at best pretentiously self indulgent, I never raised the subject. I identified with Joe Marsh and Ann of Green Gables, and even most disturbingly with the ghastly girls of the Chalet School and as they apparently thought in well structured sentences so did I.

Later, when I was older, I became concerned that this measured ( third person) narrator’s voice mediated my experience, distanced me from living in the moment and prevented me from responding instinctively to people and situations. I am not sure that was true, but nonetheless ‘I resolved to give it up’ ( I am pretty sure of that because back then I definitely was the kind of girl who ‘resolved’. ) 

Fast forward thirty years and in a series of tentative, cautious conversations with other novelists I discover that this literary voice endlessly forming sentences as an hour by hour commentary on life is not so unusual. Lots of perfectly sane people do it. Who knew?

While I can’t say I regret its loss overmuch, I do think it was incredibly useful. I grew up writing and even in the years when my pen never touched the paper, I thought in prose. I was probably more fluent, more literary as a young woman than as an old working writer. When as a student I needed the words they were always there, tumbling out of me, faster than I could write: clause and sub clause unrolling like a carpet under my feet, taking my argument wherever I wanted it to go.

Of course it isn’t like that now. Words elude me all the time and I don’t know if that’s a symptom of incipient mental decay or if it's because I no longer live in narrative: I just live. What about you?

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Iris Murdoch, Alzheimers and Picture Books, by Enid Richemont

Many, many years ago, I was given this book by someone who knew I was a fan of Iris Murdoch's writing, which I once was. I remember being devastated by her diagnosis of Alzheimers from which she would eventually die.

Somehow, it seems, I never read this one, because glancing through it, nothing was at all familiar. From time to time, I prune my book collection, but very incompetently, so I thought I would check out this one, especially as it was a lazy, hot Bank Holiday.

My reactions to it were weird - it was like meeting someone I'd had a passionate affair with a very long time ago (this happened to me in real life, once, too, and it was a very uncomfortable experience as 1. age had not been kind to him, and 2. he had, astonishingly, considering his talent and intellect, become a born-again Christian on a rather pointless mission to save my soul.)

Back to Iris, though (the film based on her life, "Iris", was heartbreaking.) The knight reminded me that I was becoming a bit weary of the complicated and very introspective characters when I finally began drifting away from her, but her plotting was amazing! My absolute favourite in that respect was "The Black Prince", with its totally convincing, and utterly unreliable, narrator. It was made into a play which we went to see in the West End - not, I felt at the time, anything like as good as the book. My first reaction to the knight was that there were far too many characters, and that I needed a cast list, but her writing really got under my skin, at times making me want to give up on it. I began to page-jump - a mortal sin in a reader, but her writing is dense, and often paragraph breaks are few. Yes, I did finish it eventually - how could I give up on Iris? - but with a sense of relief - a duty done. It was so poignant, though, that when she was taken to see the theatrical version of "The Black Prince", she said: I didn't understand a word of it. Alzheimers kills the soul, and the sooner an effective treatment can be found, the better.

As I've mentioned before in my blogs, I'm a huge fan of picturebooks - philosophy, art, literature and humour in bite-sized portions, and hugely difficult to do well. For this reason, I follow "PicBookDen", which today surpassed itself with a lengthy and totally fascinating blog (lavishly illustrated) on maps, real, ancient, imaginary, and especially the imaginary ones. Think Narnia, or the Lord of the Rings, but also Winnie the Pooh - did you know that Christopher Robin, aided by Shepard, drew a map of the Hundred Acre Wood? Maps as a plotting device, anyone? A life aid? Pilgrims Progress in map format? At present I am writing this on the Isle of Despair, waiting for the delivery of a parcel via Amazon (abandon hope, all ye who enter there.)

Finally, remember that cautionary song about not getting friendly with a crocodile? Well this is my young grandson doing just that (and in case you're concerned, he survived, but you wouldn't catch his grannie going anywhere near one!) At the time, part of my young family was in Ghana, helping with a school project in an impoverished area where there was a sacred crocodile pool. Relieved I wasn't with them to watch!

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Discovering a Brand New Literary Masterpiece - Andrew Crofts

Imagine for a moment that you have just written a literary masterpiece, but it does not fall easily into any particular genre. It can’t be filed under “crime” or “romance” or “erotica” or “thriller”, any more than Catcher in the Rye or Lord of the Flies can.

To make matters worse you have no author “platform” from which to promote it and there are a trillion other books already out there, screaming for attention, the vast majority of them nowhere near to being in the same league.

For the book to be a success you are entirely reliant on people reading it and then telling other people how wonderful it is and that they should definitely read it too. But how do you get to those initial “influencers”? Even if you have an enthusiastic publisher who gets you lots of glowing reviews on Goodreads and in bookish blogs, will that be enough to kick start the process?

Probably what you need is one really great profile piece somewhere where there are lots of readers who actually like full length books that are fabulously written, engrossing and moving; but how do you persuade someone to write that piece if you don't have some weird and wonderful back story, (recovering from “drug hell”, dating a Kardashian etc)?

So let me introduce you to Robert Jenkins, a writer from the East London who has literally travelled the world working with “challenging people”. That’s all the back story and “platform” I can offer you, but personally I think it is a pretty good start.

The more important information, however, is that Robert Jenkins has written a masterpiece of a book which should be on the short list for every literary prize going and should be given to every creative writing student working in the English language.

The Fell by Robert Jenkins

If you don’t believe me just google “The Fell by Robert Jenkins” and read sample pages on his website or on Amazon or wherever you can find them.

If those opening pages don’t make you want to read on then I haven’t really got anything else to fall back on since I don’t have a gun to hold to your temple and I have no idea how to arrange to have a severed horse’s head slipped into your bed, (an allusion which will only work for people who remember The Godfather).

I ask you; what have you got to lose? 

Monday, 26 August 2019

Ma on my Facebook Wall, in August

My mother, the closet writer, has come out at last! 

At 70, she has published her first book of fiction in Bangla – “Mukh-Michhil” (A Procession of Faces). It is a collection of 45 short-shorts (or ‘Anu-golpo’, as they are called in Bangla). Initially inspired by the popular Bengali writer Banaphool’s ‘Natun Golpo’ in the late 1970s, she has been writing off and on in this genre ever since. 

raged by her uncle, the well-known author Manoj Basu, Ma actually started writing in the 60s – when she studied and taught Bengali literature - but except for some sporadic submissions in magazines, didn’t publish till recently. She has never stopped writing, though. She is blessed with an inexhaustible fount of creativity: gathering dust in her desk-drawers are some 200 poems (poetry is her first love), 150 limericks, 40 stories and 2 unfinished novels! For many years now, I've been coaxing her to take them out, with my sister and father later joining the chorus. In 2010, a book of ‘chhara’ (rhymes) for children was published. “Mukh-Michhil” was about to come out soon after… but as often happens with books, took a long time to find the right publisher.

Ma’s life had begun with rainbow hues… and then after marriage… it became monochromatic for decades - a familiar enough tale, which she has herself turned extraordinary, by keeping her passion for writing alive through all the travails of her life. I only hope that the colour comes back to her life again, brightened anew by sharing her writing with the world! 

So, here’s introducing – with incredible joy and immense pride – my mother, the writer Kalpana Basu Roy.

KALPANA BASU ROY (1944 – 2016) - Mother, teacher, friend, soul-mate.
Ma passed away most suddenly on 20 August, 3 days after suffering a massive cerebral stroke. 
There was no chance to do anything….
She died as she had lived – without disturbing her daughters.

It’s 3 years that Ma has left us.

A part of me died with her. The rest of me... is hobbling along, battling all that life has to throw, without the balm of her tender presence, the weekly reassurance of her voice.

I never really got a chance to grieve her death. Yes ‘death’; I won’t call it ‘passing away’ any more. I doubt its meaning now. ‘Passing away’ into what? Another existence? – may be, I don’t know. And I won’t really know, until I die. And then, it would be too late to argue with those living. I also refuse to call it ‘passing away’ because that sounds so much softer and doesn’t do justice to the rude shock - and the finality - of what happended. ‘Death’ is far better; and the ‘stop sound’ of ‘d’ is phonetically, at least, a closer approximation of her ceasing to be.

After her death, I gave much thought to the meaning of the word ‘death’ – “the permanent ending of vital processes in a cell or tissue”. Yes, it’s an end – so please, let’s call it that.

This defintion of ‘death’ is especially brought home to a Hindu while undergoing the funeral rites. For there is something about witnessing a body you have loved (and being loved by) being reduced to a fistful of ashes that makes all grand philosophizing about death irrelevant. The putrid smell of burnt flesh that permeates a crematorium is also a memory that can never be completely erased from one’s mind.

After death comes grief. That is a long road with an uncertain destination – depending,  I believe, on what kind of relation you have had with the person dead. If it was vital, absolutely central to your identity, then you are just not mourning, but also undergoing a re-fashioning of identity – as everything has to be started anew, the world seen and felt through a permanent absence. No matter how mature you are in dealing with the fact of mortality, this re-fashioning is a slow and painful process; and one that just can’t be conveyed to those who have not known it.

I just called grief a long road – but it’s not a linear track; rather, a circular loop of endlessly resuscitated memories. Some are poignant and nostalgic, that can be rationalized by a clearly discernible ‘association of thought’, and may elicit only a few silent tears or even a smile. Others are random moments from the past that often come flying at you without warning, and have the power to batter you down even as you seem to fare better with your sense of loss.

In these 3 years without Ma, I have managed to convince myself that it is a good thing that she is gone. The life she would have led after her severe cerebral attack, even if she came out of coma, would have been a cursed existence. What her life could have been, had she not had that attack, is a different matter... and actually a useless speculation. I have consciously avoided that path.  

However, what her life was, as long as she had lived, is something that I have given a lot of thought. I have been moulded by her in a profound way... to an extent that it is at times difficult for me to understand what in me is truly mine and not just an extension of her. But in these 3 years of my mourning and re-fashioning of identity, I have critiqued her legacy and decided not to follow it blindly.

I want to emulate all that was life-affirming in Ma: her uncompromising honesty; her delight in the little things of life; her generosity towards others; her devotion to, and friendship with, us - her daughters; her ability to make literature (both in its cultivation and creation) sustain her. But I also choose to un-follow all that was persistently painful and disempowering in her life – which greatly limited the realms of the ‘possible’ for her, not allowing her to achieve what she eminently could or get what she richly deserved.

And the single most important thing in which I DON’T WANT to follow her is, to die with my desk drawers full of incomplete manuscripts.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

How Humans F*#ked Up -- A Review By Susan Price

Humans: How We F*cked It All Up - Phillips
Tom Phillips published this book, Humans: A Brief History of How We F*cked It All Up in 2018.
Then and now it could hardly be more relevant.

Everywhere in the 'western world' or 'the developed world' people with half a brain are asking themselves: How the f*ck did we get to this? What the hell happened?

In this book you will find part of the answer.

It begins with a prologue about Lucy, the famous Australopithecus, and how she ended up as one of our most noteable museum exhibits by falling out of a tree and dying. The fractures to her bones suggest that's what happened to her -- in fact, that we were f*#king up even before we were fully human.

Except that, this being a history of bungles and failures, another group of experts claim that the fractures were all post-mortem. Take your pick. There are plenty more undoubtable examples of what the cartoonist Martin Rowson calls 'fur-cups' and, indeed, wordlessly illustrates as such. (One of the pleasures of Rowson's cartoons is spotting what the fur-cups are up to this time.)

[With apologies to the brilliant Rowson and a link to his website, here (below) is a fur-cup masquerading as a coffin.]  

The first chapter of Humans is titled: Why Your Brain Is an Idiot -- and pretty much sets the ground-work for all that follows. We are the end-product of millenia of evolution, a notoriously hit and miss process. As Phillips puts it:

Evolution gets results not by planning ahead, but rather by simply hurling a ridiculously large number of hungry, horny organisms at a dangerous and unforgiving world and seeing who fails least.

And there you have it. We have the bloody cheek to call ourselves 'sapiens' and yet we're only here because we failed least. By a narrow margin.

One of the failures evolution cursed us with is the compulsion to see patterns in everything, even when they're not there. When we're scared, we'll see patterns even more quickly and be even more than usually reluctant to give them up. During WW2, for instance, many Londoners became convinced that certain neighbourhoods were being targetted by German missiles, while others were untouched because -- obviously -- that's where the German spies were living. This rumour became so pervasive that the government had R. D. Clarke, a statistician, check over the figures. He concluded that the missile strikes were completely random: the notion that any district was hit more or less than any other was illusory.

Did this stop Londoners believing that the Germans were bombing some areas more than others while leaving the bed-sits and semis of their spies untouched? Of course not. Our brains are idiots. We don't stop believing in something just because some silly evidence proves us wrong. No statistician or scientist or economist is going to tell us what to think!

Instead, as the history of the world bears witness, being proved wrong makes us believe the wrong idea even more strongly than before. This applies a thousand times more if the people around us believe the wrong thing too. Even if we didn't believe the wrong thing to begin with, we'll cave and start believing it if everyone else seems to.

When your mum asked you as a kid, 'Oh, and if the other kids jumped off a bridge, would you do that too?' the honest answer was, 'Actually, there's a pretty good chance, yeah.'

And once our idiot brains have committed to a belief...

You'd think that once we'd made a decision, put it into action and actually seen it start to go horribly wrong, we would then at least become a bit better at changing our minds. Hahaha, no. There's a thing called 'choice-supportive bias', which basically means that once we've committed to a course of action, we cling onto the idea that it was the right choice like a drowning sailor clinging to a plank... it is why government ministers continue to insist that the negotiations are going very well and a lot of progress has been made even as it becomes increasingly apparent that everything is going quite profoundly to shit. The choice has been made, so it must have been the right one, because we made it.

I bet that sounds familiar.

As if this wasn't enough, there's the Dunning-Kruger effect. David Dunning and Justin Kruger were the psychologists behind the 1999 paper: 'Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties In Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessment.’ Their research found that people who actually are exceptionally good at something are usually modest and very aware of the areas where they need to improve, while people who lack knowledge or skill in the same field usually overestimate their own competence to a ridiculous degree. Having little knowledge or practice in whatever they’re attempting, they don’t realise where the pitfalls are, they don’t see their own mistakes and judge what they do achieve much more favourably than they should. On and on they cheerfully blunder, unaware that everything is falling apart around their ears and plummeting into the shit.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect, wikimedia
Now there have probably been occasions when we've all come over a bit Dunning-Kruger. Speaking for myself, it's usually when I’ve been in need of cash and have claimed experience in some work where I had little or none and then had to wing it – but since the highest pinnacle of my employment was operating a Co-op till, little lasting harm was done. As I can barely manage my own affairs, it’s never crossed my mind that I might be capable of governing a country. Or acting as foreign secretary to one.

Unlike  some.

In fact, the Dunning-Kruger effect lends some to support the theory that we should hand governance over to those who least want to do it. Their keen awareness of their own inexperience and unfitness for the role would quite possibly result in a better job done and less wasted money and resources (fewer unbuilt garden bridges and useless buses and water-cannon, for instance.)

The book's other chapters briefly cover some of humanity's more memorable fur-cups. In Nice Environment You've Got Here, Philips raises the question of whether we should have begun farming at all. It's looking increasingly like we should have stuck to hunter-gathering. He goes on to describe how, with the encouragement of their government, American farmers turned the Mid-West into a vast dust-bowl. Let's not pick on Americans, though -- environmental idiocy has come thick and fast from the governments of Soviet Russia, China and Australia, among others. Some of this idiocy was perpetrated both by home-based British idiots and by idiots Britain had exported, so the fur-cup of us Brits is brimming full. (Just look at what we've elected to our 'Mother of Parliaments.' And what a mother she is.)

The most chilling section of the book, arguably, comes in the passage about Hitler.

...we still tend to believe that the Nazi machine was ruthlessly efficient... so it's worth remembering that Hitler was actually an incompetent, lazy egomaniac and his government was an absolute clown show... 

Even after elections had made the Nazis the largest party in the Reichstag, people still kept thinking that Hitler was... a blustering idiot who could easily be controlled by smart people...

That's not how it worked out... within two months Hitler had seized complete control of the German state, persuading the Reichstag to pass an act that gave him power to bypass the constitution... and the Reichstag itself. What had been a democracy was, suddenly, not a democracy any more.

Remind me, what clown is it who wants to prorogue Parliament? -- Oh, right, the one we've made Prime Minister.

Why did the elites of Germany so consistently underestimate Hitler? Possibly because they weren't actually wrong in their assessment of his competency -- they just failed to realise that this wasn't enough to stand in the way of his ambition... Hitler was really bad at running a government... [He] hated having to read paperwork and would regularly take important decisions without even looking at the documents his aides had prepared for him... His government was constantly in chaos, with officials having no idea what he wanted them to do...

From 'The Times'
[Hitler] was deeply insecure about his own lack of knowledge, preferring to either  ignore information that contradicted his preconceptions or to lash out at the expertise of others -- he was said to 'rage like a tiger' if anybody corrected him...

Hitler's personal failings didn't stop him having an uncanny instinct for political rhetoric that would gain mass appeal, and it turns out you don't actually need to have a particuarly competent or functional government to do terrible things. [It probably helps you to do terrible things: S.P.]

We tend to assume that when something awful happens there must have been some great controlling intelligence behind it... how could things have gone so wrong, we think, if there wasn't an evil genius pulling the strings? The downside of this is that we tend to assume that if we can't immediately spot an evil genius, then we can chill out... because everything will be fine.

But history suggests that's a mistake and... one that we make over and over again. Many of the worst man-made events that have ever occurred were not the product of evil geniuses. Instead they were the product of a parade of idiots and lunatics, incoherently flailing their way through events, helped along the way by overconfident people who thought they could control them.

I don't know about you, but that passage rang an awful lot of bells with me.

Oh, the bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling

Saturday, 24 August 2019

The rain it raineth ... Jo Carroll

All over the world the climate is changing. But this is not a post about the threat that is global climate change. Rather a whinge about the vagaries of the British summer.

There has, in recent years (2018 excluded) been a pattern of glorious weather while young people sit exams and then the heavens open as soon as the schools break up. Parents wrap must wrap little Susie into raincoats and wellies and try to look enthusiastic about trips to the park.

But this year ... well, the initial pattern was the same, with the inclusion of serious winds and storms that sent even the hardiest parent scurrying for cover. However, there has been one major difference: the weather forecast, in recent years increasingly trustworthy, has become so unreliable as to be almost useless. I know that low pressure has dominated, and with it comes prolonged periods of rain followed by sunshine and showers - and so timings can be a bit hit and miss. This year, with such a forecast, I set off with my fleece and umbrella, only to swelter in sunshine all day. I am promised a dry night and so leave my velox window wide open, only be be rained on at two in the morning.

In the scheme of things, this is little more than an inconvenience for most of us. But, as a writer, it got me thinking. We use weather to set a scene, to create tension, as a metaphor for feelings. Descriptions of storms and general pestilence are the backdrop to moments of grief or terror. We can't send our characters out dressed for the Arctic only to have the sun shine on them.

Our readers look to us for enough predictability to make sense of a narrative. We cannot signpost one thing - such a storm - and then turn it on its head and expect them to stay with us. Readers need enough coherence to believe that the story hangs together. Speaking as a reader, if the narrative dislocates too often I give up. There are so many cohesive books I want to read I don't have to struggle with something that has me scratching my head every few pages.

Whatever problems this meteorological office may be having at the moment, the lesson for writers must surely be that we provide enough predictability to keep our readers with us. Only then can we throw the unexpected at them.

The Planter's Daughter opens in Liverpool. The weather is predictably British. But when the setting moves to Western Australia I had to research local conditions - I needed to know which way the wind blew and which season saw the rains. The scenes set in New Zealand are in a town I know; I have paddled in that sea and know just how cold those Antarctic currents are. Finally, to Ireland during the potato famine, when climatic fluctuations had such a crucial impact on anyone's ability to survive. Does it all hold together? That's for you to tell me.