Friday, 22 November 2019

Introduction: beginnings, please... Mari Howard

So here’s my first post on Authors Electric, and hoping I’ll fit in here… and here’s what I am doing, while ‘wearing my writing hat’.

It’s November, which to many writers means NaNoWriMo, when we’re invited to write a novel in a month. I’m not trying to do that, (though one year I wrote a rather cheerful poem about it...)  But I am, as I join the group, trying to revive - and complete within the coming months - Book Three of a series. The first two novels in the Mullins Family Saga were written and published before the Brexit debate went public in 2016, and Book Three’s timescale takes my readers to 2007. How to complete this book, which was meant to tell the story of my characters encountering a more domestic tragedy, back before ISIS, the financial crash, and Brexit? It was another world.

The Importance of Genre

In an article on NaNo I read recently, we’re advised that before starting to
write, we should
check out books similar to those we’re planning, using their Amazon categories. Where do these come in that category? We’re also advised not to be influenced by this, but get on and write the book we’d love to read. Hum. Diametrically opposite advice?

Personally, I like to read books which are multi layered, which have depth,
encourage thought, give you information or ideas you’ve not come across before, with lightness of touch, including empathy with the characters, humour, taking you
on a mindful journey, ending up with a satisfying conclusion. Romance, mystery or crime, these are optional. Hard to shelve books. Impossible books?

So what have I been
reading? What do I love?

An American marriage. Amazon categorises this as ‘about racism’, and as ‘African American women’s fiction’. It’s actually about lot more: Tayari Jones’s prize-winning book has a quiet subtlety. She doesn’t simply talk about the consequences of racism, she empathetically explores human emotions, weaving into conversations and descriptions the feelings and reactions which you need to perceive through context, through how the scene pans out. She builds up a picture through events, until the one single outburst of violent
behaviour, which brings realisation. There is humour, and there is insight, used to point up the sorrow and regret which lead to break-up. Love (as in attraction) is not ‘all you need’, and who ends up with who is complex.


Amazon strangely classifies Kamila Shamsie’s Homefire both as  metaphysical and visionary’ and as ‘political thriller’The first implies we have here a spiritual and intellectual novel, while the second appeals to readers who expect action, dispute and as the name implies, thrills. It’s actually a book with insight,  sometimes ironic, into today’s
political world, but is it visionary?  


Barbara Kingsolver’s latest, Unsheltered, my present bedside read, is
categorised either ‘historical romance’ or ‘family saga’, though it is far more. Here again is
insight – a book where the writer’s intention isn’t only to entertain, but to inform and to question the reader. We have  natural science, religion, feminism, and a critique of American culture, both past and present. To call this merely ‘family saga’ is to be deceived. And we have quite a few
pages of reasoned debate around Darwin versus creationism, which is well argued from careful research.

This year my favourite summer read was ‘our own’ Ali Bacon’s In the Blink of an Eye, which I absolutely loved. For its depiction of how the wonderfully proper Scots of the 19th century conversed and lived, for information about early photography and committed artists, and with all of this wrapped in great
dialogue (often reflecting the Edinburgh lilt),
which brought the characters alive. Biographical fiction’ and ‘biographies and
memoirs’, but so much more. Where to shelve that?

The Reality of Book Description

Write a subtle book and then try choosing a shelving category! Would Shamsie’s novel fly off the shelves as a political thriller?  Maybe.
Probably not as visionary - it's not  body, mind and spirit stuff… As with any product, getting your books sold to ‘consumers’ is the presenting bottom-line problem. How much do we dare write what we love – what we find ourselves compelled to say by our own lives, perceptions, and creativity? Importantly publishers need to survive, and will go with popular demand, celebrity authorship, and fashion to keep afloat. Easily identifiable genres have the appeal of I know what I'm getting - and it'll be another that I enjoy...  And can authors survive if publishers do not?

The Alternative Path: in spades, with spades

The phrase ‘dig deeper’ has spread across the blogosphere in 2019. I’ve just read a piece of advice to authors which asked us How do you identify who your reader is? How deep do you need to dig? I’m wondering what I’m digging into here. The essence of what I’m writing? To better understand my characters and what they want? To identify the emotional, political, social climate of the timescale of the book? Aha... into my readers’ minds. Really? How exactly would that be done? Get to identify and know your readers - but can we dialogue with many of them?

So, sticking to my interpretation of where we’re digging, and for what, dig deeper is for the author to do when writing, and it can call out authors to inspect, consider, and reflect. What is the possible Reader bothered by?  What
do they want from a book? Answers? Assurances? Satisfaction? What underlies this? Where do the Reader and I, the writer, touch and agree on what constitutes a good read? 
Can this be done within genre writing? 

With an election around the corner, and no sign yet of the break from Europe which has held the country in its grip for over three years, I find myself having to travel forward from 2007 into the present day, then look back from there...


It’s that or moving into dystopic territory.

Or maybe both.

3 comments:

Griselda Heppel said...

Those amazon categories are such a blunt instrument. I share your frustration and agree that its all down to the best way of selling a product, far more important than defining it with more subtlety. Canny authors can also find an obscure niche in which they hit No 1, enabling them to call their book - justifiably - a Bestseller in eg The Sword and Kitten genre (ooh, might give that one a go myself). I think we poor authors can be overburdened with all this Deep Connection With Your Readers advice. Books have one main purpose: to entertain. That can be on lots of different levels, and include information, making people laugh, cry, think, be scared, excited, whatever, but ultimately people read books for entertainment. If we can manage that, the connection with readers is a given.
Great first post! Looking forward to reading more.

Susan Price said...

'What do readers want from a book?' That's such a hard question to answer when I think about my own experience as a reader.

For instance, I recently read quite a famous book by an acclaimed writer. It was personally recommended by a friend who has put me on to many other books I've loved.

But this one? It had vivid characterisation, skilfully done. It had beautiful, often witty prose. It had an interesting central theme. I could absolutely see why it was acclaimed: it was artfully constructed and couldn't be faulted.

And I didn't enjoy it or like it at all. I trudged through it, mostly because of my friend. I trusted her judgement: surely the book would spring to life any page now? For me, it didn't, though obviously for others, it did.

But when I try to analyse why I didn't like it, I'm baffled. Whatever it lacked, for me, wasn't in the craft of its writing. Has anyone else had a similar experience and, if so, do they have a better explanation of why that book failed to engage them?

Sandra Horn said...

Great first post, Mari! Lots to think about. As a reader and a member of a book group (so I'm obliged to read books I haven't chosen myself)I think what engages me is - and I'm sorry for the old cliche - characters I can identify with at some level. Characters I could talk to if we met, feel some sympathy for their situations, smile at their idiocyncrasies. As a writer, I don't think hard about my readers. I write for the joy of it, the fun and excitement of crafting the words, the satisfaction of creating something pleasing to the eye and the ear. Maybe that's why I'm not 'a famous author.' Oh heck...