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“Experimental Novel Wins Prize!”

10 Nov

Well, that’s an unlikely headline, isn’t it, at least, so one might have assumed until a Nobel Prize in Obscurantism and Difficulty is instituted, but I didn’t make it up, I just paraphrased, because Irish novelist, Mike McCormack – congratualations to him – has just won the recently launched (2013), £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize for his single-sentence novel, Solar Bones, published by recently founded (2014), Dublin-based Tramp Press, none of which I’d heard of before, I confess – not author nor prize or publisher – but all of which I shall have to investigate, and which offers hope that in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world not everything has to get worse, and to celebrate this post-Tramp world, I’m going to share the second part of my univocalic – the first part of which (Post-Hobo World) I published in my 2015 post, Is The Experimental Novel Dead?’, the third part of which is yet to come – summarising my current work-in-progress and following the abstract image below…

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Log on.  Scroll down.  Spool off.  Long story or short, my story’s thy story too.  Holy book by Doctor of Hymnody or Zoology, told of two by two, of wolf or fox, of sow or ox.  Look, storybooks for schoolboys or bookworms, for Psychology Dons, Profs of Mythology, for provost or proctor.  Story oft told of Mongol lords or monks’ swords, of trolls or scrolls, of North folk – Thor Godjonson, Otto von Rottsborg, Vyktor Rofdogsky – of boys too, of only sons, of cold loft rooms.  Toy loco rolls by wood-block town (sold by old boy from toyshop’s grotto, rosy chops, snowy locks – ho ho ho!).  From Szolnok to Nörköping, Tromso thro’ to Tomsk, Omsk down to Bonn…  Now clockwork robot stomps on clompy boots ‘cross wood-block floor of loft room… 

All text and images © PSR 2016

Cutting a long story short…

20 May

In a recent post, I wrote about having set down 108,000 words of my latest manuscript. I felt that 120,000 words should just about see the job done. I envisaged that it would be shorter than my last novel, which weighed in at 150,000. Now it’s reached 114,000 words and the end is nowhere in sight.

I simply don’t write to what’s considered a commercial length in the Anglophone world. Since the turn of the century, I’ve written two novellas (at 25,000 and 35,000 words each, viewed as too short) and two very long novels. After rewrites and editing, a carefully crafted book will be the length it needs to be. In the case of my fiction, from an industry perspective, that’s either too short or too long, then. If I lived in a less conservative country, it would be one hurdle fewer to jump.

Words, words, words… Words get lost in an avalanche of verbiage. Published words, self-published words, words on blogs and Facebook and Twitter and ten thousand other forums… And that’s not to mention the spoken word on television and elsewhere. We tumble down the never-ending scree of wasted words. How can any individual’s lovingly shaped and painstakingly considered words ever reach an audience amid the rumble of a billion clichés and truisms? I don’t have the answer. I suppose there’s an irony here in that my most recent works have more words than publishers desire. In fact, at the moment, they each have over a hundred thousand words more than publishers want since they have no interest in them…

Marching onward - another 150,000 words

Marching onward – another 150,000 words

Someone recently told me that blogs are finished and Twitter is where we now need to be. If that’s so then heaven help us… The minimal number of hits my sadly neglected blog receives these days might seem to bear this out.

It would be nice to have my fiction published but that’s not why I write.  It’s my means of relating to the world. I’m incapable of stopping. I think anyone who is a writer rather than a would-be acclaimed author will recognise this. And so onward I travel, marching toward another 150,000 word tome…

Anyway, in the meantime, here are my 546 latest words, if you should feel inclined to read them.

I shifted from city to city.  One year, I found myself in the far south-east of the continent, in a land of meteorological extremes.  I arrived during winter.  For three months, the temperature barely climbed above minus thirty.  The ground was snowbound.  As the ice thawed and winter turned to spring, temperatures began to soar.  By May, the daily average never dropped below thirty-five.  And at midday in July, it was regularly hitting forty-five.  As a consequence, the city was practically uninhabitable for several months of the year.  Its citizens had come up with a solution.  On the surface, the city looked like little more than a large village.  A sprawling temple-like edifice, all domes and turrets, occupied the centre of the settlement, surrounded by a cluster of squat stone buildings, their walls a metre thick, the apertures in them tiny.  Beyond the centre stretched acre upon acre of ruins, resembling the abandoned remains of an ancient city.  Beneath the surface a different story lay.  The city had moved underground. 

Here, the climate was temperate.  The city’s main thoroughfares comprised an elaborate network of underpasses and subways.  A labyrinth of smaller tunnels ran off them.  What natural light there was arrived via a series of shafts.  Otherwise, the passageways were illuminated by the stark white light of strip lighting.  Of necessity, these tunnels were colour-coded and network maps were positioned at every intersection.  Without them, even those born in the city would soon have become hopelessy lost.  All three of the city’s railway termini were located underground like metro stations.  Shopping districts were arranged along the sides of cavernous halls with open spaces at their centre.  The tables of café-bars occupied part of the space and in the evenings and at weekends, citizens gathered there as they would in the squares of any other city.  Much of the populace lived and worked below the surface.  The “mole-hole”, the “warren”, the “ants’ nest”… the inhabitants had many names for their city.  If their subterranean existence bothered them, they didn’t show it.  They were by nature a taciturn and melancholy people.  It wasn’t without reason. 

The city harboured dark secrets.  During the war, the male population had all but been eradicated.  All men up to the age of seventy and boys aged twelve and over were rounded up and taken to a wood beyond the city limits.  There they were shot and their bodies shovelled into a mass grave.  Afterwards, rape became a daily ritual for the womenfolk.  Much of the city was destroyed by around-the-clock shelling (the citizens were safe from this now, at least).  Liberation was followed by strict authoritarian rule under which summary arrests were commonplace.  Relatives or friends would disappear into the basement of police headquarters, never to be seen again.  No one ever spoke of these things. 

That city of cave-dwellers didn’t seem to speak of anything at all.  I learnt none of their language.  I made no friends.  Operating tunnel-boring machinery on the night shift, I received my written instructions in German, as did all migrant workers.  After a year or more living as a troglodyte, I began digging my metaphorical escape tunnel, burrowing my way underneath that figurative perimeter fence.  I got a new job in another country and moved on. 

All text and images © PSR 2015 

Lacking Presence

27 Mar

I’ve been building an ‘online presence’ for seven years now, ever since an artist friend in Vienna told me that I simply had to have a Facebook account. At some point, I browsed through one of those writers’ handbooks in the town library. It said the same thing. So I joined Twitter. I have a Goodreads author page. More recently, I’ve signed up to a number of websites that are supposed to promote writers’ work.

And has any of this cyber-spatial activity brought my fiction anywhere nearer to being published? No. My internet presence has resulted in a total absence of published work. As a consequence, I remain as invisible to most readers as ever, an insubstantial presence. True, I’ve all but given up approaching publishers and agents, for such a waste of time does it seem to be. And to be honest, I’d really rather be writing novels than letters to agents or self-promoting tweets.

All of which might be somewhat annoying if I allowed it to be so. I know that I can write and that I’ve written some works that really ought to be sitting in a bookshop near you right now. That’s not as arrogant as it sounds. I’ve been writing for a long time and I think I’d have noticed by now if I weren’t any good at it. As my regular readers will know, I’ve worked as a music journalist and had a biography published. Fortunately,seeing my books in print isn’t the be all and end all for me. I write fiction because that’s what I do. But it does bring into question whether all of this online activity isn’t rather a waste of time and effort.

Online or in the Cloud, none of it makes any difference...

Online or in the Cloud – none of it makes any difference…

And then, of course, I signed up to WordPress. So here I sit, drafting out another post. This blog supposedly has nearly 1400 followers but I’m pretty sure it has done nothing to raise my writing profile either. But it’s kind of therapeutic and I’ve met some good people through it, so perhaps it’s not entirely a waste of time…

All text and images © PSR 2015

Self-publishing or self-satisfaction?

5 Oct

As I grapple with the idea of self-publishing my fiction due to the apparent impossibility of getting anywhere near a traditional publisher, I’m reminded of the misdeeds perpetrated by some members of the virtual writing community that bring the whole enterprise into disrepute. It’s sufficient to make me hold back for the time being. This post may not make me popular with some of my friends in the virtual world, but some things need saying. Here’s a little advice for the worst offenders.

Reviewing your own books on Goodreads and Amazon – what the feck?, as they say – and then having the temerity to award yourself five stars out of five… it takes some nerve! If you were really serious about the business of writing, you couldn’t possibly be so satisfied with your own work. The ability to be self-critical is an essential skill for the serious writer. Without it, you can’t move your work forward.

And then, it turns out that all of those other readers supplying your five-star ratings are self-published authors themselves. You scratch my back… If you want to be taken seriously, you can’t be dishonest with your potential readers. My traditionally published non-fiction work scores a mere 3.60 on Goodreads, reviewed as it is by people who don’t know me. Clearly, it doesn’t cut the mustard, then, despite the print run selling out at £40 per copy.

Some of these authors are churning out three or four books a year! I suspect that this is made possible by compromising the teensiest bit on quality… And that’s to say nothing of the relentless self-promotion that seems to go with the territory, the endless tweets, Facebook and Goodreads statuses bleating on about this or that five-star review of an author’s work that render social media almost unreadable. A key part of this strategy is to follow thousands of other writers and readers on Twitter so that they follow you back then ‘unfollow’ them, creating the illusion that you have hordes of fans and admirers (to borrow a phrase from the late Vivian Stanshall). And what is it with self-published authors and genre definition? Young adult romantic urban dark fantasy… Really? And why isn’t anyone writing books for grown-ups any more? The commodification and infantilisation of culture go hand in hand, it would seem.

This picture of my garden in spring has nothing whatsoever to do with the post, but it lightens the tone, doesn't it?

This picture of my garden in spring has nothing whatsoever to do with the post, but it lightens the tone, don’t you think?

You are not an ‘indie’ writer. You are self-published. At least let’s be honest about it. Let’s make the term respectable by cutting out all of the above instead of hiding behind euphemisms. Euphemisms are employed to cover up truths. What is there to hide? Independent publishers are small ones not owned by the big multinationals, not individuals who publish their own work.

Ah, I hear the counsel for the defence counter, but most of these misdemeanours occur in traditional publishing too. That charlatanism happens elsewhere constitutes no defence. I’m as critical of traditional publishing as I am of self-publishing. Indie music labels genuinely sought to cut out much of the corporate malpractice in which the big labels indulged. If self-publishers are to have any moral authority, they must do the same.

‘Lies that tell the truth’, someone said of fiction. Or at least, I think they did. And if not, I’m claiming it. Novelists make things up but they do so to tell us truths about what it means to be human. A good writer is honest in his intent. Pretending that your work has been impartially reviewed and evading the fact that you’ve published it yourself is dishonest. It doesn’t bode well for what may lie between the covers (pun intended).

There are honourable exceptions. My friend Mari Biella’s self-published works are genuinely good and she doesn’t endlessly trumpet their existence. J D Hughes’s infrequent self-promotion is witty, at least. The problem is that the claims of self-published works of quality are drowned out by the proclamations of self-aggrandising pulp merchants.

All text and images © PSR 2014

Have We Reached the Final Page?

13 Mar

Over the past week, a couple of news items about books have caught my eye. Putting the two together, they didn’t make good reading. Might the book have reached its final page? The items seemed to suggest so. If this turns out to be true then I fear that civilisation might well have reached its final page too. Welcome to the Age of the Yahoo.

I remarked in a recent post about how incredibly narrow the UK literary scene has become, largely concerned with the lives and interests of the London-based metropolitan elite. Novelist and creative writing professor,  A L Kennedy is well placed to comment. The newspaper, i reported on a talk that she gave about the state of UK publishing. Although Kennedy’s writing has never really captured my imagination, when I heard her speak at a city library a few years ago I was enormously taken with her wit and intelligence. The article quoted her as saying that the novel here is “bland, dull and repetitive”. It’s hard to disagree. The industry, she suggested, is telling readers that “you want the novel about thirty-something people in Kensal Green, again… for the twelfth time.” Kennedy is, of course, the woman who won the Costa Prize with her novel about a World War Two bomber crew while I’m the man whose novel about a World War Two bomber crew can’t find a publisher, but we shan’t hold that against her…

And then there was the survey carried out by Booktrust and reported by the BBC that found that 45% of Britons prefer watching TV or a DVD to reading a book. 36% of respondents started books but got bored and didn’t finish them. 64% of 18-30 year old Britons think that the Internet will have replaced books within twenty years. Hmm… cheerio, then, civilisation. It seems that in the UK, at least, we’re dividing into readers on the one hand and watchers and surfers on the other. I can’t say that I’m greatly surprised. Most of the graduates with whom I work seem to talk about TV much of the time. The reading groups to which belonged had a preference for chick-lit and graphic novels. Their members proclaimed the novels of Italo Calvino and William Golding to be trash. Okay, then…

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly no Luddite. I enjoy looking at Wikipedia and the BBC website and my friends’ blogs. I own a Kindle and I write a blog, after all. But surfing the Internet can in no way be considered an experience comparable with reading a carefully crafted novel. The immersion in a fully realised world, the depth of characterisation, the joyous use of language, the ideas that can be explored… skipping from one flippant article on the web to the next provides none of these things. Nor does the passive experience of watching TV. The programmes that I see generally resemble a series of edited highlights. Just watch this trailer, they seem to say. There’s no longer any need to make properly thought out programmes. Read the blurb, flick through the pages and you’ve read the book. Job done. It’s that same inability to stick with anything requiring more than a moment’s focus that ends with the idea of the novel written in thirty days. It seems that we’re growing ever smarter and yet immensely more facile too. It’s okay, though, because we have 140 characters to say what we want to say, a sentence to provide our status update. And who could be bored by that?

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A random selection from the author’s bookshelves…

The more I see of where things are headed, the more I find my mind returning to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. For those who don’t know, in this splendid novel of ideas, a group of outsiders have each committed  to memory a book in its entirety in order to save it for posterity and from the flame-throwers of book-burning ‘firemen’. Could it really be that in the near-future, only a few of us will remember the value of books? Certainly, in my country, if the gatekeepers continue to allow through only the smug outpourings of a distant elite, it may well turn out to be so. My way of passing books onto the next generation has been to nurture a love of books in my children. We visit the library often and I’ve bought them countless books. As mentioned in my post last week, I always read to them at bedtime. And so far, so good since they’re both avid readers. As far as my own stories are concerned, I can’t find anyone to publish them let alone to burn them… Ho hum. I shall leave you with a short passage from my work-in-progress, which touches upon the barbarity of a world without books:

Some centuries ago – texts differ as to when – a warlord and his horde arrived from the north on horseback and lay siege to much of our country. Little has been written down about the period. Our invaders had no use for writing. Books were an impediment to their nomadic lifestyle.  And so they piled up all of the volumes from our libraries and abbeys and erected giant spits above them. It is said that the goat curry that night had an especial piquancy, its ingredients having been smoked over parchment. Consequently, accounts are confused.  Some say that the great warrior marched in accompanied by two tame white tigers. Others tell of the warlord’s personal guards, riding in the van of his army, mounted on the backs of armour-plated mammoths. Their chargers were said to be scions of the wild horses that roamed the steppes. They were remarkable beasts. Most remarkable of all were their muzzles. Rising above the flared nostrils – from which smoke was said to issue – was a distinct hump.  Some saw in this the stump left behind when a rhino’s horn has been hewn off for use as an aphrodisiac. And in their abnormally high shoulder blades they saw further vestigial remains. Had these steeds, then, formerly possessed the power of flight?  

All text and images © PSR 2014

Reflections on Rejection

23 Jul

Rejection. It sounds like being given the brush-off from someone you’ve chatted up at a party or being turned down for military service on health grounds. Like anyone who’s been writing for a while, I have a fair collection of rejection letters from publishers and agents. I’ve related before how the tale of one rejection helped me land a non-fiction deal. I even followed a fellow writer on Twitter just because she’d declared that she was decorating her bedroom wall with rejection letters. Like writing those first million words of rubbish, the acquisition of a file of rejection letters seems to me yet another stage on that journey from would-be to committed writer.

I mentioned in my previous post that William Golding failed to find a publisher for the first three novels that he wrote, before finding success with Lord of the Flies. By all accounts, he was on the point of giving up and Lord of the Flies was his last shot. The first reader at Faber (his eventual publisher) rejected it. And yet Golding would eventually be awarded the Nobel Prize.

I’m currently reading Andrey Kurkov, the Ukrainian writer most widely read in the Western world. I read his ‘Penguin’ novels, Death and the Penguin and Penguin Lost, morose and witty yarns that I thoroughly enjoyed. I didn’t get on with The President’s Last Love but The Good Angel of Death, the book that I’m reading at present, seems to be a return to form. And it turns out that Kurkov is another of those writers whose story provides inspiration to the unpublished novelist. Apparently, Kurkov received over 500 rejections before being given a publishing deal, during which time he wrote eight novels.

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Death and some crows – image from my unpublished first novella – I didn’t have any penguins

This summer, I resolved to step up the effort to find a publisher for my war novel. After all, I put six years of my life into creating it. It’s currently out there for consideration with six publishers. In all probability, I shall receive a few more entries for my collection. But there’s a clear message from Golding and Kurkov for all writers who are struggling to get their work into print. Keep on working and don’t give up. Rejection needn’t mean dejection. You never know what may be around the corner…

Last of all, I’d like to extend my congratulations to the maker of the 3000th hit on this blog, who stumbled upon it from Algeria, the fiftieth nationality to visit.

All text and image © PSR 2013