NE David Author
NE David                                      Author

16 June 2014

Is The Book Industry Sexist? Part Three

I’ve been writing a series of posts about sexism in the book industry. It all started with an article in The Guardian on 16 May by Alison Flood where she reported Joanne Harris’ claim (http://bit.ly/1msgomt) that the existence of the genre of Women’s Fiction was a sure sign of it. Since then I’ve been trying to explore the issue from the male perspective but it seems to me that I haven’t yet addressed the issue which was originally at the heart of the debate. So really what is ‘Women’s Fiction’ and is it sexist?

Prior to my investigations I thought I knew what Women’s Fiction was – it was fiction that dealt with the kind of issues that are of particular interest to women and it would focus on relationships and emotional content. Asking around, others aren’t so sure and often come up with the answer ‘fiction written (solely) by women’ which of course it’s not. Well, I wasn’t so very far from the truth contained in the Wikipedia definition.

Women’s Fiction is an umbrella term for women-centred books that focus on women’s life experience that are marketed to female readers and includes many mainstream novels. It is distinct from ‘Women’s Writing’ which refers to literature written by (rather than promoted to) women. There exists no comparable label in English for works of fiction that are marketed to males.

Some of you might immediately leap to the conclusion that this definition is already enough to brand Women’s Fiction sexist. But that’s one of the ’lazy assumptions’ Joanne Harris warned us against and we need to look further into it. Wikipedia goes on to say

The Romance Writers of America organisation defines Women’s Fiction as ‘a commercial novel about a woman on the brink of life change and personal growth. Her journey details emotional reflection and action that transforms her and her relationships with others and includes a hopeful/upbeat ending with regard to her romantic relationship’.

I personally think this definition is a little unfortunate as it suggests that Women’s Fiction can only deal with romance and I believe the genre encompasses far more than that. The article by Lisa Craig which Wikipedia references on the same page is extremely helpful in explaining this (Women’s Fiction v Romance : A Tale of Two Genres http://bit.ly/1qjvGyV). If you take a few moments to read it two things will immediately jump out at you.

Firstly, Craig tells us that Women’s Fiction comprises 60% of the market for adult popular (paperback) fiction in the US. That was around the year 2000. Things will have changed with the rise in popularity of the ebook etc, but the fundamental fact that Women’s Fiction accounts for a massive amount of book sales will remain. That’s a statistic we can’t afford to ignore.

Secondly, we discover that in Women’s Fiction, ‘the woman is the star of the story and her changes and emotional development are the subject’. In other words, Women’s Fiction does not admit of a male main protagonist. Up until then, nothing I’d read had surprised me but that came as a revelation.

I have to say I found it tremendously disappointing. Prior to this I had no issues with the existence of Women’s Fiction as I understood it. In fact I was a supporter of it (and still am) in as much as it helps identify a particular strand of literature for potential readers. When it accounts for such a large part of the industry that’s obviously important. But to exclude a male perspective in this way is, I believe, damaging. I think that women readers (to whom Women’s Fiction is marketed) would benefit from seeing things from a man’s point of view and that it would aid their own journey and emotional development. I certainly feel that I gain something as a man when I read books where the main protagonist is a woman.

I must also confess to having a personal interest here. I believe that the kind of books I write appeal more readily to women than they do to men in that they deal with emotions and relationships. But so far they have male main protagonists and to find that I am automatically excluded from 60% of the adult popular (paperback) fiction market is a bit of a blow to say the least. I would love to be able to market my novels as Women’s Fiction, but clearly I can’t.

Is this sexist? I have to ask. I’m a bird-watcher and there’s an old saying. ‘If it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck, chances are it probably is a duck’. Hmm ... But I’ve made it clear that I want to deal in facts and not make ‘lazy assumptions’ so I’m going to stop short of calling it out. Why? Because of equality of opportunity. Women’s Fiction may bar male protagonists but it does not bar men from writing it. Lisa Craig makes this clear and she goes on to give us some notable examples eg. THE CHRISTMAS BOX (Richard Paul Evans) and THE HORSE WHISPERER (Nicholas Evans). So if I chose, as a man I could legitimately write works of Women’s Fiction as so defined. Whether I’d be any good at it is of course another issue. And even if I was, I think I’d have to consider whether to publish under a female pseudonym. So, potentially possible but difficult. And therefore, to my way of thinking, not sexist.

Unlike the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. This recently sprang to prominence with the announcement of its latest winner, A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING (Eimear McBride). A copy has just arrived at my house courtesy of DLW (my Dear Lady Wife) and I’m minded to review it and include it in Book Talk for August. As a professional author, I’m always interested in mention of prizes so you can imagine how I felt when I discovered I couldn’t enter for this one – PURELY BECAUSE I’M A MAN. Is that sexist? You betcha! Where’s the equality of opportunity in that?

You could always say that there are plenty of other prizes I could enter for. This is true eg. the Booker Prize for Fiction. But isn’t that one of the prizes Joanne Harris was telling me was biased in favour of male writers? And do two wrongs make a right? No, they do not.

I can understand the motivation behind its inauguration. Although it’s open to women, The Booker shortlist for 1991 was composed entirely of men. This sparked a feminist reaction which resulted in what was originally The Orange Prize and subsequently became the Baileys. But it’s exclusively for women writers. The panel of judges are exclusively women. And as soon as these exclusions are applied I start to become suspicious if not deeply disturbed. To exclude the male perspective completely is both damaging and unhealthy. It inevitably leads to polarisation and stems from the same extreme viewpoint that spawned the proposition ‘a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’. The basis on which the Baileys prize is awarded is wrong and it should be named and shamed.

Far better that it should be the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction and that there should be at least one man on the panel of judges. I have no argument with that. There are prizes for other genre – crime, romance, historical drama etc. all of which (I sincerely hope) are open to both men and women to enter. As is the Booker, which is generally recognised as being for literary fiction. In that way the Baileys could avoid being accused of being sexist, the very offence it was set up to try and counter. The results in terms of its winners would, I suggest, have been very much the same since the vast majority of its entries would have been from women writers – but at least men would have been given the chance.

I have the same problem with the publication Mslexia by the way. I am unable to submit work for inclusion in it purely because I’m a man. And in the same way I both accept and support the existence of Women’s Fiction, I readily accept a publication that deals exclusively with women’s writing. But men can have a perspective about women’s writing and to exclude that is to hide your head in the sand and adopt a blinkered attitude that limits the debate and actually hinders progress toward equality.

I sometimes watch the TV programme Loose Women over lunch. I do it because I find it immensely entertaining and I like to think I learn something about the female psyche at the same time. The panel is composed entirely of women – but very often the guest is a man. I look forward to their input and to the reaction their comments give rise to as I think it adds balance to the show and makes for a more rounded debate. The presence of a man often brings out thoughts and ideas from the women that we might not otherwise get and actually enhances our experience.

The male perspective is important in the book industry as much as anywhere else. Let’s not lose sight of it in pursuit of a rigid feminist agenda.

 

9 June 2014

Is the Book Industry Sexist? Revisited

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post about sexism in the book industry. This was in response to Joanne Harris’ article on the same subject (http://bit.ly/1msgomt) which was highlighted by Alison Flood in the Guardian on 16 May. My comments set off something of a storm on Twitter and Joanne very sensibly suggested we take the debate elsewhere and away from the febrile atmosphere that the need for instant reaction inspires. She recommended I re-read her article without any preconceptions. I’ve now done so, added some research of my own, and this is the result.

One of the comments I received on Twitter was to the effect that there was no way that particular follower was ‘putting her hand into that bag of snakes’. So since I’m bound to open myself up to yet more criticism on the subject, why should I want to do this? The answer is twofold.

Firstly, I am genuinely interested in discussing whether the book industry is actually sexist. I think there is a proper debate to be had here and I would like to move it forward in a constructive and objective way. Let’s get away from the attitude Joanne Harris talks about of ‘another day, another lazy assumption’ and subject things to a thorough and critical evaluation.

Secondly, I want to raise the fact that men have issues too. Sexism doesn’t just mean the oppression of women, there’s a male perspective here as well but all too often it doesn’t get expressed. Perhaps this is because men are reluctant to talk about such things. Or perhaps men simply hide beneath the duvet and run scared of provoking a vociferous reaction from the feminist community. But if the male perspective isn’t addressed there’s a danger that sexism will continue as a one-sided argument and that can’t be healthy in the longer term. I’m not seeking to prove that women are wrong by the way, only that there’s another side to the coin.

There’s also a danger that any debate of this nature will broaden out into the issue of sexism in general. Whilst I might find that interesting too, it has no place here and I think it would be wise to limit discussion to the book industry alone. I have no desire to talk about things that went on in the past either, that’s a matter of historical fact, so I intend to confine myself to the ‘now’. So with these as my personal ground rules, I’m setting out my thoughts. You’re invited to join in.

Some of you already have of course and as I indicated earlier, my original article gave rise to some predictable outrage. One tweep invited me to ‘re-examine my male privilege’. When I asked her to tell me what this was, she replied that if I couldn’t see it, she wasn’t going to explain it. Well, if I don’t know and she isn’t going to tell me, we’re unlikely to get very far. Another called me a ‘jerk’ because I made an assumption about the proportion of women writers. I had already admitted that this was a guess and in line with the need for thorough and critical evaluation I clearly need to justify this and other statements I make. So ever since I’ve been keeping a record of male/female representation as it presents itself to me in the book industry and I’ll be sharing this with you later on.

Not all my responses were as unhelpful as these, I’m pleased to say. Another tweep made a valuable contribution by pointing me in the direction of an article by Stacey Bartlett in The Bookseller of 5.12.13 entitled ‘Balanced Reviews’ (http://bit.ly/1aFgz64). Reading this article has prompted me to modify my views about gender bias in this area. I had pooh-poohed the findings of VIDA on the grounds that the publications they were based on had no relevance to the vast majority of readers in this country (I still do, by the way. Eg. when did The Gettysburg Review last hold sway in your house?). But Stacey’s figures come from places I think we’re all familiar with - The Observer, The Sunday Times, The FT, The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph et al. – and I’m happy to concede that reviews in these papers may well influence our purchases of books and count for something in the industry. I can’t resist pointing out however that for all the ‘male bias’ of the reviewers, the most popular book was written by a female author, as were both the joint runners-up. Any feminists out there want to complain about that? I suspect not.

Now, on to my statistics. And I know what you’re going to say next. There’s lies, damn lies and statistics. Well, all I can tell you is what I see with my own eyes and therefore what influences my own personal perspective. As I say, since my original article I’ve been keeping an honest record of what comes before me in the way of the male/female population in the book industry. Here are the results so far.

Source                                                                                                           Male   Female

York Lit Fest 2014 Feedback Forms                                                         100     300

York Lit Fest 2014 Participants                                                                    22        25

Literary Agents I’ve Dealt With                                                                    14        37

Doncaster Library Novels (Surnames beginning A&B)                                      56        83

Doncaster Library Spring Romance Selection                                           0        36

Ryedale Writers Weekend Event                                                                  5        10

Running Total                                                                                              197     491

A little different from the 20/80 split I put forward to begin with I admit, but still an overwhelming majority nonetheless. Any political party elected on such figures would be claiming a landslide. I will be keeping this up to date and adding to it as things progress.

As you may have guessed from the above I spent a bit of time in Doncaster Library recently. I was there at a ‘Meet The Authors’ event as part of their Literary Festival and during the quieter moments I took the opportunity to conduct some empirical research. One of their bookstands was devoted to romantic fiction and I happened to notice that all of the 36 books on display were written by female authors. This naturally aroused my curiosity and I began to wonder about the genre of romantic fiction and how that might relate to our current debate. I decided to conduct some more research in this area and here’s what I found.

I thought a good place to start would be the website of The Romantic Novelists Association (www.romanticnovelistsassociation.org). The Chair is a woman. Of the members of staff that are mentioned, all eight are women. Of the sixty winners of their main prizes since 1960, ALL SIXTY ARE WOMEN. I must admit I had expected a female majority, but I wasn’t quite prepared for that. This year, the winners of their four sub-categories are also women. I thought to look up the composition of their judges panel. Out of five judges, four are female and one is male (hoorah!). What does this tell us about romantic fiction and the prizes it dishes out?

The cynical amongst us would understandably jump to the conclusion that as romantic fiction is dominated by women, female bias is at work and therefore all the prizes are given to female authors – right? But that would be another ‘lazy assumption’ and we should really apply some critical thought to the situation. So what other possible explanations could there be? (Open your minds, please, let’s have no preconceptions).

I can think of two alternative reasons. Firstly, proportionately speaking, more women write romantic fiction than do men. Yes, but the figures suggest men don’t write romantic fiction at all – and we all know that’s not true. I’ve just read a work of romantic fiction written by a man, THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion (my review is on Book Talk), and I’m sure you can think of others. Through my contact with Ryedale Book Festival I know of another male author who writes romantic fiction. He’s getting on a bit now and has many such novels to his credit – but they all appear under a female pseudonym because he’s recognised the fact that he’s never going to get anywhere in the genre writing as a man. And looking at the figures I’ve quoted, who can blame him? One wonders if there are any men masquerading as women on that list of prize winners. If so, please step up and be recognised.

Secondly, it could well be that generally speaking, women are better at writing romantic fiction than men. The prize record clearly suggests that and it’s the kindest interpretation that can be assigned to the statistics ie. given the fact that men do write romantic fiction, there’s no female bias and they genuinely write the better books. I’d really like to think that’s the case and if it is, I don’t have a problem with it. (As an aside, I’ve been looking at a chapter of HOWARDS END IS ON THE LANDING by Susan Hill called ‘Down Among the Women’. In it she asserts that the novels of Anita Brookner could not have been written by a man. Perhaps there are things here that men just can’t do.)

You may be able to come up with other (plausible) explanations, but whatever the actual reason, there’s a real issue here for men. If male authors want to write romantic fiction and be successful (don’t laugh - why not? Graeme Simsion does) the cliff face they’re faced with climbing is nigh on perpendicular. Let me quote from Joanne Harris’ article.

“No woman writer can ever be really successful without having somehow copied from, used or otherwise capitalised upon the popularity of a man.”

Hmm ...

And let me say straight away before the boots start flying in, I am in no way being critical of the RNA and the way it allocates its prizes. I personally have no complaints, I’m only offering up the facts for discussion.

Ok, so now let’s revisit the debate about women writers winning fewer prizes and getting less respect at the ‘highest’ levels (and by this I assume we mean ‘literary’ fiction). Based on the information we have to hand ie. the article by Stacey Bartlett I referenced above, let’s say that there’s a case to answer and that male authors are in the ascendancy here . And let’s also apply the same level of critical thinking as we did about romantic fiction. Not to do so would be to be guilty of another ‘lazy assumption’ – right? So what possible reasons for this are there, do we think?

Male bias? That’s the implication, certainly. But as we figured earlier there are other potential explanations. For instance, it could be that proportionately speaking, more men write ‘literary’ fiction than do women. As we speak I have no statistics to back that up, one way or the other. If somebody would care to provide some, that would certainly be useful.

More crucially (hang on to your hats) it could well be that generally speaking, men are better at writing literary fiction than women. And before reaction to that goes viral, I’m not saying I believe it to be so, I’m merely offering it as a possible reason. Why not? Because if we are to allow that all the prizes in romantic fiction go to women authors because they’re better at writing it than men, then we should also allow that the converse could be true for literary fiction. Maybe men are the better writers in this area. If so, it would be an uncomfortable truth for those who’ve accused the book industry of male gender bias in this respect but the possibility has to be admitted. We started out with no pre-conceptions and no lazy assumptions, remember, so let’s not abandon that position of critical evaluation purely because we don’t like where it could lead.

And having lit the blue touch paper, with some trepidation I invite (constructive) comment. In the meanwhile, we get ever closer to the 100th anniversary of the start of The First World War. Without wishing to pursue the analogy too far, I’m now thinking of donning my tin hat and hunkering down in my trench before the inevitable bombardment begins.

 

26 May 2014

Is The Book Industry Sexist?

Last week I received a tweet from the Chairman of York Literature Festival, @MilesWrites, pointing me in the direction of an article by Alison Flood in The Guardian (bit.ly/1ox7jgl). Entitled ‘Women’s fiction is a sign of a sexist book industry’ it refers to statements recently made by Joanne Harris (CHOCOLAT, THE LOLLIPOP SHOES etc).  ‘What do we think lads?’ Miles asked. He must know I take a keen interest in such matters because I’ve swallowed his bait and here is my response. You see, I have a different point of view.

Although my first reaction was to agree. ‘Why else are there categories for ‘women writers’ and no equivalents for writers who happen to be men?’ Indeed, I thought, why aren’t there?  Why are men being discriminated against in this way? At last, someone (a woman even) is going to stand up for the male perspective, something we hear too little of these days.  Then I read on and realised the article was intended to demonstrate discrimination against women – at which point I yawned. Give me a break, I pleaded, another rant against the tyranny of men full of the same old arguments. But I am genuinely interested in why women (sorry, I should say ‘people’) should think this way and I decided to continue. What basis could Ms Harris have for these opinions?

Her discontent was sparked by a comment on Twitter accusing her of capitalising on the fandom of Tom Hiddleston with her book, THE GOSPEL OF LOKI. This comment, and others like it, she claims are the tip of the book industry’s sexist iceberg.  This is nonsense of course.  All that these comments prove is there are twits on Twitter (something we knew already), not that there’s a literary gender imbalance. It’s rather like saying that because Wayne Rooney is paid millions, this proves that all footballers are rich and famous – try telling that to the part-time amateurs of the Isthmian League. Arguing from the particular to the general rarely works. (And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with trying to capitalise on someone else’s fandom. If I thought it would advance the prospects of my own work selling, I’d do it like a shot. More of this anon.)

So I think Ms Harris has climbed aboard the wrong vehicle to get to her point. No matter – there’s still a point to be discussed here, irrespective of how we get to it. The real question is not whether there are twits on Twitter but whether the book industry is sexist. Let’s try and establish some facts. What hard evidence is being offered?

Alison Flood cites the latest survey by VIDA. I have to say I’d never heard of VIDA. Having looked at their website, (www.widaweb.org), they seem to track the numbers of book-related articles and reviews posted in cultural magazines and journals to establish gender bias. I’ve never heard of the vast majority of these magazines and journals and I certainly don’t look to them for ideas about what I should read. I count myself a fairly typical reader in that my book recommendations come from friends and family, what I glean from my weekend newspaper, regular visits to Waterstones and by generally keeping my eyes and ears open. I suspect that 99% of the book-buying public are the same and I can’t imagine that the fact that the majority of articles in such publications as The Paris Review are male-oriented has much effect on the sales of women writers. Be honest, when did you last read The Paris Review?

As those who visit these pages regularly will know, I write book reviews for Book Talk. VIDA are quite welcome to come and sample them. They will find, as I just did, that of the sixteen books I will have reviewed by the end of August, ten of them will have been written by men and the remaining six by women. Does this prove I’m biased in favour of male writers? No, it does not and I’ll fight anyone who says so. It’s purely a reflection of my taste in books and I have absolutely no intention of redressing any perceived imbalance. I will continue to read whatever books I think fit and I will not be forced to read anything purely because it’s written by a woman – or a man, for that matter.

So much for VIDA. What about Joanne Harris herself? ‘We know that the book industry is largely unfair to women,’ she says. ‘Women writers are in the majority, but generally get smaller advances; fewer reviews; fewer prizes; less respect.’ Personally, I don’t see any proof of this. True, she quotes Peter Stothard, latterly a Booker judge and editor of the Times Literary Supplement, as excusing the fact that books reviewed by the TLS are almost all male writers by saying that women don’t read, (or, presumably write) the kind of books reviewed in the TLS. You could say the same about Book Talk. However, I suspect that the large majority of books reviewed by Sainsbury’s customer magazine are written by women and that this has a far bigger effect upon book sales than anything in the TLS.

Harris goes on to say, ‘It doesn’t help when Nobel Prize winner V.S.Naipaul opines (as he does, with monotonous frequency) that women are simply not intellectually up to writing great literature (being way too full of feelings and general messy thinking).‘ This is also nonsense – from V.S.Naipaul I mean. One only has to think of Doris Lessing, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen to see the flaw in that argument. Some of the best literature in the world is full of feelings (though I’m not so sure about the messy thinking) and so it should be.

So no, Joanne, I have to say I don’t buy it. And the reason is because I see things from a completely different perspective than you do. In the literary world, Ms Harris (she’ll probably hate me for calling her that by the way) lives at a far higher altitude than I do. She has written and had published some internationally best-selling books. Some of these have been made into well-known films starring the likes of Johnny Depp. And the very best of luck to her – I don’t deny her one single jot of her success. She can afford to carp at the perceived injustices of the book industry. I only wish I was as persecuted as she thinks she is. The fact is, as a literary goddess, she breathes a rarified atmosphere compared to the smog us low-life on the mean streets of writing have to ingest.

Let me tell you what the book industry looks like from where I’m sitting. It looks as if it’s populated to a very large degree by women. To put a rough figure on it (and I readily admit it’s rough although I challenge anyone to prove otherwise) I believe that c80% of published writers are women and that c80% of the literary agents I deal with are women. This trend is confirmed by my attendances at Literary Festivals, Conferences, Writing Groups, Book Groups, etc. where I consistently find myself outnumbered by around 4 to 1. For example, at a Saturday morning session at Wakefield Lit Fest last year I was the only man in an audience of twenty. Does that sound to you like an industry that discriminates against women?

As a male author, how do I feel about this? Well firstly, thanks for asking. Challenged, yes - but intimidated? No, although the thought does cross my mind as to what I might have to do to be successful in this company. Writing a book which appeals to women springs to mind.

But again, does this prove that the book industry is sexist and biased against men? I think we need to be careful here about what we mean by sexist. Having said that the book industry is largely populated by women, it would be easy to go on to say that it’s dominated by them. And what a difference that subtle change of word makes – it may be an accurate description but it implies an element of discrimination. Such word associations as these can have unintended consequences – something we writers should know as much as anyone. For instance, to say that someone is opposed to immigration immediately raises the spectre of racism. There may be a connection but it’s not automatic. Similarly, I may think that the book industry is ‘dominated’ by women but that doesn’t mean I feel discriminated against. Yes, I think it’s harder for a man to succeed in it but that’s not because of bias – it’s because men don’t necessarily write what women want to read and women make up (you’ve guessed it) c80% of the readership.

The heart of the problem is the fact that men and women aren’t the same (please put your hand up if you hadn’t noticed and I’ll point out some strategic differences). Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, frogs and snails and puppy dog tails, all things nice, sugar and spice and all that. And believe it or not, I’m a great support of equality of opportunity for both men and women – although I stop short of positive discrimination in favour of one or the other. But any argument along these lines that ignores the basic facts of nature loses my support because it has no practical consequences and I would encourage those in the feminist movement to think likewise.

What does this mean as far as the book industry is concerned? For me, it doesn’t mean that my submissions to agents are rejected because I’m a man. It means that if I want to reach a wider readership, my writing needs to appeal to women. That’s the reality of the market talking. As Alison Flood points out, the reason some books are classed as ‘women’s fiction’ is not because women are a sub-category of the human race but because it’s a marketing decision. She asked Cathy Rentzenbrink, the Associate Editor of the Bookseller, if she could explain.

“As a person, a feminist and a reader, I completely understand and feel the frustration, but practically, I also know there are vast amounts of real people who want guidance towards the sort of book they will enjoy, and that is what publishers and retailers are trying to provide. Even the dreaded ‘chick lit’ term is useful in that the reader who wants that type of book knows what they are getting. It’s a bit similar to the genre debate. I always enjoy lofty cries of ‘There should be no genre, there should only be books’, but those of us who understand the coalface of bookselling know that a large building with no categorisation other than ‘Books A-Z’ would be very difficult to navigate.”

Have you ever thought why there are so many more advertisements on TV for women’s hair products than there are for men? (My apologies to Joe Hart here). It’s not because men are being discriminated against and are thereby being deprived of the opportunity to buy shampoo – it’s because the vast majority of hair products are bought by women (probably c80%?).

So there you have it. Like it or not, the book industry is a commercial enterprise. And Joanne Harris has benefitted from the differential marketing techniques it employs as much as anyone else, if not more so, and she would do well to remember that the next time she looks at her royalty cheque.

In the meanwhile I will continue to write novels that will hopefully be read by women and attempt to prove that what women want to read can be written equally as well by a man.

So – is the book industry sexist? Joanne Harris thinks so – I don’t. It all depends on your perspective.

 

12 May 2014

I’ve been invited by my fellow York author Ben Warden to take part in the writers’ blog tour that’s currently doing the rounds entitled ‘My Writing Process’. I first met Ben at the launch of his debut novel LIFE WITHOUT. It’s a romance, but different in the sense that’s it’s written from a male perspective. To find out more about Ben, his novel and his writing process why not go to www.benwardenauthor.com and check it out.

The ‘My Writing Process Blog Tour’ is an opportunity for up and coming writers to share tips and information about their writing and for readers to gain insight into the writing process. One thing you learn from reading the various posts is that no two authors do things the same way and you need to choose the method that suits you best.

This comes at a good time for me as I’m currently struggling to get back into the writing habit. For how I intend to go about this, scroll down the page and read my post of 24 April, ‘Exercising The Writing Muscle’. Having to explain my writing process not only gives my writing muscle more of the exercise it desperately needs, it also obliges me to take stock of what I’m doing and helps focus my mind on a way forward.

So, what am I currently working on? Well, there’s a question. I often answer this with reference to the story I once heard about the three pairs of underwear. The person who told it to me said they kept one pair on, one pair in the drawer and one pair in the wash. It’s a bit like that with my books. The one I ‘have on’ is BIRDS OF THE NILE, published in September last year and which I am heavily engaged in marketing. The one ‘in the drawer’ is MÄLAREN for which I spent last summer in my summerhouse producing a first draft which is presently locked away. The one ‘in the wash’ is WHILE DAD WAS DYING and I suppose that must count as my current work in progress.

It’s the story of Frank, aged 52, a reformed alcoholic who lives at home with Elisabeth, his mother. Or he did until she went into a nursing home suffering from dementia. Frank is devoted to her and conversely hates his father Geoffrey. So when his elder sister Pat telephones to tell him that Geoffrey is dying and wants to meet him, Frank is forced to face up to things and confront some of his demons.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? To answer that I should firstly have to think about the genre I actually write in and that’s not something I readily do. To choose a genre and thereby define my writing is something that’s forced on me by the market. I don’t start out by thinking that I’m going to write a crime novel for example, although crimes might be committed in my book. I don’t start out thinking that I’m going to write a romance, although there may well be a love interest. I begin by thinking of the story I want to write and the genre comes afterwards. In my case, I guess my work must be literary fiction since it doesn’t ‘fit’ into anything else.

And that’s actually ok for me because my concept of literary fiction is one where the author is trying to express an idea or give some insight into the human condition. My intention in writing is to express a character through telling a story. In BIRDS OF THE NILE the character is Michael Blake and the story revolves around the Egyptian revolution of 2011. In WHILE DAD WAS DYING the character is Frank Johnson and the story is a family history. How does my work differ from others in the genre? Frankly, I haven’t a clue.

So why do I write what I do? Another contributor to this blog tour answered this by saying that they didn’t choose their subjects, their subjects chose them. Ditto. One of the reasons I write at all is because it helps me make sense of my life so most of my stories are in some way personal. Over the years I’ve accumulated a total of at least eight plots in my head, some of which have been there for decades, and I’m driven to set them down on paper before it’s too late. It’s compulsive and I write to try and explain the world as I see it rather than to some kind of stereotype.

And finally, how does my writing process work? When I first began writing I wrote freely and without very much planning. Now I’ve turned ‘professional’, I try and adopt a more ‘professional’ approach although it doesn’t always work out that way. Here (for the purists amongst you) is the theory.

Step One : I begin with a rough idea of my central character and storyline. I will almost certainly have a good idea of the opening scene, maybe even the opening line, and similarly the closing scene. As I say, I already have about eight pieces of work at this level.

Step Two : Having decided to take a piece further, I write a synopsis of the whole plot and flesh out the storyline. I then write character studies for my main protagonists, about a page each.

Step Three : Then I take a deep breath, sharpen my pencil (I write longhand), clear my diary for the next six months and sit down to write a first draft. The key thing is to finish it and I find that the best way to do this is by not going back to review a single word, even if I know something’s wrong. That way danger lies, trust me.

Step Four : Put it in the drawer and let it rest. At this stage I take another piece out of the drawer (here’s one I prepared earlier) and work on that.

Step Five : Some time later (it could be up to a year) I take it out of the drawer, read it and weep. But however bad it is (and it will be) by now I’ll have invested too much of my life in it to throw away. So I draw up a plan of how to fix it.

Step Six : I fix it – or at least the major bits. This doesn’t involve the prose by the way, that comes later. What I’m talking about here is structure and plot.

Step Seven : Now I fix the prose with a line by line edit.

Step Eight : A final edit for spelling, commas, layout etc and I’m done. Phew!

This whole process can take up to two years of my time and those two years can be spread over several more eg. my original set of notes for WHILE DAD WAS DYING began in March 2009 and it’s been ‘in the drawer’ a couple of times since. I’ve now decided that it’s been in there long enough and for good or bad, it’s time it saw the light of day. I’m currently around and about Step Seven, although I do have a slight plot change in mind. So much for the theory.

Well, I hope all this has been helpful. If you can take something from it, good luck to you. If not, then at least you’ll gain confidence in your own methods. As I said at the beginning, we all do it differently.

Meanwhile, I’m handing the baton on to Danny Kemp, one-time London cabbie and author of the now to be filmed spy thriller, THE DESOLATE GARDEN. Here’s what he has to say about himself.

I am sixty-four years of age and a licensed London taxi driver, but I have been many other things. I was a Metropolitan police officer, the owner of a mini-cab business in South-East London and a tenant of three Kent pubs, in one of which I was arrested for attempted murder.
I wrote by first book in my late fifties as a direct result of being put out of work for almost four years by an incompetent van driver who crashed into me. That book found a literary agent but no publisher. The agent suggested that I write another novel. The Desolate Garden was the outcome of that advice.
Within six weeks of its publication I had signed an option, with a London Film Production Company, for a $30,000,000 movie to be made of my work. That option is still current.
Three other stories of mine have now been published, along with a collection of poetry. They are: Why? A love story complicated by sex and violence. My Friend For Eternity. A story of a mysterious, beautiful woman, a gambling debt and a gun. (This features Harry Paterson from my debut novel) and Seventeen, a violent jewellery robbery told in three parts. The collection of poetry is titled, Anything But Hackneyed.

To find out more about THE DESOLATE GARDEN go to amzn.to/1uT1JXf

You can read Danny’s blog at www.theauthordannykemp.com . Keep an eye out for his ‘My Writing Process’ post next week.       

 

24 April 2014

In the space of the last two months I’ve been out of the country on no less than three separate occasions. I’ve been to some wonderful places, I’ve seen some wonderful things and I’ve had some wonderful experiences.

At the end of February I went to Iceland in search of the Northern Lights. I was lucky enough to find them and much more besides. If you’d like to know more about it you can read the blog I wrote whilst I was there. In March I went to Morocco for my annual bird-watching expedition. We climbed the Atlas Mountains to look for Tristam’s Warbler and walked across the desert to see Thick-billed Lark, Trumpeter Finch and the oh so aptly named Cream-coloured Courser (what a beautiful bird that is – it took my breath away). Last Sunday I returned from a week in Mexico where I saw my son get married on the beach. I swam with dolphins, paid homage to Hemingway with a deep-sea fishing trip, spent an evening at the Coco Bongo nightclub in Cancun (some night that was!) and visited the Mayan temple at Tulum. I also did the 5k run in Paradise - and I’ve got the T-shirt to prove it.

Fabulous, fabulous things. But they were all crowded in and although I don’t regret a single minute of it all and there are moments that will stay with me for the rest of my life, I have to confess to feeling slightly overwhelmed. I’ve hardly had time to reflect on them, let alone settle back down to any kind of normal life. And in terms of my writing, the effect has been utterly ruinous.

About a week ago, as I was lounging by the pool (I may even have been in it), Pina Colada in hand, I remember thinking that once upon a time I used to be an author. It was as if that were all part of another life and my attempts at becoming a writer had come to nought. And I have to say that at that moment it didn’t seem to matter. The sun was shining, I was enjoying myself in the company of friends and family and I dismissed any worries the thought might have given rise to by telling myself I’d sort it all out later. Maňana, in fact, as they say in that part of the world. And anyway, surely it must do me some good to take a break from things from time to time. Ha!

I pride myself on being relatively strong-willed. I like to think that if I put my mind to something I can achieve great things. My approach to writing is disciplined (my Dear Lady Wife will vouch for that) and I tell myself that if I really want to I can write under the most extreme of circumstances. But I defy even the most single-minded author to have continued writing throughout the two months I’ve just experienced. I managed it for one trip away (I kept a log while I was in Iceland) but after that I was forced to give up and the rewrite of my second novel that I’d been working on before I left has had to be abandoned. My writing has come to a grinding halt and now I must try and pick it up again.

How? Clearly I need to get back into my old routine. That should be easy, I hear you say, you’ve blogged about it often enough. And so I have, but I have to confess that I’m finding it difficult. There are plenty of excuses. It helps to have clothes to wear and there’s all the washing and ironing to do. Plus the fact that the garden hasn’t been touched yet this year and I would really like to get back out into the summerhouse. I tell myself I don’t suffer from jet-lag. I make sure I adjust my watch to UK time as soon as I get on the plane and I can usually sleep on overnight journeys. On Monday morning I was up at six as usual but by Thursday things had caught up with me and it was 8am before I surfaced. And all those disco tunes from Coco Bongo are still going round in my head ...

However, help is at hand. Back in March, sandwiched somewhere between Iceland and Morocco, I went to the pre-launch reading of a new book. A close friend of mine has an autistic child and she and a group of similarly challenged parents had banded together to record their experiences. They had employed a writing mentor to guide them in their efforts and in her introduction to the reading she spoke about Exercising The Writing Muscle. I fully understood what she meant. As a life-long jogger I know how easy it is to become unfit if I don’t go out for a run on a regular basis. It’s the same with the writing – left unused for too long, the writing muscle grows weak and it needs to be exercised constantly if it’s to be of any use.

So I need to get back into ‘training’. And to do so I’ve set myself some writing exercises on a daily basis to build up the mental strength I need to finish off my novel. Starting today (Thursday), to begin with I’m writing this article. Tomorrow, I’ll be putting together my next book review for Book Talk. On Saturday I intend to write another book review and on Sunday I’m going to make a start on the novel by reading through the final section and making some notes before beginning work on it on Monday. It’s no good me plunging straight into it because I know that simply won’t work. Just as trying to run 5k after a few weeks’ lay off from jogging is going to end in disaster. I need to Exercise My Writing Muscle first.

I’ve had a great two months but now it’s time to get back to work. I’ve got a plan of how to do it and I need to stick to it. And d’you know what? That’s 1000 words this morning and I’m beginning to feel better already.

 

3 April 2014

Various phrases spring to mind eg. How Are The Mighty Fallen, Hoist With My Own Petard, Pride Comes Before A Fall etc. Doubtless there are others but the fact of the matter is that I have finally succumbed to the pressure and broken my Number One rule. Despite the fact that I said I would never do so, I’ve stopped writing and everything literary has come to a grinding halt.

I always knew that the eight week period from 24 Feb to 21 April was going to be difficult. My diary looks like a train wreck, but that’s not unusual. The problem is that it encompasses three individual seven day trips abroad spread evenly over the two months with a couple of weeks between each one. Throw in a couple of Literature Festivals, one of which meant a weekend away, and the whole thing becomes well nigh impossible. I can’t write while I’m abroad and with limited time between trips I can’t settle down when I’m at home. At the moment I’m hardly home from one adventure when it’s time to start another and my writing has suffered as a result.

It began with my trip to Iceland. When DLW (dear lady wife) and friends invited me to go with them I hesitated, knowing of my other commitments. But there comes a time in life when you realise that if you don’t do something, it won’t ever get done, and I guess I’m at that stage now. And with the best season for Northern Lights imminent, I couldn’t say no. I think my pictures from DAY 4 (see below, 19 March) justify my decision.

I actually recovered from this first adventure quite well. I continued to write on my return and picked up AS DAD LAY DYING where I’d left off, completing Part Five (Geoffrey) on Sunday 9 March. Knowing that Part Six was going to be tricky and with Kings Lynn Lit Fest looming, I decided to wait for a clear period before attempting it. But then we were into York Lit Fest for a few hectic days prior to heading off to Morocco for my bi-annual foreign bird-watching expedition. And there was no way I was going to miss that.

Yes, Morocco – and I haven’t even mentioned it! Well, it was wonderful with lots of new and fabulous birds in a new and fascinating country. No time to go into detail now but suffice it to say that I’ve been up the Atlas Mountains, walked the Oued Sous and the Oued Massa and hunted birdlife in both stone and sandy deserts. During the course of which I completely forgot about the fact that I’m supposed to be a novelist and any thought of writing went totally out of my head. I got back on Monday, it’s now Thursday and I’m still trying to catch up.

My next adventure begins a week tomorrow when I set off for Mexico for a major family event. No point in trying to get any writing done in the meanwhile – it would take me a couple of days to ‘get into it’ by which time I’ll be gone again. So I’ve settled for trying to clear as much admin, paperwork etc. in the intervening period so that when I do finally get back after Easter, there won’t be a lot to distract me. Although when I look out of the kitchen window and see my beloved garden which hasn’t yet been touched this year ...               

It’s my own fault of course and I can’t blame anyone else. I’m in complete control of my time – or at least I like to think so. And yes, if I had the mental strength I suppose I could have kept on going but in the end the effort required was too great. Life got in the way and I decided that discretion was the better part of valour.

What is he talking about? I hear you say. Three great holidays in the space of two months, what is there to complain about? I don’t mean to sound blasé but it can become wearing, especially when I really want to get down to finishing my current work in progress. And as much as I shall enjoy Mexico and being with my family, I yearn for the time when I can back to my garden and my summerhouse and start writing again. Roll on April 21.