Friday, January 4, 2013

New Year Reflections on a Fictional Journey (Part One)

New Year is often a time to reflect on the past and look forward to the possibilities of what lies ahead. Normally, I write about what barking mad diet I intend to follow but this year I've decided to reflect on my writing journey and if you read my last post The Journalist you will discover how it came to be written.

Many moons ago, at the outset of this blog, I posted the opening chapter to my first attempt at a novel. I wrote it sometime before I started this blog and long before I had gained any other writing experience. In fact, it was the first piece of fiction I'd written since I was at school. The novel was called Capital Crusader and my initial intention was to write a literary-style thriller which had been my preferred choice of reading material since a teenager.

In the course of time, I duly sent three opening chapters and a synopsis to a critique agency. The agency pointedly said my opening chapters were three different genres which is, apparently, an unmarketable strategy.  Readers, I was informed, like to know exactly what genre they're reading from the outset - whereas I'd merely seen those as chapters as three different moods/persona reflecting opposing viewpoints and settings; I didn't appreciate at all the need to conform to convention if one aspires to be published. I deduced that whilst the publishing industry proclaims that it seeks new and original fiction, ironically, it actually closes the door on much of it. Ultimately, the publishing industry is like any other business - it is driven by the need to secure profit and that profit is made by producing best-selling authors. These authors are as much a "brand" as any other product and it is only through their continued success that publishers are able to take a chance on a handful of new authors. It is a  Catch 22 industry where the very creativity which is at the core of any form of  artistic expression is actually suppressed by the need to conform to market forces.

The conclusions of the critique on Capital Crusader was the advice not to write a "cross genre" novel and the expressed preference for my third dialogue-based "lighter" chapter as opposed to my first "literary" chapter and the second chapter written in the style of a contemporary mainstream women's novel:  it was suggested that I should be aiming to reach readers of the Harlequin Mills and Boon market. However, there was also another piece of advice - that I should not attempt to write any humour. In fact the reader was pretty damning of my sense of humour altogether. Needless to say it was a tough and rather depressing critique.

This advice had rather a negative impact on me and really stifled my creativity for quite for some time. I think I was most upset by the remarks about my humour which I felt were phrased poorly and felt more personal rather than the constructive criticism of the other commentary. However, the suggestion that I should write formula romance was also quite disconcerting as I'm not and have never been a fan of formula romance. I have read very little of it and what I have read generally makes my toes curl.

Fast forward to autumn 2011 and having pretty much abandoned Capital Crusader by distracting myself with a number of other projects I decided to start experimenting with it again. I changed the title, deleted the opening literary style chapter and started to rewrite the second contemporary chapter into a more obviously Harlequin Mills and Boon style. ( In other words, a cheesy romance!) However, I chose to ignore the advice about humour and keep to much of my original plot. This was because I felt there was no way I could compromise all my artistic integrity by

 a) Not having some sort of exciting plot that didn't entirely revolve solely around a romance involving a woman who can't chose between a black skirt and a white blouse or a brown skirt and a white blouse without consulting a soothsayer


 b) writing something in which essentially I had no interest - so therefore I would have to entertain myself with my own silly scenarios and gags. As I write primarily for my own entertainment it is hugely important to me that what I write must be either fun or/and emotionally satisfying. Preferably both.

The conclusion of the experiment was that I did actually enjoy writing the extract in my last post, even though it's not what I originally planned; it's harmless entertainment which hopefully raises a giggle or two. Keeping the humour, retaining a thriller sub-plot and a having a heroine who isn't a doormat made the project slightly more interesting for me than if I had stuck in entirety to a conventional formula. It also meant that I was relatively happy to indulge in a more traditional romantic aspect to the story  - the handsome but arrogant hero who instead of falling for an Anastasia Steele type character falls for a slightly feisty-than-average heroine who actually has a stressful job ( ie - doesn't work in a bookshop, florists or knits jumpers for the homeless in her spare time.)

However, at about the same time as I began rewriting Capital Crusader I wanted to try my hand again at the more contemporary/ literary style I'd been advised against. I decided to write a contemporary short story containing the themes of homosexuality and marriage - which would also contain an attempt to write a serious sex scene. (Luckily, this was long before I'd read Fifty Shades of Grey otherwise I hate to think what might have happened.) After several edits I was fairly happy with what I'd written and sent it off a much larger established critique agency to see if my writing had improved. The reception was much better than I anticipated; in fact it came back with the comment "Don't change a single word." This was obviously very pleasing if somewhat confusing that on one hand I'd been told to write fluffy romances in the manner of M&B and, on the other, that I should be writing serious contemporary drama. Anyway, that particular story which I called A Modern Life is currently entered into some competitions but I expect it will end up here on my blog in due course as I don't think it is perhaps "arty" enough to be placed ( there's no surreal forces, angst ridden children or metaphors Salman Rushdie would be proud of ) and there's no other market for short stories other than the usual sentimental stuff of women's magazines - unless you're already an established writer.

In the meantime, as I waited for the review of A Modern Life to come through I started work on a new short story which I called The Changing Room. This was a story with a magical/surreal element where The Changing Room has the  power to change women's lives. Some of the inspiration for it came from the children's cartoon Mr Benn but being as shallow as I am most if it came from the fact that I simply wanted to write a story with a line in it which had become stuck in my head. Unfortunately, it wasn't a particularly great line - it just happened to resonate with me for some bizarre reason. It was..wait for it...

 "And I don't wear f***** Boden!"

Yeah, I know. Nuts. Unfortunately that line just came into my mind one day and wouldn't go away until eventually I knew I had to do something with it or I was going to start sending fictional letters of complaint to Boden. I did eventually write that line into the story but substituted the f-word for "bloody" instead.

I was fairly happy with my little contemporary fairy tale and sent it to a friend who suggested I turn it into a novel. It dawned on me that was actually a very good idea. I decided to cut out the surreal element and concentrate on the concept that a small change in the way we dress, style our hair or walk in a new pair of shoes can sometimes initiate big changes - a snowball effect if you like.

 And so began my latest work in progress...

Part two to follow.


  1. Surely any form of critique is just one persons opinion? It would be nice to think that they're qualified to give their opinion, but I don't think that's necessarily the case.

    Good luck with your writing, and when you start doubting yourself, just think of the guy from Decca records who turned down the Beatles.

  2. You are right, of course, Martin. Although I think there is a lot that can be learnt from critiques I think I have slowly come to learn that they are probably more useful if you wish to write a genre specific novel and really want to be published at all costs. The truth is - well of course I want to be published but not at any price. I am far more interested in writing something that is emotionally and creatively satisfying rather than one that conforms to conventions because that is the easier route. I would rather self publish and be read by half a dozen people than write something which does not sit well with me. There is probably a bridge between the two - at the moment I am probably failing to negotiate it.


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