Tuesday, 29 October 2013

When Age Comes Into It

A seasoned writer first mentioned the ugly word ‘ageism’ to me when my first book came out, asking me if I’d experienced this thing called ‘ageism’ while hustling my work. I almost said I refuse to experience ageism. I am simply MYSELF. I’m not a writer-with-a-use-by-date.

Hmmm. Scoot ahead to the other day when I was filling in the details for a big short story competition and I saw a space for my age please, on the dotted line. My age? Why? What the -- ?

It’s not that I have a problem with my age (though I’m not telling you here to prove my point) but why should it be included in my info for a leading competition? Can’t you just read the thing? Does that mean all of us ‘well-over-25’ entrants are going to be turfed out after the first round to make way for a strapping young prize-winner?

Some people are slow to bloom. Just read my star sign for example. Capricorn: ages well, determined, late success, bad knees. It could happen to anyone. You have your writing dream. You have kids or you work damned hard, you live hard, you read hard. And then it comes. Time, place, voice, determination. Encouragement. Everything to need to set off the fire in your belly.

You produce. You refine your short story. You fill out your entry form and are willing to pay hard-earned cash and throw yourself out there with the masses.

And then some cretin asks your age.
It feels a like a good kick in the knees, eh?

Age comes into everything, doesn't it? When you're young and inexperienced there’s a chance you’ll write a certain type of tale, a coming-of-age story perhaps close to the family woes you’ve lived through. The oldest tale of time, and told beautifully by some.

And yet, sometimes, when an older writer comes into their own, he or she may produce the inverse of this. A work that is just and sage, full of equilibrium. Must we reject it because it is not dizzy with more immediate delights?

One of the things I realised when reading a review of ‘Pelt and Other Stories’ is that many of my characters are 30-ish. Gosh, I hadn’t thought. Is it because that is where I seem to think people get themselves into interesting pickles? Given young adulthood can be so plainly raw and is so frequently recorded, and the older years sometimes more static and tilted towards decline? It’s given me a lot of thought, and I’ve wondered whether I should push in either direction in future, or whether my subject material has been subconsciously swayed by what I think a reader might enjoy...

So what does that mean? That I am ageist myself?

Well?! I don’t know yet. Jury’s still out. But what I do know is that the more I read, and the broader my own reading experience becomes*, the better equipped I am to recognise devices, tendencies and outcomes.

Another tricky day in the life of an ageless author.

*currently reading ‘Love Begins in Winter’ by Simon Booy

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Discoverability is a Dirty Word

Do you agree? I've heard it bandied about a lot lately. How to get out there, improve your Amazon rankings (crack those algorithms sista!), categorise and re-categorise your book, beat your breast on Twitter, have your freebie weekends, sign up on Bookbud, Wattpad, Shindig (if you don't you haven't got a chance), raise your profile, crank your sales up out of the doldrums, make sure your traffic is climbing and don't forget your mother's birthday is on Wednesday.

photo courtesy of booksontheunderground.com
Discoverability. A dirty new word thrown in writers' faces. Sure, we all wish for it. Whether we are big-time published, sans ou avec an agent, small press published or bravely self-published. We all want to be magically visible, magically thrust at the bookshop browser or into the credit card-touting online cruiser's face. We all pray that our books will zoom up the charts, will fill shop windows and be seen clutched in commuters' hands in the tube.

But when discoverability becomes a huge, daunting word that plays havoc with the writer's aspirations? Can you feel another nervous breakdown coming on? As if the process of writing, the search for ideas, the reconfiguration of old ones and these being pulled out of a hat, weren't hard enough...

Think of the best novels or short stories you have ever read. The most tingling ones, the ones that still come back to you when you are driving or waiting for a bus. Why? How was it that they happened before you? Was it because you were flitting through rankings? Maybe, just maybe. But most probably not. The most chilling story I've read lately was by Flannery O'Connor. I was looking for back-up info for an intro I had to write. I then spent the whole morning reading brilliant old-school short stories. Learning and thinking. And lately, I've bought books by Simon Booy, Tom Vowler and Cate Kennedy. Not one of them a bestseller - I don't think - but all worthy prize-winners. All bought for a host of reasons including the ones below, and not because their 'discoverability' was thrust in my face.

It is widely recognised that different genres perform unequally in this daunting world of discoverability or oblivion. Romance and thriller readers are trigger-happy and account for the most sales, especially by debut authors. For literary and historical authors the slope is steeper and has its own quirks. In a world that is saturated with new titles, review space in the press is minimal, so even an unassuming short story writer has to get out there online, and growl.

Tips for the literary writer confronting the wilderness? Go back to base camp. Go back to reading. Remember what started the flame in your belly at the beginning of all of this. What did Socrates say? Know thyself. What should writers say? Know thy readers.

What makes YOU buy a book?

1.Bestseller list
2.Cover looks nice
3.I liked the sound of the author
4.I read some of her/his stuff before
5.My BFF/sister/brother loved it
6.Book review
7.Found it in the tube

photo courtesy of booksontheunderground.com

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Why 2013 is a great year to be a Short Story Writer

Well, the first reason of course is because a woman short story writer has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. That should perk up any short story writer's day. This week I've been rereading Alice Munro with delight. 'Dimensions' in a 2006 edition of The New Yorker is still clouding my head. Have any favourites?

I admire her composure, her slow strength and welling situations. The mole 'riding on a woman's cheek', and Munro's unflustered talk about worrying - through the writing of her first five books - that she unless she wrote a novel she would not be taken seriously. How seriously are we taking her now? This private and unassuming 82-year-old who swore earlier this year she would retire from writing, only to receive this glittering recognition of her mastery of her craft - the art of the short story.

For me this is just thrilling.

Also this week this year's super-talented but oh-so-modest BBC Short Story Award winner Sarah Hall spoke out in The Guardian. First of all this statement should make all of wonder if we even have a clue about short story writing: It's taken me 15 years to feel I might be able to write and publish short stories, and for the assiduous checks of the industry to allow some through. I can count on one hand the number I have written that I feel approach success - that's fewer than the number included in my first collection.

What?! The woman has written a prize-winning book which will bowl you over with sensory imagery, lingering tales and masterful language (The Beautiful Indifference) and she doesn't think she knows how to put a short story together??

The rest of us should collectively howl.

Another insightly quote from this week's article: Having judged a few competitions, it's clear that novelists are often the laziest short story writers. The number of chapters of novels submitted for such prizes is staggering and, frankly, insulting. A piece of prose extracted from a longer piece of fiction rarely qualifies as a sort story - gorgeously stylistic and dramatic though those passages may be.

Or: The short story is as much the verbose cousin of the poem as it is the reticient cousin of the novel. It would be a sad thing to corral writers in separate literary pens, and not consider them versatile. But crossing over is not always easy.

And: Shorts stories are often strong meat (from the writer of the pungent story, 'Butcher's Perfume'). Reading them, even listening to them, can be challenging, by which I do not mean hard work, simply that a certain amount of nerve and maturity is required. Often the experience is exquisitely unsettling; one might feel like a voyeur suddenly looming at the window of an intimate scene... Mostly there is no explanatory narrative ramp or roof, there are no stabilisers giving support over scary subject matter - sex and death, classically - and there are no solvent, tonic or consoling endings...

And now from this modest short story writer, who will from now on claim to know nothing about this tricky form, a short story from Pelt selected by Bookanista magazine, called 'Nathalie'. I'm feeling out of place on the same page as these two ladies, but here's a piece their fiction editor fell for.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Ebooks, news and reviews

'Pelt and Other Stories' is out on ebook! So rev up your Kindles and if you haven't already delved into these stories, how about ordering a copy? It will sizzle on your screen.

More reviews and comments are in and this writer sat flabbergasted on her bed this morning, just after the dawn run to the bus stop, reading and rereading some of these comments. I gulped down my Goldilocks-warm porridge as the rain PELTed outside. Have a squizz:

Her prose is at once lyrical and staccato, not distracted so much as ambitious – constantly moving forward. I’m talking about paragraphs like: “I was passed Ray’s version of a Tequila sunrise. I wandered out to change my dress. Afterwards, the restaurant had hard lights and the huge, unwieldy bike they’d stolen for me must have belonged to a post-Aryan giantess./ I read Hemingway that week.”...The eighteen stories collected here are transporting and vivid, dark but never sorry for themselves. Harriet Alida Lye, Editor of Her Royal Majesty Literary and Arts Review

The stories are miniature marvels in the manifestation of orientalizing of the African not just by Europeans and Americans but by returned citizens.  The stories show us how hard it is to return home unchanged.   These stories are not about ignorant hateful prejudice.   McNamara is too knowing and intelligent for that.  They are about the very great difficulties of escaping from our deep conditioning, our unseen frames of reference.   The stories are also fun to read.  Lots of interesting things happen, there is some sex, women eyeballing each other, and a strong sense of humor and fun.  Mel U, prolific reviewer on Rereading Lives Blog

I've read half a dozen stories in random order, and can't get 'Nathalie' out of my mind. Mark Reynolds, Fiction Editor, Bookanista.

(I'm) currently three stories in, all three of which have been corkers. Dan Powell, writer and blogger

The body comes to liquid life in your prose. You write richly, and beautifully and convincingly from many characters' perspectives and points of view. Many of your stories explore culture, race, sexuality and gender. One reason I think your narratives are so convincing is your interesting use of syntax, really adds fabric to the characterisation.. Rachel Fenton, Snow Like Thought Blog

And lastly, a big, fat 5-star Amazon review!! Thank you MarcusP!

Subtitled Tales of Lust and Dirt, the stories in Pelt are indeed quite lusty and dirty but don't be fooled, bubbling beneath the quick-fire, apparently uncomplicated surface are the themes of modern life in a global world: how fixed and how fluid are our identities (nationality, race, gender), how do we cope with a troublesome past that invades our present? how do we leave behind us the past without cutting ourselves loose and risk becoming rudderless? The stories rummage about in the body and graze across the skin, delving into nurture and culture, attachment and detachment, often observing the dramas of others as though the centre of gravity in life were elsewhere, or absent.
The stories are generally seen through the eyes of frisky thirty-somethings - men with women's names, women with men's - coming together and parting, forming provisional partnerships in temporary residences, dipping into and out of foreign cultures, not trapped anywhere but also not belonging, their identities up for grabs and sometimes - painfully - grabbed. They are afloat if not adrift in a sea bobbing with the flotsam and jetsam of culture. Where the culture is European, it is a sort of froth, energy without depth, sheen without ballast; where it is African it appears to be menacingly beckoning and harking back, shaping figures the people in the stories wanted to leave behind.
"All art gives a quality to silence, meaningful or empty, but it's in the silence (when the art takes its leave, and you are left alone) that it does its work." So said Karen Blixen, a Dane out of Africa, a woman who wrote with a man's name, a modernist and feminist (before these became fashionable), a forerunner, let's say, of the world of these stories. When good short stories - like McNamara's - depart, they leave behind them a silence that is a little troubled by a nagging inner noise that needs to be soothed and calmed, but - thankfully - can't be stilled without some useful pondering

Pelt and Other Stories Kindle version