Who has the answer?

In 2016, the statement that there should be more diversity in publishing is still ringing loudly.  But what does that actually mean? Does that mean more diversity amongst the writers that are being published or more diversity within the writing itself e.g. characters, locations etc? According to the ongoing debate there is still a lack of diversity amongst the writers who are being traditionally published and that something needs to be done to resolve this issues.

I’ve said it often enough but I hate being reduced to an acronym but as a black woman who happens to write, I would be placed neatly in the BAME box (black, Asian and minority ethnics) and Penguin Random House (PRH) have launched a campaign just for me. OK, maybe the campaign isn’t just for me but PRH are looking to mentor and publish new writers from socio-economically marginalised backgrounds, writers with a disability and BAME and LGBT writers. PRH’s call to arms is obviously a reaction to the fact that writers from these groups are underrepresented in the publishing industry, however, I find myself asking the question if this scheme (and others that are popping up) is the right answer to this ongoing problem.

The problem does not lie with a lack of diverse writers. It would be ridiculous to think that a BAME or LGBT writer or a writer surviving on benefits was afraid to pick up a pen or open up their laptop and write a book. Recent history will show you that there are, and I will call them ‘acronym writers’, that have even won a prize or two and routinely top the best sellers list (Marlon James, Zadie Smith, AM Homes, Marjorie Blackman, JK Rowling, Dorothy Koomson, Mike Gayle) but this is a miniscule number in comparison to the number of books that are being published or remain locked away on a desktop folder.

Why do the acronym writers struggle for representation? Why are they struggling to be seen?  Self-publishing should make it easier for these writers to ‘breakout’ but if socio-economic factors prevent writers from being published traditionally than those same socio-economic factors are going to stop the same writers from self-publishing because after all, regardless of how accessible self-publishing it is, editors, proof-readers, cover artists and marketing costs money.  We live in a digital world where people refuse to be hidden. We all have blogs, Facebook pages, YouTube channels and we’re loud and clear on Twitter and Instagram. These writers are no longer hard to find.

There are talented writers are out there but the problem lies solely with the guardians standing at the gate of the publishing industry, for example, the agents, editors, publicists and even the intern who can afford to work for free wading their way through the slush pile in a windowless room on the tenth floor in another non-descript room in the city.

Perhaps employing editors, agents etc who represent the acronym writers will enable the industry to move away from the old boy’s network but what about talent? Surely, if you’re talented, your writing will shine through. You would think so, but the fact that the question of diversity is still out there shows that the curtains in the windows of the publishers’ offices are still firmly closed.

I don’t think that a mentoring programme or any other acronym specific ‘one-time only’ competitions is the answer. What happens when the scheme, mentorship programme is over or the competition deadline passes? Does that mean that all of the efforts to make the publishing industry more diverse come to an immediate stop?  The publishing industry has to do more than a once in a blue moon high profile campaign and find a more permanent solution. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to the problem of a lack of diversity in the publishing industry but I do think that a good place to start would perhaps be for publishers and agents to move away from the misguided belief that ‘acronym writers’ do not sell books.

 

This post was brought to you by Nadine Matheson.

 

 

 

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Write what you know . . . or maybe not?

All contemporary fiction writers will have heard the saying, ‘write what you know’ at some point in their writing life. It always makes an appearance in the Top 10 writing tips for aspiring authors but it’s a piece of advice that I think can be quite dangerous. I think it straightaway puts up limits as to what you can and can’t write about and here’s why:

Obviously nothing beats firsthand experience, if you yourself have experienced a situation that you are writing about, your feelings at having gone through it will ring true with the reader. Or if you once lived in the location where your book is set, your writing will definitely have an authenticity that you just can’t beat. But what happens if you are writing a second, third or even fourth book? You may be able to base your first book solely on your experience but unless you have had a colourful and exciting life, the chances are that you will run out of material pretty quickly.

This is where research comes in. Research, if it is done properly, can help you colour in the bits that you don’t know. Of course nowadays we’re very lucky to have the Internet. You can find so much information online – historical archives, newspapers, medical reports, as well as people’s firsthand experiences. The author JoJo Moyes talks about using chat forums for people with spinal injuries to research her brilliant novel ‘Me Before You’.

Of course there will always be some things that you can’t find online. When it came to researching my fourth novel ‘My Sister’s Child’, I knew I wanted to tackle the thorny issues surrounding modern reproductive techniques namely egg donation. The book tells the story of two sisters Jo and Isla and the resulting fallout, which occurs after Isla donates her eggs to help her sister Jo conceive a baby. The main difficulty I had was that egg donation especially between two sisters, is obviously a deeply private and often painful matter for the individuals involved so there wasn’t a huge level of information available online. Added to that, at the time of writing, the legislation in Ireland in relation to donor-assisted conception was in the process of being changed. So to ensure that the storyline accurately reflected current treatments, once I had carried out a basic level of research myself, I devised a medical questionnaire and contacted David Walsh of the SIMS clinic (an Irish fertility clinic) who very kindly answered my questions. In my experience if you can’t find what you are looking for online, there are plenty of experts out there who are delighted to help you out if you need a firsthand account or advice on something (especially if you promise them a mention in the acknowledgements!).

As a writer you should also be drawing on your feelings to add depth to your story – you may not know how it feels to come home to find your husband in bed with someone else (I hope!) but I bet you have probably experienced an intense anger at some point in your life. So even if you haven’t direct experience of a situation, just like an actor getting into character for a film, these are types of feelings that you need to call on to help put you in the shoes of your characters.

I think the ‘write what you know’ rule belongs to a different time, when research was slow and tedious. Nowadays writers have so many more avenues open to them to get information for their stories. There are plenty of ways to fill in the blanks when you get stuck so don’t put barriers in your way before you even begin and anyway, isn’t the point of writing fiction that you have to be able to make it up?

 

This post is brought to you by Caroline Finnerty.

Why I write contemporary crime fiction

When I submitted the fourth draft of my first novel Cuckoo to agents back in (oh God was it really?) 2009, I was certain that I had written a piece of literary fiction. On our first meeting, the agent-who-took-me-on told me that in fact I had the bare bones of a psychological thriller.

‘What, like in crime fiction?’ I asked.

‘Yes, like in crime fiction,’ he replied.

This caused me some consternation. I had no idea of how the publishing industry worked, and how useful genres are in marketing and selling books. Instead, my reading tastes were nurtured during some very traditional A’Level book choices at my sixth form college – Bleak House, Mill on the Floss, Wuthering Heights – and I had gone on to develop a penchant for the literary in modern fiction. In short, I was a bit sniffy as far as genre was concerned. Yes, I would always fall upon and devour the Aggies whenever we rented a holiday cottage, but I regarded that as a guilty pleasure, to rank alongside chocolate hobnobs and scampi flavoured Nik Naks.

However, as I laboured on the fifth, sixth and seventh draft under my agent’s supervision, turning it into even more of a psychological thriller – more plot, more darkness, more twists, a gun – I started reading around the genre, and my eyes were well and truly opened. I read Sophie Hannah, John Fowles’ The Collector, Barbara Vine, Patricia Highsmith, Lionel Shriver, Nicci French, and many more, and I discovered that writing great crime fiction requires great skill. Not only does the author have to create a believable world and lifelike characters, but they also have to weave a convincing plot, build tension, keep the pages turning, work with pace AND reach a satisfying conclusion. Additionally, my particular sub genre – which I have called Domestic Noir, a term that seems to have caught on – has its own tropes: unreliable narrators, psychological disorders, domestic settings, the fallout of romance, the terrible things that happen behind closed doors, all of which are what fascinate me in real life and the fictional worlds I both create and read.

I am now a die-hard fan (I also love the Bruce Willis movies, but that’s not what I mean), and I am proud to be included in a crime writing community that is generous, convivial and slightly alcoholic (viz the Bristol Marriot’s alarming yearly Crimefest spike in bar profits). The community of readers is just as stong, and their passion, commitment and ability to devour books is awe-inspiring.

So, when I wrote Cuckoo, why was my unconscious inclination towards the dark? Firstly, the root of all drama is tension, which is bred most effectively in crime fiction. You create a character, give them a hard time, then make things worse. Romance writers have to make a satisfying story about good things happening to people. How on earth do they do that? I am in total awe. The other thing is that I am a real scaredy-cat: the dark horrifies me; my idea of hell is a night spent on my own in a house in the middle of a dense wood; I will walk the long way round rather than take the little track that runs down the back of the houses; I move train carriages if my only other travelling companion is a lone stranger who looks in any way sinister (ie, not a nun or a schoolchild). By writing my fears, I go some way to mastering them. There is no way, however, you’d get me in that house in the woods. But that’s where I put my poor characters, and then I introduce a sinister stranger. In the dark. Approaching from a back lane.

So thank you, agent-who-took-me-on, for pointing me in the right direction. I’m on the first draft of book six now, and I’ve got a list of dark and twisty future story ideas that will keep me busy until my mid-list reaches its end. Contemporary crime fiction rocks.

 

This post is brought to you by Julia Crouch.

 

 

Where stories come from

Tell people you’re a writer and invariably you get the same responses coming up time and time again. These are the four I get the most:

1. You should tell my life story – it’s fascinating.

2. I’ve always wanted to write a book but don’t have the time.

3. But what do you really do?

4. Are you the next JK Rowling?

It’s the first one that I’m going to delve deeper into today. Not by telling someone’s life story, although I have been told some great ones on some of the long train journeys I’ve been on, but in looking at the inspiration for writing and where ideas come from. For me, it’s a very different process for my novels and short stories.

The premise of my debut novel, As If I Were A River, came to me over a period of months as I kept coming across stories about people going missing. I was living in London and sometimes on the tube I’d flick through the Metro or the Standard and tucked away amongst the celebrity gossip there’d be little news pieces about missing men and women. I started to wonder how you would deal with it if someone in your life went missing. What it would feel like to not know.

A documentary programme on the same subject then inspired the main character, Kate, whose husband vanishes one night on a trip to the local shop. After watching that, Kate took up camp in my head and I had to start telling her story.

The novel I’m writing now, working title of All Be Forgotten, has also been brewing in my mind for a long time. I first had the idea around 3 years ago and it was inspired by my day job as a features journalist, in which I write about sustainability and renewable energy. I became a little obsessed with visions of the kind of world we could end up with because of global warming. The main character, Evie, is an environmental and social activist who ends up living in that world. But although this provided the initial inspiration for the setting and the idea, it’s turning out to be about superstition and prejudice, that element of human nature that takes the dark path even though there’s a chance to start again.

My third novel is actually the one I’ve been thinking of writing for the longest. I had the idea for this one about a decade ago. It’s historical crime fiction inspired by real life events that happened in my home town of Reading, close to a flat I used to live in by the River Thames. A story I stumbled across when researching something else in the local library. I’ve been researching it and thinking about it on and off for all of this time. I finally figured out how to tell it so the planning proper commences this summer.

So my novel ideas are creepers. They come from the things around me and I never know what might turn up next. In contrast, every single short story I’ve had published has come from a prompt or writing exercise. Usually where I’ve written the entire thing in one burst. In starting to write novels, I discovered I love to write short fiction. Thanks to the creative writing tutor in one of my first ever courses who said writing shorts was a great way to keep your motivation going as you actually get to finish something!

 

This post is brought to you by Amanda Saint.

On location

The question I’m most often asked by readers, budding authors and befuddled guests at dinner parties is: ‘Where do you write?’

When my stock replies of ‘on paper’ or ‘on the walls of public lavatories’ have been merrily laughed away my answer is ‘on location’. Now after stating this the amused faces are sometimes replaced by furrowed brows, at least until I explain, succinctly, what I mean by this phrase.

Even through this digital, virtual, mire I can see, dear reader of blogs, your brow too is furrowed. So I shall explain to you exactly what I mean by writing ‘on location’, and why I choose to do so.

Twenty-nine years ago, to my surprise, I saw Alan Bennett sitting on a wall in the Yorkshire village of Heckmondwike. He was wearing his customary tweed jacket, slacks and a comfy pair of shoes, I’m sure you can picture him, this is Alan Bennett after all – one of our national treasures. Mr. Bennett was not sitting on the wall just to pass the time until the pubs opened or merely soaking up the glorious Yorkshire sunshine. No. He was actively and intensely staring at passers-by. In one hand he had a notepad and in the other a pen. He was writing on location! Now he may have been actually taking notes rather than constructing a cohesive comic narrative, but at this juncture let us not argue the toss. As I strolled past, with my father – two southerners exchanging comments about the place with the strange sounding name, he scribbled in his pad! It would be immodest of me to believe that I made it into one of his pieces, but one can but dream.

Years later, and without at the time making the connection to Alan (I’ve mentioned him several times now, so feel we should be on first name terms) I found myself doing the same thing – writing on location. Except I wasn’t sitting on a wall in Yorkshire rather I was on the terrace of a Kyiv café sipping chilled vodka and watching the ‘new Ukrainians’ strut by. Like Alan, I had too discovered that I preferred to ‘write on location’.

Me writing Kyiv

“Hang on,” I hear you say. “Isn’t this ‘writing on location’ business just note-taking? An aide-mémoire? ”

Yes, it is and more. For the non-writer (I’m sorry, I agree that title makes me cringe too, but please bear with me), who is not surreptitiously making notes it is called ‘people watching’. For me, however, it’s writing on location.

When an artist, painting a landscape, starts to sketch out their idea as to how they will interpret the panorama in front of them they usually do so with light pencil strokes, until the basic shape of what they will paint has been formed or if they dive straight into the painting the pencil strokes have been visualised in their mind’s eye.

As an author, an artist using words to colour his page, I look at the world around me and do the same. I try to create an authentic narrative by inhabiting the setting of my writing. I may sit and ‘notice’ that in this street, opposite the café I am camped in, there is a jewellery shop with a black door, or that a fish mongers is incongruously located three doors further on. Perhaps I’ll write this down, or I may just make a mental note. I’ll sit for a while and watch the comings and goings at the chosen location. This part of my process appropriately equates to note taking, and like the painter once I have a general idea of how I will interpret the scene in front of me I put pen to paper (I’m not one for dragging a laptop around or tapping away in a coffee shop as I find this insular), and start to physically write. And in this writing, I may mention that a certain character entered the jewellery shop via its black door, and the character I am writing about may, or may not be a real person I have seen do that very same thing. They could very well have gone directly from the fish mongers to the jewellers. And this throws up questions that I can explore. Why would they do this, what were they carrying, is there a link, is something fishy going on?

Stories are all around us and it is up to us to interpret them. The beauty of writing is that we are free to use as little or as much of our personal experience and observation as we dare, legally and morally.

Of course, sometimes it is just not practical to actually ‘write’ on location and note taking prevails. This could be for a myriad of reasons including time, the weather, finances or security issues.

I’ve been lucky enough to undertake a large percentage of my writing on location. I’m primarily a crime thriller writer. My hero is named Aidan Snow and is a former SAS man turned MI6 operative. Aidan Snow’s published adventures to date, three novels, a novella and several short stories, have taken place in part in Ukraine. I myself lived in Kyiv during the mid and late 1990s and now return several times a year. I’ve sat, as mentioned above, in cafes writing about what I see and I have also physically walked routes that characters have taken, noting details which I hope enrich my writing.

Occasionally I get a follow-up question, “what are some of the strangest places you’ve written in?’

Now I want to say, ‘read the books and find out!’ But I don’t. I rattle off a few places: Moscow’s Gorky Park, The Westin Hotel Dubai, Morristown New Jersey, Barbados, Worthing Pier, and at a bus stop opposite Kyiv’s SBU (KGB) headquarters (well in this case just note taking). And they nod and or raise their eyebrows before telling me about their most recent holiday escapades. You see unless you are a writer you can come across to everyone else as being a tiny bit ‘mad’ when you talk about craft, location and narrative etc.

BUT sometimes I just make things up.

When I’m in the UK, I’ll sit on my settee, in my lounge, watching odd daytime telly and tapping away merrily. You see if my reply to ‘Where do you write?’ had been ‘In my underpants on the settee’, this blog post would have been both shorter and less appealing to you, dear reader.

 

 

This post is brought to you by Alex Shaw. Alex can be found at Newcastle Noir this weekend.

The place of place in contemporary fiction

Sometimes it seems as though there are only two types of books: those that can be described as plot-driven, and others that are seen as character-driven. But what if still others are as much driven by place, in which character and plot emerge fully formed from the landscape?

I’m halfway through Halldor Laxness’s Independent People. Neither British nor contemporary – any longer – it does deal exceptionally well with place. In fact, I would go so far to say that the story is a story of place above all else. The human and ovine characters (there are a lot of sheep) feel transient, incidental. They are formed of the black peat, and their stories are rooted in the marshy turf. Their hopes and tribulations meander on the sticky beck at the valley’s floor. The valley itself has a history, and previous events, centuries old, cling to the stones, ominous and foreboding. The menace that drives the book lurks under the cairn marking the pass above the perennially dismal Summerhouses; menace hangs from the blue mountains that fade into and out of view with the weather.

Iceland

The evocation of place is one of the most direct routes into a novel’s universe. This is unsurprising: all stories take place (the word is everywhere) in space as well as time. When we visualise a character, the ground they stand on is solid. Every dark and stormy night rages somewhere.

That is not to suggest that good novels are always set in real places, either now or in the past; just that the ground on which they play out should be able to bear the reader’s weight. Nor does it equate good writing with lengthy descriptions of landscape, any more than strong characterisation can only be achieved through the detailed description of a protagonist’s face. As with character, we need to recognise a place, either from our memory or our imagination; as with plot, place needs to be solid, believable.

From sweeping landscapes of Icelandic moors to the more mundane environs of a West Midlands shopping centre: in Catherine O’Flynn’s 2007 debut, What Was Lost, place is almost indistinguishable from character and plot. The characters do not simply occupy the space, they are occupied by it. The missing girl ghosts through the darkened arcades and service corridors as if buried in the foundations. But while the evocation of a space I occupied relentlessly in my own teenage years was powerful enough, it is the ghost of the derelict industrial space that lies beneath it that stays with me most powerfully. To this day I do not know to what the title refers, what it was that O’Flynn most feels was lost.

Grounding stories in place, rooting them in landscape and the myths they hold, has been a central concern in my own writing. My first novel evolved from a story told to me amid the dust and noise of a city street in India; my second, out in May, began as an attempt to discover anew my own city, but in the end emerged from the weathered stones of a small Scottish island. I took a trip up to the Small Isles in search of my eponymous ‘cursing stone’ and, while I didn’t find it, the landscape of Canna did give flesh to a hitherto minor character and also sparked an unexpected plot twist.

Place is no substitute for character and landscape cannot replace plot. But nor is it an also-ran, simply a setting for people and action. The best fiction – or at least, the fiction that I want to read – makes place an active participant in the story. It is how memory works. Madeleines might have been enough for Proust, but for me it is the light on the hillside, the glugging of the brook, or a glimpse along an empty city street that takes me to the heart of a story.

 

This post is brought to you by Adrian Harvey.

What is contemporary fiction?

Welcome to the site on launch day!

It is my pleasure to kick off our weekly blog post on issues related to contemporary fiction reading and writing. Which, of course, has to begin with a definition of what contemporary fiction actually is. And that is what I’m going to be discussing today.

So what is contemporary fiction? There are numerous definitions and, as we like to think of ourselves as an inclusive lot here at Britfic, we seem to cover the whole range.

9781910692707  Dotsr  Too Charming

There’s contemporary fiction as a ‘genre’, normally encompassing ‘the leftovers’ of anything that doesn’t fall into a nice, neat category. But we don’t like to think of ourselves as leftovers and, indeed, our authors hail from a range of ‘genres’, including romance, crime, and fantasy.

TofTT  TBH  SoS

Then there’s contemporary fiction defined as anything set in the present or very recent past. The present, however, very quickly slides to obsolescence and this then (rightly) begs the question of ‘when does contemporary fiction become historical fiction?’ Again, this is open for debate, and is one of the many topics we hope to be discussing on our YouTube channel over the coming months.

TiesthatBind  Beltane  AIIWAR

The other issue with a ‘present or very recent past’ definition is whether contemporary relates to setting, technology, or lifestyle. Not all of our novels are set in 2016, and not all of our novels are set in the current ‘era’ of smartphones and social media (but Britfic are on Facebook and Twitter). Does this not make us contemporary?

TIP  BS  TBTNF

And then there is the definition, which is the one I prefer, that defines contemporary fiction on the basis of contemporary themes, and is more flexible in terms of setting. This allows for books set a decade or so ago, while still enveloping a broad spectrum of genres.

ABT  TCR  AML

So how do you define contemporary fiction?

TLF  HA  TS

Enjoy the party – and don’t forget to follow our website (via email or WordPress) to be entered into the giveaway.

 

This post is brought to you by Christina Philippou.