Short stories are back in style. Were they ever out, you ask. Well, yes. During the long and powerful reign of big-name corporate publishers, it was difficult to make much headway with short fiction. Authors were always told a number of things about short stories, and they believed them. So did the reading public. What were these things?
Image via Wikipedia Raymond CarverShort stories do not sell. It was utterly pointless sending a collection to a publisher or agent as a new author. Collections were not bought because of the myth that collections do not sell. They do, of course - just not in the quantities that would make them viable as competition for novels. And the big publishers compete against each other using novels and non-fiction, so it was rather pointless offering something they could not play with.
Short stories by successful authors are the only viable proposal. Despite the success of Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus and Annie Proulx with short stories, before they published novels, this myth was repeatedly put about by those who found them hard to understand.
Image via Wikipedia Andre DubusShort stories are not taken seriously by readers. Readers have always loved and sought short stories - and verifying this truth is easy when one remembers the popularity of short story journals, anthologies and magazines. The New Yorker readers thrived on some of the best short fiction authors of the last century had to offer.
The number of movies based on short stories can be counted in hundreds: literally. Because of its succinct, distilled quality of prose, a short story lends itself to action, and the necessarily visual quality of film. No words are wasted on heavy description, and the director can go to town with interpretation.
In the 21st century, readers live lives dictated by the clock and the various digital appliances they carry about. Time is tight, and reading is done in snatches, in the oddest of places. Nothing lends itself better to this situation than the short story, which can be grabbed and digested in a very limited window of opportunity. I can think of nothing better than waiting at the dentist (which I have done a bit of lately) armed with a Kindle and a nice virtual stack of short stories by a number of varied authors.
Time seems to shrink-wrap itself around a short story, especially if it is of the quality that takes on enormous dimensions, with impressions to match. The impact of one of Andre Dubus's stories is equal, if not greater, to that of a great novel: it stays in the memory just as long, and its premise has the concentration and balance that takes all the genius an author can muster. There is much, much more play with words and juggling with spaces and suspense in a piece of short fiction.
Way back in the 90s, short fiction was my genre. Short stories might be easy to read, but they are the devil to write well. They need an entirely different mind-set and game plan to a novel, and they require mastery of vocabulary and what writing teachers like to term 'strong' verbs. They are a challenge, and great fun to write. And I wrote many.
My latest one is called The Beige Porsche, and is one of a series that uses cars as a vehicle (ha! couldn't resist that one). I would appreciate comments on whether you like short fiction, have ever bought or read it, and whether writing it is as much a challenge to you as it feels to me.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
|A Cate Myers design|
When BeWrite Books sent me this cover for approval, way back in 2005, for my first novel Death in Malta, I fell in love with it at once. My fans loved it too, and this first novel has been a nice steady success ever since. Sometimes, a cover and the content of a novel just click together, and readers sense this.
|A Tony Szmuk design|
When BeWrite Books sent me the cover for According to Luke earlier this year I was not immediately convinced. It took me a while to see the genius of Tony Szmuk's design. Ever since the book was released, I have received any number of compliments about the novel's appearance. People praise its appropriate 'puzzle' suggestion, and the background that indicates the watery location of Venice.
It's far from easy to design a book cover. Designers are visual people - and they rarely have time to read a whole novel in order to conjure the image that might interpret and promote it best. By the same token, authors are 'word' people who rarely understand visual prompts as well as those trained to understand what makes people love a cover. Or better still, makes them buy a book because they like the cover.
|A Rosanne Dingli design|
To come up with what you see, it took me a fortnight of playing around with concepts, images, words and colours. I am not the fastest person on earth to make a decision, let alone the two dozen or so selections one must make to create a cover. The process was slow and deliberate this time. The opinions of a number of groups and individuals were taken into account. Now the little book is out, and I hope will gladden me with the approval of a whole lot of happy gift-buyers this Christmas.
Your opinion is required: What do you think of the covers of all my books? These are only three ... there are several more, which can be seen on my website.
A candid opinion is a rare thing - I would like as many as you can muster. Leave one or two in a comment box for me.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
At last - the shoe is on the other foot. Morgen Bailey, doyenne of online interviews, has accepted my invitation. This interviewer par excellence has allowed me into her virtual 'office' and has answered my specially-tailored questions. This is a rare event, so do take your time. Make a cup of tea, because it's long, and very enjoyable.
Hiya Morgen, and welcome! You are known as the intrepid interviewer who gets hold of some interesting writers and grills one every so often… very often! How does it feel right now to be on the other side of the microphone?
“Intrepid interviewer” really? Wow. :) I’m very lucky actually because the interviewees tend to come to me rather than the other way round and yes, I’ve had some authors whose books I already happen to have, or see out and about after they’ve approached me which has been thrilling, and humbling, in both cases.
I won’t waffle on (because I know I’m good at it) but it all started because I was asked a couple of times (WhoHub and Teresa Morrow) to complete a questionnaire and really enjoyed it (so I guess that answers the last bit of your question) and my blog was a couple of months old (I started it at the end of March 2011 because I’d heard it a good thing to do) so I thought I could do this myself and the rest, as they say, is histoire. Well, they’d say that in France.
Now that I have interviewed so many authors (over 100 to-date) I’m getting a bit braver with asking other authors. Some ‘household’ names have said “yes” but they’re very busy so inside I’m jumping up and down but am realistic enough to know that it may either be a while or may not happen but I’m really enjoying it although it’s hard work (I post an interview each morning then an author spotlight or guest blog in the evenings) but I’ve never been shy of that, which is just as well isn’t it because I want to be a writer full-time.
I’ve just secured Katie Fforde (who I knew was a friend of one of my writing friends Sue Moorcroft) as the competition judge for the 2011 H.E. Bates Short Story Competition (http://www.hebatescompetition.org.uk) which is run by one of the writing groups I’m involved in (would it be too shameless to mention them? I’ll risk it http://www.northamptonwriters.org.uk) so maybe I’m braver than I thought but I’ve not worked up to asking her to take part in my blog… yet. :)
Your name is easy to spell for me, since it means ‘tomorrow’ or ‘morning’ in Flemish, so I think it’s very pretty. I also have a name that is easily misspelled. It has to do with being an unusual person – how have you dealt with being singular and noticeable in your life?
Ah thank you. That’s very sweet of you to say but I’ve actually cheated as (for anyone who read my interview no.100) it’s a pseudonym. My real name’s very ordinary (Alison) and I love being someone else, although at times I do feel a bit of a fraud, not sure why really.
My dog (whose picture is splattered around the internet almost as often as mine) is Bailey and my previous dog was Morgen. I have German connections going back many (over 30) years so that’s why I went with the unusual spelling. Sometimes I wonder whether it was the right thing to do (as it’s so often spelled the normal way; Morgan) but I think once it sticks, Morgen is more memorable and I like it being a bit different. Besides, the domains for Morgan Bailey were already taken (I actually checked after I’d set up my website) by a coffee company, construction company and porn star – that makes for an interesting conversation!
You prefer to have your avatar precede you wherever you go – who made the portrait, and how much like it are you really? I’m talking about personality rather than looks – what do you think it says about you?
I’ve just changed my Twitter picture to the photo that inspired the caricature because author Marika Cobbold (who I met when I was volunteering at Chorleywood Lit Fest November 2010 – she’s great!) was having trouble changing her picture so I changed mine and relayed the steps and when she saw the new one she said she loved and that I should keep so I have.
The other one I use is of Bailey but not so often or he’d get too bigheaded… he ‘uses’ his big brown eyes enough as it is. :)
A local cartoonist called Adrian Teal (he’s easily Googleable) drew it (I love it but I know my mum’s not keen – sorry Adrian – but it’s a caricature, they’re supposed to be exaggerated). I walk past his studio on the way to / from work three times a week and I love cartoons so one day I emailed him and arranged to take some photos in. He does a lot of work for Private Eye and the likes so said it would be a while but took less than a month so I was pleased (and was £70 which I think was great value). I have the original 10”x8” picture which he scanned and emailed to me.
I know you said not looks but I’d say it’s pretty close; I have a Roman nose (not sure why as it’s not inherited from my parents… although after hitting the bottom of a swimming pool diving off a 5m board – we’re a sporty family – my mum’s nose has never quite been the same) and do catch the sun although the first version Adrian emailed me was even redder and I don’t drink that much so I asked him to tone it down a bit. Oh and he’s given me blue eyes which I’ve always wanted (mine are grey / green)… and a thinner waist – they were worth the £70! As for personality, I guess it makes me look approachable (I like to think I am) and happy (which I try to be) with sparkly eyes which I think is my passion.
After having interviewed so many different authors, what have you learned about writers in general?
How many of us there are. That sounds a bit daft but since I’ve been involved with these blog interviews I’ve been paying (even) more attention to books for sale in the charity shop (Red Cross) I volunteer at (I’m their ‘book lady’) and car boot sales etc and there are so many names in amongst the ‘household’ ones, which is great because it means that people are not just sticking with the top x%. When I see them I buy books of people I’ve encountered (so to speak) and started a bookcase of them but that’s now spilled into the box room as I’ve met a few at events (yes, in the flesh!)… chatting with Mark Billingham and Michael Robotham in the ‘green room’ at Oundle Lit Fest (my second volunteering experience) in March 2011 has got to be a highlight. Mark was on Radio Litopia (http://litopia.com/radio) recently – that was fun.
Morgen, your work runs the danger of being eclipsed among all the online work you do that’s more about writers and their craft than about you and your fiction. Where do your motivations lie – and where do you fit in?
Good question. Although I’m loving every minute I am conscious that I’m not getting time for my own writing and my life is a constant battle against time but then so it is, I’d say, for the majority of writers, housewives, retired folk (my mum’s a keen gardener and that eats the hours) et al and I’m very lucky, I only work part-time but could so do with the extra 20.5 hours a week (plus travelling / getting ready time) for writing. I think if I didn’t work I’d have a better balance but bills have to be paid. It’s a goal, but as long as my editor, Rachel, has something of mine to work on I’m happy. She’s eaten and spat back out my 365-day writer’s workbook and currently has a short story collection / writing guide to work through so I’m concentrating on the covers etc. at the moment.
For me, at the moment, I partially selfishly see the blog as a marketing tool, for every new contact I make there’s someone new to mention my books to (when they’re ready – I’m hoping in the next few weeks) but not go mad. A round robin email per new book would be plenty. The fastest way to get de-followed on Twitter is to say “come buy my book” every other Tweet. I think a fair balance (which I think I saw on a LinkedIn thread a while back) is 90% useful info (and I have lots of that thanks to the handouts I do for my writing group, guest blogs etc) and 10% tout… or better still 99% / 1%. That’s easy to say as my books aren’t ready yet. I dare say once they are I’ll be wanting to shout it from the rooftops. :)
None of the writers you have worked with failed to notice your indefatigability. (It’s a real word – I’m sure you love it!) Where do you get the extra four hours to every day you seem to have more than everyone else?
By not sleeping them, in a word (well, four). Indefatigability – love it! I love making up words (it’s in our Terms & Conditions isn’t it?) although you’re right it is a proper word. I guess I hide behind aforementioned avatar but I put it down to passion. Having left school (coughs) years ago not knowing what I wanted to do (so ended up being a secretary which has been really useful for the old typing speed) I fell into writing by default working my way through the local university prospectus (I’d done the languages and computing courses) and joined crime writer Sally Spedding’s class (which I took over in 2008 when she moved to Wales) and have been hooked ever since.
Tell us a bit about your favourite novel, and where we can find it. Where can we find out more about you and your work? Where can we see covers for your books?
As mine aren’t ready yet, I’ll mention my favourite authors; Kate Atkinson and Roald Dahl. I’m a BIG fan of short stories (and that’s what I write most of, although I’ve written four novels which will eventually become novellas – cutting out the waffle) and love dark tales. Kate’s aren’t dark but their quirky. I keep looking out for her appearances and missed out on her being near to my mum’s (where I used to live) by a couple of days which was really annoying. Still, Kate did bring out ‘Started Early, Took the Dog’ hardback on my birthday (19th August) last year which was very generous of her. :) I recorded her ‘Case Histories’ TV series when it come out a few weeks ago but I’ve not watched it yet as short story author Helen M Hunt wants to see it again (who I only recently found out lives in the same town as me; we met and get on… well, like the proverbial burning house) so we are going to have a marathon veg out sometime soon.
As for Roald it’s too late but my dad met him (he was his local photographer) and took a video at Sophie’s birthday party – sadly I don’t think we kept a copy. My mum still lives near the museum and I’ve shamefully not gone yet, something to do in the winter I think.
My blog is http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com and website http://morgenbailey.com but the latter is a shell really. They both have links to my Facebook and Twitter profile. My covers are somewhere between my brain and the Picasa software that one of my Monday night writers (hi Denny – she’s also my unpaid gardener – we swap skills) introduced me to recently… I like PhotoShop but this is so great (and free).
Let's tell everyone what you really do, shall we?
Morgen is foremost a writing-related blogger, but also hosts the weekly Bailey’s Writing Tips audio podcast, two in-person writing groups (based in Northampton, England), is the author of numerous short stories, four and a half novels (which she’s reworking for eBooks), articles (most recently for the NAWG Link magazine), has dabbled with poetry but admits that she doesn’t “get it”, and is a regular Radio Litopia contributor. She also belongs to two other local writing groups (one of which runs the annual HE Bates Short Story Competition) and when she’s not at her part-time day job, as a secretary, she writes, researches for her writing group, writes a bit more, is a British Red Cross volunteer and walks her dog (often while reading, writing or editing) and reads (though not as often as she’d like), oh and sometimes she writes.
Thank you for accepting to do this.
Delighted to Rosanne, thank you for asking. It was lovely to be on this side, and to have very different questions to mine!
Friday, October 7, 2011
Many writers say they write because they have to. Many say it's a passion they give in to. Others declare they are addicted and cannot stop writing, while a few admit they hope to strike it lucky and sell thousands of books a month.
|Pic: Royalty review council|
The reality is that for most writers large figures are the stuff of dreams. The realistic author understands the nature of the market, the fickle aspect of retaining a readership, and the difficulty of publicity and promotions. Most people in the entertainment industry - and that is where fiction belongs for most people - will attest to the fact that they must have a 'real job' to feed their writing habit. Any artistic undertaking generally means that the hours spent in pursuit of that art are rarely all remunerated. Only big name authors and those near the top of the mid-list come anywhere near making enough to live comfortably. Some teach, others hold down a job in some other industry, and others have a supportive partner or spouse who subsidizes those long unpaid hours.
Image via Wikipedia Dan BrownThis is not to say that there aren't authors who do make a comfortable income - of course they are. And it's so comfortable it makes the news. Telling people you are an author sometimes brings on reactions and comments that are entertaining: there is a myth or misconception that all authors make as much money as Dan Brown or John Grisham or JK Rowling. Some think it's as easy as John Locke and Amanda Hocking seem to have found it. Few realize how hard these authors work, what they endured to get where they are, and the reality of the figures attached to their success.
Each book sold brings an author less than three dollars in royalties at the end of the day. Working out how many books one must sell to cover one electricity bill is a lesson in realization of a dismal fact. It is exceedingly hard to write for a real living. Of all those in Australia who claim to be writers, only a very small percentage make enough to maintain a moderate lifestyle.
It could be depressing to realize this, but it can also be liberating. Nothing prevents people from holding down a job and also writing books. Many understand the artistic quality of having to subsidize society, rather than the other way around. Like I said before: it's a rare artist who gets paid for all the hours it takes to conceive and create, adjust and perfect something that will please or entertain an audience. Whether it's writing, painting, acting, sculpting or playing an instrument, there are long, long hours of practising, editing, drafting... chiseling at that block, either practically or metaphorically, that will never be paid for.
Authors do not count their days in billable hours. Some feel they are working all the time - writing in their heads, promoting with their chat, visiting places and researching material with which to build the next chapter. Some feel it's simply not work, but incredible pleasure derived from a pastime or undertaking that is so enjoyable it would seem almost sinful to be paid for. All that ... and money too?
What authors give society is impossible to price. True, it would be nice for us to be recompensed in some sort of 'fair' way, but most realize it's an unrealistic expectation. What authors give is time, creativity, talent and a gift for putting into words what can be felt, lived and loved. Let us not look at the most commercial and well-paid among us - let us instead look at the ones who donate freely of their time and talent, knowing it might never be noticed, let alone valued. Let us consider the truly amazing body of work created not because it might one day make millions, but because it might one day make a reader wipe away a tear, or chortle with delight, or sigh with joy.
Posted by Rosanne Dingli at 10:09 PM