Well, I did it. I joined the 21st century. I realise that probably happened when my books appeared as ebooks on Amazon. It might also have happened when I started being allowed to submit queries by email. Or, I might have considered myself ‘modern’ the first time I Skyped. But no, today outstripped all my other technological advances. Today I signed a Kindlegraph!
Why is writing a book like baking an upside down cake? Well let me tell you, this comparison only occurred to me while I was peering through my oven door at an upside down plum cake tartin.
Writing any book or story is very like baking. First we get all the ingredients together. When writing, this involves characters, settings, themes, timelines, researched information. Anything at all that we think might make for a tasty story is gathered up and kept close by. Then we need a way to put it all together. That’s the plot.
Just as with baking, things have to go together in the right order. Step by step, with appropriate timing, care and attention. If you mess with the method, you end up with a whole mess of quality ingredients that don’t come together as a complete, whole, product. Same with writing. You can have great characters, brilliant setting, even good dialogue but if you can’t combine them in a way that’s purposeful and easily digested, then none of those fab ingredients mean squat.
Lastly comes the baking process. Proofing, editing, redrafting and so forth. Anybody who’s ever baked knows that the oven must be at the right temperature when we submit our cake. Too much proofing and editing, and the story becomes generic, overly careful and tough to chew. Not enough attention to this final process, and the end result is sloppy. Those fine ingredients that are perfectly mixed and blended, need just the right heat (generally from an editor) to bring them to their ultimate perfection.
But that could be any cake, right? It’s not only upside down cakes that require all this tender loving care. You’re correct. However, this is why upside down cakes are unique and so similar to the writing process.
. With normal, right-way-up cakes, you can watch them through the oven door, even poke them with skewers to be sure they’re done. The end result with those babies is generally pretty certain. With an upside down cake, Even after the ingredients and plot are perfectly and cleverly baked, you still can’t be entirely sure. Will the fruit/toffee combo stick to the pan? Will it be soggy in the middle. Will the topping actually taste good post bake? With every upside down cake, the moment of ‘turning out’ has been, for me, a moment of prayer. “Please god let it be good. Pleeeeease let it work. Let them like it. ” That’s the bit that always makes me think of writing. As passionate and inspired as I feel while I’m writing, as helpful as my critique partners and editors are, in the end I always find myself praying. “Pleeease, let it work.” Because you never know until it’s turned out and eaten, pardon me, read!
Today I received a fabulous new review for Foley Russel and That Poor Girl, and naturally I cried while trying to read it out aloud to my hubby. That’s right, didn’t cry while reading on my own, I had to cry in front of others. Anyway, it got me to thinking about the relationship between writers and reviewers.
It’s a tenuous relationship. Less obvious than that between writers and editors or writers and publishers, but a relationship nonetheless. Still, I’m yet to figure out exactly how it all works. After all, I’ve read a lot of books that got great reviews and even won awards, but which I thought were nigh on unreadable. Too wordy, pretentious or abstract for me to actually care about either the story or its characters. By the same token, I’ve read books which were absolutely bagged by the reviewers but that I truly loved.
I think these discrepancies are proof positive that assessment of writing, like assessment of most art, is almost entirely subjective. Different people like different things. Some people adore Picasso’s ‘Blue period’ for example, me…not so much. It doesn’t mean the art is no good, it just means it’s not for me. Obviously, the more people who love something, the more likely it is that you will too, the creation has something about it that is generally appealing.
General appeal, or universal popularity, requires a large number of people to actually participate in assessing the work. That makes reviewers like treasure hunters. They find things that are as yet undiscovered, and start appraising it, which is a tricky job if you think about it; and I’m well aware that a reviewer’s opinion is not always right.
All that said, reviewers are readers and that’s why their opinion affects me. I want my readers to love my stories. I want to feel like I’ve created a little something special for them…and it thrills me when they say I’ve succeeded.
I learned from Danielle Ferries recently, that according to the BBC, ‘most people’ will only have read about six books from the list I’ll post below. I counted. I’ve read seventy of them from cover to cover (I think…as I scroll I lose count. So I can read but can’t count), some of them multiple times. It occurs to me now, that this is why nobody computes when, if asked a deep and meaningful question to which nobody can possibly know the answer, I often shrug and reply “forty-two”.
Aside from the obvious problem of having a sense of humour only I can appreciate, I’m glad I’ve read these books. There’s not one on the list I’ve read that I would consider a waste of time. Some, I would consider my all time favourites.How about you? How many have you read? Which were your favourites?
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34 Emma -Jane Austen
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – A.A. Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce (Couldn’t get through this one)
76 The Inferno – Dante
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
As children, my brothers and I were raised to believe that two of the worst social crimes we could commit, were showing-off and dobbing. When we became adolescents these crimes morphed to become sarcasm/condescension and gossip. I believe it’s this upbringing that has lead to my distaste for post-modernist navel gazing and jargon.
You can imagine then, how tense I become when I contemplate writers festivals. A room full of people who are used to being the cleverest in the room and who all have the words to prove it. Sometimes, I have trouble just deconstructing the schedule of events and I have even less chance of figuring out, from the (supposedly) descriptive blurb, what might be taking place within select workshops.
The Emerging Writers Festival (EWF) event that took place in Sydney on the 7th of November, was not an example of one of those events. The timetable was sharp, clear, easily read and eminently comprehensible. The location was easy to get to and provided lots of parking (What can I say? I’m a simple person and I appreciate the little things). The presenters were generally funny, smart, self-deprecating people who appreciated the invitation to present.
When it came to talking about what they do, these writers were honest and thoughtful. Chris Pash talked about how he wrote The Last Whale out of a sense of guilt. Bianca Nogrady gushed with enthusiasm for the environmental themes within The Sixth Wave. I could have hugged Gabby Stroud (Measuring Up)when she shrugged and said “I just write the story”. Later the story was tailored to a niche but mostly, the only thing she’ll take credit for, is writing the story. P.M. Newton (The Old School) was a proud crime writer, happy to talk about the facets of her field. James Bradley (The Resurrectionist – which I didn’t realise until after the festival, I have both read and enjoyed…)happily explained that no-one should ever take book business advice from him, while the Harlequin publisher was equally happy to explain why writing romance made perfect business sense.
I guess what I’m trying to tell you, is that not all writers festivals are full of psuedo-intellectual show-offs. Of course, over lunch and a glass of wine there was a lot of chatter about the process of writing, some metacognitive questioning and a little bit of navel gazing, but if you can’t talk about the process of writing while at a writers festival, then when?
Other people’s voices, questions, observations and thoughts have been buzzing in my head since I got back to my apartment last night. The buzz has survived a train trip, the flight home that saw me surrounded (I kid you not, SURROUNDED) by screaming children, my small child’s homework and the process of cooking dinner. That’s a good sign; it means the festival provided food for thought and I’m back feeling enthusiastic about what I do.
Of course, as with all things in life you must choose to take what you want and leave what you don’t. As such, the panelist, who at the very beginning session of the festival suggested “don’t go to writers festivals” shall be summarily ‘left’. I will be attending the next EWF because they have a lot to show-off!
Book Week isn’t until August but I’m already excited.
The Logan City Library has asked me if I’ll be their Young Adult author during book week. Presumably this means I get to talk to kids about books. How wonderful. Being that I love books, kids and talking, I think this is going to be a marvelous experience.
Book Week was always one of my favourite things when I was a kid. A whole week devoted to my favourite thing and the chance for that one week, to be an expert on something. Everyone has a specialty. Mine was never really Math and it was only sometimes English, but books, books and I were a match made in heaven. I was never without my head in one and there was always a spare ‘support’ book in my bag, just in case I should finish one more quickly than expected and then find myself bereft. Imagine, alone at a bus stop with nothing to read (gasp!).
Hopefully now, I’ll get the chance to pass on some of this passion to other kids, if not via my books, at least through my enthusiasm for other people’s work. And for those kids who already love books, maybe I’ll be a sign for them, that books can lead to great things, fun things and life full of wonder.
Yes, I’m excited. Now I just hope, I haven’t peaked too early!
No, I’m not talking about the delicious stir-fry I had for dinner last night. I’m talking about my proposal to the Auslib people. Auslib are a group of Australian library related people who specifically deal with young people. I rang them with the idea that I might be able to do a presentation at the upcoming conference on ‘re-engaging disenfranchised teens with books’. That sounds really boring, so it became “With A Bit Of A Mind Slip, You’re Into a Paradigm Shift”. Rocky Horror buffs like me will get a chuckle.
Anyway, the crux of the idea is that young people take up information and ideas differently than ‘us oldies’. Facebook, Myspace, Twitter and a myriad of other social networking sites now enable people to review products and books easily and quickly. Teens have become especially good at finding out what new technologies are great and what are not. ‘Viral’ images etc are a direct result of these social networking systems. ‘Viral’ footage is representative of what kids like and where kids are spending their time/money.
What does this mean for people in the book trade? It means we have to change the way we present our product to teens. These are my ideas so far:
- It’s not only about presentation and promotion: a dodgy product won’t go viral, so first, write a GREAT book.
- Present yourself to kids. Real people doing real things and being honest about it, is something kids can appreciate.
- Have an online presence. That’s where most kids spend lots of time nowadays, if you want to interact with them, you should be there too.
- Be happy to talk about what you do. In fact, just be happy, nobody’s interested in a sad-sack!
- Book networks are actually not networks, in fact they’re usually very linear, the writer->agent->publisher->bookseller. Kids work in networks, great big webs of interconnections, what does that say about the design of our process?
Any young ‘uns out there want to have a say? What should librarians and booksellers be doing in order to encourage you back to books?