The Function of Fiction

…is to make my life better.

At least I look for a novel to make me feel better. But maybe of late my demands have become unreasonable. Should its purpose be to solve my problems, to find answers to unresolved (if not unresolvable) issues?

A good story is no longer enough. Now it’s difficult to find a book to fill that void; reading the blurb, the first few pages, or even the reviews may only give a clue in my search. Just as well, then, I’m not a literary agent!

So my own work should be aiming for such an exemplary standard, right? The only problem is, if you use your novel for laying out a psychological fix it can come across as indulgent. It shouldn’t be therapy. But that’s how it can feel. There’s only the hope that others will relate to the protagonist’s issues. Of course sometimes that happens – and you’re on to a winner! Some of my most inspired writing has come from a dark place.

I’ve never been sure if fiction should always have a function beyond entertainment. If its enjoyable then that’s a lot; humorous or just fun – it’s a big achievement by the author!

Yet I can’t seem to pin down the ultimate value of fiction. In a novel you can be in another person’s shoes – they don’t have to be the hero or even relatable – and understand their thoughts and feelings in a way that’s usually only hinted at in movies. A novel gives you knowledge interwoven in the narrative rather than merely dry facts; though so much of mainstream [so-called] Science Fiction has steered away from the scientific, of late. Well maybe that’s fine if it’s entertaining, if it makes you feel better.

Since I am writing the kind of books I like to read it’s impossible to be sure if I am writing for anyone other than myself.

Links to my fiction:  The Captured (US)  The Captured (UK)

Time Over (UK)     Time Over (US)

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Can you try too hard?

To not give maximum effort goes against conventional wisdom. To try your best, fail, and try again, and only give up when there’s nothing left – maybe at the point of death. But what does that mean in the process? Perhaps it means living with an obsession, letting it rule your life if not your time; shaping you into someone who, while viewing yourself as focused on a goal, is seen by others as self-isolating, or maybe even selfish (or likewise self+ words). Anyone who is trying to make it as a successful writer will understand this single-minded drive. It is your life’s purpose, everything you do, hear, read and experience in whatever way can surely feed The Writer, influencing all future creative endeavours.

But how about simply letting go?

I tend to obsess about things as a matter of course. Often trivial, it might be something I’ve lost: such as a door key I was certain had to be somewhere nearby in the house, or that pocket radio I lost in my back garden. And then only recently when for no particular reason glancing down on the ivy-covered end of lawn just behind that chair I last remembered seeing it on, there it was! So obvious – its little white plastic case and headphones in tact. But surely I’d already looked there? Had looked everywhere else; had put way too much time and effort into finding this old radio I could easily live without. The same kind of thing happened with the key: only after I’d finally resigned myself to not finding it, even got another one cut, suddenly – of course it had to be there!

So perhaps you can focus too hard or too narrowly on a goal.

Trying for perfection was what ultimately put me off art: the painting/drawing was never finished. The same is near enough true for my novels. And also thinking I’d never put enough work into selling them to an agent, despite that in-depth synopsis and overall summary and theme, expounding my grand scale ambition and inspiration behind it all; how what they’re getting is the complete package – the novel, me and the irrefutable potential therein. I mean, how could they possibly reject me after all that?

I don’t want to make an argument for being careless or mediocre (though so much mediocrity has been successful) or not giving your best. I just think there’s something to be said for taking a step back and seeing it’s not so vitally important; or just getting away from it, maybe when the work is becoming frustrating. Easier said than done though, from my experience! But that is accepted advice in the creative stage of writing – ideas often coming when you’re not trying to think them up.

Links to my fiction:  The Captured (US)  The Captured (UK)

Time Over (UK)     Time Over (US)

Sales! Sales! Sales!

How far would you go to publicize your book?

I recently got a chance to promote a non-fiction book written under a pseudonym; an offer to do a radio interview, although the interview would have only covered one rather embarrassing theme of this memoir/travelogue. I told her my story might not be suitable for broadcast (on daytime national radio) but was happy for the book to be discussed. I even admitted not wanting to reveal my true identity. Besides, there seemed no clear opportunity to make a subtle (or not) plug. But there was just that chance – so i’d taken it initially by texting them. I still wonder: would it have been worth the risk for the sake of extra sales? Fortune favours the bold, I think someone once said.

There is the more conventional route I’ve tried for my novels. Once upon a time I believed the most difficult achievement of being an author is completing the book, until i tried to get it accepted by an agent. Never mind if the novel is any good; one mistake and you’ve blown it. At least that’s how it can feel. But only one thing matters ultimately: sales! If you’ve written a masterpiece no one reads – or pays to read – then that can be nothing other than a failure.

So is there any magic formula to ensure sales? There is, of course, the standard combination, as follows. Front cover; synopsis/blurb; timing; price; content. I used to believe those were the elements that mattered – in that order of importance.

But how about serendipity? Capturing the zeitgeist? The right person can make all the difference, be they avid reader with lots of friends, or a celebrity who happens to like what you’ve published and makes it known – chooses you amongst the millions of others who hardly get any recognition.

Sometimes it can feel like a lottery, the luck of being noticed. And with any lottery you only learn about the lucky ones. I am not one of the lucky ones, and certainly have not written this or any other blog from the standpoint of someone who has made it and wants to share his wisdom with the aspiring writer, but as someone still trying to succeed in a competitive market.

Well, for many, there comes the point when there is no choice but to put that finally re-drafted book out there in the hope that it will get noticed. The matter of timing might be important for maximum sales. For me, I’d rather not submit anything be it to an agent or a publisher, or for the sales market, at this time of year (May). Spring into early summer is probably the worst time to feel embittered. I’d rather just enjoy what pleasures nature brings. If I’m going to be facing disappointment then maybe early autumn (October is generally my least favourite month in UK south – so all the better to relax into the misery of it), or mid winter. But is there ever a good time to risk failure?

http://www.adriankyte.com/

Links to my fiction:  The Captured (US)  The Captured (UK)

Time Over (UK)     Time Over (US)

Cover Design Quandary

How much difference does a front cover make to sales of a novel? Given the volume of new books published, combined with the millions of existing titles, I would say a big difference. If the author is not famous or lacks a dedicated online following you’ve got to try every trick in the, em, book to catch the attention of the time-poor viewer. In my own case about a second.

I’ve been troubling with the challenge of grabbing attention for my own novel, The Captured. The first cover design – by myself – I grew to hate: It somehow looked simultaneously clever and amateurish, suggesting “this is not your conventional presentation of a Science fiction novel.” Not that even I’m sure what the conventional standard is, let alone what’s appropriate. So I changed it but kept a minimalist design. Changed it within the constraints of using free software. But I’m still not entirely happy with it – not professional enough. Then it has to be worth considering getting a professional to design it.

Subgenre-ization (if that can be a word) should make front cover design easy for SF. Except mine doesn’t easily fit into any of those. Can we blame Amazon for such pigeon-holing? I’m sure that works fine for most authors and readers. I guess there’s no perfect solution. For a start you can often guess the demographic the novel is aimed at within a second, though it can all become homogenized (dystopian SF anyone?) where you might wonder about its originality.

In the last decade literary novels have tended more to use ultra minimalist front covers, whereas genre fiction more commonly features fine artwork and detailed illustrations. Taking the minimalist approach, then, might seem pretentious; but going for the elaborate, and highly descriptive, artwork is a time – and possibly money – consuming exercise, which can give a false impression if it’s not judged just right.

So how much does a front cover matter? Well, if you’re already a famous author, not all that much – as your books are far less likely to be merely stumbled upon. For the 99.9etc percent of us writers it is the quickest portal to our undiscovered masterpiece work.

Links to my fiction:  The Captured (US)  The Captured (UK)

Time Over (UK)     Time Over (US)

When and where to finish

At the start the thought of reaching 100,000+ words seemed like the equivalent of scaling one of the higher Himalayan mountains; a mind-boggling feat that was best not contemplated. Just one step at a time. A slow journey for me with so many distractions if not setbacks. But no excuses, because no one asked me to do this. So if I failed it was only me to be disappointed.

To extend the mountain analogy (perhaps to excess): I mostly seemed to be wading through low clouds and finding myself lost. But occasionally they would clear to reveal a landscape that while unfamiliar had features I could pick out, which combined to be something meaningful. Then finally reaching what seemed like the top but under a misty haze, though still seeing way below and feeling I could go no farther. Still, the happy relief of a load removed and a kind of jadedness from struggling my way through the difficult bits (of which there were many) impaired any perception of reality. So it’s better leaving time to recover before coming back down. Before attempting that second draft.

It’s not uncommon to write a third or fourth draft. Somehow details are missed, inconsistencies. (Funny how glaringly obvious errors have escaped my attention even after 3-4 read-throughs!) I’ve been accused of writing disjointed chapters, so am careful now to keep everything tied into as tight a narrative as the story allows. But there’s always the chance of some fundamental flaw which makes that impossible. Too early to tell. This is still the time to have – faith. Meanwhile: take a break of at least a month, maybe another project, and then face the sobering reality of how this latest novel fails.

Links to my fiction:  The Captured (US)  The Captured (UK)

Time Over (UK)     Time Over (US)

Being in Control

The one big advantage of self publishing is having total control of your final output. No editor to ‘kill your darlings’ – drawing metaphorical red pen lines through your precious finely crafted text. Yes surely the reader has the time and patience to read that digression so integral to your protagonist, their back-story.

While the self publishing route can seem like a recipe for an unrestrained and undisciplined (and unchecked) writing sprawl, it represents creative freedom. I’m surprised what is allowed to remain in the books from big-name publishers of big-name authors – those with past acclaim. One rule for them? The difference is that they have garnered the trust of readers who know the book is worth sticking with through all the flabby parts. Not that I’d claim to be a great editor. Certainly self-editing has been a problem. It’s never easy to see the wood for the trees when it concerns your own novel.

It always seems as if traditional publishers/agents are looking for the next big thing that is similar to the last, but fresh. They state what they prefer, mentioning particular authors. So somehow you should be like them and yet original, as if there this finely tuned skill known only to writers of a certain talent. That can feel dispiriting. Even if you admire said author, hold them up as an ideal, what you produce can only ever be a sub-version of theirs. Yet to claim “I am an original, and I aspire to no one,” can just seem like arrogance.

If, from those gate-keepers, examples of their ideal fiction is only meant as a guide then perhaps they should state that. Or maybe they should be more open-minded to the possibility that the next big talent may come out of left-field, and surprise everyone.

Thanks for reading.

http://www.adriankyte.com/

Fear & Hope – a revision of…

I’m owning up to my biggest fear: Rejection. Not just any rejection, but from someone whose response would matter more to me than anyone. A certain literary agent.

Rejection is not unfamiliar to me now, having plunged into the dispiriting reality of the querying/submission process. So I’ve decided to take the safe option and not submit my work to this person. I’m sure some would say that’s a wise choice given previous failures. It’s surely dangerous to conflate a personal (I’m reluctant to use the word romantic here as that would seem to be getting carried away) preference about a person with an objective regard for how suitable they’d be to work with. But especially when only based on a photo and a short description of the type of fiction she likes. Is it even better for them to publish a picture, one professionally taken, no doubt? Images are so powerful, especially the human face. It’s difficult not to read character into a portrait photo, believing to be uncovering some essence – some truth. And sometimes we are led to do so. Pictures are deceiving, Photoshop and its ilk the creators of illusions manipulating our most innate judgements.

Anyway. If there truly is something sublime about this person, then to be rejected by her (even if it is only for a work of fiction) feels more personal. It will hurt!

Of course such a reaction is not rational. They say develop a thick skin, or you’ll never succeed. After all, it is not actually me that is being rejected. But a lot of it comes down to these two questions: How much is your work is representative of who you are? And: How important are the preferences of the person that can hold the key to you success – and potentially happiness?

These questions are difficult to answer and can maybe be explored in a future post. But suffice to say, even when you thought you’ve avoided autobiography, it somehow creeps in under the radar. The work is never a thing in isolation.

So, I hope I will not be left that one difficult dilemma. I hope another agent will accept my submission. Otherwise I may end up plumbing the depths of that vast murky ocean of self publishing, and never be discovered. Okay, that negative view is a grim exaggeration for effect. Personally when looking for a book online, traditional or self-pubbed is not something i even notice. To stretch a metaphor, maybe that murky ocean is finally clearing to reveal its treasures.

Revised version of a previous post.

My author website: http://www.adriankyte.com/