The Three Novel Problem

Four words writers fear most from a potential reader: So what’s it about?

If someone were to ask me to summarize a novel, one I have been spending the last 3+ years committed to, I’d like to think I wouldn’t disappoint them. Surely not if I had my synopsis written down, all agent-submission prepared. And yet, responding to a question about themes, or deeper meanings, well, I’d be struggling. The same would apply with my last two novels. But at least I would be in good company, for that is what acclaimed novelist Cixin Liu (The Three-Body Problem) was tasked to do by a reporter; questions about his fiction sourced from a Chinese mid-grade school text book. He got them all wrong. In his defence he responded: “I don’t begin with some conceit in mind. I’m just trying to tell a good story.” As a multi-million selling author his work, of course, has been well analysed.

Since, it’s fair to say, my work hasn’t been I can produce most any answer and sound convincing. So my sympathy goes out to Cixin Liu. Much of creative writing operates on a subconscious level. For me, it’s about progressing the story, making it interesting and entertaining. And just good. Maybe some big issue of the day influences my protagonist’s actions and dialogue or even the story arc. But to suppose there is some profound plan behind the plot, or intentional allegory, is to ascribe a level of awareness beyond anything I’ve managed to attain.

My problem now has been unearthing the central themes and deeper meanings of my novel to pitch in a submission. I could say it’s about the nature of time, of memory; sentience; lost love; obsession; displacement; isolation; loneliness; the dangers of technology, of power; the need to find a greater purpose; sacrifice. I’d be tempted to say: it’s about all the things that matter in contemporary life transposed into a future universe. For all that would achieve.

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

Time Over (UK) Time Over (US)

http://www.adriankyte.com/

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Writer’s block – me?

Writer’s block is not something I used to believe in. If you were stuck, I thought, it was simply due to a lack of effort; a block can always be navigated around.

Now at the quarter way point into my latest novel I am struggling to write more than eight hundred words in a week. It seemed the best cure is to seek inspiration, find a book that resonates with what I am hoping to write. So I turned to a classic: Flowers for Algernon. It was not that I wanted to write a similar book (my protagonist is brain boosted from an early age to fulfill a top secret project). But in reading this SF masterwork I was in awe at some of the writing – the depiction of a man who goes from ‘retard’ (yes it’s an old book with outdated terms) to ubergenius, and the interweaving of a tragic love story.

So how can I even hope to compete with such a science fiction classic, I wondered to myself. Well, for a start there is no point in writing something comparable that can only end up as a pastiche. I have to find my own voice, the one that distinguishes my style of writing.

And yet. I see the standard. I see the level of the bar and feel my limbs go weak at the thought of trying to vault it. This is the problem of when – as a writer – you encounter another writer who you know has set an example, one you imagine could be used by the literary agent that rejects your latest.

So somehow I have to not fixate on writing a classic. There’s maybe some analogy in sport, or academia; observing the star talent and thinking: why should I even bother to compete? But no one can know the effort, or the time, the greatest put in to become just that.

Then, be positive? Of course, but it’s always a challenge!

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

Time Over (UK)     Time Over (US)

http://www.adriankyte.com/

Rejection and Beyond

One good thing about rejection: it focuses the mind. Makes you realise how much getting published matters.

After three years of writing, rewriting, and rethinking, I submitted my novel to an agent. And then soon regretted it, but none so much as now. Yet another revision was needed. The synopsis was, frankly, badly written. I’d made the mistake of setting myself a deadline (to send it off just before my holiday). Deadlines are dangerous!

It was not that the agent left a critique – they rarely give feedback, but said he had to completely love a book to take it on. Not a high bar to clear? Well of course it always is. Confronted with hundreds of submissions a month I’d be rejecting all too readily, probably much of what ends up being traditionally published to great success. Even if all was in my chosen SF genre.

My rejection happened after more than 3 months since submitting it. Really, by then I’d reconciled myself to the fact that it would not be accepted. Then I saw the email had appeared, and I must admit to being afraid to read it for a while; a prepare-yourself-to-be-stung moment. But after so much time, to receive a short rejection borders on insulting. Maybe it got left in a must reject folder with a time-code, and he thought leaving it this late would lessen the blow. No it doesn’t! Ten weeks has previously been the longest wait, and they said they had been giving it careful consideration.

But it’s never a bad thing to have to go back to a previous (apparently) finished work after a few months, even in a state of despondency. You see it with completely fresh and certainly more critical eyes; whereas before, you’re still emotionally caught up in that grand literary project. Hardly surprising after over 3 years of it.

Still, I learned not set myself a deadline for the next submission. Just keep on with the next grand project.

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

Time Over (UK)     Time Over (US)

http://www.adriankyte.com/

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)

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)

Reflections on Rejections

Surely it’s the time most writers dread: those weeks (and sometimes months) waiting for a reply from an agent. After analyzing the odds, the percentage of submissions rejected, I defy any writer not to be worried. Or to not feel despondent when the rejection does come.

Personally I’d reject most of what I see, not just from debut authors but a lot of professional writers. But then I’d make a bad literary agent: too quick to judge, not being open to something that seems unconnected with my life on any easily accessible level. In particular, science fiction (which, actually, I mostly read) can seem forbidding initially. And, perhaps like most readers, I also rely too much on reviews and reputation. The challenge these days is finding something new and special among the sheer welter of books.

Now that my own work is out there to be assessed by those who are still thought of as the gatekeepers to the literary world, I’m wondering if what i’ve submitted is going to be judged so hurriedly. It would be interesting to know the exact process of each agent: how much is determined by that first page, chapter or synopsis – where I feel I’ve already failed (see Synopsis Hell).

After my last book Time Over had been rejected a few times, I did some rewriting then self published. How tempting it is these days to just give up on the traditional route. Because rejections are troubling if not painful; you read into each word, wondering what s/he truly felt behind the polite or diplomatic language. Well, I guess I have more of that to look forward to in the near future.

http://www.adriankyte.com/

 

Finally Submitting

…that precious manuscript to an agent is probably the most delayed action in every writer’s life. At least once you’ve had the experience of rejection. You never feel adequately prepared, remembering – in my case – more than one example when I sent an MS off to an agent only to later bitterly regret it. Oh, no wonder they rejected it, it was inevitable, I think to myself with typical 20/20 hindsight. And yet at the time my novel seemed perfectly honed, that covering letter just right. But if only I’d given it a bit more time. So won’t be rushing to send it off now, whether post or email.

Not that rejection could definitely have been avoided. I might be fooling myself into thinking the work had commercial potential if only I’d got the presentation right – the pitch, or made that change to the first page and chapter. Fact is, there are always things you think could have been done better, but you have to eventually move on to the next one. Science fiction is especially tricky when you’re pitching it through a synopsis; it can seem to get bogged down in fantastical-seeming detail which requires too many words to explain why in fact it’s not so fantastical.

I don’t think any author can really know what will meet with wider approval. Even those who are supposed to be objective about these things can often get it wrong. And usually their default judgment is negative.

Here’s an extract from a Guardian interview with this year’s Booker winner Marlon James, who had one novel rejected 78 times.

“No! No,” he says, shaking his head, as if it is the question that is mystifying. “This is why I tell students when they ask for advice, if you’re a writer, you have to believe in yourself.” He bangs accompaniment to the last three words with his hand on the table. “Because if you’re a writer, you’re going to come across that moment where you’re the only one who does.” He sounds freshly disappointed when he adds: “And I failed that test.”

 

http://www.adriankyte.com/