I often wonder what happens to the characters at the end of a big plot climax. The vampires and werewolves eat each other, the alien spaceship is brought down, the centuries-old conspiracy of factions within the Catholic church is foiled (probably not all in the same book, although that does sound pretty cool). Our lovers run into each others’ arms at last… and then what? It’s all very well falling into bed with the rogue slayer/gruff CIA agent/Harvard symbologist, but what happens when you wake up with them?
Seriously, suppose the book ended and then you woke up with no albino monks trying to kill you, and you really looked at his hair.
My first book The Magpie Lord ends with a newly forged and fairly unlikely relationship, and quite a few unanswered questions. The sequel, A Case of Possession, kicks off four months later, with our heroes established in a relationship, even if it’s not entirely an easy one. So I thought it would be fun to hop back to the end of The Magpie Lord and look at the bit in between when everyone’s wondering what the hell they just got into.
The resulting short story, Interlude with Tattoos, is free on Smashwords and Goodreads as a small Christmas thank-you to all the readers who enjoyed the first book. I hope you like it!
Cover designed by Susan Lee, and isn’t it lovely.
NB: Interlude with Tattoos probably won’t make much sense if you haven’t read The Magpie Lord, so my advice would be a) rush out and buy The Magpie Lord right now, b) check out The Smuggler and the Warlord, a free Magpie prequel, or c) give up and read my standalone free short Butterflies instead.
A Case of Possession is out 28 January.
A couple of conversations I’ve had that left me wanting to slam someone’s head against a wall, possibly mine.
Me as author
Friend: But why write romance? Don’t you want to write something more literary?
Me: No. I like writing romance. And people buy it, which is more than you can say for a lot of literary fiction.
Friend: Well, I suppose, if you want to make money. I guess you can just knock them out for a quick buck, can’t you?
Me as editor
Me: Sorry, but you’ve delivered your MS much shorter than we agreed. I don’t think buyers will see it as value for money at the current length, and I think sales will suffer if we don’t make it a more substantial offering.
Up Himself Author: I think there are other, more important concerns than just the number of copies we sell. I don’t feel I can compromise on the quality of my work by padding it out.
For the avoidance of doubt: I do not just write for the money. Very few people are in that privileged position. On a time and motion analysis of effort vs reward, I think most authors would agree writing is a lot less lucrative than hanging around on junctions with a squeegee. I don’t publish books with nothing but a balance sheet in mind, either. To publish in the niche that Up Himself Author writes is a constant struggle. The list is constantly teetering on the edge of financially unjustifiable. I still do it, because it ought to be done.
Notwithstanding, I want my list to be profitable, and I want to make a living by writing. That means writing and publishing books that plenty of people will pay money for. Apparently that gives people (who presumably expect to receive a salary for their work) the right to sneer.
But the fact is: Yes, it is about sales, because sales are people reading my books, as author or editor. Sales are royalty cheques that will cover my childcare costs while I write in the afternoons. Sales are paying a good designer to do a great cover. Sales are my salary as an editor. Sales are what allow me to make a business case to publish the author’s next book. Sales may be what allow me to rejig my life to more writing and less paid work, rather than stealing writing time from my sleep and my family. Sales are what gets everyone else’s next book published. The extra 200 copies we’ll sell if Up Himself Author’s book comes in at a non-padded decent length will probably make a pass/fail difference when it comes to getting his next book accepted for publication by the editorial meeting.
You don’t have to care about sales. If you publish your stuff for free as a life-enhancing hobby and the fact that people read it is enough reward, that’s lovely. You are probably a deeply content person. But if someone – you, or a third party publisher – is paying money to get your writing out there, paying for editorial and cover costs and overheads and maybe an advance to earn out, and you genuinely don’t care about how many books you sell, you’re an idiot.
As if an author caring about sales somehow compromises the value of what they wrote. As if there’s something shameful about making something good enough that you can legitimately ask people to pay money for it. As if creation loses value when it’s given a price.
I do not think anyone is or should be above sales. ‘Commercial’ is not a dirty word. Book buyers are the most precious thing in the world: people who give their time and money for books, thus keeping writers and the publishing industry alive. Sneering at sales is sneering at book-buyers, just as much as not caring about quality of content and value for money is sneering at book-buyers.
And the next person to imply that I ought to write or publish without hope of financial reward had better bring proof that they work for free, or I will have words. For which, no charge.
So, as promised in the last post, a free short!
The delightful people at the Blog of Sid Love interviewed me the other day, since A Case of Possession, the sequel to The Magpie Lord, is out in Jan. There were lots of questions about backstory, one of which was a request to expand on the mention of a warlord from Crane’s past. (This plays a small part in Case of Possession but the eagle-eyed may pick up a mention in Magpie Lord as well.) So I decided to write a snippet about that.
And, because I [became fascinated with exploring my characters’ backstory / can’t shut up] (circle one), and also because I wanted to have a go at Merrick’s point of view, this snippet turned into a thousand word scene. Which is now up for you to read right here as ‘The Smuggler and the Warlord’. I hope you enjoy it!
I posted previously on the topic of teasers and backstory, when to reveal details and when to leave them for the reader’s imagination, and there was some really interesting discussion. In this case, I decided to reveal and expand. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
One of Terry Pratchett’s ongoing tricks with the Discworld has been ‘the idea whose time has come’. Some genius/evil force from the Dungeon Dimensions creates an oddly familiar invention and the population of the Discworld embrace it as though there was a hole in their experience and history and thinking that could only be filled by this new innovation.
As ever, Pratchett makes an excellent real-world point. There are some things which, once invented, are clearly things we’ve always needed, not just as useful items but as ways of thinking and doing.
Take that terribly simple innovation enabled by the internet: the book bonus feature. Back in the day, either you finished the story and drew a line under it or you wrote another full book. Snippets and ideas, little plot threads that didn’t fit in a novel, backstory that wasn’t plot-relevant: it all had to lurk in a notebook, unwritten, unread, waiting for an academic to pick you for their PhD. We the reader never got to find out what happened to that lovely pair of minor characters, or to see that offstage scene, or to find out where the hero had been before the book began – because none of that got written, or at least published.
And now, we can. In one of my favourite romances of the year, Glitterland, the hero makes a rather dramatic gesture. Because of the way the ending is staged, we never get to see the lover find out about this (which is structurally correct but a little agony for the reader). Except now there’s a free bonus feature with a post-ending scene so we can see his reaction. You don’t have to read it at all if you’re a ‘just the book’ purist, or you can wallow in it if you’re all teary over Ash and Darien. (I wallowed.)
This is on my mind as I have been spending the last few weeks writing shorts set in the world of The Magpie Lord. There will be a little taste of my hero Crane’s backstory in China, and a story that takes place two days after the ending of book 1. There’s also a print exclusive story set after the end of book 2, with another of Stephen’s cases of magical crime.
These aren’t plot-crucial. There’s nothing that will spoil a reader’s enjoyment if they don’t see it. They’re just bonus features, a little treat for readers who enjoy the characters, to deepen and broaden the experience of Magpie-world. If I wrote in a period before the internet, when there was no reasonable way to put out a 5000-word short just to amuse readers of the previous book, I wouldn’t have written them.
Here’s a funny thing, though.
The print exclusive story is happening because book 2, A Case of Possession, is a bit too short for print. My publishers are not the sort of skanky people who just mess about with font size and margins to stretch the text. (I speak as exactly that skanky publisher. I once made a 35K word text fill a 50K print length. Shame, shame.) However, book 2 is dedicated to my best friend, who ruthlessly insisted on seeing her name in print. So my publishers agreed that I could write a special exclusive story to make it work, and I muttered under my breath about lousy rotten friends and set off to come up with a story.
And as I wrote this unexpected thing, without any plan to fit it into the main flow of the characters’ ongoing adventures, I quite suddenly learned something about one of my main characters, Merrick. Something huge. Something that shines a completely new light on his backstory, and his relationship with Crane. Something that clarifies a massive plot difficulty in Magpie 3, which I am currently writing, and turns everything on its head, and enables me to go down a plot path that I’d been fearing and resisting because, until I knew this fact, it simply didn’t quite work – and now it does.
Magpie 3 will work in a completely different way to my original plan because of what I learned about Merrick in this short story. I don’t know if I’d ever have learned that about him if I hadn’t written it. I find that rather scary.
How often did a character remain unilluminated, a plot unexplored, because there was no opportunity to tell readers the story, and so the author never found out for herself? There’s no way of telling. But I’m glad I live in the age of the bonus feature. They’re useful little buggers.
The Smuggler and the Warlord will be exclusively on the Blog of Sid Love from 2 December. Interlude with Tattoos will be a free download from Smashwords and Goodreads from 10 December. I will probably mention it when they go live.
A Case of Possession will be out from Samhain 28 January 2014. I for one can’t wait.
Bonus features: do you love them, are you unexcited, or it is just evil modern nonsense?
I have a really great idea for a big fantasy novel. It’s got a nice concept, a whole developed magic system, a huge cast including three main characters who are flawed and sexy as all get out and two more decent ones who provide the moral and emotional grounding. It’s had two partial drafts adding up to 80K words so far, and it is stuck as a pig because I can’t find the right point of view to tell the story.
Seriously. I can’t make this story work because I have set about telling it from what turns out to be the completely wrong perspective, and it is killing me.
Let’s think about points of view, and if I don’t have a revelation by the end of this blog, I expect someone to solve it for me in the comments.
Written as ‘I’. I’ve done this a couple of times, in my free ghost/romance short story and in my forthcoming romantic suspense Non-Stop Till Tokyo. It’s immediate and direct, but it’s confining, in that you have to nancy around a lot to convey things the narrator doesn’t see/know, and it can be alienating to the reader if the narrator’s quirks and flaws are too prominent or unappealing.
It’s possible for first person to be distancing. The stylistic device of an ‘I’ telling the story can be very present, reminding you that you’re reading a book. (My narrators always end up addressing the reader and commenting on their own stories. That works in some cases, it wouldn’t for this.) Ditto where the narrator is unreliable or flawed, and the pleasure lies in working out what’s really happening.
Often the viewpoint character isn’t the main character of the story. To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, where Scout is really only a witness to the adult action, narrating an experience that the reader understand more than she does. Again, it works in some cases, not all.
I’m not, generally, a massive fan of first person in romance, even though some of my favourites (Widdershins and Glitterland) are first person. Mostly, I prefer to watch. And I find it a bit weird to have first person in thrillers, where the question of whether the main character will survive is generally answered by the fact she’s narrating her past adventure, unless you’re reading one of those really tiresome books narrated by a dead person. (You may ask why I wrote a first person romantic suspense, given all that, and I can only answer, Shh.)
You go to the shops. On the way, you see a kitten die, alone. You are oddly unmoved.
However, you are not a poncy American novelist c.1987, or a Fighting Fantasy choose-your-own-adventure author, and you reject this as unnecessary showing off with no obvious benefits. You really can’t imagine how this would work for a romance novel, especially one with sex, though you feel a sudden unholy compulsion to try, which you tread on heavily if you have any sense. You start to feel slightly badgered by the author telling you what you are thinking. You wish she’d get out of your face.
Single viewpoint tight third person
All told from one character’s in-head perspective. I love tight third. You get all the benefits of first person – immediacy, a single perspective leaving the other characters as mysteries – while being able to look around a bit more, and without the stylistic awkwardness of first person. It makes it a lot easier to write characters who aren’t very self aware, to comment and supply backstory. But it has the same problem as first person in a large-scale story: you only get a restricted view of the action.
This can be what you want, of course. I used single tight third for A Case of Possession, the sequel to the alternating-viewpoint The Magpie Lord, because in the first book I needed to track what was going on in both characters’ heads, while in the second, one character was the focus of the emotional development so we needed to stay with him. My forthcoming Think of England uses single viewpoint tight third because much of the story depends on that character not having a clue what’s going on in his love interest’s head, and the reader needs to be on that emotional journey with him rather than ten steps ahead.
Both drafts for my godforsaken Problem Project are in tight third, from the POV of a character who isn’t actually turning out to be the dead centre of the story (as with To Kill a Mockingbird but in third). I did this to handle the worldbuilding – introducing a character to a new world and have people explain stuff to him, and thus to the reader – but I am just now realizing why that was an incredibly dumb thing to do: Tight third has to be a character right at the heart of the action. You can’t have a witness narrator, s/he has to be a key actor. Otherwise you have two layers of distance – the author talking about Bob talking about Florence.
Multiple viewpoint tight third person
Switching from one head to another. This is useful when you need more than one perspective. Benefit: you can get deeper into the characters, from inside and outside, seeing them as they see themselves and as others see them. You get a broader view and can cover a wider story without the need for other characters filling in what’s happened offstage. Risk: head hopping.
Bob smiled. He liked it when Florence got angry and he hoped to make her even angrier in a moment.
Florence glared at Bob, wishing he would stop smirking. ‘Please pass me the paintbrush,’ she said, wondering if she could jam it in his face.
James walked in, thinking about his dog…
Story narrated from a non-character perspective, which can tell us what everyone is thinking and feeling and doing. Probably the easiest way to handle a big fat sprawling multi-character epic. But it can be distancing (you’re not in someone’s head) or revealing (the narrator knows all and thus can tell all) and it can make it hard to find a voice.
Bleak House alternates omniscient third with first person, keeping us engaged with Esther Summerson and puzzled by her mystery, while supplying clues and action and storyline to which she has no access. Plenty of books switch between omniscient and one or multiple tight third viewpoints.
So where does that leave me with the Problem Project? I have several characters with multiple interweaving relationships, in geographically and socially different locations. Two whose real motivations have to remain a mystery. One who will betray everything and everyone, hopefully including the reader. And a lot of worldbuilding to convey.
It’s starting to sound like I need alternating tight third perspectives (no omniscient narrator knowing everything, because I need to keep secrets, but several different POVs to give the reader the wide view and all the info). I still don’t know exactly who should be telling this story out of the extensive cast (the problem of picking the person to narrate out of a large cast is a post in itself), but now I can start to see a structure that will let them tell it.
You may even get to read this thing some day.
What’s your point of view preference? First, third, don’t notice? Do you need a viewpoint character in multi-character books? Like unreliable first-person narrators? Think I’m making a terrible mistake and should write this thing in second person, future tense? Thoughts welcome!
You’ve written a book. Woo! Now you want to get it to an agent, or a publisher, since you have your heart set on traditional publication. So you flick through the Writers and Artists Yearbook or what-have-you, and what do you see? ‘No unsolicited submissions. No unagented submissions. Not accepting new clients at this time.’
And you go through all the steps that people tell you – make it the best book you possibly can, research agents and publishers, follow the submission guidelines slavishly – and still nobody will even look at it, and now you’re getting desperate and frustrated and angry, too, because God damn it, you know your book’s at least as good as a lot of other published stuff. And surely there’s a way to bypass what seems like a set of arbitrary barricades…
At this point, some people turn to more extreme methods. As a commissioning editor, I have experienced all of the following. None of them have worked.
Fake an agent
Publishers want agents: fine, give them one. How hard is it to pretend to be an agent anyway? Mock up some letterhead, write a covering letter and away you go, agented submission!
Why it doesn’t work: Editors rely on agents to pick out good MSS from the pile. If I get approached by agents I haven’t heard of (and generally, editors have heard of agents in their field), I won’t assume they’re reputable: I’ll check them out. At best, the faker might persuade me he has a shonky one-man band agent, which is probably worse than no agent. Much more likely, I will know he’s lied to me. And I don’t much want to sign up a liar for a financial relationship.
(It may not feel like lying if you’re desperate to be published. It feels like lying if you’re wondering whether to invest several thousand pounds of your company’s money, many hours of your time, and your professional reputation in this person.)
Pretend the MS was requested
Dear KJ, Thanks for requesting my full MS THE UNLIGHTABLE BEINGNESS OF BEARS. I attach the full. To refresh your memory, you requested this 160,000 word novel set in a bear sanctuary…
Why it doesn’t work: I may struggle to remember my children’s names but, like most editors, I have a memory like a steel trap for MSS. I know damn well I didn’t request this. It goes into the recycling, while I stalk off to make an angry cup of tea.
Ask to be requested
For a thankfully brief period, my voicemail was full of messages that went, ‘Since you don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, please will you call me back and ask me to send mine in?’
Why it doesn’t work: Even though my company doesn’t accept unsolicited MSS, I still find about five a week on my desk. I always look at them, albeit mostly only at the first page. I have followed some of them up. I have even bought a few. I am happy to give five seconds of my time to an unsolicited MS, just in case. But I am not going to make a phone call and specifically ask for one out of the blue. The odds are too good that the goods will be odd.
Things people have included with MSS: glitter, confetti, sweeties, links to Jacquie Lawson ecards, topless photos, those pompom things with feet and googly eyeballs, perfumed paper (bonus points if it’s red), hand-drawn mocked-up cover art, CDs that I’m meant to insert into my work computer (yeah, right).
Why it doesn’t work: There is good noticing, like ‘Wow, what a great MS!’ and there is bad noticing, like, ‘Hey, that man has just got his penis out on the bus.’ The above suggestions are classified under bad noticing. The only positive thing to say about opening an envelope full of glitter is, ‘Well, at least it isn’t anthrax spores,’ and even that sounds pretty damn Pollyanna-ish. Don’t even talk to me about topless photos.
Don’t give up on your MS! Follow up! More!
In my last job I received a MS, which I rejected nicely, saying that it didn’t fit my list. The author sent it back to me six months later in case anything had changed. I rejected it again. A year later, he sent it in again, asking if it fit my list now. It did not. I then moved jobs to another publisher. The author got hold of my new email address, and, on the grounds that we have a working relationship, sent me the same MS for a fourth time.
Why it doesn’t work: There’s a fine line between ‘persistent’ and ‘stalker’. Plus, it gives the impression that you only have one story in you, and that is a story that I don’t want to buy.
You may still hear of people who got their MS read and then bought by one of the above methods. All I can say is, you don’t hear about the thousands of people whose MS was binned by an editor who is annoyed, bewildered, slightly alarmed, or swearing like a sailor while covered in glitter.
This post will not tell you how to do social media properly. I am in no way a high achiever in that field. In fact, I’m only slightly less unqualified to talk about the correct use of social media than about brain surgery. So I am not writing this in my capacity as author or editor, but purely as a reader.
I’m a painfully heavy book buyer. (When my husband and I last moved, the removal people estimated we had half a tonne of books. Matters have not improved since.) I download and read a sample off Amazon if a book or author even slightly piques my interest. If I like a book I will go through the author’s backlist like a cartoon chipmunk gnawing through a tree trunk.
And I love social media about books. I love seeing that an author I like has a new book out. I want to be linked to reviews that I might have missed, to see what other people are reading and recommending. I will cheerfully buy books because the author has an amusing Twitter voice, or a good blog, or has left interesting and pertinent comments on my blog, or seems like a fun person on Facebook. I want to hear about books!
And as a reader, I have had it up to here with hard sell.
Facebook and Twitter direct messages, without even exchanging a token civility, plugging books and demanding likes. Repeated announcements of how the book is doing in the Amazon sales rankings. Cross posting everything to Facebook and Twitter, so that people who were interested enough to friend as well as follow are now bored because they see everything twice. Automated repeated tweets. Automated repeated tweets. Automated repeated tweets.
The other day I checked Twitter on my phone and my entire visible timeline was one author plugging her book. A link to an Amazon review, an Amazon sales ranking, a boast that she had 50 reviews on Goodreads, another sales rank…There was not one amusing comment or interesting link to suggest she was a human being, not a book promo robot. Nothing to give me any value in following her. Pure relentless LOOK AT ME BUY MY BOOK. Which I won’t, because I am assuming her writing is as tiresome and clueless as her social media presence. Unfair? Perhaps, but if you can’t manage a thoughtful tweet or funny status update, why would I believe you can create 200 pages of good text?
Obviously, authors have to use social media for self promo. Obviously we all want to sell books. But you don’t do that by grabbing your potential readers and screaming in their faces.
I used to work with a sales manager, let’s call him Harry, who was the greatest salesman I’ve ever met. (He was once mugged on a train; by the time they got to the station he had got the muggers to give back his credit cards and negotiated a refund of £20 cash as well.) He sold books like you would not believe, and he did it by having a fantastic, funny conversation with the book buyer, then in the last five minutes of his half-hour sales slot, telling them frankly, “this book will go a bomb for you, this is underwhelming, this one will need hand-selling but it’s really worth stocking.”
In effect, Harry sold himself as a reliable, truthful, intelligent, funny man, and buyers trusted him to be as good value professionally as he was personally. He built relationships, and people opened their hearts and their wallets to him. Of course he was there to sell books, nobody was under any illusions about that, but he made it part of a larger human exchange. Buying anything from Harry got you a package that included hilarious stories, disgraceful gossip, bizarre anecdotes about celebrities, raucous laughter and a general sense of your day being the brighter for having met him. He made it worth your while to hear his sales pitch. And he sold good books.
We all have to sell books, I know. I just wish we could all do it like Harry.
Am I being unfair? What are your self promo hates? Got any better ideas on how to do it right?
(And talking of self promo, my free story Butterflies is available for download at Smashwords. Only if you like that sort of thing. No pressure.)
It’s my birthday, and I’ll cry if I want to. Which I do, because it’s the kind with a zero at the end. And a four at the beginning. Damn.
However, since a birthday is nothing without presents, I have a little something for you…
I wrote a short, scary (and somewhat sexy) story, The Caldwell Ghost, about a Victorian ghost hunter named Simon Feximal, journalist Robert Caldwell and a rather unusually haunted house. Then, because it turns out that writing Victorian pastiche gay romance ghost stories is really good fun, I wrote another one, Butterflies, in which Robert and Simon’s paths cross again when two bodies are found choked to death on butterflies. (I blogged over at Boys in our Books about the inspiration behind these.)
Cover design by Susan Lee.
The Caldwell Ghost is available from Torquere Press and at the usual places. But, because it’s my goddamn birthday, I’m making Butterflies a free download. Don’t say I never do anything for you.
I hope you enjoy it!
Catch up with me discussing romance and horror over at UK Gay Romance on Halloween, or talking about the inspiration for the stories over at Boys in our Books, or lurking in the pub pretending I’m still 39. You’re buying.
I’m writing scary stories at the moment. (I was meant to have written one scary story, but the characters kind of ran away with me and now I feel a novel coming on.)
My stories are the tales of a Victorian ghost hunter. Now, if you’re writing Victorian ghost stories, the master is MR James. ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad’ and ‘Casting the Runes’ are probably two of the greatest ghost stories in the English language, and if you haven’t read them, you should. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is available on Gutenberg or as a free download on Amazon.co.uk at the time of writing. Go on, get it.
James is a master of classic Victorian sinister trappings – the ancient tomb, the crumbling manuscript, the faces in the yew trees. But an awful lot of his worst horror comes from very domestic details. The thing in ‘Oh Whistle’ has ‘a face like crumpled linen’. Effectively, it’s a haunted bedsheet. It’s terrifying. In ‘The Diary of Mr Poynter’ the haunting comes through the pattern of the curtains. (Laugh it up, till you read it, and then decide to replace all your curtains with blinds, just to be on the safe side.)
The most sinister line James ever wrote is in ‘Casting the Runes’, where the pursuing force finally catches up with its unfortunate victim. He puts his hand under the pillow in the dark, and finds
a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it
That’s all. No long bloody passages dripping with gore, no mutilation, no vampire spider death cults, just a mouth, with teeth, and hair, under your pillow. It’s one of the most frightening stories you’ll ever read.
Talking of terror, here’s a passage from E Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle. This is a children’s book, but don’t let that stop you from feeling utterly unnerved by it. Statues walk the castle grounds at night, and there is a magic ring so sinister that you’ll be looking around hopefully for a giant eagle to fly you to Mount Doom. In the most memorable passage of this extremely memorable book, Gerald and his sisters have made a set of guys out of old clothes, broom handles, pillow cases, with painted paper bags for faces. Unfortunately, the creatures come alive (the ring again). And this happens:
. . . the hall was crowded with live things, strange things all horribly short as broom sticks and umbrellas are short. A limp hand gesticulated. A pointed white face with red cheeks looked up at him, and wide red lips said something, he could not tell what. The voice reminded him of the old beggar down by the bridge who had no roof to his mouth. These creatures had no roofs to their mouths, of course they had not. “Aa oo re o me me oo a oo ho el?” said the voice again. And it had said it four times before Gerald could collect himself sufficiently to understand that this horror, alive, and most likely quite uncontrollable, was saying, with a dreadful calm, polite persistence: “Can you recommend me to a good hotel?”
I read this thirty years ago. It terrified me then and it terrifies me now. And the reason it is so terrifying is that this creature, made of stuff lying around the house, behaves just like a normal person. If it was roaring and trying to rip Gerald’s head off, we could cope with that. The request for a hotel – a good hotel, mind you – is what makes the horror so dizzying.
Because, like so much else, fear begins at home.
I grew up in a house with a cellar. There was a door that I could see, out of the corner of my eye, from my seat at the kitchen table. The handle was a little loose. Sometimes, if my siblings were running down the stairs, it rattled, just a bit. There were eleven stone steps down to the hard-packed floor, and you had to turn round them to get to the far corner and the freezer. Which meant, in order to take anything from the freezer, you had to turn your back on the door. You could leave it wide, prop it open, but that didn’t alter the fact that you had to turn your back.
I knew that one day I would turn back and the door at the top would be shut. I knew, when that happened, it would not reopen. And if I ever return to that house, I can promise you I won’t be going into the cellar.
(There is a scene in The Magpie Lord where our heroes are thrown into a cellar to wait for death. I didn’t describe that cellar in the book, but believe me, I could draw you a picture.)
Not to say fear always has to come from the mundane. I like a good monster or a haunted-house tale with special effects as much as the next woman (my first ghostly story, The Caldwell Ghost, features a full-on haunting). But when I came to write my second ghost-hunter tale, I started with the most harmless thing in the world: a simple butterfly. Because it’s the little, innocent, normal things that get you in the end.
This week I learned that The Magpie Lord would be coming out in print. I am not a print snob – it’s a real book if people read it – but there is still something entirely delicious about the idea of putting a copy of my book on my shelves, and knowing that in years to come, the kids will pick it up and scream, “Ew! Mum, you wrote sex! That’s disgusting!”
Anyway, along with checking my print galleys, I’m required to put together a selection of review quotes. I’ll be honest, putting a bunch of nice reviews together into a single document is a whacking great ego boost, of the kind that causes you to wonder if it would really be that bad to get them printed up on, like, a mug, or maybe a T-shirt. But as I went on, it began to feel rather odd.
People have read this book and thought about it and applied serious consideration. People have embraced the characters, burrowed into their backstories, got in touch with me to ask about them. People have recommended it to their friends, sometimes with amazing enthusiasm, or even bought it for them. (! !!! Just … !)
Not to say that everyone loved it. Some people wanted to convey that there were very few spelling mistakes and the file was well formatted. Some people wrote really thoughtful reviews that analysed exactly why it didn’t work for them. Some people put a surprising amount of energy into explaining why they hated it.
I sat there, bewildered that so many people I’ve never met have found the time in their life to discuss my book. To tell the world, “here is a good book, read it”. Or “a bad book, avoid it”. Or “a book with no spelling errors, react accordingly”. I thought: That is one hell of a lot of work that people have put in on my book.
And then I realised that I was completely wrong to think that.
People have written about The Magpie Lord. Not “my book”. It stopped being “my book” when it was published, ie made available to the public. Once the book is out there, the interaction is reader/book, not reader/author. Robert Jackson Bennett wrote interestingly on this.
I did this for you, for you to read. I didn’t do this for me. And when you discuss something I made, what you are discussing is what you read, but not – and I really cannot stress this enough – it is not what I wrote.
… I cannot tell you if your opinion of me or what I wrote was wrong, even if I feel it obviously, obviously is: what you read is what you read, and I shouldn’t have any say in that.
There has been a lot of discussion, since the recent Goodreads kerfuffles, of negative reviews. What’s appropriate for reviewers to say, and how should writers respond? How much should you engage with reviews? Is that good social media behaviour, or unpleasant heavy breathing down the reader’s neck?
Well, it seems to me, if a review is part of an interaction between the book and the reader, then for the author to force her way in to that is like joining in someone else’s conversation on the tube. (I’m a Londoner. Having strangers speak to me on public transport is the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.) Anyone who’s read a published book, is entitled to comment on it as they choose (within the confines of the law) – positive, negative, overwhelming joy, seething hatred, total indifference. And unless they actively invite me in to their conversation with the book by bringing it to my attention/talking directly to me, I think I should keep out of it. Much as I want to leave grateful comments on every positive review or send round black-clad chocolate delivery ninjas to everyone who said something nice; tempting as it might be to respond to someone who said something that wasn’t. I think I just have to put it out there, let people get on with it, and concentrate on writing the next one.
What do you think? Should authors interact with reviews or keep a distance?