Thursday, 9 October 2008

Cofee Break: Back to the Future

Hello! Good to see you. Make yourself comfortable; have a browse through the books whilst I get the drinks (yes, Wordtryst, I do have some cold drinks this time. There’s even some cheap Calvados from my holiday for anyone who needs something stronger). With all the financial turmoil this week I’ve been wondering what the effects will be on all of us as writers so this morning’s topic is about where we go from here.

I’m starting by looking back; I’ve been revisiting my books this week – both reading and writing. There’s a very pretty Bloomsbury Classics edition of ‘The Great Gatsby’ on my shelf which has done nothing more than look decorative for years. I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel in my early teens and it left me completely unmoved. I’m definitely not an advocate of age-related reading but when I picked ‘Gatsby’ up again this week I was mesmerised and couldn’t help wonder if life’s rough and tumble had made me more appreciative of what I was reading. I’ve always felt that timing is a key ingredient to a novel’s success and maybe it’s not just about finding receptive readers but about capturing the zeitgeist too.

That prompted me to think about the longevity (or not!) of my own writing. I like to write small; small communities, small (but hopefully universal) conflicts and plenty of contemporary references. In view of everything that’s happened this week I’ve not only got some rewriting to do but also some rethinking; maybe my preoccupations with the ebb and flow of everyday lives won’t stand up in a world of seismic shifts? How does your stock look in today’s market?

Finally, I guess that it’s going to get even harder for all writers, apart from the big brand names, to get publishers to take a chance on them. Unless, of course, you happen to come up with the next Big Thing. The talk of the ‘literary blockbuster’ this summer seems to be reflected in the 2008 Man Booker shortlist described by its Chair as being ‘intensely readable’ with ‘fine page-turning stories’. Seems everyone wants to be loved - or rather, sell. So what’s going to next big trend in the new recession? Sex and shopping ‘bonkbuster’ anyone?


liz fenwick said...

Oh, good topic.........there is talk that certain types of books go up during a down turn - crime and romance. I know one is for the escape and feel good and maybe the other to kill the boss????

I do think some books need us to be a certain age to appreciate them and certain rereading you see many different things. Or maybe it's just that different things matter. I am having a senior moment because i know there was something I reread recently that struck me this way but can I think of it. However I remember reading the Hobbit when I was 13 and loving. Having reread it with the boys I realized that I only 'got' a small fraction of the book.

A friend who read AR was she was disappointed with it - not that she hadn't liked it. At first i was crushed then she explained that she had expected more of me - she wanted the me she knew in person to explore bigger issues. At the time I thought I want to write things to escape.

Now having rewritten ACH I realize what she was getting at. I hadn't been willing to put me and deeper issues on the pages of AR so it is just a nice story. However I bled into ACH and it is about bigger issues other than the obvious clash between a teanager and a step-mum. However because it is me writing it has a happy ending :-)

I think if you define yourself as a commercial writer, which is what i am striving for, then longevity doesn't go with title. Your shelf time alone prohibits it unless the fairy dust has really been poured on you.

Good luck with the rewrite. I have had the professional crit back of ACH so i had some tweeking to do before I start subbing again!

Debs said...

Great post, Chris. I've also read that people prefer different books in times of crisis. They either read to feel that their life is better than the characters in the book or to aspire to them in some way.

Personally, working in finance and having had a rather busy week, pure escapism is what I'm after right now.

I've found that my tastes change depending on where I am in my life. When I've gone through emotionally difficult times, I've enjoyed lighter material, yet when my life is more relaxed I enjoy something grittier.

I think there are very few writers and books that can hold their own over a long period of time and although I'm aiming to write commercially, I also like to think that I can keep producing books that grow with me and fit in to what is wanted in the market at the time.

I've read a couple of blockbusters recently and have to say that they were enjoyable and rather reminiscent of the eighties, so maybe we will be seeing these gain a bit more of a momentum now.

Enjoy the rewriting.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Right, I've equipped myself with a large black coffee. Why break with tradition?
I think I can break things down into two components: Theme and content.

The content of any piece of fiction is going to be fixed in whatever time period it was written about; whether that's the past, the present (soon becomes the past anyway), or the future (might get there one day but many possibilities). This doesn't particularly matter. In fact, it may add realism to the story.

The theme, on the other hand, can potentially be a bit of a problem. If the actual theme of your story is fixed in the present (time you write it), then it may become out-of-date by the time it hits the shelves, or later on, causing sales to plummet. That would be a real shame.

Ahem! *slaps own face to wake up from dream*. This is why I would like to try to stick to themes that are as timeless as possible. Well, apparently there are only seven plots anyway, so that shouldn't be difficult. Should it?

A quick look at my own projects, past and present, reveals that I should be okay. Phew. There's one or two possible fixed-in-time themes, but they wouldn't be too difficult to adapt.

Great topic. It made me review the themes of my projects, which is always a good thing.

Clare Sudders said...

Oh God yes, I've been worrying a bit about how global economic meltdown might affect my career. I've assumed it'll make it even harder to get published. It's Frankfurt Book Fair next week, and my agent is there trying to plug my book, and I've been wondering if people will be buying less than normal.

My mother's writing career was killed dead by the last major recession, so I'm particularly aware of it. She published one mid-range kids' book (8-11-yr-olds) per year for fifteen years, then recession it in the 80s, she was dropped by her publisher and she hasn't been published since. It still makes her sad.

As for trying to catch the zeitgeist... I wouldn't even bother to try. It's so hard to guess what will sell, and even if you pick up on flavour of the month, the process of writing and publishing takes so long that by the time you're in print, you'll be out of date. Also, you can't be very cold-blooded when choosing what to write about. You have to write about moves you, or it just won't work.

The only crumb of comfort is that apparently escapism soars during times of crisis, so that, for instance, during the 30s the films were all happy-go-lucky tales of promise. People want to bury themselves in a book and dream of something better. Which ought to mean that the publishing industry survives the turmoil. And you don't all have to start writing about doom and gloom.

Basically, although the competition may increase, the rules are the same as always: Write the best damn book you can, and be true to yourself.

Rowan Coleman said...

oh my, good topic but a scary one. I am reliably informed that people read more and watch more telly during bad times likes these, but yes publishers and bookshops are businesses too and I think the financial situation could potentially affect many writers, published and unpublished alike as they all tighten their belts and rely on the big names to get them through. Like you Chris, my books mainly concern a small but universally recognisable stage, they are often romantic, (especially the one I've just finished, for some reason) hopefully funny and sometimes a bit sad. Do I imagine that my work will still be being read in a 100 years time, no I do not. Do I hope my books will still be being published in 10 years time - yes I really really do because like Clare's mum the alterntative would make me very sad. What can we do in times like this? Well I'm not sure, a friend who just read the page proofs of The Accidental Family would like me to write a lead character that is as funny and witty as one of the side characters in that book. So perhaps I'll give it a go. Perhaps laughter in the face of a credit crunch is what the public want!!

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

I've just been reading 'Aspects of the Novel' by EM Forster (highly recommended), which was first published in 1927. The introduction to the 2005 edition was written by Frank Kermode. He mentions that many novelists in the early 20th century, e.g. Henry James and Joseph Conrad, found difficulty in reconciling the novelist's art with the 'financially desirable feat' of giving readers an entertaining experience. I find it reassuring to think that the problem we're facing is not a new one.

Chris, I think you raise some very interesting questions. My view is that there is no certainty in the writing game, recession or no recession. If we wanted certainty we might have chosen to be bankers instead of writers, and look where that would have got us! There is no good reason to write other than for the love of it. Yes, we all hope for good publishing deals, but we write because we love it, or we'd never have got this far. I haven't a clue what the next big trend will be (I'm hopeless at that kind of thing) but I'm inclined to agree with Clare that the important thing is to for us to write the books we want and need to write, as well as we can.

Kate.Kingsley said...

Do you know, this hadn't even ocurred to me until you raised the issue ~ but I guess major lifestyle shifts are ahead for a lot of people and book-buying may be one of the luxuries that gets ditched in the pursuit of thift. Major business such as publishers will be looking to appear as economy conscious as possibly, and that can't be good news for new authors.

My gut response to this is to ignore it and hope it all goes away sooner rather than later (i.e. my approach to the whole credit crunch scenario!). I'm a political ostrich!

Leatherdykeuk said...

Good topic!

I think I missed the boat with urban fantasy, hence my problems finding an agent now. There are trends - I just can't predict them!

KayJay said...

I'm reassured to learn that people read more books in times of recession. Although the way publishers organise their lists so many years in advance, perhaps all our recession reading is already mapped? Or am I being naive about how long this is all going to last?

I think Liz hits it on the head with the idea of a limited shelf life for each book for commercial writers. It's bound to be true in the vast majority of cases. I hadn't really thought about this too deeply in relation to my own work. The first draft of the novel that I'm just about to complete (yay!) is definitely contemporary - especially in regards to the dialogue. I fear that like the milk in my tea, it might be slightly 'on the turn'. Hmm...I'll bear it in mind for the rewrite...

Anonymous said...

The world of the paranormal would be a good trend as far as I'm concerned! At least it might give me a chance!!

CJ xx

ChrisH said...

Hi everyone,
Many thanks for coming along and making the last two weeks of my 'coffee breaks' so enjoyable,. Quite a difference in the level of response between my 'feel good' post last week and my 'feel bad' post this week... maybe I should have done them the other way round but today's economic news has been even more dramatic than I expected.

That said ALL the contributions have been really interesting and thoughtful (well, what else!). Thank you so much for joining in the debates and thank you all for your time.

Lane said...

Sorry to be so late. It's been one of those days.

Like you Chris, I write small. Tiny even but hopefully with fairly universal themes and things your average reader can relate to. If the next big thing is sex and shopping bonkbusters, I'm way off! Literary blockbusters too.
Never mind, as Clare has said, we can only keep doing what we're doing and do the best we can.

They say lipstick sales soar in a recession. Damn lipsticks. Buy books!

Have a good weekend chaps and thanks Chris for hosting.

wordtryst said...

Chrish, thank you muchly. A long cool drink is exactly what I'm needing right now. Came by here earlier but couldn't comment as scary employer arrived and sat there expecting me to, you know, work.

My tastes at any moment mirror Debs' pattern: light when I'm stressed or blue, heavier or grittier when I'm relaxed and can handle it. And age/maturity does change appreciation for some books: I found Forster's A Passage to India tedious and depressing when I had to study it, but appreciated it so much more as an adult with some life experience under my belt.

I've been reading about the doom and gloom predictions for this industry a few years now, and I expect these'll intensify with all the current hoo-ha. (Why is everyone so shocked? I've never seen GW Bush look more shaken. I'm no economist but I'm sure even my great grandma knew that if you keep spending oddles more than you make you'll end up in deep s***? Okay, I'm done with the simplistic fiscal analysis.)

I don't mean to be flippant, but along with the horrible predictions about the imminent death of traditional publishing you get all sorts of stats about how extremely unlikely a new writer is to a) bag an agent, b) get published when s/he does, c) make a living out of this business even if s/he aces a and b. They also tell you that even the industry pros never know what the next big trend will be.

So what's a mere writer to do? Throw hands up and give up already, work self into state of cardiac arrest over things s/he can't control, or say: Okay, these are the odds, and they're growing worse every day. Right. Back to work.

Maybe it's the stubborn part of me, or the dreamer in me, but I go with the last option. Anything else would make me crazy(er).

Nice topic, C. Very relevant in the light of current paranoia.

Flowerpot said...

Good topic Chris - I've been away for a while so late coming to it. I'd agree about going back to work. But recently having been very hormonal and emotional I've been reading my childhood favourites. They're very comforting. I tink we can only write the best we can and in our own style. Escapism is always popular, in any form.

lars s said...

sex and etc.

read here