Friday, 18 September 2009

Coffee break from Thailand

Come in, come in. I’ve been round the corner to the hotel for some pastries and muffins but there’s some chicken satay too and a Thai chickeny porridge/broth thing if you’re feeling brave. There’s real coffee if you can work the machine (I can’t) or instant (I can do that.) And of course there’s tea. I can do PG, a selection of Twinings as well as a variety of green teas. That Oolong on the right is from North Thailand and is very good.

In my second and third year of art college we had to attend ‘critiques.’ It was prescribed that you attend as audience to your peers as well as present your own work in progress. The critiques were feedback but they were also about showing that you understood your own work; that you could see where it fitted contextually and that you could see the implicit as well as the explicit meanings of it.

I’ve been thinking about this because my industry day with the Literary Consultancy, is approaching. The day isn’t about sealing a deal and anyway I’m not finished and don’t wish to present a not-ready piece of work. But of course I will certainly be asked during the day what I am writing.

And it occurred to me this is pretty similar to the process I experienced in art college. We have to be able to contextualise … who are our audience? What is our genre? What writers would we pick out as being similar to our books? We have to be able to understand the themes we wrote consciously about as well as those that may have reared their heads all on their own. When we’re asked, we have to be able to say succinctly what our book is about.

Phew! We’ve got to know all that and write the thing too?

So my question is this: how do you go about understanding what you’ve written? How do you detect the themes that keep on appearing even though you had no plan to include them? Do you rely on your own instincts? Or hope that your trusted readers identify spot them?


sheepish said...

Hi I do hope this has taken you a long time to write[sniggers behind hand]. And can I have tea and a muffin please?
I have to confess that actually writing my wip just about takes up all of my time so that I haven't given much thought to what sort of novel it is. When it's finished, which will be very soon, I will then take the time.
Actually what you have to say is very helpful as it makes me remember that there is more to being a writer than just writing. Well if we want to get published anyway. So far this first novel has been pure inspiration no prior planning at all but I am already thinking about the second and I hope be a little more structured in my approach to it.

A good post and see you Sunday.

Leatherdykeuk said...

I do give a little thought to it -- especially when I get rejection after rejection -- and have concluded that I write for an audience that lives in a telephone box on the A61 and their money has just run out.

Other than that, I wite social commentary disguised as satire.

Annieye said...

I'll have a bit of everything, please, JJ,and PG tips tea (can't drink coffee first thing in the morning!).

I'm so glad you wrote about this, because, I think, this might be my Achilles' heel. It is really confusing. I've written a trilogy of family sagas, which has not tickled a publisher's fancy enough for them to take them on as yet.

Trying not to be too despondent, I wrote something else, which has received a second reading from the RNA. It appears to be 'Romantic Fiction'. I'm editing it now, taking on board the comments from both the readers. The second reader said it was very much like a Charlotte Bingham or an Anita Burgh (I've never read any books by either of these authors), although my mum used to love Charlotte Bingham novels and would talk about the characters when she was reading one.

I write a very different type of book from the genre I like to read. I really don't know why this is, other than, I suspect, a subconscious fear of replicating something I have previously read.

The thing is, my agent is not best chuffed with me that I've written something so different to a family saga and I'm not sure she will represent me for the fourth book. Apparently publishers want more of the same from authors. I didn't know this when I wrote the fourth book.

When you are an unpublished author just finding your feet, how the hell do you know what type of book you will end up writing? It's a bit like looking for a house: you have to look around a few before you find the right one.

Anyway, great post, JJ. Got the old brain cells working, along with that lovely cup of PG and titbits of Thai goodies!

Flowerpot said...

what makes you think I understand what I write?!!!
I find it tends to be other readers who pick up themes and I think oh yes. Why did i put that in? But I tend to write what I want to read. I cant read thrillers cos I dont sleep at night so I'm stuck with contemporary fiction with a bent towards romance if you get my drift. As in it has a happy ending! But loss is naother theme of mine.

JJ Beattie said...

Sheepish, LOL.

Rachel, another LOL. Love it.

Annieye, it's been my mentor's comments for me too.

Flowerpot... I'm hoping you can tell me how to do it!

Fia said...

Leatherdykeuk, I have coffee all over my cardie. Your dry, satrical wit comes over brilliantly in your work and you should have enough readers to clog up every motorway in Britain, not just a telephone box on the A61.

JJ - Very interesting. I wish I had an interesting answer but I think your post has highlighted to me my genre problem. My first book was an attempt at military chick lit but darker tones kept coming in - stuff I'd normally block out and which 'Wives of' wouldn't talk too much about.

My second novel lets me follow these themes of loss and betrayal but I haven't a clue what genre to call it. Not literary, that's for sure.

I realise that this makes me pretty much unpublishable but I also realise that it takes most of us a good few novels to learn our craft - unless you're Katie Price.

Annieye said...

I soooooo agree, Fia! At least you have a glamorous past (winks).

Debs said...

Sorry, I'm trying to gather myself enough to answer your great post, JJ.

Must stop giggling at Leatherdykeuk's answer. Love it. Okay, am now gathered (as much as possible).

I supposedly write romantic fiction and sagas, although whether or not anyone else will think so, is probably a matter of opinion.

Tam said...

Writing for children/teens, I know my audience already but I never take for granted that I know what they want. Having been a parent for 14 years and a child/teen myself all my life (still not grown up, y'see) I have a rough idea but I'm always on the look out for changes in values and tastes.

I like to think I have my finger on the pulse. Let's hope it's not the pulse of an octogenarian Knight of the Realm...

Graeme K Talboys said...

My problem is if I try to do this before writing I end up with a crap, over-thought story where all the symbolism, imagery, and so on sticks out like the proverbial (sore thumb, that is). I find this with a lot of so-called literary fiction - it is chock full of individually interesting bits and pieces, but never really works as a whole because the author hasn't the first idea of how to tell a compelling story.

If I leave it to when I've finished, I haven't got a clue. Hence my lack of success in selling my fiction. I don't think about genre, I just want to tell a story and make it as compelling and internally realistic as possible. It does kind of bug me that we have to do all this stuff as well as write the damn thing (I mean, that's not exactly easy is it). Seems to me, that authors are expected to most of the work these days - writing a pitch that agents can use, marketing. How long before we have to sort out the printer and arrange delivery to bookshops?

I guess we are all aware of stuff that is similar to what we write and therefore choose agents/publishers on that basis for purposes of submission. But then, of course, it is all subjective at their end as well.

Perhaps it is time to start a consultancy that sits between authors and agents which does all this stuff - reads the manuscript and writes up a synopsis, cover blurb, pitch, log lines, and sure-fire covering letters. Or maybe they already exist?

HelenMHunt said...

Definitely needing the coffee at the moment.

I know I haven't given enough thought to the themes of my novel and how they work together. At this stage it is still a bit of a hotch potch. Some themes that I had intended to put in, I now realise I haven't. Other things have developed from nowhere. I need to unpick it all and make some sense of it.

More food for thought as I plough on through the edit.

Liane Spicer said...

My first novel is romance and deep themes aren't major issues in the genre. That said, there are ecological themes that I wrote consciously because they are very important to me. Another theme I wrote consciously is the importance of family bonds.

The memoir I've written is another matter altogether, as is the mainstream novel I've partially written. With the former I've followed my instincts. With the latter I've mapped out a list of themes I want to explore in the story. Hope they don't turn out like Graeme's proverbial thumb.

Annieye, that point about writing in a genre that you don't read caught my attention because when I wrote the first book it had been years since I stopped reading romance. Also, I believe that point about publishers wanting more of same from authors is valid. My second story is many things that my first is not: not set in the Caribbean, not light and breezy, not humorous and hedonistic, and the HEA is conditional. I think that's partly why my agent wants me to change so much of it. But I honestly cannot write the same story over and over.

Fia, I find the idea of dark chick lit very appealing. As for the other story, catchall labels like 'mainstream contemporary' or 'women's fiction' might just cover it.

Leather, I'll have to put your book on my list. Social commentary disguised as satire is one of my favourite genres!

Graeme, all that crap authors are expected to do these days, and for smaller and smaller advances and royalties, is a very sore point for me.

Lily Sheehan said...

I love that selection and this post! I understand what I write because its just what I want to hear. I hope others will understand it too.
I've gone for the romantic comedy genre with my novel but with a different outcome. I'm nearing the end of the first draft so it may all change when I read it back. When it comes to short stories though I don't really stick to the same genres. I usually write for comps so I write them to fit the theme and my writing tends to take on a mind of its own.

Kate Lord Brown said...

It's so hard to be objective about your work isn't it? According to my agent I write 'quality women's fiction' - aka 'not Booker but not chick lit either'. The first two (unpublished) novels were about things close to my heart (home, family, love, loss ...). The new book is something new and I have toes and fingers crossed for it (sub'd last week). Maybe only outside readers can identify who you are 'like'?

Karen said...

I'm always interested to see which themes pop up halfway through my novels, because there's always something and it's usually different to my main theme, or what I THOUGHT the story was about.

My last attempt at a novel was, supposedly, about being true to yourself but when I read it back the theme that kept cropping up was Home and what it meant to each of the characters. I reckon my subconscious decides for me, and doesn't let me know until I'm well underway!

Karen said...

...oh and my genre is commercial women's fiction :o)

Bluestocking Mum said...

Great post JJ. I'm also laughing at Leatherdyke's comment.

I write what I like - I'd like to think it's commercial women's fiction/romantic. I do like to read all sorts but that genre also just happens to be my preferred reading.

Amanda said...

Ooh, great post JJ, and can I have a muffin please.

Is it okay if I sit in the corner shyly and smile this week? - Well I am the new girl. :-) And crumbs everyone's so clever!

Oh okay then, I'll speak up... I tend to go with my instint - and often see patterns and themes forming where I didn't realise they would!

And the muffin's jolly nice - thank you muchly!

Lorna F said...

This is a great post, J.J., with some great answers and it's an issue that is really important, more than ever now that publishers act increasingly as pigeonhole-stuffers extraordinaire. I too feel my heart sink at the notion that you make your name as a writer, which these days means you become a 'brand' (and that's the term they use in publishing circles) and end up writing, essentially, the same novel over and over. I do think this is insulting to readers who are quite capable of taking on board any diversions or developments in the writing of their favourite writers. In fact there are at least two writers I've now given up on - once I loved them and couldn't wait for their next book, but got to the point of thinking 'oh, not another load of the same old tut' (as Sir Alan Amstrad would put it). When I was trying to sell my novel The Chase, an editor who loved it turned it down in the end, saying 'My dear, they wouldn't know where to put you in the bookshop.' Aarggh! Can't your novel be both fish and fowl, chalk and cheese?