Why Do Authors Diss Other Authors?

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Credit: Gerd Altman

You know what’s hot right now, other than global warming? Tearing down your peers in order to promote your new book! And it’s not new authors, desperate for any kind of media coverage they can get – these are well-established authors who all seem to be hopping on the latest controversy bandwagon. But why are they doing it? Does it result in more sales or is a just a ploy to get your name ‘out there’?

For a while there, it seemed like a queue of predominantly white male authors were awaiting their turn to declare that the novel (as they knew it) was dead. Will Self being the most vocal (who even is he??!). It was all a bit pathetic really – writers bemoaning the fact that their work was no longer relevant and choosing to denounce the younger generation for their lack of taste rather than accept that their books mightn’t be as good as they thought they were. Or that, like the rest of us mere mortals, their books have no  guarantee of a warm reception.

Irish author Colm Tóibín recently told a Guardian interviewer: “I can’t do thrillers and I can’t do spy novels.”  

Asked which books he felt were most overrated, he said: “I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don’t find any rhythm in it. It’s blank, it’s nothing; it’s like watching TV.”

So clearly, Colm has read ALL THE BOOKS and they’re all boring. Thanks for that Colm, inspirational.

Poor old John Banville can only write ‘genre’ under a pseudonym, lest his good name and reputation be besmirched by popular fiction. It’s a form of snobbery, looking down one’s nose at other writers, and readers for that matter. Like the ‘real book’ brigade who scoff at eBooks and their readers. Like, get over yourself and the delusion that you are the sole arbiter of good taste. By dismissing things that people enjoy, you are dismissing them and what matters to them. And to me, this seems a very foolish thing to do.

The most recent author to diss an entire genre is Louise Doughty, when she told The Guardian (why is it always The Guardian?) “I can’t bear anything chicklitty or girly.”

Wow. Can’t bear it, eh? Any book in particular, or just every book written by a woman who has been classified under the broadest commercial fiction genre EVER? Now, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but such an established writer must be aware of how dismissive this sounds to her peers? How many years have female authors been fighting this exact kind of stigma associated with chick lit? It’s a marketing tag, that has unfortunately sidelined contemporary romcoms  written by women as vacuous, vapid and unimportant. The definition of chick lit is ‘a heroine-centred narrative‘, so far so brilliant, and luckily for us fans, promotes a whole plethora of styles, voices and subject matter. In fact, categorising novels by a single criterion is such a reductive exercise anyway, the dismissive tone used by this authors is at best, unhelpful.

I also think the media has a lot to answer for here. If an author is asked their opinion, they have every right to give it. It was the editor’s choice to pick that one quote from the interview and run it as click-bait on all social media platforms. And this seems to be the way of it now – the newspaper takes the most inflammatory line from an article, tweets it and watches the book world have a meltdown. And that my friends, is marketing.

But in case you were thinking literary authors were safe from all this criticism, think again. Sally Rooney has committed a cardinal sin – the worst thing you can do in literary fiction – she has sold a lot of books. It’s one thing garnering critical acclaim, but to be successful in the monetary sense can risk the loss of your member’s card to the ‘serious’ literary writers club. Will Self (him again!) ‘bravely’ took it upon himself to put her back in her place by labelling her writing as ‘lacking ambition’, lest she go getting any ideas that she might have earned her place among the literati. Fortunately we have men like him to save us from our own bad taste.

Irish author Catherine Ryan Howard has her finger on the pulse and her tongue firmly in her cheek with this latest tweet:

 

So is this the future for authors? A newspaper article in which they upset not only their fellow authors, but the millions of readers who enjoy their books?  And while everyone has the right to speak their mind, it is the contrivance to cause controversy that seems to be the PR drug of choice these days. To me, it just makes people look arrogant and insecure. I’ve always been taught that people who try to make you feel small are only doing it so they can feel big. Authors dismissing other genres must have some dire need to feel important, or to be seen as superior, i.e. someone whose work matters. But newsflash, we all matter and a bit of diplomacy goes a long way.

We are all creatures of habit and of course we tend to gravitate to certain styles of writing and subject matter. There is nothing wrong with that and there is nothing wrong with not liking a book. Art is subjective. But when does it stop being an opinion and start being derisory? Good critique is backed up by fact and reason (like books where the characters are under-developped, for example) but generalisations that have no real basis tell us nothing constructive. The truth is, there are crap writers and crap books everywhere. There are crap literary books, crap self-published books, crap traditionally published books, crap YA books, crap detective novels, crap books by men, crap books by women … but to give one broad sweep of criticism to any of these categories is just ignorant and lazy.

I have always found the writing community to be supportive and always remember the first time I read another saying that there is room enough for all of us. We don’t have to compete by putting one another down. Most readers, like myself, read across genres, so in the long run, it’s probably wiser to big up your fellow authors rather than risk alienating your audience. Your readership could well overlap. But just on a human level, as Michelle Obama once said, when they go low, we go high!

How Long Does It Take To Write A Bestseller?

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Some of us have dreamed about writing a bestseller for a long time. A part of me was terrified when I published my first book. Would I be able to handle the fame that came with it? I mean, of course, I anticipated the critical acclaim and the validation it would bring, but the success might prove to be overwhelming. Hah! How innocent I was. How naive. But then again, they were the stories I saw on my TV, in the magazines. That was how it was supposed to happen. Authors, who were shot to stratospheric success with their first novel. Bidding wars. Movie deals. Reese Witherspoon gushing over the originality of the storyline.

But are these writers really representative of the majority of authors who make a living out of writing? Or are they just the one percent we hear about because it’s more exciting than reading a headline ’52 year old woman hits the NYT Bestseller List on her 6th novel’. Yeah, it doesn’t really have the same ring to it. We don’t hear about the writers who spend the best part of a decade slogging away before finally hitting the sweet-spot with their third or fourth or fifth novel.

That’s why I was so pleased to read the following on Twitter last week, the real life stories of successful writers who found longevity in their careers, rather than overnight success.

Traction is a very important concept here. As well as luck, timing and perseverance. I’m always talking about the changing landscape of publishing and how digital downloads have altered the way in which we find new authors. While books and their authors might not reach the masses right away (for whatever reason) if they keep producing good work that people are responding to, a momentum can build. Take Kristin Hannah for example, and her novel The Nightingale (which is, of course, being made into a movie!). I was astonished to find out that she has written over 20 novels! I had never heard of her and assumed that book was her debut, but no; she has been honing her craft for decades and is now reaping the critical and one assumes, financial rewards. Which is why publishers really need to support their writers and stand by them, while they build their readership.

UK author Joanne Harris often speaks about her first two novels, before Chocolat, and how they didn’t sell particularly well. I see other writers like Rowan Coleman, with a slew of books under her belt, who has found great traction with her recent bestseller, The Summer Of Impossible Things. It’s impossible to predict what will make a bestseller. If there was a foolproof recipe, we’d all be downloading it. But one thing is clear – if you give up, you’ll never know.

Then there’s age. We can sometimes see age as a barrier, but it can also be liberating. If the following tweet is anything to go by, age can give you the freedom to be yourself – to follow your heart and write what you want to write.

 

It is so encouraging to receive this message – there is no time limit on art, on creative passion, on reaching your full potential. I’m thinking of Richard E. Grant and the unbridled joy he exudes at finally receiving all of the accolades the acting world can shower upon him, at the age of 61. It doesn’t mean he’s any better now than he was ten or twenty years ago, but the right role came at the right time and he is now getting the recognition he always deserved.

If you don’t make the New York Times Bestseller List with your first book (or your second or third!) it doesn’t mean your not good enough, it just means that the stars haven’t aligned. Yet. There are so many variables that are outside of our control and all we can do is keep writing, keep believing in the power of telling stories.

***Evie Gaughan is an Irish novelist of historical and contemporary fiction with a touch of magic. Click on the links below for a preview ⬇️

What’s In A Name?

 

Copyright Tom Gauld

What’s in a name? Well, that’s easy for Shakespeare to say with a name like that, but when you’re trying to think up new character names for your book, it’s not always that easy. Unless you’re Man Booker winner Anna Burns, in which case you can dispense with names altogether. But for most of us, we like to pick names that somehow embody the character. The right name can bring your character to life and set the tone, but the wrong name can take a reader out of the story, which is a cardinal sin!

One of the most striking names in literature is Heathcliff. It speaks to location and character – perfectly capturing the haunted, wild, untameable, unforgiving landscape, echoing Heathcliff’s volatile persona. I mean, would he really have had the same impact were his name John? Or Pat (considering he was probably Irish – where Emily’s father was born with the less impressive surname of Brunty). There is a power in names – and a history, like lettered breadcrumbs, which lead to the source.

My surname can be traced back to the 10th century, in the Annals of the Four Masters. In Old Gaelic, my name is Ua Gáibhtheacháin (try saying that ten times!), descendant from a fierce warrior. Apparently we were famed for our expeditious and industrious nature – swiftly dispatching enemies, which is basically just another day for me. And if it weren’t for Cromwell, I’d probably be talking to you from the family stronghold in Kilkenny, and I wouldn’t be on the Atlantic coast, constantly moaning about the rain. Damn you Cromwell!!

My maternal grandmother is also from a great clan in Mayo, the O’Malleys. So I am also connected to another chieftain, or the pirate queen as she is known, Grace O’Malley. In Gaelic she is known as Grainuaile, or bald Grainne, which refers to the legend that her father wouldn’t let her go raiding on the ships when she was a girl, in case her long hair got caught in the sails and rigging. So she took a knife to her locks and cut them off, earning her place on the ship. Which is just like the time I bravely cut my hair into a long bob (a ‘lob’). People still speak of that hairdo, to this day.

So, I hate to disagree with the ardent Juliet, but names do have significance and we also assign them with meaning. In The Story Collector, I chose the name Anna for my protagonist because I wanted a name that was traditional, unfussy and strong. I also chose the name Harold, which instantly speaks of someone who is distinctive and hints of a well-to-do background. When writing historical fiction in particular, it’s important that your names fit the era you’re writing in. No Beyonce’s here, I’m afraid.

But how do you decide on a name? Sometimes the name comes first; others, you have a fully outlined character who remains nameless through several drafts. Or worse, their name changes mid-draft – or their gender! It’s almost impossible to get their original name out of your head and this requires extensive proof-reading afterwards. There aren’t any rules to picking names as such, but there are certain guidelines that are worth taking into consideration. Like it’s okay (preferable even) to pick common names, rather than searching for something unusual, as it makes the story more authentic.  I recently put down a book after two chapters because I found the character names better suited to a pair of kittens than leads characters. They were so contrived and pretentious, it just put me off the entire thing.

And apparently, us readers are as lazy as they come, because after a few goes at reading the character’s name, when we see it again, we only read the first letter. Hang on, maybe that’s not lazy, maybe it’s highly efficient! So it’s better not to choose names that begin with the same first letter or sound too similar, as it can confuse things unnecessarily, like Marie and Mary.

I remember an old tip that suggested picking names from the phone book, but sadly, the phone book no longer exists, so I find myself googling baby names (which may cause a shock to my nearest and dearest!) or trying my luck ‘Vegas style’ with online name generators. But mostly, I just sit and stare out the window until the right-sounding name comes to me. In my new WIP I have quite a large cast of characters and thankfully, most of them have come with – at least their first names – already intact. I had to search for popular Russian Jewish names (hello Mikhail!) and I’m still trying out names for one of my main characters whose personality I’m really only getting to know with each new chapter, but what is she called? I need something unique but not too unusual. A strong name, but also with a sense of vulnerability. Something lyrical, but not too sweet.

I’m tempted to run a poll, but I have a terrible habit of ignoring other peoples’ advice, so the chances are I will still go with the name I want, even if the overwhelming majority pick something else! It’s a bit like book titles – sometimes you’re completely married to one idea and others it won’t come until the last, desperate minute. Naming things is such a big responsibility. That is the title they will bear for the rest of their lives, so you want to get it right. But for now, maybe A and B will have to do!

 

Shooting Stars

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You might think you need a degree in symbology or semantics to understand what the hell your book reviews reveal about your novels, but fear not lads and ladies, I’ve put a good half hour of research into some of my own books’ critical reviews and come up with practically no all the answers.
For starters, the star rating means different things to different people on different days. Do not attempt to find any correlation between high ratings and postive reviews (or vice versa). Sometimes the most critical reviews lie in ambush under a five star rating and likewise, a three star rating can often be accompanied by the most glowing review. Do not try to make sense of this – that way madness lies!
However, by using some examples from my own Amazon customer reviews (which I usually read with one eye through a tiny gap in my fingers) I’ve put together a highly scientific system of categorization to make things a little easier. Strap yourselves in!

 

1. The Back-handed Compliment Review
“If you are looking for literture for the ages, this isnt it. However, if you are looking to settle back in your favorite reading chair with a cup of hot tea and some lemon cookies for a delightful afternoon of light reading, this book is your ticket. I thoroughly enjoyed it!”
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I love you really

 

2. The Passive-Aggressive Review
“The story is readable. A good ‘waiting time’ read.”
“Easy & light summer read.”
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Ooh, did I say something wrong?

 

3. The Least Said, Soonest Mended Review
“Too slow”
“Boring”
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OUCH!

 

4. The Insult
“Fair warning.  I have better things to do with my time!”
“The cover art was the best part of this book in my opinion.”
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How dare you write this book!

 

5. The Have-They-Even-Read-The-Book Review
“Once you get past the fowl language and depravity”
(Fowl language? I don’t remember any poultry featuring in that book…)
Whaaat?

 

6. The Angry Review
“THIS ITEM HAS NOT ARRIVED ON MY KINDLE, ALTHOUGH THE MONEY HAS BEEN TAKEN FROM MY ACCOUNT !!!!”
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So, what I think what we’ve all learned here today is that reviews can be confusing, but let’s be honest, we wouldn’t have them any other way, right?! Short, long, cogent or rambling, we love to read them – so please keep writing them 😉

A Writer’s Holiday

As most of you will not have noticed at all, because you have your own lives, I’ve been taking a bit of a break from social media.  And it has been good.

While most writers talk about taking a break from writing, I’m talking about a break from being ‘visible’, ‘out there’ and ‘switched on’.  A break from that constant gnawing feeling that you should be doing something… online.  Being online creates that weird paradox where you feel like you’re achieving something, but what it is, you can’t exactly say.

We’re always on.  And if we’re not on, there is a fear that we’re not doing enough.   Or FoMO – Fear of missing out (yes, it’s a thing!)  Are we using Twitter/Facebook/Instagram or are they using us?  Where is the down time?  Are we really interacting meaningfully, or are we just scrolling through other peoples’ thoughts, witnessing other peoples’ outrage and occasionally getting caught up in debates with people who never let the facts get in the way of a good argument.  Like Bing Crosby sang, we’re busy doing nothing.

But it’s all harmless fun, right?  Maybe, in moderation.  But the mindless compulsion to check into this social world every day in order to feel like you’re ‘engaging’, eventually becomes a bit joyless… a bit robotic.  So I switched off.  I put a sign on Twitter saying I was on a break (mainly as a deterrent to myself) and even unplugged the broadband.  For a whole day.  But then I had to plug it back in to check my email because I’m not complete lunatic.

I felt bad at first – all of the people who retweet me and whom I regularly retweet might get the hump (or think I’m dead).  But I had to ask myself, am I a writer or a social media personality??  The answer was simple and funnily enough, so was the break.  I didn’t miss it at all.  The constant need to keep up with everything, to stay connected, was gone.

That restlessness was replaced by restfulness.

Turns out, I didn’t need to know everything after all.  But Twitter and Facebook weren’t going to let me away that easy.  Notifications telling me that people I ‘know’ have all liked the same picture tried to tempt me back.  ‘What is the picture?’ I wondered to myself, but I stood fast.  Even when Facebook lamented the 228 followers who hadn’t heard from me in a while, did I want to rectify that??  No, they’d have to get through the day without me.

It’s silly really.  We’re all trying to promote stuff without looking like we’re promoting stuff.  ‘THEY’ say that you shouldn’t promote on social media, you should gain popularity by being interesting and fun to follow.  No pressure there then!  Is this high school or some kind of Machievellian double-speak?!   99% of our lives (if we’re lucky) are pretty boring, so how are we going to keep all of our followers entertained and somehow fool them that we have something interesting going on, all the time??  I don’t need my readers to know how uninspiring I can be on a daily basis.   I am a writer and I’m here to promote my books – let’s call a spade a spade!  And the really funny thing is that when I took a step back from social media, my book sales continued to rise.  So there was no correlation whatsoever between me being constantly switched on and my reach when it came to readers.  My book even did this:

#3

Yes, you are seeing correctly – that’s my book at number three, beside Alice Hoffman’s ‘Practical Magic’.  Quite the milestone!  And it happened all by itself.  Well, by the power of Amazon’s algorithms, which I still don’t get, but the point is, it had nothing to do with Twitter.

And it’s not just me.  I’ve read a lot of blogs recently where book bloggers are cutting down and in some cases, no longer taking part in blog tours.  The pressure to be available all of the time is taking its toll and I think a lot of people are trying to create more of a balance, where they can participate on their own terms.  They are continuing to promote books, but in a way that suits them.  More and more, I see people questioning the benefits of being so switched on all of the time.  There comes a saturation point where you have to step back and focus on your own path.

Have I used this break to write?  Nope!  I’ve done NOTHING and it’s been wonderful.  I’ve read other peoples’ books.  I’ve been checking out designs for my new book cover with my publisher.  I’ve baked!  I spent half an hour trying to make some DIY Nordic Christmas decorations (damn you Pinterest!) Unfortunately, my Christmas star ended up looking like a Halloween pentagram, but hey, I made something.  I’ve allowed myself to get bored.  Remember boredom?  The mother of all creation.  I watched Stranger Things and kept all of my opinions about it to myself (it’s basically ET, right?!)  I got a head cold and ‘took to the bed’ without a second thought for my abandoned accounts.  And it feels so good to just let my mind be free.  To not have that niggling feeling… ‘I’ll just check’.

So, the moral of the story is, a change really is as good as a rest.  Taking a break from social media has just made me more aware of how jaded I had become by the whole thing.  And it’s not like anyone is holding a gun to my head (well, not that I’m aware of *gulp*) so all of this pressure to be ‘on’ is self-inflicted.  I can get all of my social media stuff done in half an hour, so where do the other two and a half hours go?  I think writers especially need time away from this social machine to create some space for creativity; to breathe and grow without this constant spotlight, demanding your attention and sapping your energy.  Social media is great – in my view its benefits certainly outweigh the down sides, but it might be better in small doses.

So like those people who do dry January, I’ve become all preachy and holier than thou (even though I did break my break a few times) so we’ll see how long that lasts!  What about you?  Have you managed to avoid getting sucked into the black hole of social media? Do you detox regularly or is switching off a step too far?

If you haven’t read my books, then you really should have the FoMO!  Check out my Amazon Author Page or follow the links below.

The Mysterious Bakery On Rue De Paris by [Gaughan, Evie]

Apple ~ Kobo ~ Barnes & Noble ~ GooglePlay

 

The Failed Novelist

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Oh writers, what’s with all the judgement?  And where is all the tolerance??  This week saw the anonymous letter from a ‘failed novelist’ in The Guardian in which (what we assume) a female writer described her experience of trying to get published.

Years of work and emotional investment wasted, I finally gave up, to save my sanity.

But I’m scarred.

Despite having an agent and interest from publishers, in the end, a deal never materialised for a ‘bewildering’ number of reasons.  It was stark, bitter and sad – all of the things you feel when you watch your dreams shatter.  My first thought was, another one bites the dust and all thanks to the seemingly arbitrary process of submitting to publishers.  She is not the first writer to give up and I’m sure she won’t be the last.  To be honest, I would have given up too, if not for self-publishing, but more on that anon.

Reaction was mixed.  It’s obviously a topic that exercised a lot of established writers who have been through the rejection process and got to the other side.  Female authors such as J K Rowling and Joanne Harris offered encouragement, telling authors never to give up, because the next book might just be the one to bring success.  Also, not to view all of the hard work, countless manuscripts and years of honing your craft as a waste.  But then came the riposte, again in The Guardian, from a male author, David Barnett.

Dear Anonymous, you’re not a failure. You’re a quitter.

Wow.  That’s one hell of a back-handed compliment!  Can you imagine reading that after  writing such an honest and soul-baring piece about your disillusionment with the publishing world?  From a ‘successfully published’ author?  Obviously a student from the school of tough love, it seemed this author was taking the opportunity to tell everybody about how brilliant he was at sucking up rejection and that ‘real’ writers need to embrace it, or how will they ever cope with bad reviews?  I found his approach a bit predictable and dare I say it, ‘mansplainey’, but he did go on to make some very valid points.

Yes, there are those hip young writers who get picked up for a three-book deal on the basis of a single chapter – but they make the news because they are the exception, not the rule.

It’s true, the papers love a six-figure publishing deal and can’t wait to tell us all about it.  And why are they always the age at which I was probably playing drinking games and wearing a toga?  He’s right, this is absolutely the exception, so indulging in the Cinderella complex that you will somehow be spotted and picked-up by one of the big five (or is it six) is like sitting around waiting to win the publishing lottery, without having bought a ticket!

It is no one’s “destiny” to be a published author.

Again, so true.  Most author bios (including my own) talk about how we’ve been writing stories since we were kids.  Just because you love (and have always loved) writing, does not mean the publishing industry will grant your wishes.  They have their own agenda and a seemingly unlimited pool of talent to choose from.  They might take on as few as one or two new authors per year.  They might have had enough of girls on public transport, just as you’re putting the finishing touches to your story about a girl on a bus (or is she?  do we really believe her??)  A lot of it is luck and timing, the rest is hard work and resilience.  But the part I can absolutely empathise with is the loss of control.  If you want writing to become your career, it’s very difficult (and frustrating) to put your destiny in the hands of other people.  It’s not like any other profession because the application process is a complete guessing game.  And the waiting, great Odin’s raven, the waiting!!  All of that time, wondering if you’re life is going to be changed, or if you dreams will be shot down by a rejection.

This is why the self-publishing revolution is the most important thing to happen to the publishing industry.  Of course, it’s nothing new.  Authors have been self-publishing for years (Dickens, Whitman, Proust, Potter), but the digital age has made it so much easier to reach your audience and to become a professional authorpreneur.  In fact, numerous people mentioned self-publishing in the comments section, but some writers still see it as a failure greater than not being published at all.  I find this attitude bemusing and to use one of Barnett’s words ‘entitled’.  I’m sure there are many traditionally published authors who look down their noses at self-published authors (just like they are doing to this woman, who hasn’t kept calm and carried on in the face of rejection) and like to perpetuate the myth that there’s so much rubbish out there (which is equally true of traditionally published books).  However, self-publishing is simply another avenue for authors to get their work out there, to build their audience and if successful, perhaps even sign with a traditional publisher for their subsequent books.  Many authors have taken this route and become hybrid authors, using each platform as equally valid routes to market.

Most importantly, it gives the author some modicum of control over their destiny.  Your book might still bomb, just as it might with a publisher, but at least you are not locked out of the party entirely.  I know how she feels, but pursuing your dreams means being flexible and finding more than one way to skin a cat.  Yes, failure is a part of the process and it can be the catalyst to push you on to fail better.  But that doesn’t need to be where the story ends.  I have a feeling this writer will be back, a little bruised but a lot more determined.  I commend her for writing that article and for being so honest about her feelings.  Obviously, it’s quite a while since Barnett has been rejected by a publisher, so perhaps he has forgotten how raw those feelings can be, when you’re just at the beginning of your career and feeling as though you’re going nowhere, while watching other people make it.  It’s hard, let’s be honest.  But he’s right; for most writers, this is the journey.

All in all, I think it’s a good discussion to have, because new writers need to be made more aware of what is actually involved in the process.  We are blinded by the ‘supermodels’ of writing, who get those haute couture deals before the age of 21.  We do need to ground ourselves in reality and the only way to do that is by taking the mystique out of the writing and publishing process, by having conversations like this.  But we also need to respect each other’s journey and stop explaining to people how they should feel about something.  One thing is for sure, being a writer is not an easy road to riches, fame or success.  So yes, you do need to love it and most importantly, (as translated in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale) Nolite te bastardes carborundorum – Don’t let the bastards grind you down!

Women’s Fiction: The Big Cover Up

custom-wrapped-rose-and-pinks-31Following a recent discussion with an online book-club (which I am now ripping off for this blog!) the subject of covers reared its’ pretty head.  Pretty being the operative word, and a pejorative one in this case.  A male reader asked the question, why do publishers insist of giving female authors the kind of covers that men wouldn’t be caught dead with?  Of course, there was also the argument that some men wouldn’t be caught dead reading a female author, period; regardless of the cover.  In this day and age, I find that a bit sad to be honest.  It just perpetuates this idea that women can only write about things that concern women – as if men wouldn’t find anything of interest in ‘women’s things’.    Furthermore, what does it say about a man’s sense of identity, that he can’t ‘be seen’ in public with a woman’s book?  All big questions, which I will now neatly side-step in order to get to the side of the argument that best serves my agenda.  Girlie covers – what’s it all about?

Just to be sure I wasn’t being a complete hypocrite, I made a quick scan of the books I’ve read over the past few years and there is an approximate 60/40 split in female to male authors on my list.  I think it’s only natural that we will veer towards our own gender, but I was quite pleased to see that my reading has been fairly balanced.  I never really think about the author’s gender when choosing a book.  My decision is based solely on whether or not the story piques my interest.  That… and the cover.  It was at this point I realised that the guy in the book club had a point.

One of the most important jobs of a book cover is to let the reader know, as clearly and succinctly as possible, what they are getting with this book.  If I see a dark and moody cover with blood stains, I’ll probably keep moving.  Crime fiction isn’t really my thing, but how many good books have I missed because of these preconceptions?  Readers make their minds up in a matter of seconds, based on the cover of a book.  So it follows that the publishing industry, rightly or wrongly, create covers that they believe will sell; even if this is at odds with what lies between the covers.  However, there is an even greater divide when it comes to books by female authors.  Regardless of their literary merit, many publishers seemed determined to shoe-horn women’s books into the kind of covers that female readers themselves feel may be undervaluing the author’s work.  It has long been argued that the Chick Lit genre has become something of a double-edged sword; on the one hand, it has introduced readers to a lot of very talented female authors, but it has been marketed in so much pink fluffiness, that many of these writers are doomed to spend eternity on a dusty shelf, trapped in pastel coloured covers and not taken seriously.

A recent article by Emily Harnett in The Atlantic reveals the thinking behind these covers:

Like any form of advertising, book covers tell women what they want by surmising who they want to be.

Image result for typical chick lit book covers

I’m guessing the assumption is that we all want to be white, thin goofballs with a hidden intelligence, all wrapped up in designer clothes!  Please don’t get me wrong – I am not criticizing this book or its readers, but I am questioning how the author’s work is marketed and whether or not this is a hindrance to women’s writing as a whole.  If you are a woman and you happen to write about anything involving relationships or family life, chances are that this will be your marketing strategy.

The following graphics from an article on Flavorwire show some examples of how male authored books are marketed completely differently.  The jumbo writing is a classic of the genre, which almost screams ‘This is important!’  It demands to be taken seriously, and as such, lends an air of gravitas to its reader.

The female authors have markedly different covers.  They are warm, decorative and while they’re not as garish as the Chick Lit cover, we immediately assume that what lies inside is somehow more feminine in nature.  Would a man pick up any of these books?  I would like to think that in this day and age, yes, he would.  But why are the publishers trying to divide us at all?  As an author, I would hope that both male and female readers can enjoy my stories, but have I subconsciously placed a barely perceptible ‘Men Keep Out’ sticker on my book just by the covers I’ve chosen?

And it’s not just a male/female divide.  There is also the question of what makes a book commercial fiction as opposed to the more highbrow literary fiction?  Who decides this and what are the criteria?  If you’re confused, take a look at these covers for the same book and tell me the publishers aren’t playing some sort of minds games!

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The first has a quote from literary heavyweight John Banville (a man!) comparing the author to Edna O’Brien, another literary biggie, and features a monochrome image of a child and an old man.  The second, features a young woman with a tagline from one of Ireland’s most successful commercial fiction authors, Cecelia Ahern of PS I Love You fame.  This is the same book, people!!  How could a single story be marketed so differently?  Well, on closer inspection, it turns out that the black and white cover is the hardback and the carefree young woman is the paperback version.  According to author Jennifer Weiner, who treads the fine line between commercial and literary fiction, “Hardcover is when you get the reviews and the profiles, paperback is when you get the readers.”

So what they’re saying is, they don’t want to challenge us too much, but give us something wrapped in a package we are already familiar with.  Are we such predictable repeat shoppers?  I’m not so sure.  One of my favourite novels this year was The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild.  It’s a mystery art caper, that takes us from the auction houses of London to Nazi Germany, and questions the true value of art and man’s desire to acquire beautiful things in search of salvation.  AND YET.  One of the male readers in the book club said he would never have picked it up, but his girlfriend had it and so he started reading it (and loved it).  A woman in the group said she wouldn’t touch a book with such a cover with a barge-pole (the cover in question was the red paperback).  The hardback features original artworks, while the Kindle version on the end features a palette and dispenses with the swirly writing altogether.  In this case, I imagine that the publishers are trying to cast their net wide and get as many potential readers as possible, so why not do that in the first place?  I really feel for the authors who have absolutely no say in how their work is packaged or marketed.  Perhaps self-publishing will change the face of cover discrimination, or will we, for lack of any better ideas, just perpetuate it?  The question we are all trying to answer is, what do readers want?  Perhaps a little less cliché and a little more originality.

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Sometimes I think we should just go back to the days when book covers were cloth bound and the title embossed in gold leaf.  These days, we have grown accustomed to the kind of aspirational lifestyle marketing that bombards us for clothing, make-up, interiors and cars, but isn’t there something about books that should be held sacred?  In reading, do we not seek to move beyond the shallow and superficial?  I love book covers, just as I love design and art, but matching an image with a story is a tricky business and can often be misleading.  I suppose the same can be said for blurbs, which are more often than not a bunch of sound-bytes to reel you in.  The Blind Date Book Company is a fantastic response to the publishing world’s attempts to manipulate our reading habits.  Their tagline, rather predictably asks us to ‘Never Judge A Book By It’s Cover’, but rather choose ‘blindly’, based only on a four word description.  I think it’s a really lovely idea and an innovative way to broaden your bookshelf and find some new books to love.  It is, after all, blind 😉

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Whether you like my covers or not, you can get my books here:

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The Mysterious Bakery On Rue de Paris (7) - CopyAmazon (Paperback) ~Kindle ~ Nook ~ iTunes ~ Kobo 

 

 

 

 

Where Was Your Book Born?

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We’ve all heard how JK Rowling famously wrote Harry Potter in a local cafe.  In fact, the chair she sat on recently sold for €344,300.  That’s some indication as to the importance we give a writer’s creative perch.  Writers and readers alike are enchanted by the idea of where a book was conceived, convincing themselves that even the chair they sat on must be oozing with literary genius.  There’s something romantic about it, scribbling ideas in a local cafe.  Writing  at a desk wedged into the corner of your council flat while wearing old Primark pyjamas doesn’t really have the same ring to it, although one can only assume that Rowling must have written at home too.  But does it really matter where you write your masterpiece?

I think I’ve written in every room in my house, bar the toilet.  I would include a photo of my beloved attic (where I write in the summer and stare up at longingly during the winter as it transforms into a fridge) but I’m saving that for the OK! Magazine spread.  The dawn of Pinterest has introduced us to a plethora of ‘designs’ to ‘inspire’ us with ‘ideas’ to create our own ‘writing nook’.  In other words, Pinterest is the devil’s work which bombards us with over-styled images of unattainable shabby chic home offices we will never have.  No I don’t have a pure white room with an old-fashioned writing desk which I’ve upcycled with chalk paint and I’m not surrounded by flower-clad boxes with all my papers neatly filed away in alphabetical order.  I’m the kind of person who sees an empty space and immediately feels the need to fill it with bits n bobs (i.e. junk).  I would love the perfect writing nook, but in the meantime, I generally pick the warmest spot in the house and write there.  I’m basically a cat.  With thumbs.

So what about venturing outside?  Well, yes, writing en pleine air could be a nice change except…. again, I live in Ireland.  I did try to write at the beach a couple of times, but there’s a lot to be said for a comfortable chair and while a large flat stone jutting out to sea might look attractive, my bum says otherwise.  Then there’s the whole writing long hand thing.  It can make a nice alternative every once in a while, but I’m the kind of writer who needs the entire manuscript in front of me when I write.  So squinting at my laptop while my bum goes to sleep on a rock gets old very fast.

Cafes seem like the ideal place to get the creative juices going, but the only problem with that is that they are full of OTHER PEOPLE!  At the best of times, people in public places can be tiresome, but when  you’re trying to write a novel, they are downright intrusive!  I have no idea how writers can focus on their own thoughts while they are being drowned out by clattering delph, noisy conversations and earth-shatteringly loud baristas (do they have to smash that coffee filter like a judge’s gavel Every. Damn. Time.!!)  Seriously, doesn’t anyone drink tea anymore?  Sartre had it only partly right; hell isn’t just other people, it’s other people who drink coffee.

If I do decide to venture out, I usually go to a hotel.  These are much more sedate affairs and best of all, they usually have comfy armchairs so you can really settle in.  No-one really cares how long you stay or whether you order coffee (but if you do, they thankfully prepare it out of earshot).  My nearest hotel has a conservatory that is, for the most part, empty and pipes out a nice mix of chilled-out tunes in the background.  The best part is, you can’t come up with a million excuses to leave your desk when you’re writing outside of the home.  You can’t start attacking the hotel toilets with bleach and a brush, so you just have to stay put and keep typing – not least to make everyone else think you’re extremely busy and important and overflowing with intelligent ideas.

So are there any benefits to having a ‘special place’ to write?  After all, we’re not like visual artists who rely heavily on their surroundings for inspiration.  Writers inhabit the interior world, the imagination.  We create worlds.  We mine our memories and nose through nostalgia for material, then spin all of these threads together into a fine cloak to envelop ourselves and our readers.  In fact, I think the plainer your surroundings, the better.  I’m not talking a monastic cell here, but the truth is that even if you bag yourself one of those writing retreats in rural Italy replete with red tile roofs and cypress trees, you still have to retreat to the solitude of your own mind and write the book.

I think we all saw this coming ☺

Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?

When writers are asked, ‘Where do you get your inspiration from?’ and they reply with a vague, ‘Oh everywhere and anywhere really’, they’re actually telling the truth. You never know where your next idea will come from and more often than not, it finds its roots in some throw-away comment or idea that just manages to cling onto your imagination. A newspaper headline; a passing remark on a TV show; or a piece of gossip you heard on the bus, can lodge itself in your subconscious and present itself as a story begging to be told, just when you least expect it.

medium_307745952  This was exactly the case for The Mysterious Bakery On Rue De Paris. A few years ago, I stumbled across a cookery show by Trish Deseine, an Irish woman who moved to Paris and embraced French food and culture wholeheartedly. Being a huge fan of both food and France I figured, what’s not to like?! Anyway, during one of her shows, she saunters around Paris sharing her favourite spots for shopping and eating. Then she points out a bakery, famed for its secrecy and delicious breads, whose patrons include the A-list of Parisien society. I can’t remember the story entirely, but apparently no-one was seen either entering or leaving. It was an old stone building with a basement entrance and there was something very mysterious about its clandestine operations.

A half-forgotten story about a mysterious bakery waited patiently at the back of my mind for years. Finally, I decided to write a short story about it, but it just didn’t seem to work. Then along came NaNo (National Novel Writing Month) and I seized the opportunity to breathe new life into the story. Writing a novel in thirty days is a daunting task, but it certainly focuses the mind! My bakery took on a life of its own, and lots of new characters to tell the tale. I decided to set my novel in a town that lies one hour north of Paris – the town of Compiègne, which is full of history and has very strong connections with World War II. Even though this book is not in the ‘Time-Slip’ genre like my first novel, there are still a lot of historical elements in the book and Compiègne seemed like the perfect location for the story to unfold. I really enjoy tracing the influence of the past through my stories and exploring its effects on my characters, and so the bakery’s story really begins during Nazi Germany’s occupation of France.

I also wanted this book to retain a light-hearted quality and I relished being able to describe the culture shock that is ‘la vie en France’. Having lived in Toulouse for a year in my twenties, I had a lot of personal experience to draw from. My protagonist, Edith, also brings a lot of warmth and humour to the story. A woman in her thirties, who is trying desperately to recapture her ‘student years’ by flitting off to a job in Paris, but needless to say, nothing goes according to plan (which is usually when you have the most fun!)

The Mysterious Bakery On Rue De Paris is a blend of all my pleasures in life: Pastries, travel, history and a good old fashioned story about finding yourself, your bliss and hopefully, some romance. Where do you find your ideas and how do you translate them into your writing? I’d love to know 🙂

 

The Mysterious Bakery On Rue de Paris (7) - Copy  The Mysterious Bakery On Rue De Paris Amazon ~ Kennys.ie ~ iTunes 

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Why Readers Should Go Indie

small__5599873685   I recently read a piece by Richard Lea in The Guardian Books Blog about how self-publishing may well be a revolution for writers, but that the same might not be true for readers.  It wasn’t so much the article itself, as the comments that inspired me to make the following points:-

Readers, please don’t make the erroneous assumption that just because a book has been traditionally published, it is somehow ‘better’ than a self-published book.  

Phew, glad that’s out there.  Now I have to be honest and admit that I’ve also been under the same illusion – if it’s published, it’s a safer bet.  But how true is that?  The whole self-published -vs- traditionally published argument has been flogged to death at this point, but it doesn’t always consider the readers point of view.  As a reader myself, I’ve read many ‘lemons’ in my time and wondered  how the hell they ever got published.  But to know that, you would have to understand the inner processes of a publishing house, which I don’t pretend to know, but suffice it to say, it all comes down to sales.  ‘Will they sell?’ is the question at the heart of every publication decision and that’s only natural.  At least, that’s the only reason I can see why The Random House Group have published no less than five novels by Katie Price.  Five.  NOVELS.

There are lots of reasons why really good authors get rejected by traditional publishers, everything ranging from (a) the length of the novel (b) they might already have a similar book on their lists (c) they might already have a similar author on their lists (d) they don’t have money to invest in new writing.  Of course we all know the story of how JK Rowling was rejected by no less than 12 publishing houses, despite having the representation of a good agent.  Imagine if she had just given up?  Or decided to self-publish Harry Potter?  Would people still be looking down their noses?  The gatekeepers, as they are known, therefore control what the public reads.  They decide whether or not this year’s craze will be vampires or wizards.  But readers have had the most recent laugh, because with the revolution of self-publishing, readers can pick and choose what they want to read, not what the publishers have decided they should.  A recent example of self-publishing success is Mel Sherratt, who had her novels rejected for reasons varying from not fitting into a genre to being too generic!  No such rejection from Kindle readers however, who sent her debut novel onto the bestsellers list.

Sometimes authors actually choose to self-publish.

Imagine that!  Readers might not be aware, but a lot of  authors actually choose to self-publish rather than sign a contract with a publisher.  Polly Courtney is the perfect  example – she ditched her publishers HarperCollins because they insisted on creating ‘chick lit’ style covers for her novels, despite the fact that her novels did not fit that genre.  And frankly, I don’t think the move has done her any harm either.  There are lots of examples of authors feeling pressured by publishers to ‘fit in’ and compromise on their creative output.  Equally, there’s the time it takes to get your book out there that can make self-publishing more appealing.  For a newbie such as myself, if I sent a submission to a publisher, it could take the best part of six months before receiving a response.  Only then do you send the entire manuscript, give that another few months.  Then there is the whole acquisitions process, give or take another few months.  Only then will the actual production begin, editing, layout, cover design etc.  It would take at least a year or more to see your book on the shelves.  Then there are the royalties.  I think the standard rate for new authors is 10% of net.  Yikes!

Where’s the risk?

People have commented that they don’t want to take the risk on an Indie Author that they don’t know, but I ask you, where’s the risk?  On both Amazon and Smashwords, you can read a free sample of the book before you buy.  If you’re still not sure, most of us Indies have websites and blogs, so you can get a good sense of our writing style.  And if you’re still unsure, check out the reviews on Goodreads and other sites.  That’s about as much information (if not more) as you will get in a bookstore about a traditionally published book, only eBooks are cheaper so you’ve risked even less!  Not to mention all the promotions and giveaways that self-published authors run on a continual basis, you’re bound to get a bargain.

Are there a lot of crap self-published books out there?  Of course there are, just as there are a lot of crap traditionally published books.  Writers who are serious about producing good quality books will do their best to create a great book.  Those of us who are in this for the long haul want to build a readership that can trust our ‘brand’, so we are not going to release anything that would fall below our own self-imposed standards.  Self-published authors now  have easy access to book designers and editors, creating a new and exciting space for other freelance experts to create outside of the traditional constraints.

Being self-published is challenging and don’t get me wrong, I would welcome the support and backing of a publishing house to help get my books out there.  It’s hard being a one-woman show and I know that when I launch my second novel next month, I will be doing the equivalent of standing on the Cliffs Of Moher and trying to shout across to America!  It would be fantastic to have the marketing and promotional services that a publisher can offer.  So I don’t want this to be a publisher-bashing exercise.  In my opinion, I think the industry is adapting to what readers are demanding and we now have ‘digital imprints’ and ‘digital first’ arms to many of the traditional houses, which is great to see .  My point is that self-publishing can be (and is) a revolution for readers too and I think we are reaching a stage where the reader doesn’t care who published the book – as long as it’s good.