Did you like my novel?

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‘I like your novel. I enjoyed it.’ She says this plainly, a mere fact, but there’s no mistaking the rising inflexion making joy into a query… a statement of surprise.

‘I’m reading your novel.’ Nothing more. Just what should be a reassuring statement. But what does it mean? Has she finished the first chapter, where’s she up to? She doesn’t say.

‘I loved your novel,’ with a notable circumflex. But that’s over the top and you don’t believe her. It’s gushy, can’t be true. And a noted circumflex indicates there’s more to be said, but she says nothing more. What is it she won’t say?

Then there’s the silent friend, who came to the launch and never mentions your novel, ever again. Her silence more potent even than a notable circumflex or rising inflexion.

‘I liked your novel.’ The past tense. You feel robbed somehow. Only liked it.

Then a good friend goes on Goodreads and gives your novel four stars. You’re delighted and then you think… why not five stars? You check other books they gave five stars to. You try not to feel aggrieved. Now the distance between four and five stars becomes the distance between friends.

At last, a critic. You pay careful attention. Someone who read your novel and didn’t like it. They tear it apart skilfully, piece by piece, analyse its flaws. The flaws you already knew about and hoped no one would notice. You are riveted, you read every terrifying thing they write, not once, not twice, but over and over and over. You become greedy and Google your own novel become convinced that none of your friends know half as much as this really negative woman on Amazon. It feels good, you know you deserve this.

Praise is overrated.

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In praise of editors

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In praise of Editors

Inspired by Stephen Stratford’s recent article ‘The Book didn’t sell…’ I decided to write about my experience of editors from an author’s point of view.

My first novel ‘About turns’ was published by Random House. I had the great good fortune to be assigned Jane Parkin as the editor (arguably NZ’s best editor). I was totally new to this process. Although, most gratefully, the manuscript had been somewhat tamed and shaped through the generous mentoring of Barbara Else of Total Fiction Services, before being offered to Random House.

Jane invited me to her home. We sat at her kitchen table. We chatted like old friends about the characters in my novel. It was a revelation to me. Jane engaged with my characters as if they were ‘real’. She even went so far as to identify one of them as just like her friend from the local tennis club. I was flattered, delighted and excited. The experience was unforgettable. I knew that Jane had worked with the likes of Maurice Gee and Witi Ihimaera and other luminaries. It was my ‘pinch me’ moment.

And then, the edits came back to me, and I was dismayed to see how many things needed my attention – a word order reversal (actually many), a sentence (many sentences) to remove, a paragraph to create, a scene to cut, and queries in the margins of every page. It was daunting and then it was exciting. Jane made me a better writer (well, she made me look like a better writer).
Once my novel was published, I had a coffee with Jane and chatted about the edits and her experience as an editor. Where did I fit on a scale of how bad to how good, I nervously asked? She told me that when she read Maurice Gee, she barely had to touch a thing. She said there were some novels she joked she could have put her own name as author and somewhat hesitantly I asked ‘Where do I sit?’ Perhaps generously, perhaps she fibbed to flatter, but she said ‘somewhere in the middle’… I was relieved – after all, this was my first novel.

Then came my second novel ‘Turbulence’ published by Random House. My assigned editor was in Auckland, so we worked on-line and on the phone. She’d just finished editing the reissue of works of Janet Frame. I felt trepidation that mine was the next manuscript. We developed a working rapport but there was none of the affection and connection to the story or my characters in the same way there had been with my first novel. It felt like more of a ‘technical’ edit. The novel didn’t do so well, although all my male friends preferred it to my first novel and Owen Marshall, who I so admire, felt it was better than my first novel.

My most recent novel ‘Daughters of Messene‘ (7 years in the making) was by far the most stressful and yet the most rewarding editing experience. I had done so many revisions prior to the novel being presented to Makaro, but Mary McCallum, both a writer herself and a publisher, saw where the novel wasn’t working. She pushed me to increase the pace in the first part of the book, to get my central character to Greece where the action would take place. She pestered me for conversation, names of characters, and challenged me constantly. Then work began with the Whitireia students Emma Bryson and Megan Kelly, two very talented young women completing the Publishing Diploma. They became champions for my young character Artemis. They identified with her and took me to task when she wasn’t on track. They pushed me to make her stronger, to give her a backbone. It was thrilling. I revelled in the collaborative nature of this editing – lots of it was on-line and every new query became an opportunity to either stand up for my work or take up the challenge to improve it. Although exhausted, and at times utterly frustrated, it was exhilarating and unforgettable. I always be grateful to Makaro and Whitireia. It is my best piece of work.

It’s my best book

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I was clearing my mailbox in our local village this week, and bumped into a fellow writer. She is a published children’s writer. I hadn’t seen her in a while and so I commented. “You haven’t been to any meetings lately.” The meetings I was referring to are the local meetings of the Wellington Branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors. We host local writers as guest speakers and there’s a good sense of community and shared experiences.

“No,” she replied, “I can’t get my book published!” I was taken aback, and queried her. “It’s my best book,” she told me. She went on to tell me how writing is her raison d’être, and how she feels about rejection … well, I know how she feels, but there’s no point is there, I told her in hiding away. Yes I understood, but I was also less sympathetic than perhaps I might have been a few years ago. The fact is good writers are being turned down all the time by publishers right now, I told her… I tried to jolly her along, with tips for self-publishing (quoted Ted Dawe’s success with ‘Into the River’), spoke of EBooks, plied her with encouragement and as I urged her forward, I was barracking for myself as well.

And then on Facebook, I saw a link to this comment by the astonishing, grounded, super-talented, Man Booker Prize long-listed, Ellie Catton, answering this question for the Herald…”Are you an easily intimidated woman?” She replied:
No. In my experience intimidation is linked to competition in a fundamental way – people who are intimidated, or who consciously intimidate, are competitive in their attitudes towards others – and there’s no room for competition in literature. I do feel very impressionable, though, both as a writer and as a person.

And this set me to thinking about my conversation with my fellow writer in our local village. I know she felt very alone in her sense of rejection, as if only she could understand how awful it was. I think I used to feel like that, but I don’t any more. I recognise now, such things as what a privilege it is to be able to write (the time for one thing). And too, what an honour and privilege it is to be published. And, more and more, how many talented writers there are – what competition we face.

I love the quote from Ellie Catton and too, I admire her talent and modesty. But I disagree. Writing in itself is not a competition. But being published, having your book purchased, making the long list (and surely the short-list) for the Man-Booker is all about competing. There are judges, and they have to choose, and this is a fiercely literary sort of competition – high art – and how do you judge – but judge they do, and it is the very best writing we hope that will win.

Here in New Zealand I sense pride, I think we are thrilled about Ellie Catton’s success. But too, it’s partly self-interest. I suspect we imagine that her success will cast a glow upon New Zealand literature and that somehow the reading public will be more inclined towards us – yes, us (local writers) all of us, by association. But that’s not true, not really. Ellie’s triumph and her talent is all her own.

“It’s my best book.” This lament has stayed with me. I feel the same about my third novel. But there’s no point in lamenting or wailing, there is only the writing – and it’s either good enough, or not. It may have been good enough before the advent of the EBook and the closing of book shops, but now your manuscript will have to compete even harder – it will have to look like a best seller.

Ellie Catton’s runaway best seller debut ‘The Rehearsal‘, evidently sold… 3,500 copies in New Zealand. You’d expect a lot more wouldn’t you for an internationally acclaimed, prize winning novel? I imagine it has sold more internationally – I sure hope so.

No, literature is not a competition in the way that sport is, but if you’re going to cross the finish line (i.e. a published manuscript), then you’re going to have to compete. Nowadays it often begins with competition for a place on an MA course at a university. Well, just like being selected for the swim team, you have to compete in the trials and meet a certain standard. this means submitting your ‘best’ pieces of writing. Not all of those who get selected get published, but the odds are probably stacked in their favour… normally an MA course means a University Press with a vested interest in their own ‘product’ and why not?

And then, if you win that round and have a real book in a real bookshop, you’re competing with all the other beautiful books (oh covers do matter), and you are competing for readers, reviewers, or goodness me,stars on Goodreads…and on it goes. And unlike swimming or running, where you know what the world record is, in writing, you have no idea… and nor should you, other than your ‘own idea’.

You can be a Booker Prize Winner, but still not sell as many books as, well, er Dan Brown. I guess it depends what you’re competing for…but readers surely are the bottom line, or not…

My friend’s lament ‘It’s my best book’ may well be the lament of writers everywhere. And indeed it may be true, and that indeed that is all you can do – the rest, is up to the publishers, the readers and the judges. And all the best to Ellie – go team New Zealand!