You’re all winners

All the talk recently about Julian Barnes Booker win and all the questions it has thrown up (much the same questions that seem to be thrown up every year,) makes me wonder why the Booker prize even has a winner. I’m not really sure what it achieves. This isn’t like the time I tried to convince people that the Olympics would be improved if they set a target on each event and gave a gold medal to anyone that hits it, (like say, a gold medal for anyone that runs a hundred meters in eleven seconds or less.) My Olympics idea was a joke, even if people did seem to think I was being serious. But with the Booker, and other prizes of an artistic nature, it might make a little more sense.

At least with the hundred meter sprint you can’t deny that the winner deserved to win. The Booker is judged arbitrarily on subjective qualities. It’s not surprising that people don’t always agree. I thought the Booker tried to get around some of the problems by stating that the contest is judged solely on the quality of the book, without taking into consideration that career of the author, but there is still often question over whether that really is the case. I’m not saying Barnes didn’t deserve to win, I thought Sense of an Ending was an excellent book but I didn’t read all of the others on the shortlist. But there did seem to be a sense of Barnes win being overdue, and if the prize is judged on the strength of the book solely that that wouldn’t make sense. Of course, making the shortlist four times does, at the very least, suggest the kind of excellence required to win.

Every year I am keen to see which books are on the shortlist, and every year I couldn’t give a stuff which one wins. It just doesn’t seem important. It doesn’t tell us which book is the best, not really. It just tells us which book the judges thought was the best. And that’s a different thing. I’m not saying they get it wrong, I’m just not sure that using the word ‘best’ to describe one novel out of six which were all considered good enough to be on the shortlist is a useful thing to do. Why not just do away with having a winner at all? Make the announcement of the shortlist the big finale to the whole affair. It’s not surprising if more than one book in a year can be considered excellent. Why then worry about which is most excellent?

I expect the point of the Booker is to promote great writing. It gets people reading, and talking about writing and writers. The shortlist does that. Picking a winner tends to just leave people wondering about what the judges criteria were. It gets people arguing about whether readability is a quality of a great novel, of if a novel of 150 pages is really a novel at all.

As part of last years World Book Day there was a program that selected a group of writers of merit, discussed the books, discussed the choices, but didn’t get bogged down in wondering which of them was the best of the group. That seemed good to me. All the writers on that list were winners. When I pitched my Olympics idea I was accused of trying to dumb down, of trying to appease people who weren’t winners and just placate people. Not an unfair criticism of what I hasten to remind was only ever a joke suggestion. But the Booker isn’t the Olympics. No one sits down to write a novel with intention of winning a prize. Excellence should be applauded, great books ought to be celebrated, but worrying about which book is the best of the best just doesn’t seem worth it.

Before You Were Born

So I finished formatting my small collection of five short stories and have now uploaded it to the kindle store. Here’s a link to its page on Amazon and here’s a link to my page on this blog about it.

I can remember when I first started pursuing writing seriously and saying that I would never self-publish. At the time the division between self-publishing and vanity publishing was blurrier and harder to distinguish. I intended to walk the established path of submitting short stories to magazines and then, ultimately, novels to agencies. At the time there wasn’t a lot else to do with short stories. I submitted almost everything I finished to either decent print magazines or to online ones, with varying levels of success. From the print magazines I tended to get polite rejections with occasional hand written messages of encouragement, online I had a fair number accepted. Once I started working on my novel my output of short stories slowed down and so I hadn’t submitted anything to anyone for a long time. The last one I submitted was the only one ever to earn me any money and that was, I think, in 2007.

During a break from trying to repair a horribly mutilated first chapter of my novel I decided to write shorts again for fun, and wrote the five that ended up being in this collection. I started to wonder what to do with them. My instinct was to send them to online magazines again, but in the intervening years digital publishing has exploded, as you probably know, and I had new option open to me. Where in the past the options were to submit them to magazines and quietly collect rejection slips or use them to stuff pillows, now I could get them out into the world very easily and completely free of charge.

I’m not saying that uploading them to Amazon is better than submitting them to magazines.  I see the pro’s and con’s in both. The process of uploading a book to Amazon and seeing it online in a very short space of time is quite exciting, but all that has happened is it is now on the bottom of a very deep pile. It’s available, sure. But it’s pretty hard to notice it too. Equally getting a story in a magazine looks great on a submission to an agency, but it is no guarantee of success, and the density of failures to get that one success makes it a tough ride. Which is actually better? I have no idea.

It’s not about the money, by the way. Before You Were Born costs £0.86 to purchase, of which my cut is about £0.25. Plus the fact another book on the bottom of the Amazon pile isn’t going to be very visible, and so not sell many copies, coupled with the generally held belief that short story collections don’t sell well unless you are already an established author means I stand to make an insignificant sum of money. I desperately wanted it to be free, but Amazon won’t allow it. £0.86 was the cheapest I was able to post it for. I’m honestly not sure how other people have posted their books for free download.

I tried to make the digital file as attractive as I could. I spent some time on design and am pleased with how the final book looks. I have tested it on my kindle and on an iPhone and it’s looks pretty swish. I figured one way to stand out a little bit was to pay attention to the quality of the finished product. I have seen many an ebook that has not had a lot of time spent on formatting and design. Hopefully mine stands out a little for that reason.

Of course though, it is all about the writing. If you do decide to take a look at it then I hope you like it. I am happy with how it turned out. Hopefully you will be too. If not, sorry about that.

Summer’s gone

Seems summer has finally ended. Last Sunday, against all expectation of how my Sunday’s usually happen, I was in a forest in Rugby with some friends playing laser-tag for a stag-do and worrying that I didn’t have any sun-cream on. This weekend we put the heating on and I had to wear a coat when I went out. Not that I’m sad about it. There comes a point during Summer and Winter when I get tired of the weather and begin to pine for its opposite. I am more than ready for an extra blanket on the bed and trying to find my gloves in the mornings.

So the booker prize short-list came out and I had a look through for what I fancied reading. There were three that appealed to me, two of which I have since read. The first, Snowdrops by AD Miller, was a book I had seen on the shelf a while back and almost bought but ended up buying something else instead. I had fancied a thriller since playing LA Noire on the xbox and when I finally got around to reading one I went for a well-regarded classic, The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy. So when I saw Snowdrops on the booker long-list I was reminded of it and bought a copy on my kindle. It wasn’t quite the book I expected it to be. There was a lot of discussion around about the booker judging panel perhaps being more drawn to crime and thrillers this year so I went into Snowdrops with an expectation of spies and stuff. My expectation was wrong but the book didn’t disappoint. It’s the story of a slightly hapless English lawyer in Moscow and how he gets caught up with a pair of sexy Russian girls and a property scam they are perpetrating. I have no idea how realistic the portrayal of Moscow is – never having been there – but it’s strongly and evocatively written. The simple plot actually relieves some of the problems I have found in other thrillers; namely that plot, in an effort to be intriguing, becomes overwhelming.

The other booker short-listed book I read was The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I had never read any of his stuff before, but he comes with a lofty reputation. I read the book in very short order. It’s not long, only 150 pages, but it’s also very hard to stop reading. It skips along, scything out decades of superfluous story in order to remain on point. The point mainly being an examination of an event from when the protagonist – Tony – was young, many years later when he is older. The tacit acknowledgement right at the beginning regarding the reliability of memory and historical fact announces early on that our narrator is going to be, somewhat classically, unreliable. He reveals himself to himself as the novel progresses toward the – I hesitate to use the word twist, which doesn’t seem to quite fit even if it is apt.

So, very good books both. The third book that I fancy from the short-list – Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman may have to wait because Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot finally appeared this week. I started reading it, only about 20 pages, before I decided to read Sense of an Ending first, but now I can’t wait any more. It’s been eight years or so since Middlesex, I feel like I have waited long enough. And very soon Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 is set to arrive in the post, and that’s another book I won’t be able to hold off of reading. A while ago I decided that I would not read two books by the same author back to back like I used to. When I was younger if I found a writer I liked I would read that writer exclusively until I either ran out of books or lost interest. I gave a large chunk of my formative years to Terry Pratchett and Anne Rice. By insisting on switching author every book I read more widely. In anticipation of IQ84 I have been holding off of the remaining books on Murakami’s back-list that I haven’t read. Murakami’s books are always a treat. I deliberately avoided reading Kafka on the Shore for a long time, until I really needed it. I ended up reading it while I was recovering from my brain haemorrhage. I was glad I waited.

So between The Marriage Plot and IQ84 I couldn’t be happier that summer is finally making way for winter; it gives me a great excuse for staying in.

Been a while since I wrote a post here. Sometimes life gets all hectic. Between the evening classes I have taken up, going running wherever possible and cramming in as much training as I can at work my home life has mostly become about lying on the couch recovering. I’ve had a few things that I have been meaning to write about on here, so I’ll whiz through them quickly before I forget all about them.

There have been a couple of books that I have read recently that were noteworthy. The first is The Tiny Wife. This is the first book that I have actually felt moved to go and write an amazon review about. I had read one of Andrew Kaufman’s other books, All My Friends Are Superheros, earlier this year. When I heard about this one I pre-ordered on amazon. It turned up on the day of release and I read it the next morning at about 7am before I had breakfast. One of the phrases that crops up a lot about it seems to be ‘small but perfectly formed’. That is a sentiment I couldn’t agree with more. Kaufman has a real talent for packing a lot of substance into very few words. It’s quirky and charming and imaginative, gorgeously illustrated and well worth taking a look at.

I also read The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson. The only issue I have with Jon Ronson is remembering whether his name is Jon Ronson or Ron Jonson. Before writing this I had to go and check. I had not read anything of his before. His writing reminds me of watching a Louis Theroux documentary, chatty, conversational, gonzo. The Book’s charts Ronson’s journey through psychopathy, and rather than being a dry academic text on the subject is a really lively read.

As I wrote before, I have been writing a lot of short fiction recently. I have been toying with the idea of formulating it into a small ebook and uploading it for free download. I might write about this more fully when I have done so, but with the advent of ebooks there is a new means of unpublished writers getting their work out into the world. I have no idea if it is better to do this than to carry on doing what I used to do – submitting my stories to magazines. It’s an exciting development though and one I am interested to explore. I have been putting together an ebook of my stuff, making sure it looks good on the kindle screen, and seem to be getting somewhere with it. Hopefully it won’t take too much longer to get it ready, but I don’t want to rush it.

My recent adventures with short stories

I have been writing a lot of short stories lately. I hadn’t written one for ages, I think the last one I wrote was the first one I sold and that was in 2007. My novel took up all of my time since then but recently I decided to take a break from it (there is still a little more to do on it but I needed to get away from it for a little while) and write some shorts. A collection of short stories by Magnus Mills, a thoughtful birthday gift from my wife, inspired me to just get on with it and have fun writing something new.

I had a lot of ideas in a short space of time, all of which got scrawled in my notebook, and I have been slowly working my way through the ideas, writing them out and seeing what happens. There have been two things that have helped me to write these stories down relatively quickly. One is when I am not sure what to type I just skip ahead in the story until I am. I have, up to now, always been a strictly chronological writer. But Kerry caught me staring at the computer screen for longer than about five minutes and demanded I just jump ahead and write a bit I was more sure of. Brilliant advice as it turns out. With that story I ended up writing the beginning, then the end, and then filling it out afterwards, stitching it together as I went.

The other is nothing new, when I wasn’t sure how to say what I was trying to say I just said it any old way and then fixed it later. It is amazing how you can struggle to phrase something one day and then the next see the solution so clearly it was a wonder it ever seemed hard. When I first started writing I had this terrible habit of wanting every sentence to be finished as I was writing it. As a consequence I wrote very little, and drove myself mad re-writing the same thing over and over again. Now I think of first drafts the way painters approach a canvas. Those early splashes of colour only look vaguely like the thing they are supposed to be, but the picture reveals itself with refinement. And in fiction terms there is something refreshing about writing that feels like it has flowed rapidly. It feels more conversational, less laboured.

I have even been writing some of them long hand in my notebook. I’m not sure why it happens but my writing almost has a different flavour when it is written that way. Plus I have the added fun of, from time to time, listening to Kerry attempt to read it. My handwriting is so dreadful that when she reads it aloud she sounds like a five years old reading from a children’s book, stumbling over the words, and occasionally getting them wrong. Admittedly, my handwriting is so bad I find the exact same thing happens to me sometimes.