Salt Publishing

Last week on Twitter I saw that Salt Publishing were doing a call for people to buy a book directly from them using the hashtag #justonebook. I like Salt publishing a lot. They have published some fantastic books, they do an annual anthology called Best British Short Stories – which is one of my more ambitious writerly aspirations – and they are based in Cromer, which is a lovely little seaside town in Norfolk of which I have some very happy memories. A set of happy memories that includes eating Jack Daniels flavoured ice cream down by the seafront, which was either the most wonderful thing I have ever tasted, or is simply another childhood memory that nostalgia has bent out of shape.

So wanting to support a small publisher that I admire a great deal I went over to their site and started looking for something to buy. I have to be honest, it never occurred to me before to buy books directly from the publisher. Normally I would just make a point of keeping an eye out for books I want when I am in bookshops. I think it would have been pretty easy to find most of the books on Salt’s catalogue that I liked the look of in one the bookshops near where I live, but I wanted to answer their call. I had a dig through their website and found quite a few books that I fancied but in the end I went for The Book Collector by Alice Thompson

BookCollector

It is about a young woman who marries a man and have a child together and settle into a comfortable, idyllic life. She loves to read, he likes to collect books, but one day she finds a secret book of fairy tales in a safe in his study and that seems to precipitate the gradual unravelling of her mind. Seeds of doubt are thrown in and so she (and we) are unable to tell what is really going on, what is real, what is delusion. And when her husband hires a nanny to look after the child everything seems to slip further and further out of her grasp.

It is brilliantly written and completely compelling. It has a creeping darkness that constantly wrong foots you as you read. There are some clever little references to gaslights through the first half of the book that made me feel like I had figured out what was going on, but then chapters later it had me doubting myself, making me think I had read to much into an incidental detail. Is the book collector gaslighting his delicate wife, or is Alice Thompson gaslighting me? Or neither? Or both?

I had intended to finish reading it before writing this post but I still have about fifty pages to go. I was going to try to fit it in through the day but life conspired to keep me from it. Some days are like that. But I will finish it soon and then there are a number of other books that I want to read from Salt. There is The Other Word, It Whispers by Stephanie Victoire, Two Sketches of Happiness by Simon Kinch, and The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks. I actually can’t type all of the names of the ones that caught my eye because it would take too long. Just go over to Salt’s page and take a look for yourself.

A Week Where I Spent More Time Submitting Than Writing

I made a lot of new submissions of short stories this week. I had two entered into the same short story contest and neither won, so that freed them up to get sent elsewhere. I know it’s a bad way of doing it but I was so keen on this one prize in particular that I didn’t submit either story anywhere else in the eight months while I was waiting for it to be announced. This isn’t a good way of handling short story submissions and I know it, so now I have sent out a bunch and I’m feeling a lot more professional about the whole endeavor.

I’m trying to be quite strategic about it and targeting my submissions very carefully, while maximising my time and submitting to multiple places at once. I have my list of  about ten journals and magazines that I would particularly like to be published in, and I am going for those first. It’s probably not wildly different from other peoples lists, but it’s good to have so much work out there at once. It still feels a bit like playing the literary lottery. No matter how familiar you are with a particular journal you can never be entirely sure that your story is a good fit. Or even good enough. I have no idea how to evaluate that.

But the submitting has happened and I’m feeling very good about it. It’s also been very helpful that so many places use Submittable, the online submissions management software. I love the ease that it brings to the submissions process, having a journals submissions guidelines so easy to see is fantastic, and there is something pleasing about a list of open submissions. I’ve never felt so organised. The only real downside is the obsessive checking that it has inspired. There is nothing rational about checking on the status of a submission an hour after you made it, but that’s what I found myself doing.

One of the things that I think Submittable has really added is the ease with which you can financially support the publications that you are submitting to. I know there has been a lot of controversy about publications charging reading fees, and how Submittable makes it just as easy for them to charge as it does for us to submit, but on the whole I like the way I have seen publications using it. For example The Lascaux Review has the option of submitting for free, or with a small tip; no pressure, just the option of clicking this button rather than that button. Ambit magazine has a bit at the bottom of its submissions page where you can buy subscriptions or single issues with a note saying that making a purchase absolutely will not affect the outcome of your submission, which is good. I’d be disappointed if it did. But it gave me a very convenient way to grab a copy.

I read a bunch of different posts around the internet about the ethics and legitimacy of publications charging submission fees, and it is a thorny issue. Anything that might inhibit a writer from submitting because they simply can’t afford it would be a shame, but equally the publications need to survive, and I feel good about financially supporting places that I am hoping will support me artistically. But I know that I’m lucky to be able to afford it. I didn’t used to be able to, but while I can I will.

But the obsessive checking it inspires is real. I even checked it once while writing this.

The Girl With Another Book on the Shelf

Mostly when I read what I am looking for is challenging, interesting, deep, thoughtful writing that affects and changes me by the act of reading it. But sometimes I am tired and there is only so much examination of the human condition a person can take. Sometimes you need a break, sometimes you need a little junk food, and this is my junk food of choice.

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I read the first of the Millennium trilogy and thought it was merely okay, then read the second and third and got hooked on it. The first book is like a really sadistic episode of Murder She Wrote, but the rest of the series gets really good when it focuses on Salander’s history and the tangled mess she is in the middle of. I knew that Larsson had died after writing these books, but I had also heard that he had sketched out ideas for a whole series of further books. As it turns out the first three books form a complete narrative and if there had never been any more than those they would still stand alone as a finished trilogy. I was glad it was so complete, but would have loved to have had some more.

So then a couple of years later David Lagercrantz was invited to carry on the series and we do in fact get some more. I was talking to a friend of mine who had really liked the originals and I was saying that I had enjoyed the new one. He said it wasn’t anywhere near as good as the originals. And he’s right, it wasn’t. But it was good enough. Some of the fire seems to have gone out of them and they read like The Further Adventures of Lisbeth and Mikael – like high quality fan-fiction – but still, good enough.

What I hadn’t realised when reading the first of the Lagercrantz series, was how much controversy there was surrounding these books, with his partner opposing them being written at all, and his family, who inherited the estate, allowing the publisher to go ahead with more.

The posthumous wishes of writers not being honoured is an interesting subject. Ever since I heard about Max Brod completely reneging on his promise to prevent a load of Kafka’s work being released, it’s hard to read those books without a sense of transgression. Of reading something you shouldn’t be reading. It makes me feel a little naughty. But The Trial has been such a touchstone for me as a writer, such a source of inspiration and courage, that I’d be a lot poorer without it.

And then recently there was the story about Terry Pratchett’s wish to have his computer smashed with a steamroller so that the unfinished work would never be seen. His wish was carried out, and this seems entirely fair and respectful. I have some crappy half-finished stories on my hard drive that I’d rather people didn’t see. Of course reading Pratchett’s half-finished, unpublished work would be interesting for anyone that loves his books, but would it diminish him? Letting him define his own legacy seems a pretty reasonable thing to do.

But the Larsson/Lagercrantz books are a different kind of thing. Whatever these new Millennium books might be, they have almost nothing to do with what Larsson would have written had he been around to do so, and it’s worth keeping the separation between them clear. A bit like the Anthony Horowitz Sherlock Holmes books. They are good and all, but not canon. Larsson’s original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy deserves to be thought of in its own terms, and these new books are like a little extra treat for anyone that wants it. And I want it, because there aren’t many books of this type that I really enjoy and like I said, I need a break from the ongoing examination of the human condition.

The Importance of Structure

One of the things that is most important for me when writing is that I should understand the structure of what I am trying to write. I might not always know what the structure is when I start, but it is essential that I figure it out along the way. Often when I write I start with something very loose and unfinished, often just a scene or a few sentences that seem like they go together, but along the way if it doesn’t start to take shape I’ll probably just abandon it. My computer is littered with stuff like this. Interesting little ideas, quirky scenes and phrases, but not necessarily stories. A story has to be story shaped.

Recently I started working on a new piece. At first all I had was one sentence, which I scribbled down and then expanded into a scene. Then I wrote another, separate, unrelated scene. What’s it going to become? It might turn into something, but it might just fizzle out. A lot of them do. For it to become something it has to stop being a few strands that feel like they belong to something else and become a complete whole. Something that when you read it leaves you feeling like you have the totality of the thing. And that doesn’t necessarily mean following the usual route of a story. It doesn’t have to mean disruption of the status quo, rising action, resolution. It doesn’t necessarily mean beginning-middle-end. It might do, but it doesn’t have to. It just needs to feel complete.

In a recent essay on the Glimmer Train bulletin, writer David Ebenbach wrote an interesting point on a difference between a novel and a short story.

“What the novel says, I think, is that any single event is the result of many, many things. That’s why you have the hundreds of pages leading up to the climax; those pages suggest the philosophy that you can only fully understand that climax and its significance if you know a whole lot about all the things that led up to it… The short story says something different—not contradictory, but different. The short story suggests that any single moment or detail, in some sense, contains everything”

This is an interesting idea, and a useful way of thinking about form. Novels are about movement, change, impact, cause and effect, consequence. His definition of a short story, the detail the contains the whole, is fantastic I think and really captures something of the magic of a good short story. And thinking about these different narrative forms in this way, as being essentially different in both what they are trying to do as well as how they are trying to do it, means that thinking about how to structure them becomes a little more apparent. I remember when I was young and showing short stories to my mum she used to tell me that they felt like unfinished novels. That was probably because I hadn’t learned the shape of a short story. The condensed, rounded little thing that lets you hold the entirety of it in your hand. It’s very different from a novel, that needs to move and sweep and before it lands.

The structure of a story doesn’t have to feel obvious to the reader, but if it is there they will feel it. Like how you can’t appreciate all the architectural complexity of a building just by walking through it, but you can get a sense of the wholeness of the thing. Structure delivers the reader through the story, and lets them know where the edges are. And for the writer it is the boundary that you are going to work within.

One of the best moments, for me anyway, when writing, is when the structure emerges and I can see the whole of the thing. Suddenly it is manageable, even if there is still a lot of work to do. I know where I am starting from, where I am trying to get to, what to fit in, what to leave out. Learning what to leave out was a big step for me. The first novel I ever wrote didn’t leave very much out at all and I think the first hundred pages or so were chronologically continuous and so the structure, such as it was, was like a slow walk down a long corridor. I am trying to develop a better sense of the motion of a story and the planks that let you walk along it. The way the ending connects to the beginning, the way it all flows together, so that it feels complete and satisfying and whole.

Something To Say And A Voice To Say It In

So recently a big box arrived from Oregon with my free copies of Glimmer Train issue 100. I had been so eager to get these because this is the first time I have had a story accepted, and I badly wanted to see it. I have to tell you, it is a weird feeling seeing the words that I wrote on my rickety old laptop, on my old dining table, with my old cat getting in the way, in such a lavish, beautifully presented book.

glimmer 100

I first heard about Glimmer Train a long time ago when I first started writing and was trying to figure out who to send work to, since I didn’t even really know where to send it. I took a close look at them and quickly decided that they were much too good for the likes of me, and so I didn’t submit anything to them for a very long time. I was never very brave about sending work out, but then last year I decided on a different approach.

It was inspired by my wife’s job search strategy. A few years ago we moved town and she ended up out of work as a result and when she applied for jobs she applied only for the most exceptional jobs in her area that she could, figuring that as each application was unsuccessful she could slowly lower her sights until she got something. Then she would never have to wonder if she had missed out on something better. So I borrowed the strategy and submitted the best short story I had to Glimmer Train, never expecting it to get accepted, but that’s what happened. Old me never would have done that and so old me would have really missed out. Incidentally my wife also got the first job that she applied for. The strategy worked better than expected in both cases.

Since then I have been submitting to the kind of places I never would have dreamed of submitting to. I haven’t had another acceptance since, but I have had some favourable rejections from some pretty prestigious publications. It is very hard to explain why you are so happy to have been rejected by Granta, but when they encourage you to submit again it’s a very good feeling.

About a year ago I had almost given up on ever getting anything published. I figured I would never quit submitting, and I certainly wouldn’t quit writing, because it was way too important to me. But I had kinda made my peace with what the idea that I wouldn’t ever have any success. In a way, this was very freeing. One of the things I love about writing is I sort of end up explaining what I think to myself and not expecting that anyone else would ever read it meant I just wrote more naturally.

I’m a very thinky person but I know that I can end up thinking in circles. It’s hard to get anywhere with the same words rotating around in your head. But talking lets me hear the words and suddenly they sound different and I can figure which are the good ideas and which are the bad ones. And writing has this same effect. Stuff emerges and I get to see it differently. So I figured that even if I never managed to publish anything, this on its own was a very useful thing to do. In my years of writing there have been a number of occasions when I could feel what I was doing had stepped up a notch. When I found a rhythm, or a voice, or a structure, and it all felt a little bit better than it was before. I think the point at which I started using writing as a way of figuring out my own thoughts was a big step up for me. To be a writer you need two things; something to say and a voice to say it in. For a long time I was working on the voice, but it took me a lot longer to figure out what I was trying to say.

So maybe this will be the only story I ever manage to publish but if it is I will still spend a huge amount of my time sitting here writing my little stories, if for no other reason that I find it so personally useful to do so. But for as long as I am writing I will be submitting, and I don’t think I will ever feel like there is a publication that I shouldn’t submit to ever again.