Friday, August 19, 2005

Five tips to avoiding total disaster

Or, to give this thing its full title, Five Tips to Avoiding Total Disaster as a Novelist from a Poor, Wretched Fool Who Had to Learn the Hard Way.

Yesterday I had an email from Yolanda Carden at FSB Associates, enclosing an article by Kris Saknussemm, author of a novel called Zanesville, which is being published by Villard in the US in October. No sign of a UK publisher yet, but the book is listed by, so there should not be a problem in getting a copy.

The article, said Ms Carden, was available for me to use on my blog if I wished, free of charge.

Now, I am usually somewhat resistant to this kind of thing. After all, it is only a week or two since we looked at The Traveller, an intensely hyped book which was commensurately disappointing. However, I made a few checks and decided that Zanesville sounds quite interesting.

First of all, Villard is a perfectly respectable publisher, part of Random House no less, and therefore not your run-of-the-mill POD outfit.

Second, if you go to you can find the Publishers Weekly review of the book. PW is not 100% enthusiastic by any means, and the plot summary isn’t going to attract every reader, but it intrigued me.

Third, FSB Associates is a highly professional book-publicity firm with a very fancy web site; and, presumably as part of the push for Zanesville, there is a site devoted to the book, on which you can read some other reviews and plugs. FSB seem to be doing their stuff.

Finally, when I came to read Kris Saknussemm’s article, it seemed to me to contain some sound advice. So, here then is what Kris has to say:

The problem with ‘should’ advice is that it’s either something you already know, i.e. your diet should include more fruit and vegetables than cheeseburgers and martinis -- or it’s something really difficult (like consuming more fruit and vegetables than cheeseburgers and martinis). So, based on my own stumbling, fumbling experience, I offer the following list of things I would strongly advise aspiring and despairing writers not to do. I doubt that simply by avoiding these pitfalls you will be guaranteed international fame and fortune, but I’m confident that you will at least escape many unnecessary frustrations and defeats, so that you can be fresh for the really poignant failures and setbacks that will either make or break you -- and with any luck will do a bit of both.

First Tip. Do not spend years gathering interesting material -- odd quotations, overheard remarks, colorful phrases, bits of trivia, weird statistics and obscure facts in the hope that you will one day find a story to contain them. I ended up with a literal warehouse of such stuff and I can tell you now with considerable confidence that the larvae of the human botfly bore into the skin and gorge themselves, emerging as centimeter long maggots, while a Joshua Hendy nine-thousand horsepower steam turbine delivers a cruising speed of 16 knots at 78 rpm. There is nothing wrong in knowing that if left underwater for years brass gives off a bright verdigris stain or that the first Birds of Paradise shipped back to Europe had their legs chopped off to facilitate packing, but the collection of details is like any acquisitive habit -- potentially obsessive. You can end up with a novel that reads like the Gospel according to St. Matthew translated into the Duke of York Island language and a response from the publishing industry reminiscent of a deserted poolroom on the shore of Sheepshead Bay. Put bluntly, burn your notebooks and clear your head.

Tip #2. Do not spend years experimenting with different forms of writing and various intellectual follies such as cut-ups and verbal collages, intricate multiple person narratives, dream stories, recipe books, anatomies, imaginary academic theses and the like. Yes, it’s true that some of the world’s most interesting literature has elements of these forms -- but that was then and this is different. If you are serious about getting a work of fiction published today you need quick sharp answers to the following questions. In what section of a bookstore or retailer’s website will your book be found? Which authors can your work be likened to? In three sentences or less what’s your novel about?

Tip #3. The Puritans believed in covering the body for modesty’s sake. Yet they developed a sexualized fascination for the ears of women and the noses of men. My point? (See Tip #1) In apparent restriction there is unexpected release. Dickens created over 800 individual characters and laid down some of the most intense cultural satire in English -- but his writing really came into focus when Wilkie Collins hipped him to the detective story. I struggled for years trying to find a form for my writing, flitting around like a Ulysses butterfly. The moment I gave myself permission to write an action/adventure story, things started falling into place. Modern art has provided artists with unparalleled and some might argue paralyzing freedom. Don’t waste time trying to create a new form. It’s given to very few people in any medium to do that -- and many of their achievements end up looking like legless Birds of Paradise later. A seemingly simple repetitive musical style like the Blues has proven capable of expressing the full spectrum of human experience and has inspired countless variations and mutations. Give yourself over to an established structure and follow its guidelines, and suddenly interesting points will emerge to surprise you.

Tip #4. Read your work aloud, to some willing victim ideally, but at least to yourself. Storytelling began as an oral form and the ear (however erotically appealing) has a trueness to it that will reveal what’s working and what’s not in a more immediate and decisive way than simply scanning the page. This discipline will also slow you down psychologically and bring you into more intimate contact with your story. In the end, it will take no more time than reading back a page silently.

Tip #5. Ignore all reasonable sounding advice like “write about what you know,” “read as much as you can,” or “try to write every day.” If you need to hear this advice you are in the wrong game. But more importantly, reasonableness won’t get the job done. One day in an ice-stricken back alley in Boston I saw a fat little Irishman beat the daylights out of four larger, stronger assailants. When it was over, and it was over astonishingly quickly, he brushed himself off and said simply, “I had to get unreasonable with ‘em.”

Unless you are willing to face the unreasonable in yourself -- unless you are willing to entertain some strange notions (and deal with them when they stick around) -- unless you are willing to get lost, confused and even terrified -- then what you’re doing won’t have any meaning. The famous device of conflict upon which all stories are supposed to hinge starts within the writer. You are all the characters in your dreams and so too with a novel. You can’t put your creations into jeopardy or into embarrassing or miraculous situations without going there yourself, and that is not a sensible ambition for a grown person to have. As a writer who has made more mistakes than most, my goal above all else is to be very, very unreasonable.

About the Author:

Kris Saknussemm grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area but has for a long time lived abroad, in the Pacific Islands and Australia. A painter and sculptor as well as a writer, his fiction and poetry have appeared in such publications as The Hudson Review, The Boston Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters and ZYZZYA.

Zanesville (Villard; October 2005; $14.95US/$21.00CAN; 0-8129-7416-6) is his first novel and the first in a series of books called The Lodemania Testament. For more information, please visit these websites or


Anonymous said...

Oh God.

All aspiring novelists please listen, and listen carefully.

Kris Saknussemm is a professional writer (and a painter and sculptor). His work has appeared in many prestigious publications, he has won literary awards in Australia and America, and has done public readings of his work over more than twenty years. And this is how he has come to have a novel published.

His achievements are no doubt greatly to his credit, but that’s not the point. His advice may be excellent for the publishable classes (celebs, the connected, and those with a marketable CV). For the rest of us, it is quite quite worthless.

I know of no literary insider who is prepared to admit it openly, but the fact is that publishers have no interest in the work of the unpublishable classes. On the basis of answers to a questionnaire which I submitted a few years ago to a dozen major UK fiction publishers I concluded that, for every 4000 novels submitted by said classes to genuine publishers, 3999 were rejected. And things have probably got worse since then.

In response to Mr Saknussemm, here are my five tips for prospective novelists. Choose any one, and don’t start writing till you’re established.

First Tip. Become a celeb. The writing will be done for you. (This is the only way to guarantee success.)

Tip #2. Make a name in journalism. You’d be surprised how many novelists start this way.

Tip #3. Join a publishing house. Make a favourable impression on the people who matter.

Tip #4. Make social connections with significant people in the literary world.

Tip #5. Get something interesting on your CV – e.g. become a hit-man, or the victim of hideous persecution. Publishers will prefer you to begin with non-fiction, but you might well become a novelist on the strength of it.

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