Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Marek Krajewski and the city of Breslau

Don't know about you, but I'm not exactly short of books to read, so I don't often need to go searching for something new. However, I do keep my eyes open, and occasionally the Saturday edition of the Times (London) runs a column on new crime books. Also, occasionally, science fiction. But I don't think it ever stoops so low as to list new romances.

Anyway, couple of months ago the Times made mention of a new crime novel by Marek Krajewski. Sounded intriguing, so I looked him up.

Krajewski is a former academic who taught at the University of Wroclaw, which is now in Poland. And until 1945 Wroclaw was known as Breslau, and it was part of Germany.

If you live in the eastern part of England, you will have learnt that there is nothing between the east coast and the Urals. Nothing, that is, that would stop or slow down the Russian winter wind. Of course, the wind is not really cold by the time it gets to England. Not cold by Arctic standards. But by God it's pretty bloody chilly by English standards. And the point is, you see, there's just a big flat northern European plain until you get to the Urals.

What that means is that there are no natural boundaries. Hence lots of wars over territory. Hence cities changing hands and names. There are only a few rivers to divide the plain up a bit: Vistula, Oder, Elbe, Weser, Rhine. And although they are pretty big rivers they're not big enough to be much of an obstacle to a determined army. So Poland, for instance, has tended either to be very strong and big (1611, my memory tells me, was the biggest it got, but I may be misremembering), or it has been small and weak.

All of which is a bit of background. What you need to know, relative to Marek Krajewski, is that in the 1920s and 1930s, one particular city was known as Breslau, and was part of Germany, and now it's called Wroclaw and it's in Poland. In 2016, should you care, it's going to be the European City of Culture.

So, it is in his home town of Breslau, in the 1920s and thereafter, that Marek Krajewski has chosen to set his series of crime novels. There are four of them so far, and I understand that there will be a fifth. They are translated from Polish, and the UK publisher is MacLehose, part of Quercus. The UK publisher has given several of the books a striking set of covers by Andrzej Klimowski.

Krajewski's lead character, and series detective, is Eberhard Mock, head of the police, and a complicated fellow indeed. Drinks too much, beats his wife Sophie, and so on. He walks (or, more often, gets driven down) the mean streets, which seem to be lined with brothels, casinos where women have to serve as sex slaves to pay off debts (one of said slaves being, at one point, the unhappy Sophie), and so forth. The place is thick with Nazis, freemasons, debauched aristocrats, and all like that.

Question is, can I wholeheartedly recommend these books? Well, yes. Up to a point. I suspect that you need to be interested in the history of Europe in the twentieth century. You need to keep reading when part of you says surely there must be a more interesting book in my pile. But on the whole, it's a rewarding series. Perhaps, if it doesn't sound snobby, one could say that these books are for crime-fiction connoisseurs. I've read two so far, and intend to keep going.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Dean Wesley's Smith's words of wisdom

Some months ago I stumbled across the blog written by American author Dean Wesley Smith. Dean also has a web site which describes his thirty-year (and counting) career as a writer. Most of his output has, of course, been published in the pre-digital era, and the total so far is over 90 novels and 100 short stories. So he's a man of some experience.

I find that Dean has a habit of publishing blog posts which say exactly what I would say if I had the time and the energy (in addition to doing some fiction writing), so I thought I would just link to his sites and leave it to you to explore as you wish (or not).

If you are a wannabe writer, or even a published author with a book that you are trying to promote, there is much here for you to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. (That last bit, by the way, is a quote from the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer, 1662 version. You may think it's a bit poncey of me to quote such stuff, but I heard it in church many times in my schooldays and it has kind of stuck. In any case, it neatly encapsulates my thinking, and advice, on Mr Smith's dicta.)

Dean's view is that the main thing you need to do as a writer is produce a substantial body of work. Stop pissing around, stop reading all that twitter rubbish, and get your head down for a solid ten years or so.

What prompted me to write this little recommendation was Dean's post of 15 October 2012. In it, he notes that all the professional marketing skills in the world will not help you if your novel is not, actually, very good. I have the distinct impression that one effect of the digital revolution is that some readers are not much influenced by reputation. In fact they may not even care that you have one. All they care about is the story. Does it grip at the start? Does it continue to hold their attention? There are numerous examples nowadays of ebooks which are, by normal publishing standards, semi-literate and unpublishable, yet they sell to readers who aren't too fussy about all that spelling and punctuation stuff but just wanna read a good story -- on their smartphone or tablet or whatever. Books? What are they? Oh, those funny square things people carry around.

Anyway, here's the sort of thing Dean has to say, and it's just as true of me as it is of him:
Folks, sorry, but if you have only written one novel or few short stories, promoting a pile of crap just won’t help you.

And trust me, I wrote some really heaping, steaming piles of crap when I started out. We all do. And my piles of crap were pretentious because I came from a poetry background and thought I knew everything about writing. They were rewritten to death because I believed that was the way to create art. They had zero thought to the art of storytelling or what a reader on the other side might be thinking when reading it.

They stank up the place and I had no idea at the time.

Looking back, I have no idea what would have happened to me at that point in the 1970s when I wrote those early stories if I had the modern world of easy access to publishing. I imagine I would have published and promoted them to death and wondered why readers were so stupid as to not understand my great art.

Luckily I didn’t, so I just sent them to editors who paid no attention and sent me form rejections.
Yup. Me too.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

A few words in front

This morning I read a blog post by an author who said he'd been asked, some time ago, to write a 'forward' to a book. (I'm inclined to doubt it, but who knows.) Anyway, he did his bit, sent it in, forgot about it, and was then surprised when a copy of the book arrived complete with a 'Foreward' by him.

To which my ungrateful and unimpressed response was, make your fucking mind up, sunshine. If you're going to get it wrong, please get it wrong consistently.

Now I know Americans do things different, as they do in Norfolk, but surely there is no disagreement on this one, is there?

It's a foreword, folks. It's a little intro which goes before the body of the book.

And the spelling does not seem to be in dispute, as evidenced here, and here, and here, and here....

Yes, I know. Ought to get out more, wrong side of bed, grumpy old bugger, better things to do with his time...

But it's all about communication. About the smooth and unhindered transfer of facts and ideas from one human to another. And such smooth transfer is not aided if some of us have to break off from reading and go bang our heads against the nearest wall.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The teenage writer sensation revisited

A day or two ago I noticed yet another variant on the familiar tale of a dramatically young writer being hailed as a sensation. And I thought to myself with a weary sigh, Oh dear. Here we go again.

And yet, on closer examination, the detailed story in this case turns out to be a little different. This time it may not spell, as it so often has in the past, disaster for a young person who is entirely undeserving of such a nasty fate.

Here's the story so far. And it turns out to be a month old, though I have only just noticed it. HarperFiction, says booktrade.info, acquires 17 Year Old Debut Novelist. Perhaps they don't like hyphens at HarperCollins, and they don't seem quite sure whether they are HarperCollins or HarperFiction, come to that; but let us not nitpick as if we were a grumpy old Englishman with peculiar views about the teaching of punctuation (if any) in modern schools.

It was the headline about the dazzling young writer which made my heart sink a bit. And to suggest why, allow me to mention the case of Jenn Crowell, whom I briefly mentioned in my book The Truth about Writing.

In 1997 there were press reports that Hodder & Stoughton had paid £500,000 for the UK rights to a novel entitled Necessary Madness, by 17-year-old Jenn Crowell. American rights were bought separately. If the name and the title do not ring any bells, that's because the book didn't sell well. It did not even appear in the top 100 paperbacks for the following year.

Well, that's the silly kind of thing that happened in those days. An agent would get herself all excited, either genuinely or for sales purposes, and would ring her favourite editor in a breathless state, make the big pitch, talk it all up, young author, photogenic, TV shows, bullshit, blah blah blah.

And then later, after the book had failed to impress or to sell, they would all try to forget it had ever happened. Leaving the young author, of whom so much had been expected, and whose friends and family had been led to expect a massive success, film version, fame, fortune, glitter, Oscars, prizes, life of glamour.... Leaving her where? High and dry, I suspect. Deeply disappointed, at best. Suicidal, at worst. Writers do tend to take such failures rather seriously, especially if they're young and lack perspective. Most experienced writers, myself included, have had such setbacks, though seldom, regrettably, on the £500,000 scale.

Jenn Crowell produced one other novel, and has made a success of her life in other directions. And congratulations to her. But it isn't quite the career that we were led to expect by the hype, is it?

We can find numerous other examples of the superhyped young authors, from Francoise Sagan in the 1950s to the babes in arms of recent years. And all of them lead me to the conclusion that too much too soon is a dreadful fate. And that is why I sighed, just a little bit, about the news of a 'six-figure sum' being handed over to Abigail Gibbs.

However... God is merciful and it seems that this case is different. In this instance it is not a matter of temporarily deranged drinking buddies, agent and editor, getting together and making entirely false sales forecasts on the basis of no evidence whatever other than pure hunch and a misplaced faith in their own infallible ability to spot a winner.

No. In this case the writer comes with a small army of fans behind her.

Abigail, it seems,  'is a phenomenon online, publishing The Dark Heroine: Dinner with a Vampire serially on writing website Wattpad since she was 15-years-old. To date, it has been read over seventeen million times. She has a global following, with readers all over the world who have become fans of her characters as well as of their creator. There is already an enthusiastic online subculture of devotees to Violet, Kaspar and Fabian.'

So this time it may not all end in tears.