Thursday, February 28, 2013

Short Fiction for love, not money


A good few months ago, I posed the question of what I should work on next since the second novel was finished. Well, it turned out I wasn’t quite done with the book, for a variety of reasons. I edited, fiddled and tinkered for a few more months until it was done mid-December. I then found myself too busy writing my organization’s annual report and bucket loads of press releases to have any headspace for fiction in the morning/evening.

Work has finally calmed down, so I now have a bit more time to write, and I am coming back to what to write next. Truth be told, I’m still not quite done with the second novel as little ideas to improve it keep popping up, but since it’s with the publisher I’m going to hold off on further. If the publisher takes it, then there will an opportunity to monkey around with the text during the editorial process. Instead, I am going to spend a few months returning to short stories.

You probably wouldn’t expect a man who wrote a book about zombie cows to enjoy writing serious literary fiction, but that’s where I started out and that’s where I have decided to return. I think I need the change of pace and deadline to get myself going again, and short stories also have a way of forcing you to focus on the value of every word. This is useful for going back to novels, as the extra space can lend itself to flabbiness if you aren’t careful.

My first task is to put something together for the Bridport Prize, and after much back-and-forth between two pieces I’ve settled on which one to develop – a decision made largely on the basis of likely length. It’s one of the toughest competitions in the world to win, and I do not hold out any real hope of getting to the latter stages, but the beauty of entering is that it forces you to put your all into creating an excellent story, which you will still have after the competition is over and somebody much better than you has won.

After that, I have about five stories to develop. The long-term goal is to build up a body of work of sufficient quality for a collection, although this is where the problem of the difference in styles comes in. My short stories are, on the whole, very different from my novels,and the rigid application of genre-thinking that applies in the publishing industry could well derail any attempts on my part to get a collection published. Also, the sad fact is that short story collections often don't sell well. A writer friend of mine, who released an amazing collection after placing highly in the Bridport and winning all sorts of competitions, only sold a few hundred copies in a couple of years. Still, I write largely for the love of fiction rather than to make money, so if my short stories never see the light of day at least I will have had a lot of fun creating them

Finally, if you want to see how different my short fiction is from the insanity of Apocalypse Cow, you can read a few here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Horrendous writing advice


Just as I rarely post reviews (see my last entry), I also don’t get into the writing advice game very often. There is already more advice out there than you can shake a million sticks at, and I prefer to write than write about writing – or write about writing about writing, as I just did. However, I recently witnessed possibly the worst piece of guidance I have ever read and feel compelled to weigh in.

Given to a budding writer who had been demoralized by an in-depth critique he had just received (from me, as it happens), it went something like this: “Don’t worry about your grammar and punctuation. A good agent will see past that to the great story you have written.”

Now, this was said by a well-meaning friend with no background in publishing and was no doubt meant to gee the writer up. I’m all for encouraging new writers, but they have to understand the hurdles they will have to jump to make it.

A good agent, even a truly rotten agent, will not see past a manuscript that has poor grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation. Agents and publishers, as I have heard directly from people in the industry, are looking for reasons to reject rather than accept. To those not familiar with the industry, it may seem harsh that an agent will dismiss a story without reading it properly because of a few technical glitches. There are, however, very good reasons for this.

Firstly, agents and publishers are overwhelmed with submissions. Have a look around the various websites to see how many are actually even accepting proposals. Many close their submissions process for long periods just to give themselves a chance to wade through the massive slush pile. Consequently, if they see an excuse to cut down on the backlog, they will take it. If a writer hasn’t taken the time to master the most basic elements of his or her craft, upon which everything else is built, then how can an agent be expected to assume that the writer can handle more complex elements such as plot development, characterisation, pacing, theme development and so on? A writer may have imagination and great ideas, but this alone doesn’t make a great story. Imagine an architect who can’t draw or a carpenter who can’t create a smooth join. The conception is irrelevant if the execution is poor.

Secondly, somebody is going to have to fix these basic errors before the book goes to a publisher and ultimately to print. Who is going to do that? The writer who didn’t realise these mistakes were there in the first place? Unlikely. The agent would either have to edit the manuscript, which no reputable agent will do (although there will be those who charge a fee for that, whom you should avoid), or go through the manuscript and point out all of these mistakes and then trust that the writer would be capable of fixing them. This would take time that no agent has to spend.

If you are serious about making it as a writer, you have to make sure you know your nuts and bolts, and you have to make absolutely sure your manuscript is beyond reproach in these terms in order to let your story shine through. If you don’t feel you are capable of this, then hire a good editor before you send your manuscript anywhere. Without such steps, you don’t stand a chance in an industry that is growing tougher to break into every year.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Honey Guide

I don't normally do reviews, but since I went to the trouble of writing and posting this review on Amazon and Goodreads, I figured I may as well put it up here to make it seem as though I actually update this blog occasionally.

The Honey Guide, by Richard Crompton
Police procedural/detective novels are ten-a-penny these days, many of them formulaic and rather predictable in terms of character and plot - putting aside the masters of the genre, that is. Fortunately, Richard Crompton's novel sidesteps falling into the usual traps by virtue of the fact it is set in Nairobi, Kenya.


Anybody who has lived in Nairobi for any length of time, as I have, knows that the police force has limited access to modern policing techniques such as advanced forensics, vast computerized databases, and highly trained specialists. Even the guns look so old and rickety you wonder if they would ever fire - which is desirable since they are often casually wafted barrel-first at your head by the officer sitting next to you on a bumpy bus. As a result, Mr. Crompton's book is a back-to-basics detective novel, in which the main protagonist Mollel - a Masai cop whose wife died in the US Embassy bombing - must track the murderer of a prostitute through old-fashioned legwork.

Complicating the investigation is the violence that erupted following disputed 2007 presidential elections, which sees Mollel following his lead through an increasingly chaotic landscape, and being sucked into corruption and political shenanigans in the process. Mollel himself is a fascinating character. While he has the obligatory demons, his are not the hackneyed issues of failed relationships and alcohol. I won't go into any of them to avoid spoilers.

The novel is meticulously plotted, offering up red herrings aplenty along the way and keeping the reader guessing as to the identity of the killer until late into the book - although perhaps the more astute reader of detective fiction will figure it out sooner.

The writing very much leans toward the literary. Not a word is misplaced as Mr. Crompton paints a vivid picture of a capital city in which the thrust of capitalism has created an environment in which sprawling mansions and sparkling malls exist cheek-by-jowl with grinding poverty. Not that he lingers on this poverty: the energy and drive of ordinary Kenyans, an extraordinarily entrepreneurial and forward-looking people, comes through strongly. There is no weepy-eyed Western aid worker perspective here.

While having the aforementioned literary bent, from the opening scene where Mollel dispenses justice to a bag snatcher via a thumping kick to the nuts with steel toe caps to the climactic scene amidst a bloody riot, the story zips along with pace and verve.

This is the first in a series, and it looks likely to be one that keeps bringing readers back for more. The blurb says that Mr. Crompton will do for Nairobi what Ian Rankin did for Edinburgh. He has a long way to go before he pulls off that particular trick, but the early signs are that it is well within his grasp.