A torrent of words

Helga’s Post #62:

and-the-winner-is-320x180The list of best books of the year is out, arriving with great fanfare. Sadly, none of the 5 writers’ books are among the titles, but not for reason of less than stellar quality of our writing.

No, it’s for entirely different reasons. In short, we are still awaiting publication. Here’s what has to happen, in reverse order preceding publication:

After our agent managed to sell the book to a publisher.

After we snagged an agent who finds us worthy of representation.

After we marketed our final, polished and markedly condensed manuscript.

After we finish editing draft number 3.

After we finish draft number 1.

5 simple steps for 5 intrepid writers. That’s all. Identical steps – or maybe better to call them gates – that every author has to pass before publication. From there it’s a giant leap for the titles of their creation to appear on that coveted list of best books of the year. Only a handful or two will crown the list, with dozens of ‘also rans’.

And while we’re on the topic of lists, it’s instructive to take a look at the topics that earned those authors their laurels. Because this blog is mostly about writing fiction, I will start with those titles. I will however also look at non-fiction because it could enlighten novelists as to what readers are interested in. What’s in vogue. What makes the world go round.

In short, the best fiction titles are in the following genres, starting with the highest rated:

– A 19th century murder mystery stretched out on a post-modern canvas. (The Luminaries). Amazingly, the author is the youngest ever to win the Man Booker prize, 28-year old New Zealander Eleanor Catton. The Luminaries is her second novel, beating out 151 competing novels for top spot. I tried to research whether Eleanor Catton is an outliner (since this topic has occupied the 5 writers for quite some time, especially lately). I was unable to find any reference, and time to put it into this post was too short for contacting her. But I did find this morsel about her writing habit: ‘Having spent most of the previous three years locked in her study, writing, she now faces a long publicity tour and unprecedented public exposure.’ the_man_booker_prize_catton.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterbox

And the runners-up are:

– Reincarnation and destiny: what if people could go back and have another shot at crucial moments in their lives (Life After Life by Kate Atkinson).

– Jane Austen was wrong. It is not weddings that make the best fiction, but funerals. (Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi).

– A post-modern, explosive thriller of a Victorian tale, complete with the secrets of a heavy gold ring. (The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt).

– An unusual thriller with a memorable octogenarian hero. Not many authors succeed in being funny about dementia, but this one did. (Norwegian by Night by Derek Miller).

– A funny debut about love, ambition and misbehaviour in Brooklyn. A proper 21st century eponymous scoundrel is both fascinating and sympathetic. (The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adele Waldman).

Our group of 5 writers wouldn’t necessarily write in these genres. We are not quite in the literary camp, although some of our writing could be considered borderline. You never know when we start writing a novel. The story might start out as a thriller and end up a steamy romance. Or we are aiming at the bestseller list, starting to write a commercial novel and end up writing a literary story with a conspiracy bend. We just might get carried away. We might leave the low-hanging fruit for others and reach higher.

So what about the topics of the best non-fiction books of the year? Their topics too are instructive and may be useful for fiction writers. We do want to stay ahead of the curve so we are able write stories on topics people are talking about.

Broadly speaking, the sub-genres here are:

–       Politics and current affairs

–       Biography and memoir

–       History

–       Economics and business

–       Science and technology

–       Culture, society and travel.

Let’s take a closer look.

– Top of the list book in politics and current affairs is ‘a passionate elegy of four generations of history on the conflicts of Israel’. (My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel).

– Biography best book is about much misunderstood Calvin Coolidge, America’s 30th president during the Depression. (Coolidge).

– History deals with Mao’s revolution, using new archives. ‘An elegant history’ showing in detail how two million Chinese were murdered. (The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution).

– Economics and business could put many a fiction writer to sleep, but apparently not this book, written by none other than Stephen King’s horror-writing namesake. This is serious scare-mongering at it best: a convincing assessment of what happens when the rich world becomes over-accustomised to rising standards of living. (When the Money Runs Out: The End of Western Affluence).

– Science and technology, as you might might guess, is rich ground for sci-fi writers among us: Astrobiology, the study of alien life, is no longer a dream. Suddenly detecting life on other planets shows that the impossible dream is possible now. (Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars).

– Culture, society and travel also dishes out some great titles. On top of the list stands a story, or rather essays, about a refugee from Sarajevo and the bitter betrayal of those who destroyed his homeland. (The Book of My Lives).

– Another book in this sub-genre is particularly relevant for fiction writers: Taking the lives of six American writers – including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver – the book explores the role drink played in the work of these talented figures. Simply sobering! (The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink).

So there you have it. A torrent of excellent words. Maybe it will spark an idea or two for your next novel. If you are not inspired, no harm. You now have a list of books you may want to put under the tree for friends and loved ones. There has never been, and never will be, a better gift than a good book.

Me? Oh there’s no end now on what to focus on. More ideas than I need. Trouble is, once you decide on a story, it’s a big commitment. Huge in fact. Not quite like accepting that special ring and saying ‘yes’, but it does have similar elements. If you read this and you’re a writer, you will probably agree.

I would love to hear how YOU feel at the exact point of final decision. When you commit to the topic that will send you, like Eleanor Catton, spending the next three years (or one, if you’re fast like some), locked up in your study.

Happy writing!

BooksUnderTreeAddendum: The above list of books is from The Economist Magazine. It’s worth checking out the full list with all titles.

6 thoughts on “A torrent of words

  1. My problem isn’t the commitment once the idea comes, it’s getting the danged idea in the first place. And the commitment? Simple. This is what I do. This is my work. The real, honest, full commitment came when I decided that what I wanted to do was be a writer. That’s when I said “yes” and I’ve been that almost as long as I’ve been married. And I feel the same way now as I did then. Excitement, sinking heart at all those hours, days, weeks, months and years until the final product goes off to the publisher to await the “yes” or “not this time, thanks.”

    • Thanks for your comments, Bev, insightful as always. We writers do experience excitement, sinking heart and every emotion in between at different times. Sometimes it feels like being on a roller coaster, never a boring moment. The highs and the lows, we live with them constantly. We writers will never be bored with our lives.

  2. I only have two novel-length manuscripts under my belt, so that’s not many to judge by. When I sat down with the idea for the first, there was a great sense of excitement that I was really setting down these words and a novel was taking shape. The second one, though, quickly felt more challenging, and the follow-up ideas were often slow to appear. Of course, both are being rebuilt, so maybe neither feeling was a good predictor of what would come! 🙂

    • I also recall the thrill and excitement when I sat down to write my first novel. It’s a very special moment in our lives. The second novel, well, I’ve learned to tame that excitement somewhat, having learned from my mistakes. So I am trying to be a better project manager to avoid the pitfalls that exuberance can bring. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, JM.

  3. Thanks for the fantastic capsule review of great new books Helga. Ah, so many ideas, so little time! As you well know, the story in my first book rattled around in my mind for a decade or so before I actually sat down to write anything. By that time, the poor thing was carrying so much baggage it was like writing with a heavy weight around my neck. Book #2 is a lark by comparison, but I’m finding I’m not really satisfied with a simple mystery-suspense yarn. Sunny’s story is also taking on more weight and meaning as I go. Or so it feels …

  4. Still on the third draft of my first novel. It’s sort of “alternative history” except that the outcome is the same, but how the outcome came about is the “alternative” part. As such, it delves into politics and current affairs. Am I jumbling too many genres together? Hope not.

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