Saturday, 29 January 2011

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2011

After some consideration I have decided once again to enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award with my recently-completed historical novel Mr Stephenson's Regret. I entered last year with 11:59 and managed to get to the semi-final stage. The book was subsequently published by Wild Wolf.

I have a feeling it will be more difficult to get so far with an historical novel, but it will be interesting to find out. There are several stages to the competition, or should I say hurdles. From a  possible 10,000 entries that start out as runners in the two categories (General Fiction and Young Adult Fiction) only two will cross the finish line - one in each category - while bodies pile up at the fences behind them. The first fence is The Pitch - a maximum of 300 words to interest the judges enough to put you through to the next round. There is much massacre here; a maximum of 1,000 entrants in each category will be allowed to progress to the Second Round, so most poor souls won't be given the opportunity to have one word of their manuscript read before they are unceremoniously culled. It's a hard world.

I've copied my pitch below for anyone interested. There are a few days of edit time before the deadline (6 Feb) so if anyone has some valuable advice to give me about the pitch, please do not hesitate. It might save me falling flat on my face.

Mr Stephenson's Regret - The Pitch

This incident-packed novel brings to dramatic life the pioneers of the railway age. Central to the narrative is the complex, often tense, relationship between George and Robert Stephenson. Father and son have ambitions and desires that provide the engine for their achievements but create a crisis that threatens to derail their journey at a crucial stage. Theirs is a generational conflict, universal and as valid today as it was two hundred years ago.

In following the challenges the Stephensons face, personally and as a partnership, much is revealed about nineteenth century mores – about class division, self-interest and greed, indulgence and sexuality, repression and guilt – that may taint even the sweet taste of success. Through their association with some major figures of the day – the Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel, Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria – we discover how they are viewed by the establishment.
Then there are the women in their lives. George marries three times: Fanny, Robert’s mother who died when he was small, remains a haunting presence; Betty, George’s first love, whose father rejected the impoverished suitor, waits years for his return; and Ellen, his young housekeeper whom he weds just six months before his own death, shocking his son. Robert’s marriage to Frances has a slow-burning complication. Each of these inter-relationships provides a depth of human and romantic interest, and crucially influences the character and development of both principals.
This is at once human story and big canvas drama. Nothing was more important in the development of Victorian Britain, and consequently the world, than the coming of the railway age. Literature, reflecting the interest of its readers, has had a long love affair with trains. Mr Stephenson’s Regret shows the kindling of the affair from a place within the hearts of the key participants.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Dorothy's wrong words

Someone at New Writing North sent me a copy of this telegram once sent by Dorothy Parker (1893-1967). Now there's a woman who was not normally lost for the right words. What I say is, if the condition is good enough for Dorothy, it's good enough for me.

Receiving this made me recall some of Dorothy Parker's famously witty and barbed comments. Not someone to get on the wrong side of. Here's a few of her best.

All those writers who write about their childhood! Gentle God, if I wrote about mine you wouldn't sit in the same room with me.

All I say is, nobody has any business to go around looking like a horse and behaving as if it were all right. You don't catch horses going around looking like people, do you?

How could they tell? (on being told of the death of former President Calvin Coolidge)

Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.

I require only three things of a man. He must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid.

Authors and actors and artists and such
Never know nothing, and never know much.

The only 'ism' Hollywood believes in is plagiarism.

There is entirely too much charm around, and something must be done to stop it.

Those who have mastered etiquette, who are entirely, impeccably right, would seem to arrive at a point of exquisite dullness.

That woman speaks eighteen languages and can't say No in any of them.
(of a departing guest)

If all the girls attending it were laid end to end - I wouldn't be at all surprised.
(of the Yale Prom)

She ran the whole gamut of her emotions from A to B. (of actress Katherine Hepburn)

His ignorance was an Empire State Building of ignorance. You had to admire it for its size.(of Harold Ross, editor of The New Yorker)

Outspoken by whom?
(on being told she was very outspoken)

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

Money cannot buy health, but I'd settle for a diamond-studded wheelchair.

And to show she wasn't all just feistiness:

Lips that taste of tears, they say
Are the best for kissing.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Not in front of the family

This week I have an article published in The New Writer magazine. It's about the awkwardness I felt after writing my novel 11:59 when I showed it to the family for the first time. It has sexy passages, you see. For those of you who do not subscribe to the magazine I have reproduced the article below, but I would urge you to subscribe to the magazine anyway - my article aside, it's always an excellent read and often provides good opportunities for writers.

Not in front of the family

Exactly fifty years ago barrister Mervyn Griffith-Jones famously asked, ‘Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters - because girls can read as well as boys - reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?’ The book, of course, was Lady Chatterley’s Lover, on trial for obscenity along with its brave publisher Penguin.
Much has changed since 1960. For one thing, not many of us (not even top lawyers) have servants. Most of us deplore sexism, and we are much more relaxed about sex; aren’t we? That was my bland assumption while I chiselled away at the hundred-and-odd-thousand words that became my novel 11:59 published this summer.
So why my sudden anxiety when I handed the finished draft over to my wife Paula? Why the weird vision of my three children, two grandchildren, my six siblings and my eighty-five-year-old mother-in-law all lining up in an imagined future, open-faced and eager to receive their copy of David’s/Dad’s/Granddad’s new book? Why did my palms feel clammy?
As many writers do, I subject my wife to the first reading of any manuscript that I persuade myelf I have completed. My son Joe is another useful proof-reader and critic. No problem in the past with exposing my loved ones to the outpourings from my brain. The difference with 11:59 is its generous use of explicit language and a couple of frank sexual scenes. Prior to this, my strongest published cuss word was shit and my only sex scene a ‘you show me yours and I’ll show you mine’ exchange between two curious nine-year-olds. Quite a leap from there to 11:59. The novel is written in the first person and my central character twice visits a brothel as well as having vigorous casual sex in a van with a schoolgirl. It never occurred to me, in the heat of writing, that ‘How did you do your research?’ might be a valid question.
Until that hand-over moment. For the first time embarrassment kicked in. Why? It’s not autobiographical, for goodness sake. I can justify content and diction on the basis of both theme and character. A major sub-plot in the novel is human trafficking; the story delves into the dark and secret places of the city where criminals and low-lifes lurk. How else are these characters supposed to talk and act? There is nothing gratuitous, nothing sexed up purely for the purpose of titillation... and yet, as I emerged from my writing room having briefly and solitarily enjoyed the afterglow of completion, I suddenly felt as shifty as Marc in my novel when he returns to his partner Sam, his senses overwhelmed by the stink of his still-warm adultery.
We are a liberal-minded family. We have laughed together at uninhibited post-watershed comedians on TV, enjoyed the full-frontal frankness of many modern movies. Paula and I did not blanch when each of our children at a certain age decided the time was right for current partner to stay the night, eventually move in; but my anxiety about her reaction to the manuscript crystallized when she passed it back to me a couple of days later with a brief but telling, ‘Very good. Really moves along. I hate to think what Mam will make of it.’
Could I have written the story without the expletives? Could I have resorted to euphemism, replaced letters with asterisks or dashes? During the redrafting process for 11:59, and even while the book was being prepared for printing, I had plenty of opportunity to tone down the descriptions of sex, which were brief but graphic, but I didn’t. Certainly my editor seemed comfortable with everything, and there was no adverse reaction on publication. Why would I expect otherwise? This is 2010, not 1960. Anything goes, doesn’t it?
What will not go from me is a foolish, lingering sense of shame about those dirty words, those few blue pages. Not before the world at large, but in the face of friends and family. I continually find myself making excuses for the book, preparing the ground for anyone of my acquaintance about to read it, in some cases warning them against... you know it might not be your sort of thing... and even being grotesquely thankful for my mother-in-law’s near-blindness. When people I know are reading my novel, I worry that their perception of me will change for the worse, that they will begin to suspect me of harbouring gross desires, of clamping my mouth with difficulty against a torrent of filth ready to spring from my mouth like a man in the grip of Tourette’s. The veneer of respectability stripped away, I feel as if I am watching my relatives from the dock. I have not only put myself on trial, but pronounced myself guilty. Caught in the act.
When I was ten, the year of the Lady Chatterley case, my junior school teacher snatched up my hinge-top desk to catch me flicking through a slim paperback called The Strip-tease Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee. He gave me a lecture and  a hearty strapping in front of the class, then spent the rest of the day reading the book under cover of his big desk while we sweated over long division. I had found this pearl of pulp fiction, complete with lurid front cover, abandoned on my big brother’s bed. Until I sat down to write this, I had forgotten all about the incident. Now I’ve finished, I’m going to gather up all my personal copies of 11:59 and stow them away. After all, this is not the kind of book I want lying around the house for the kids to read.

11:59 by David Williams is published by Wild Wolf Publishing. ISBN 9780956373359  

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Detective Googling

I don't suppose I'm the only person on the internet who indulges in the guilty pleasure of Googling my own name every now and again. Actually, with a common name like mine it's fruitless merely to search under my own name. I tend to add one of my published titles, just to see what comes up.

I promise you, this is not just a vanity exercise, though I can't deny a frisson when there are a fair number of hits. I do it mainly to try and keep track of a) where my books and other works are being sold online and b) any reviews or snippets that I might have missed, as these can be recycled for promotional purposes. I've recently found a third level of usefulness in the activity, checking on unauthorised use of one's material.

A few weeks ago I was Googling specifically to check if one of my published plays was still in circulation. (I'm going to be deliberately vague on the details from now on as I think it would be unfair to point a finger too directly on a case of abuse that may have been accidental.) The search brought up a pdf document which, on opening, I found to my surprise contained a full reproduction of one of my one-act plays as part of a college examination paper. The college is not in the country where the play was published. The mystery deepened when I scrolled to the foot of the play to find my authorship fully acknowledged, but with reference to an anthology I had never heard of, published by an overseas branch of my original publisher.

My memory is pretty good, and my wife and partner in our writing business also keeps good records. Although the play was published quite a few years ago we still have records going back to that time. We could find no record of permission given either for the college examination paper or the publication referred to by the paper, and no record of fee paid for anything but the original publication in the UK, which did not cover overseas rights in a separate publication.

My next step was to contact the Rights department of my original publisher with all the information I had discovered relating to the college use and the overseas publication. In fairness, my publisher was promptly on the case, I was kept informed about the progress of the investigation, and eventually contacted by the individual dealing with the issue in the overseas office. The upshot was that I have just received an apology from the overseas publisher  who has agreed with me a reasonable fee retrospectively.

In this case, with a highly reputable international publisher, I believe that a genuine mistake was made, an oversight, but I had no qualms about accepting a fee even though the book is now out of print, because I'm only getting what should have been mine in the first instance.

The moral of this story, for writers and others with intellectual property, is that the internet is a very powerful medium, virtually free to use, and it can be worth spending a little bit of time every now and again checking what might be going on in your name or with the fruit of your efforts. It's true that even if you find something you are certainly not guaranteed to be financially rewarded for your detective work (the law of the internet being in many places like the law of the wild west) but at the very least you can make a nuisance of yourself to the discomfort of the plagiarists.   

Friday, 7 January 2011

Recycling material

During the years I ran my own training and management development company I changed my writing focus, producing material mainly for trainers and facilitators, and learning resources for the business reader. These were normally produced in interactive DVD format and, while they sold well in the market, were never really generally available on Amazon and the like (not least because of the high price point). Now, with the advent of Kindle publishing I have been able to rewrite and recycle some of this material in the Kindle format. Although, of course, it loses the advantage of high resolution graphics and interactivity, the nub of the learning material is still there, and because it has only cost me time to produce I have made it available almost free. In fact, that's what I've called the new Kindle mini-book series. Over the last two or three months I have published in this format:

Almost Free: Creativity A-Z

Almost Free: Murphy's A-Z

Almost Free: 20 Change Exercises for Group Workshops

Almost Free: 20 Ice-Breakers & Inclusion Activities

Almost Free: 20 Vision Exercises for Group Workshops

I don't write training material anymore, dedicating myself exclusively now to my novels and short stories, but I'm pleased I put some time aside to make earlier published material in this field available to new users in this way. It's not really a commercial venture - I don't expect to earn much from these 99p minibooks (though I see I've sold a few already) - but it means that work I spent a fair proportion of my working life developing and producing can reach out to more people than was possible in the original format.

As I've said before in previous posts, I am a fan of this new way of publishing, although I acknowledge generic concerns people rightly have about quality control and the risks of confusing the market through saturation. The truth is, exactly those doubts  were expressed about the internet itself in the early days, and where would we be without it now? Not writing or reading this post, that's for sure.