Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Local author makes a tit of himself.

I was sitting on the bus (W3 to Finsbury Park) reading my current paperback. The bus pulled in to the station. I reluctantly closed the book, The Middle Sister by Bonnie Glover, and looked up to see a friend already standing, making her way off the bus.

She pointed at me and shouted (and, yes, I mean shouted): ‘I know that man. He’s a local author!’

This was very funny. I was embarrassed, but not enough to blush. I’m a forty-five year-old man. I don’t blush as easily as I used to.

‘Hi, Jane, how are you?’ I returned.

I sort of lifted the cover of my current paperback, so that people would see it and want to check it out, thinking, ‘Hmm, I saw a local author reading that. It must be good.’ Don’t know if anyone noticed, or cared.

Fast forward to the end of the day. The tube part of my journey this time. I get into the carriage, which is not so full, even a few seats. But I decide to stand. There will be others who need a seat more than me.

But I do lean. I take out my current paperback, can’t wait to get back into it, and lean against the side of the carriage. I lean my shoulder into the side of the carriage. And somehow, by my leaning, I set off the passenger alarm.

I try to push the alarm handle back in, to stop the noise, to stop the people staring at me with hatred and contempt. I hope to God the Disgruntled Commuter isn’t watching.

But the alarm handle won’t go back in. And the noise won’t stop. There’s an announcement from the driver. Something about the train will be delayed due to a customer activating the passenger alarm. At least I think the word is customer.

And I find that, even as a forty-five year-old man, I am still capable of blushing. I want to hide my face. But I think it’s better to hide the cover of the book I’m reading. I don’t want it to suffer from being associated with me. ‘Hmm, I saw some twat who set off the passenger alarm reading that. Can’t be any good.’ Sorry, Bonnie.

The driver came and reset the alarm. He was very nice about it, unlike the other passengers who continued to stare at me malevolently for the rest of the journey. Or so I imagined. I didn’t actually look at any of them, of course.

Hey, but there must be something wrong with the design of that passenger alarm, though, that you can set it off just by leaning? That’s my excuse.

I've just realised I've written a whole plog entry without mentioning my book. I must be losing my touch.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Where do you stand on wooden cooking utensils?

I have a friend who is freaked out by them. It’s something to do with the way they react to water. After you’ve washed them, you can’t quite get them dry, not with a tea towel. And the food, sometimes, clings to them.

Try stirring scrambled egg with a wooden spatula, you’ll see what I mean.

They splinter too. That’s not good in a cooking utensil, the splintering. It could be dangerous. Not to mention unhygienic. Where once was a splinter, there now are germs.

Here’s another thing: wood burns. Didn’t anyone ever think of that? Hardly safe to have flammable utensils near open flames.

And yet, and yet, despite all this, it has never occurred to me to be remotely disturbed by wooden cooking utensils. I find the wooden spoon, despite the connotations of failure, infinitely comforting. It’s something to do with helping my mum bake cakes when I was little, I think. I always got to stir the bowl. And lick the spoon.

Yes, it’s strange to lick wood. But, in this context at least, in the gentle, grainy dip of a baking spoon, it’s comforting.

There are more comforting objects here.

Yes, it’s a teabag.

A lot of people have said to me, ‘Is that a teabag on the cover of your book?’

It seems the presence of the teabag is even more intriguing and compelling than the knife. (You did notice the Sabatier in the top left hand corner?)

Why is it there? Obviously this is one of those questions that can be answered in a number of ways. Easiest is the quick, smart-arse reply, ‘Because the designer put it there’.

That’s true, of course. I didn’t design the cover. I didn’t even suggest any ideas for it. The publishers took my manuscript, briefed a designer, and this is what he came up with. In record time, I have to add.

Now I don’t know whether the designer read the book, but it just so happens, that in selecting these two objects to depict on the cover, alongside the image of the tube train, he has graphically emblemised the central drama of the book. No, it’s not a fight between a teabag and a knife. I think we all know who would win that one. It’s --- hang on, am I going to give away the whole plot here in my blog? Sorry, no. It’s not going to happen.

You’re just going to have to order your own copy.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Another reason why you should take a chance on a book by a new writer.

You could be in at the ground floor. What a great feeling that is! How clever does that make you! Especially if, in some future year, the fledging writer you once took a chance on goes on to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

You’ll be able to say to yourself, ‘I read that guy’s book when he was starting out. In fact, I was one of the first people to read it. In fact, I pre-ordered it before it was even published. It’s all down to me. He owes it all to me. The whole ten million Swedish Krona. Why, I might just give him a ring and get my share of it.’

And if that writer had an ounce of decency, he’d give it to you. Perhaps he’d give you the whole ten million. He probably wouldn’t need the money himself. Almost certainly he would be too old to spend it by then.

It all starts when you take a chance on a new writer.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Why it’s worth taking a chance on a book by a new writer.

A good book costs less than a bad haircut.

But let’s say it doesn’t work out. You’re not happy with it. In your book, it’s not a good book. It’s a bad book. Even so, you’re better off with a bad book than a bad haircut. At least you don’t have to walk around with it on your head embarrassing you.

And, unlike a haircut, you can always sell it second hand.

Convinced? Try this one.

Here are a few more you might want to consider.

The Manuscript.
Selfish Jean.
Across the Mystic Shore.
Dark Rain.

Kafka and me.

There have been times when, as an unpublished novelist, I have felt a bit like K. in Kafka's The Castle. I once confided this to my agent. "You shouldn't read Kafka," he advised. "It will only depress you."

The story of K., the land surveyor whose life is taken over by his efforts to gain admission to the eponymous castle on the hill, resonates with a specific despondency for the struggling writer.

Like the castellans in Kafka's novel, the gatekeepers of the publishing industry are mysterious and unapproachable, elusive and all-powerful; the writer, like K., wants to appease them, craves their approval, for without it his life has no validity.

I don't want to push the analogy too far. It's quite possible I just read the book at a bad time. Or, equally, that everyone who reads Kafka finds his or her own reasons to be depressed by him. And since reading it, I have actually met a couple of those dread gatekeepers, who turned out, disappointingly, to be perfectly nice people. One of them even bought me lunch.

But now, amazingly, I find that I have stumbled into the castle, and it seems that some of the residents aren't very happy about it. It's nothing personal, I'm sure. It's just that the way I gained my entry has had a few of the Counts (got to be careful with the 'o' in that) who live in the castle fulminating about the riff-raff they're letting in these days.

I'm one of the authors taken on by Macmillan New Writing, you see. You could be forgiven for thinking that I have at last found the validation I was seeking. A major publisher, Macmillan no less, has deemed my novel worthy of publication.

How naive of you.

There have been a number of objections raised to my presence in the castle. First, the castle-dwellers are up in arms because I'm not receiving an advance, though I will get royalties. It’s gracious of the literary aristocrats to play shop-steward for the day, but, believe it or not, I'm fine with the deal as it stands.

Don't get me wrong. If there had been an advance on offer, I would have taken it. But I would then have fretted and sweated about earning it back. I know this. I am someone given to stress. To garner some publicity, I might even have written an article attacking 'cheap as chips' ventures like Macmillan’s, thereby identifying myself with the elitist nay-sayers. Meanwhile, I might also have worried that the elitist nay-sayer of today could turn out to be the forgotten mid-lister of tomorrow.

Perhaps unwisely, I happen to have written a novel that takes risks. Anyone who publishes it will be taking a risk too. If the price for a publisher who takes risks is no advance, then give me no advance. Besides, it's more than made up for by the brightly-coloured uniform I get to do my writing in (this is the ‘Ryanair of publishing’, after all).

Then it turns out that the reason they don't like my advance-less contract is not because they are my friends and comrades, but because they believe people like me are spoiling it for the proper writers. The proper writers being those who get advances. Hmm. Didn’t Jordan get a sizeable advance for a two book deal not so long ago?

Another objection is that Macmillan are somehow abdicating their responsibility to The Culture by publishing my book. As far as I can tell, what lies at the root of this is the fact that Macmillan have made it clear that they will not be taking on books that require major editing. But that's not the same as saying they will put out any old dross unedited.

What they have said is that they may advise authors whose manuscripts need substantial revision to seek the help of an 'editorial services' provider. This will be at the author's expense (hence the Ryanair jibe). It will not guarantee publication. So basically, it's a rejection mitigated by a suggestion. It's also an option open to any author at any time. Many of these firms advertise themselves with testimonials from the writers they have helped into print. It's advice which the writer is free to take or ignore. Macmillan didn't suggest it to me.

Just to set the record straight, my book has been edited. For example, one whole section was removed at the publisher's recommendation but not insistence. In other words, we talked about it. The editor’s opinion was that it contributed nothing to the story, or to the aesthetic of the book. Of course, being a first time novelist, I’ve got nothing to compare this to, but it strikes me as exactly the sort of in-put you would want from your editor. Whether or not it’s evidence of a responsibility to The Culture, I don’t know. But it does seem to be evidence of someone doing their job.

The truth is publishers and editors are human. They sometimes make mistakes and sometimes get it right. Bad books get published. Good books get overlooked. Some of the bad books that get published go on to be phenomenally successful. (That’s The Culture for you.) Some of the good books that have been overlooked, are at last discovered. (Lord of the Flies, anyone?)

When we’re trying to decide whether Macmillan New Writing is a good thing or a bad thing, I think we should spare a moment to remember John Kennedy Toole. He was the writer who killed himself when he failed to find a publisher for his posthumously published and now widely acclaimed novel The Confederacy of Dunces. If only something like Macmillan New Writing had been around for him, I can’t help thinking. He may not have got an advance but at least he would have lived to collect the royalties.

My novel Taking Comfort will be published by Macmillan New Writing in April 2006.

Friday, November 18, 2005

So I've written a novel. Big deal.

Actually, it is a big deal for me. I'm really excited about it. Especially now that it's up on amazon. It's real. It exists. I exist. I do exist. My name, and a book I seem to have written, is listed on amazon.

I also seem to have written a whole load of other books that I don't remember anything about, also available on amazon. Hmmm. I can only assume all those political books that come up when you click on my name were written by another Roger Morris. Did the same Roger Morris also write the books about sailing boats? Maybe every single Roger Morris-authored book is written by a different Roger Morris.

That's a frightening thought. Well, it is for me. Probably not so much for you.

Click here to check out my amazon ranking. I accept you might not be as obsessive as me about doing that. It's terrifying to imagine what I'm going to be like when the book is actually released.

Anyhow, here's the cover:

Here's the blurb:

Rob Saunders just wants to feel safe, but the world is a dangerous place.

It's Rob's first day in his new job. On the way to work, he sees a student throw herself under a tube train. Acting on an impulse, he picks up a file she dropped as she jumped. Over the next few days, he's witness to other disturbing events, some more serious than others. From each one he takes a 'souvenir'.

Through these objects, he hopes to keep at bay the dangers and terror that threaten him. The more terrible the tragedy an object is associated with, the greater its power.

As Rob's behaviour becomes increasingly obsessive, he crosses the line between witnessing disasters and seeking them out.

Events begin to spiral out of control when he makes a frightening discovery while jogging in the woods.

Atmospheric, tense and stylistically bold, Taking Comfort is an exploration of identity and desire told through multiple viewpoints. This contemporary urban novel has as its theme the anxieties and survival strategies of a post-9/11 world.

Here are some of my own thoughts on the book:

The central character, Rob, is outwardly in control and on the surface things go quite well for him. But he is deeply anxious inside. Like all the characters in the book, he seeks meaning and comfort from the various objects that make up his life; from consumerism, in other words. I was interested in exploring ideas of identity, how people define themselves by the purchasing decisions they make. I wanted to push this idea as far as I could. I was also interested in the connection between desire and identity (we are what we want) and so the idea of having Rob choose between two very different women seemed to come quite naturally out of that.

Although I realise the book is unconventional – even experimental – in many ways, I always wanted it to have a strong story that would pull the reader along. I wanted the drama to come out of the main character’s actions. It’s a kind of tragedy, in some ways, in that Rob is ultimately responsible for what happens to him.

I wrote the book very quickly in an intense burst. Quite a lot of the writing was done early in the morning. I would set my alarm for six and then leap out of bed and head straight for the computer. I was still half-asleep, half-dreaming, I think, which meant that the writing had an unexpectedness to it, even for me. I seemed to be accessing things that I don’t think I could have got to if I’d written it any other way.

I expected to have to do a lot of editing because I thought the writing would be raw. But I realised that what I had produced had a kind of energy that would be lost if I worked it over too much. I did do some editing, of course.

The novel is structured around a series of objects, which have some kind of importance or significance to the characters. I use the real brand names for these objects. I have also pasted in real advertising copy taken from a number of sources. I was aiming for a kind of collage effect. (I even included some copy I wrote in my day job as a copywriter.) What I am trying to do here is build up a ‘texture’ of the novel, as well as somehow accessing the inner heart of the characters, paradoxically, by focussing on the surface of the objects that mean something to them.

There's that cover again.

And just in case you want to, you can pre-order it here.

Do it for my kids, if you can't bring yourself to do it for me. There's shameless for you.

Hey, I've been interviewed! Read it here.