The Problem With Fiction

Carrying on from last week’s The Problem With Poetry posting. I thought I would take a quick look at Fiction. Unlike poetry, Fiction does have a big audience but that audience is largely influenced by two retailers, no names, but one gobbled up the high street with their mix of black shelving and franchise coffee shops. Frankly, coffee and reading do not mix, I think the only reason they want you to drink coffee is so that your caffeine riddled mind will buy many of the crap titles they sell. We’ve all done it, read something on a caffeine high only to find out later (sans cappucino) that the work is full of turgid sentences, irretrievable similes and metaphors that make you feel like murdering Dan Brown. Sorry, cheap shot, I do admire Mr Brown for creating a generation of fiction writers who are plot mad illiterate morons. No, no, I apologise again. I must be accurate, they are not writers.

Anyway, back to those shops. The other is an online giant named after a popular river (home of piranhas). They compile lists every year and out of the thousands of books published each year maybe 1000 or so make it into biggish sales numbers (trust me, the tale off from Stephen King and Dan Brown sales is a big drop). The greatest lie of the twentieth and twenty-first century is that fiction writers are rich. I know one such writer but he has been writing for over sixty years and has an extensive back catalogue to garner royalties off. He owns his own house which is the best any writer can achieve in this business. Most fiction writers balance a job beside writing, most work in education teaching writing, others working in the media — I am amongst them. I enjoy it and it means I am not alone in a room writing 24/7. Done that, got the strait jacket. Alone all day does make you boring, neurotic and slightly crazed in mixed company but enough about my Saturday night out.

The problem with fiction is not readers, fiction is more popular than it has ever been, the Kindle has proven this. Last Christmas for the first time electronic books overtook hardcopy in sales. That’s got to be good? Accept this is starting to happen. Yes, agents are cutting out publishers. Now, there is an argument that the model of publishing is changing and this can only be a good thing for new writers. Wrong. Agents are less likely to take a punt on a new writer but a publisher will. It is the chicken and the egg syndrome. Agents aren’t going to represent you unless you have been or could be published. If you don’t have an audience, you will clapping yourself, alone in your room. If you have NEVER been published, then no agent can take a percentage of that. Readers have never heard of you because you have NEVER been published.

Take my fiction work, I was first published by Route Books, a great independent press that is still going. I have since been published by a number of magazines, including the late Transmission. Sadly missed. My first agent read me in that magazine, then she tracked down my other stories in independent press books. She only took on new clients that had built up some sort of track record in publishing or had won a big prize (that involved getting published). She need writers that understood how publishing worked. For those of you out there who think you just drop off your manuscript and leave the building, you’re wrong.  They lock the doors as soon as you enter.

M.Y. Alam was one of my first editors, the good thing about Yunis is that he was a writer and had built up a strong career as a crime writer and columnist. Again, most sane people will listen to someone who knows what they are talking about. Yunis said it would be a good idea to make some changes on my manuscript, Spanking the Monkey. Frankly I was still in shock anyone would publish that title, the title alone meant that most publishers would have placed their coffee cups on it for the next decade. These things you learn as you get older. Yet Yunis saw potential. Yunis phoned me up, sounded me out on some changes he felt the story needed. Cut the start, rewrite the ending. Basically start again and throw some of the crap out. He felt the resulting piece would be stronger and the title? Keep it, wakes people up. These things you learn as a new writer. At the time I asked Yunis, if I don’t make these changes what will happen? Yunis replied, you don’t get published. I loved Yunis for this. He taught me a valuable lesson. If publishers like you, they lock the doors when you enter the building, if they don’t like you, they’ll lock the doors before you get in. That is my concern. Take away publishers and all those doors will be locked permanently.

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