November 8, 2012 in Dag

Not happily ever after – and that’s exactly the point

Does anybody remember the TV show Soap?

Way back in the early 80s (or was that late 70s – surely I’m not that old) it was one of my favourites. But there was one thing about it that used to always really annoy me.

I really got into that show. I really liked the characters – really cared about them. Whatever tribulations were occurring – whether it was this one charged with a murder they didn’t commit, or that one’s baby being possessed by the devil, or another one being kidnapped by aliens (yes, it was that kind of show), I would get really concerned about them. Then, when things finally got resolved (the real murdered was her adopted father, the devil got exorcised, and Burt escaped from the aliens with the help of Saul, the man who had been held captive for several thousand years), I always felt totally relieved. At last, things were good. Everything had worked out and now everybody could be happy.

Except it didn’t happen like that. Everything didn’t work out, and everybody wasn’t happy. No sooner had one plotline been resolved than something else happened, and suddenly all sorts of new problems had been thrown up.

Looking back now, it’s kind of funny to think that I had that attitude. Obviously, I totally didn’t understand the significance of the title. Soap was a parody of a traditional daytime soap opera – and a very funny one too. If the characters were ever allowed to resolve their problems and achieve peace and contentment, then there wouldn’t be much of a show left.

As a writer, I look at programs like Soap and think about how much fun it would be to be part of that writing team. I like to believe I’m a compassionate person, who would do what I could to ensure all the characters had an easy and satisfied life. Then I think, hell no, where’s the fun in that? Let’s see what else we can throw their way.

November 3, 2012 in Dag

Written with love and care

A couple of weeks ago, Jim Murdoch wrote an interesting post about genre in books and literature. It was a really interesting post about a subject that I also think a lot about.

I have to say, this whole genre things confounds me quite a bit. Why do we feel that we have to put our stories into various little boxes which define what they are?

I know, there’s a pretty good answer to that – it helps people understand what the story is about when they’re selecting books to buy. And hey, doesn’t it make sense to make things as clear as possible for the buying public? Don’t we want to make it easy for them to determine that a book is for them or not? When put that way, it seems to make complete sense. And maybe it goes some of the way to explaining why my sales are not exactly setting the world on fire (yes I can admit it – I’m not moving a lot of books at the moment).

To me, it seems like a bit of a double-edged sword. Maybe I could move into the world of more conventional genres. Maybe I could write a cosy mystery, or a science-fiction adventure or a high fantasy – something I could put a label on and market in a relatively straight-forward way. Move right into the mainstream.

But I figure if I do that, I may be in the mainstream but I’d also be moving into a place that is much more crowded, and within which it would be much harder to differentiate myself.

That’s why, for now anyway, I’m happy to stay in a place that is relatively uncrowded. True, it can be difficult for people to discover this place for themselves, but that’s still the way I prefer it.

Because when it comes down to it, it’s like this. I don’t have a lot of time to write. I’m lucky to be able to steal half an hour after a busy day at work. In order to motivate myself to make this time, I have to be working on a story I really care about. And the stories I care about are the odd ones, the strange ones that don’t necessarily fit into clear categories.

So that’s why at least in the immediate future, you won’t see me plugging my stories within most recognised genres. But hopefully, if you read one of them, you’ll see the love and care that went into it. 

October 25, 2012 in Dag

Now it’s time for a bit of Scribbling

After unprecedented excitement (from me if nobody else), I’m extremely proud to announce the release of my new novella, Scribbling.

Scribbling is pretty much exactly what its title suggests. It’s me sitting on a computer and scribbling – all right so maybe I wasn’t exactly scribbling, maybe technically I was still typing. But the story I was typing was one that pretty much evolved in a fairly random and unplanned way, so it felt a lot like I was scribbling out a story.

Of course, Scribbling is a sequel (of sorts – maybe companion is a better word) to my previous novella Doodling. Like Doodling, I began with what sounded like a funny kind of throw-away line, and just saw where it took me. And, like Doodling, the central character in Scribbling is my good friend Neville Lansdowne.

I think Neville is a bit like me. Except the strange fantasy ideas in my head end up being Neville’s realities. What will he get up to this time? What will happen to him? I guess you’ll need to read the book to find out. And there’s a very good reason to read it quickly.

For the next two weeks after release, Scribbling will be available for the special bargain price of 99c. But that’s not all. As an extra special bonus, anyone who buys a copy in those two weeks will also get some previously unreleased “outtakes” from Doodling – a chance to meet some new characters, encounter some familiar ones in new ways, and get an insight into the way the story was developed.

So join me for the fun – come along to http://www.facebook.com/events/356650867758902/ for a chance to chat about all things Neville. And go to Amazon to grab your own copy of Scribbling.

October 21, 2012 in Dag

Almost time for a bit of Scribbling

Okay, now I’m getting excited.

I’m sure you can tell. I’m sure you can see a kind of spring in my typing. Maybe a slight nervous tremor between my words.

If you can, that’s great. If not, then maybe when you read it, try to get a kind of jumpy, excitable tone into your voice – that should help set the scene.

I’m sure you’re all sitting on the edges of your seats by now, waiting for the amazing and exciting news. So here it is.

We are now, officially, only days away from the release of my new novella, Scribbling. If you take a close look at the cover (another wonderful job by Lliam Amor) for Scribbling, it should give you a few ideas.

The first thing you’ll notice is that it bears a distinct resemblance to the cover for Doodling, and there’s a very good reason for that. Scribbling is a sequel – of sorts.I say “of sorts” because the order doesn’t really matter. You could read Doodling first or Scribbling first, and in neither case would it be a problem. While definitely connected, they also stand alone.

Basically, Scribbling is the further adventures of Neville Lansdowne. He doesn’t fall off the world this time. Actually that’s not true, he does fall of the world – but he doesn’t stay off for long this time. Of course, knowing Neville, he’s off on all sorts of new adventures, meeting lots of remarkable and distinctly odd people, and dealing with unexpected problems for which he’ll have to find innovative solutions. 

Hopefully, you too can stand the tension. Hopefully you can bear the remaining four days until the official release of Scribbling – Thursday October 25. because if you can, I have a special offer to announce:

For the first two weeks after release, Scribbling will be available for the special bargain price of 99c. But that’s not all. As an extra special bonus, anyone who buys a copy in those two weeks will also get some previously unreleased “outtakes” from Doodling – a chance to meet some new characters, encounter some familiar ones in new ways, and get an insight into the way the story was developed.

Please stay tuned for further details -I know I will. 

October 17, 2012 in Dag

When did it all start to be about genres? – guest post by Jim Murdoch

Today it’s a real pleasure to have Jim Murdoch as my guest. Jim is a regular visitor here and one of my most frequent commenters. Today he is talking about something which I kind of feel as well – how we’re all a bit too hung up about genres. Plus he says some nice things about my book, so he can come again.

When did it all start to be about genres?

The novel is not so much a literary genre, but a literary space, like a sea that is filled by many rivers. – Jose Saramago

It’s about twenty years now since I sat down to write what would turn out to be my first novel. Since then I have completed four others so you would never call me prolific but there are plenty of authors out there who have been remembered fondly by history whose claim to fame rests on the back of five novels or less (F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example). I was in my mid-thirties when I began that first book. In the twenty years prior to that I had composed nothing but poetry. I thought of myself as a poet and would have been perfectly happy to continue being one, however, after a bout of illness which resulted in a three year period of (for want of a better word) writer’s block, I sat down at my father’s desk one day to write a something, an anything; I had no plans to write a novel nor did I imagine I was capable of writing one despite the fact that everyone is supposed to have at least one book in them. The thing is I never sat down to write a psychological thriller or a paranormal romance or a gothic horror. I sat down to write words on a page and to see where they led me. That I ended up with a book-length block of prose came as a great surprise to me. It then got pottered around with for five years and then after a half-hearted attempt to interest an agent or two it got filed away in the proverbial drawer where it languished for another ten years before I decided to take the bull by the horns and do something about it.

At this point I was faced with the prospect of marketing the damn thing which raised a problem: What kind of book was this? Up until that point the bulk of my reading matter could be classified simply as literary fiction. The only crime novels I had ever read had all been written by a literary novelist; I had read three horror novels (again, all by the one writer), no romances, no fantasy (bar The Hobbit when I was a kid) and not much science fiction. I read people like Camus, Kafka, Solzhenitsyn and Beckett for fun. To my mind there were real books and genre fiction and I had written a real book. I wanted to say I’d written a literary novel—because that’s what I aspired to—but even I recognised that it wasn’t highbrow enough. But what exactly had I written?

When I first started promoting that book, Living with the Truth, I said it was a cross between Kafka and Douglas Adams but it was the author Kay Sexton who, in her review of the book, nailed it. Sort of.

In all, this is one of those novels that bookshops must hate: not ‘hard’ enough to be specific, not ‘weird’ enough to be fantasy, too realistic for the humour section and yet too humorous to shelve easily with the lit fic. And that, I suspect is going to prove to be its charm; for those who do read it, it’s a singular take on the world, and it will either resonate with you or leave you cold. … But I can recommend that you try it — if you like distinctive fiction that rings no bells and blows no whistles but creeps up on you with its absurdities, this book will satisfy you, as it did me. – Kay Sexton, ‘Novel Review – Living with the Truth’, 12 June 2008

I’ve quoted this paragraph many times but in my heart of hearts it bothers me because it underlines the fact that I’d produced a book that was neither fish nor fowl and I’ve found that can put people off. 

Genres are not new. The earliest recorded systems of genre in Western history can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle’s system distinguished four types of classical genres: tragedy, epic, comedy, and parody and these still stand as the four pillars that hold up all writing. Oh how things have changed. In his essay “‘An Arousing and Fulfilment of Desires’: The Rhetoric of Genre in the Process Era—and Beyond” genre theorist Richard Coe talks about something he calls “the tyranny of the genre” and says that this “is normally taken to signify how generic structures constrain individual creativity.” It constrains creativity because of reader expectation. If you pick up a novel by Catherine Cookson you expect certain things. The same goes for James Patterson or Agatha Christie. Labelling anything is a direct message to the purchaser: This is what you’re supposed to do with the contents of this packet or tin or book, e.g. Empty the contents in a pan. Bring to the boil and simmer for 3 – 4 minutes stirring continuously. If you tell a reader up front that the book he has in his hands is a mystery he or she will read it accordingly and expect certain things from it. People may bitch about rules but the fact is we secretly prefer them; they provide an element of security.

So how do you read a book that’s “not ‘hard’ enough to be spec fic, not ‘weird’ enough to be fantasy, too realistic for the humour section and yet too humorous to shelve easily with the lit fic”? If it’s not all those things then what exactly is it and does it matter?

When Mary Shelley sat down to write the book that would become known as Frankenstein she had in mind to write a horror novel—Mary, her husband Percy, Lord Byron and John Polidori had decided to have a competition to see who could write the best horror story—but what she wound up writing, Brian Aldiss has argued at length, was one of the first science fiction stories. Actually what he says is:

Frankenstein is generically ambivalent, hovering between novel, Gothic and science fiction. To my mind, precisely similar factors obtain even today in the most celebrated SF novels. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land contains magic; Anne McCaffrey’s dragon novels hover between legend, fairy tale and science fiction. Is Greg Bear’s Blood Music nanotechnological or allegorical? ‘Pure’ science fiction is chimerical. Its strength lies in its hybrid nature. – Brian Aldiss, The Detached Retina, p. 54

To my mind too many authors these days start off on the wrong foot. They do it because they believe it’s necessary and they subsequently sell more books than me because of this; because they considered their audience right from day one, page one. The purist in me looks down on them; the pragmatist is not so quick to judge.

Think of a book this way, though: as a present. I hate Amazon’s wish lists. I think they’re a necessary evil and they make life easier for my American relatives who don’t know me so well. They always buy me something I want and yet I’m always disappointed because it’s something I expected. This doesn’t mean that there’s no comfort to be had in the familiar. I would hate to go to a chip shop and my chips not come generously slathered with salt and vinegar as happened to me once in Edinburgh (where they ask customers if they want salt and sauce as standard). Chips—especially chippie chips—are comfort food; they’re predictable and reliable and may they never change. There will be times when you want a book like that. If I’m sad I’m not going to stick on a CD of Strauss waltzes and marches—I’m going to pick something that suits my mood—and if I’m in a bright mood I’m not going to automatically reach for Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer but there will be times when I want to be surprised and that’s when you don’t want your bog-standard thriller or mystery.

That’s what I liked about Jonathan’s first book—which was the first thing by him that I’d read—because it wasn’t like anything I had read before. It didn’t sit neatly in any pre-existing genre or subgenre, which is why, I guess, he felt the need to concoct his own term (daglit) to describe his style of writing. How would you describe the novels of Franz Kafka? He never invented the term but everyone has some idea what Kafkaesque means and the same goes for Pinteresque, Nabokovian and even Philidickian. My friend, the Irish playwright Ken Armstrong, once left a comment on one of my blogs which began, “I thought this was exceptionally tight piece of writing (even by Murdochian standard)…” and that pleased me no end because it underlined the fact that I had a unique voice.

I personally think that genrification is ultimately damaging. I get it. I know exactly why Amazon has its tag system. There are simply too many books swilling around out there and readers need a way of reducing the lists they’re wading through to something manageable, however, in so doing so many wonderful, wonderful books that are never going to be easily classified end up slipping down the plughole. I don’t know what the answer is other than word of mouth but all that needs to start the ball rolling is one person saying to another, “Hey, there’s this writer called [Jim Murdoch or Jonathan Gould or any of a thousand neglected others] and you should really have a look at his stuff.


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Jim Murdoch is a Scottish writer living just outside Glasgow. He has published three novels, Living with the Truth, Stranger than Fiction and Milligan and Murphy along with a collection of poetry, This Is Not About What You Think. Next year he plans to bring out a book of short stories, Making Sense. You can read more about him on his blog The Truth About Lies and on his website where there are excerpts from his books and copies of many positive reviews.