Sunday, 31 May 2009

Authonomy: multiple backing... the new friends and relatives.*

Today is the last day of the month, when, on the stroke of midnight, the top five books in the Authonomy chart get their gold star and entitlement to a critique by a Harper Collins editor. As often happens, six books are in contention for the top five places.

You may think the six authors will be sitting back at this stage, accepting that 'the wisdom of crowds' will decide the issue; that the most popular books will win.

Not a bit of it.

Imagine, if you will, you are a participant in a Britain's Got Talent where only the contestants can vote, and they can vote for as many acts as they like. What would you do? Vote for no one, so as not to help rival entrants? Vote for the acts you think are really good? Or swap votes - go to as many performers as possible and offer to vote for them, if they will vote for you, in order to amass the maximum number of votes?

It's the latter that is happening on Authonomy right now. You can see the comments a person has made on his page; how many, and whether he has backed the book he's commenting on. (Because the final sentence is invariably 'Shelved/On my shelf/Backed'.) The top six writers have backed between 40 and 120 books each in the last week alone, and the numbers are going up even as I type.

Now there are some amazingly good books on Authonomy; books I can't believe are still in search of a publisher. But, as with any slush pile, there is a lot of dross as well. It's plain that the frantic amount of swap reading/swap backing that is going on has nothing to do with the quality of the books, and everything to do with the scrabble to get to the top.

This has been going on for months. My own novel, Catch a Falling Star, was pushed out of the top five in January and February by multi-backers (I reviewed one book a day, like homework; to do more struck me as a) dubious and b) not a sensible use of my time.) It only got its gold star in March, I believe, because of an anti-Klazart backlash.

The inevitable result is that the best books are not making it to the top. Does this matter? We know that Harper Collins looks at more than the top five - in fact, by the time your book has got there, it has almost certainly been appraised and rejected. Harper Collins has only plucked one book from Authonomy so far; Coffee at Kowalski's, by Miranda Dickinson, and that was nowhere near the top of the chart. But the real benefit of the site has been agents trawling it; we know that quite a few people have been approached, and got themselves representation.

Will agents continue to watch the site if the quality of the books at the top diminishes?

It's hard to write a good book. It's easy, if tedious, to praise ten extracts a day to buy yourself ten votes, and carry on doing this for a couple of months.

Fixes have been suggested to Harper Collins. My favourite is to make a book stick to your shelf for two days once you have backed it, thus limiting votes. But, for reasons they have not explained, HC seem happy that multiple backing is now the only way to reach the top of the Authonomy chart.

* See Authonomy and the sock puppets

Monday, 25 May 2009

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Sex again, I'm afraid

Yes, once more I am addressing the tricky problem of sex in fiction. (Well, more trifling with it, really, running a finger down its silken skin, feeling a warm, pulsing... Stop! That'll do, thank you.)

In my novels I am a follower of the less is more method; on the theory that most of us have been there, done that, and know the geography. What is going through the character's mind is usually more enlightening and more interesting. Also, it's frighteningly easy to make the reader cringe or roar with laughter.

I've been on writers' forums long enough to see the same topics rotate like medieval crops, and one perennial is Post your sex scenes here. There is no shortage of writers eager to do this. Okay, so they are taken out of context, and one has to make allowances, but if I could quote some of them without hurting feelings I think you'd agree with me that the cringe/laugh factor is way higher than the wow/amazing factor.

Sandie Dent spoke for me when she said, 'Most of us like eating, most of us like sex - but if a writer described a character eating a meal in the sort of detail that most sex scenes employ... well, you can imagine...

He lifted the fork, shiny and smooth, held it tenderly in one hand. It felt good. His other hand moved rapidly towards the knife, grasping it firmly, feeling its weight. His plate was waiting.

"Christ, I love roast potatoes," he growled.

... and so on. I can't type anymore because I'm laughing too much.'

Saturday, 16 May 2009

LitMatch - a resource for writers

I've started submitting Catch a Falling Star to agents, and have discovered just how useful LitMatch is.

It's a website to help writers seeking representation. You can do an advanced search and find agents and agencies in your own country who deal with the genres you write in, and also whether they accept email submissions. It gives you their website address, and blog details if they have one. You can join for free and Track Your Submissions; see at a glance who you sent your chapters to, and how many days it is since you did.

Click on the agent's name, and you go to Response Data; how long it has taken for them to respond, and rejection/offer statistics. These are garnered from LitMatch members who use the tracking service.

It's interesting - one agent whose website says she aims to respond within seven days has an average response time of seventeen, according to LitMatch stats. The sample is quite small (ten in that example) so I urge you all to join and make the results more representative!

You can also add a comment about an agent - but I've yet to find one...writers are all too anxious not to offend, or so rude the comments have been disallowed.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Location, location, location...

I like a strong sense of place in a novel - especially if it's somewhere I know. Nick Hornby's About a Boy happens in a part of North London I'm familiar with, and I like that. Vanity Fair and David Copperfield give fascinating glimpses of how London used to be.

So my novel, Catch a Falling Star, is set in very specific parts of London. I invented Fox Hollow Yard, the picturesque cobbled yard in Hoxton where Caz has her workshop - it's a blend of French Place, Leicester Mews and Bleeding Heart Yard with a big dollop of imagination, and it's as clear to me as if I'd been there.

Most of the other locations are real, and any interested reader can 'visit' them on Google Street View (I absolutely love Google Street View). You can see the Macondo Café in Hoxton Square (pictured; it's the one with the red blind) where Caz met Phil on a grey and drizzly day. You can work out that the Clerkenwell restaurant James took her to was Hix, or follow Caz on the trek from W2 to Shepherdess Walk she made to clear her thoughts after Emma's shocking revelation about Ric.

And the nice thing is, Google Street View images were taken in the summer of 2008, when my novel is set.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Fights - on the page and hitting the floor

Did you know the fight scenes we are used to seeing on television or in films are not realistic? As well as being choreographed, they are unlike real fights in three other ways:
  1. It is clear what is happening
  2. There is plenty of action
  3. The combatants stay on their feet.

Real fights invariably end on the ground, as the fighters close in on each other and grapple, and one or both lose their footing. Once on the floor, not much appears to be going on. It's all quite undramatic.

My fight advisor, who wishes to remain nameless, tells me that disciplines like boxing or kick-boxing are not much good in the real world, as they only work while the fighter remains upright.

So both the fights at the end of Catch a Falling Star are desperate, no-holds-barred wrestling matches on the carpet. And here is a clip showing the superiority of Jitsu over lesser martial arts (the black disc is there to conceal the identity and shame of the loser):