Friday 5 December 2008

A Career Tip for Authors

Hi everyone,

Before I get on to the above topic, I want to share something with you that gave me a good chuckle. You will recall that a few weeks ago my American copy editor had her way with my manuscript and tweaked it with regard to spelling and punctuation. Last week it was the turn of my British copy editor. Copy editors on this side of the Atlantic are always much stricter than their American counterparts and are relentless in their quest to purge manuscripts of "Americanisms". This can have unintentionally comical consequences, especially when it comes to dialogue. Below is one such example, which cracked me up. In my original version I have my heroine say the following words (she's talking about an attractive guy):

Mia: "Ah, how is the cutie?"

My copy-editor's rewrite: "Ah, how is the dishy bloke?"

After her rewrite two of my characters (who are boxers) are now referring to each other as "chap" or "fellow" ("guy" being too American). I hang out with fighters a lot and believe me, the day I hear one of them address the other as "old chap" is the day I get struck by lightning. My copy editor also decided to jazz up the dialogue of one of my other characters and has inserted "Aye!" and "Och, well" to emphasize his Scottish roots. He now sounds as though he had stepped out of Treasure Island. She also thought it might be a good idea to keep it truly British and replace a reference to Woody Allen with Hugh Grant. (?) On the other hand, she did a great job catching a few sloppy bits, which her American counterpart had allowed to slip through and I'm grateful.

Anyway, enough of that. Someone recently asked me what is the best tip I can think of to give to a commercial author who wishes to build up a loyal readership. I suppose there are many valid tips, but the tried and trusty route to commercial success is to come up with a character who manages to gain the affection of a vast number of readers and then to place that character in an environment the reader would like to visit again. This is the smart route.

Sadly, I am not smart. You might even say I'm self-indulgent. Instead of taking my own advice, I go completely the other way. After Season of the Witch, the obvious move would have been to write a book called Season of the Witch II - Gabriel's Revenge. Or, Daughter of Minnaloushe. It would have gladdened my editor's heart and satisfied readers who liked the first book.

But not me. I make sure to build a new world that has absolutely nothing to do with the old. Instead of highly educated characters living in a swish neighbourhood in South London, the characters in my new book are not particularly cerebral (except my villain who is an absolute genius Рyes, I know that's a clich̩ but it works well ), and even though my hero and heroine are South Londoners just like the Monk sisters, they live many grimy streets away from fashionable Chelsea. Oh, yes and they sweat a lot. Suffice it to say, I believe in ploughing new furrows with every novel. My publisher would be very happy for me to make hay in familiar pastures.

It is understandable that publishers want continuity. Readers become emotionally attached to their favourite characters and that's why they keep looking for the new Reacher or Rain adventure; the new Dalgleish, Rebus or Brennan crime puzzle. There is a certain predictability in follow-on books, which is comforting. Readers know the world the author has created and because they enjoyed their stay the first time around, want more of the same. They become friends with the characters and know their quirks. Picking up a sequel is like saying hi to an old friend. So to all you aspiring writers, this really is the easier way to success.

Unfortunately, I grow bored with my characters very quickly. Call me a fickle woman, but once I'm finished with a book, the hero is toast in my eyes. Of course, up till that moment I am a woman in love – fantasising -- even mooning -- over the man who takes over my life for eighteen months. (My husband, by the way, knows all about this and has long since made peace with finding doodles of another guy's name on the telephone pad.) Furthermore, my books are heavily researched. After eighteen months of wading knee-deep through the minutiae of pretty esoteric subjects, the brain is mush and needs a break. And that is why – when I finished Season of the Witch – I closed and locked the door to my memory palace. It was fascinating crawling around its labyrinthine halls for two years and I had fun, but now there was another topic – another obsession – that had taken me by the throat and was demanding my full attention. Not to mention the new guy who is really rather cute.

There are, of course, certain common denominators, which become an author's trademarks. I may not have recurring characters but like most other authors, my style – that elusive thing called "voice" – is pretty much constant. The worlds I create in my books are always highly-charged, lush and textured. In every book I flirt with melodrama. This is a risky thing to do because it can easily topple over into the ridiculous, not to mention purple prose. But I do so like my characters to be larger than life. Still, they do not have inexplicable superhero abilities. They don't fly or shape shift or become invisible, unless I can work out a relatively rational or pseudo-scientific explanation for why my villain is suddenly able to sprout wings, fly out the window and suck the blood from my heroine's neck. I like those kind of books by the way (as a teenager I had a huge crush on Dracula – still have) but I don't write them. It is probably the most consistent aspect of my work – the fusion of reality and mysticism. I want to show magic lurking in the shadow of the mundane; luminosity hiding behind the dusty curtain of everyday living. You're probably scratching your heads by this time, wondering how fighters, quantum physics and mystical ideas can co-exist side by side in one novel. Easily. Stay tuned.

Some of you have become fond of the characters in Season of the Witch and have told me you would like to hang out with Minnaloushe and Morrighan for another round. All I can say is thank you – I am very pleased you enjoyed their company – but I do hope you'll follow me into the next world where another heroine is waiting: a blonde, this time. Even though she is not as classically beautiful as either of the Monk sisters, she has some pretty cool moves of her own. She has a chameleon as a pet, which is called Sweetpea and she has two men in her life who find her utterly captivating...

Until next time, you dishy blokes and ladies -- have a great festive season! When I write to you again, I'll be in South Africa and I'll be sitting in the sunshine sipping a glass of very good Cape wine. Last year I was unable to go home because I broke my ankle and it has been two years since I visited. I can't wait!

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