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Comment from the book world in January 2024

2024

'Science fiction, as a genre, is finished'

1 July 2024

‘I've been thinking for some time that science fiction, as a genre, is finished. The world it once imagined has arrived, and interest in the future and new technologies is widespread. Instead of appealing only to a niche audience, sci-fi has been absorbed into the mainstream of fiction. And as fantasy enjoys a boom in popularity - the "Romantasy" subgenre in particular - much of what is now published as science fiction has a fantasy element to it: space opera, alternate histories, sagas set on alien worlds.

Cyberpunk was perhaps the most important trend in science fiction in the 1980s and 90s, but since then it's often reduced in memory to a particular aesthetic of future-noir thriller represented by Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. So The Big Book of Cyberpunk, edited by Jared Shurin is a huge, eye-opening, mind-blowing surprise. Two fat volumes with more than 100 stories, by authors from at least two dozen different countries (some published here in English for the first time), ranging from proto-cyberpunk stories from the 1950s and 60s through genre-defining tales by William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, Neal Stephenson and many newer names, right up to 2021 with a post-cyberpunk story written in collaboration with AI.'

Lisa Tuttle, author of 18 novels for adults and children, including My Death, A Nest of Nightmares, The Mysteries, The Bone and The Flute, Dolphin Diaries, a series for children, various short story collections and several works of non-fiction, in the Guardian.

 

'Writing is of you, but it's not YOU'

19 June 2024

'I like David Foster Wallace's notion that writer's block is always a function of the writer having set a too-high bar for herself. You know: you type a line, it fails to meet the "masterpiece standard," you delete it in shame, type another line, delete it - soon the hours have flown by and you are a failure sitting in front of a blank screen. The antidote, for me, has been getting comfortable with my own revision process - seeing those bad first lines as just a starting place. If you know the path you'll take from bad to better to good, you don't get so dismayed by the initial mess.

So: writing is of you, but it's not YOU. There's this eternal struggle between two viewpoints: 1) good writing is divine and comes in one felt swoop, vs: 2) good writing evolves, through revision, and is not a process of sudden, inspired, irrevocable statement but of incremental/iterative exploration. I prefer and endorse the second viewpoint and actually find it really exciting, this notion that we find out what we think by trying (ineptly at first) to write it. And this happens via the repetitive application of our taste in thousands of accretive micro-decisions.'

George Saunders, the author of nine novels, including the Man Booker Prize winning Lincoln in the Bardo, and Liberation Day, a collection of stories.

 

How do you become a writer?

4 June 2024

'How do you become a writer? Answer: you write.

It's amazing how much resentment and disgust and evasion this answer can arouse. Even among writers, believe me. It is one of those Horrible Truths one would rather not face.

The most frequent evasive tactic is for the would-be writer to say, But before I have anything to say, I must get experience.

Well, yes; if you want to be a journalist. But I don't know anything about journalism, I'm talking about fiction. And of course fiction is made out of experience, your whole life from infancy on, everything you've thought and done and seen and read and dreamed. But experience isn't something you go and get-it's a gift, and the only prerequisite for receiving it is that you be open to it. A closed soul can have the most immense adventures, go through a civil war or a trip to the moon, and have nothing to show for all that "experience"; whereas the open soul can do wonders with nothing.

I invite you to meditate on a pair of sisters. Emily and Charlotte. Their life experience was an isolated vicarage in a small, dreary English village, a couple of bad years at a girls' school, another year or two in Brussels, which is surely the dullest city in all Europe, and a lot of housework. Out of that seething mass of raw, vital, brutal, gutsy Experience they made two of the greatest novels ever written: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights...

Now, of course they were writing from experience; writing about what they knew, which is what people always tell you to do; but what was their experience? What was it they knew? Very little about "life." They knew their own souls, they knew their own minds and hearts; and it was not a knowledge lightly or easily gained. From the time they were seven or eight years old, they wrote, and thought, and learned the landscape of their own being, and how to describe it. They wrote with the imagination, which is the tool of the farmer, the plow you plow your own soul with. They wrote from inside, from as deep inside as they could get by using all their strength and courage and intelligence. And that is where books come from. The novelist writes from inside.

I'm rather sensitive on this point, because I write science fiction, or fantasy, or about imaginary countries, mostly-stuff that, by definition, involves times, places, events that I could not possibly experience in my own life. So when I was young and would submit one of these things about space voyages to Orion or dragons or something, I was told, at extremely regular intervals, "You should try to write about things you know about." And I would say, But I do; I know about Orion, and dragons, and imaginary countries. Who do you think knows about my own imaginary countries, if I don't?

OK, how do you go about getting at that truth? You want to tell the truth. You want to be a writer. So what do you do?

You write.'

Ursula K Le Guin, author of several famous SF novels, including The Left Hand of Darkness, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Dispossessed.

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Writing under a pseudonym

20 May 2024

‘I was very aware that because the manuscript has my name on it, people would just publish it, however bad it was, and I wanted honest feedback. I wanted to know that someone believed in the book and I truly enjoyed getting unvarnished feedback through my agent. There was one editor who did not like Strike having a famous father and made that point. And obviously because I can't break cover, I can't say: "but I know how important this will be in book eight". You can't say that as a first-time writer, and I was ostensibly in this situation a first-time writer. You can't say, now, look I know a series and I know this backstory is going to work out brilliantly in book seven, eight and nine. Who the hell are you to say you're going to get a seven, eight and nine-novel deal anyway? But it was really good to get that feedback.'

J K Rowling, mega-selling author of the Harry Potter books, on writing her first Robert Galbraith crime fiction title under a pseudonym, in The Times.

 

 

'I'm very reassuringly honest'

6 May 2024

‘My settings of Europe and English visitors weren't really doing it for them, so we decided Scotland would be good. I thought an island would be great, because it's a small community, and it's an opportunity for my main character to get away from it all. The team at HarperCollins have been so supportive and enthusiastic...

I'm very reassuringly honest. It's a job as well as a calling. It's my living - I'm the chief breadwinner in my house. My husband is retired, he supported me through the two decades while I wasn't making enough to live on, and was doing all kinds of things to do with writing to survive - judging competitions, running workshops, appraising manuscripts. When he wanted to retire, I was very happy to change places - it all worked out well. I work for a big publisher, Avon is a very commercial imprint. When I first started talking to my agent [Juliet Pickering at Blake Friedmann], she said: What are you hoping for? And I told her I really wanted a publisher that would get right behind me, and get me in supermarkets. And that's exactly what happened...

It's got to be a good decision for my domestic publishing, my world English publishing, which includes North America and Australia, and also for my translations - I'm currently translated into 12 languages. Juliet and I wouldn't make a non-commercial decision for any of those publishers if we could help it. There's always a careful conversation about the setting...'

Sue Moorcroft, the bestselling author of 25 romantic fiction titles, including One Summer in Italy, The Christmas Promise, A Summer to Remember, Starting Over and Is This Love? and president of the UK Romantic Novelists' Association, in Bookbrunch


https://www.suemoorcroft.com/

 

On literary snobbery

15 April 2024

‘I always quote Kurt Vonnegut. He said in the early part of his career he was dismissed as a science fiction writer and that critics tend to put genre books, including sci-fi, in the bottom drawer of their desk... It's true. I get the New York Times every Sunday. In 37 novels, I've never had a stand-alone review. I'm always in the crime round-up. But I don't really mind because on the back pages in the bestseller lists, I'm always very well represented. I've had editors and publicists say, "Sorry about the New York Times" but I've gotta be honest: I don't care...

The crime novel is just a framework to tell any story you want to tell and the reason you're in the bestseller list is the readers know that. There's aways the thing about, "When will the next Great American Novel be published?' Well, there won't be a next Great American Novel that does not have a crime in it" ...

I've sat next to people on planes reading my books and I learnt early on not to say anything. I once said to this lady, ‘How do you like that book?" and she said. "It's just something to pass the time." Now I keep my mouth shut.'

Michael Connelly, author of 40 novels, many featuring his character Harry Bosch, which have sold over 84 million copies worldwide, and also executive producer of the Bosch & Bosch: Legacy, Lincoln Lawyer and Ballard tv series, in The Times.

'I recommend you know where you're going'

1 April 2024

'Some writers start with a sentence and have no idea where it's going. Others know every character's biography. I'm in between. I know the beginning and the end before I start. I recommend you know where you're going. You're a lot freer to twist and turn if you know your destination.

Always ask "What if?" What if you put spyware on your kid's computer, discover something and then your kid disappears? What if you saw your dead husband cuddling your child on your nannycam?'

Harlan Coben has over 80 million books in print. He has written 35 novels including Win, The Boy from the Woods, Tell No One and a young adult series, and is the creator and producer of several Netflix tv dramas and two French mini-series. This excerpt is from the Sunday Times' Culture.

https://www.harlancoben.com/

 

 

Children's creativity

18 March 2024

'The creative process is open to all. I don't believe in some magical creative gift, the exclusive possession of a few, nor need it concern big or sophisticated ideas. On the contrary, creativity may depend upon the recognition that our own thoughts and ideas are as valid as anyone else's; something which we knew as children, and which we were taught to unlearn. Our confidence in our ability to create is thus often undermined in our early lives, when we tend to believe what we are told...

If you teach children creatively in all subjects, instead of telling them that if they don't learn all those things then they have failed, then you nurture a delight, and a slightly more rambling, incidental learning...

When I go into schools, you can tell that inhibitions are just beginning at around seven. We start to edit ourselves. A lot of people say, 'Well, I'm not a creative person.' That's nonsense. We all are. Take the fact that you want to look at things and listen to things means you are a creative person. You can use those things to build a sort of inner store that you can use in your own creativity as well...

A book that gets backed is one that sells a lot. As publishers get bigger and more powerful, they become more like supermarkets, and are much more interested in a lot of books by one person. It totally makes sense. But the problem is that our children are all different, so they're not all going to like the same kind of book. Maybe they'd be brave enough to try something else if only they knew about it. Books are not only there to entertain - they're to help us feel understood, and to help us understand other people, and to stand in their shoes. You can do that very safely in a book...'

Lauren Child, prolific children's author and former UK Children's Laureate, and the author of 12 Charlie and Lola books, 6 Clarence Bean books, 6 Ruby Redfort books, 6 Hubert Horatio books and 10 other children's books, in Bookbrunch

Lauren Child's website https://milkmonitor.me/

 

Writing a book a year

4 March 2024

'You want to write the twist so that it doesn't suddenly come out of nowhere. I tried to see a few things so that (the reader) thinks, of course! But it is hard to get that balance I think, of trying to get a twist in that is unguessable but not too "out there". My editor doesn't know what the story is about, she knows roughly, but she doesn't know the twists, so it's good to have a fresh pair of eyes...

To be honest, I didn't even know what the term psychological thriller was, it was only what the publishers called it...

Writing in lockdown, 'So that was a bit of freedom in a way, I didn't have any expectations almost. Now there's a bit more pressure because you want to keep writing books that people are going to like. But I try not to think too much about it because otherwise I don't think I'd write anything!'

Claire Douglas, author of 8 books, including The Girls Who Disappeared (a Richard and Judy Book Club choice), The Couple at No 9 and The Wrong Sister (to be published in March) in The Boookseller

‘I didn't set out to write a novel about the future...'

12 February 2024

‘I didn't set out to write a novel about the future. Most of my novels have been set in the past, which for me is the space of the greatest mystery and enlightenment. The future, if I thought about it, seemed by contrast thin and predictable. We know that people will be hotter, more opinionated and less well-informed; but in 30 years' time, I thought, they're also likely to still be preoccupied by money, sex and how their football team is getting on.

So my new novel, The Seventh Son, didn't start out as "future-fi" or "near-fi", let alone as sci-fi. But the future crept up on me as I wrote, in terms intriguing, and sometimes more comic, than I'd imagined...

The challenges of this new book lay ultimately not in understanding "the science" or picturing what life will feel like 30 years from now, enjoyable though this was. The hardest thing was trying to imagine the inner life of a young man who is human, but in a different way from the rest of us...'

Sebastian Faulks, author of his new book The Seventh Sun, Birdsong, Charlotte Gray and 17 other novels and anthologies, in the Sunday Times

https://www.sebastianfaulks.com/

 

'Something that would be fun to write and make me smile while doing so'

29 January 2024

I've always read (and watched) classic and cosy murder mysteries, but I'd never written one before, being known primarily as a thriller author. But then Covid happened, and during the first lockdown in 2020 everything felt rather bleak and uncertain. I decided to cheer myself up by writing a modern cosy mystery, something that would be fun to write and make me smile while doing so...

As for a tip, the one I always recommend is to set yourself a daily word count quota - mine is 1,000 words - and hit it every day you're writing.

You can always write more, of course. But extra words don't count against tomorrow's quota; you have to hit it afresh every day. For example, just this morning I wrote 1,500 words, which is great. But tomorrow I'll write at least another 1,000.

While it sounds simple and obvious, it takes discipline to put this into practice day after day, month after month, year after year. But if you do the results can be extraordinary...'

Anthony Johnston, author of The Dogsitter Detective series, Atomic Blonde (a graphic novel), The Explosion Code and three other thrillers and The Organised Writer

https://antonyjohnston.com/

 

'My plan was always to write novels'

15 January 2024

‘I enjoyed being a journalist. It was fun and my press pass got me into police departments, which was invaluable as a crime writer. But my plan was always to write novels...

I'm way beyond just writing a good tight plot puzzle whodunnit. You've got to have something that makes you feel like there's a higher game to it. It almost feels like a duty, with this amazing life I've been given, not to mail it in.'

Michael Connelly, author of 38 novels, including The Black Echo and Resurrection Walk, which have sold 85 million copies worldwide, in The Times

https://www.michaelconnelly.com/