My manuscript is due back tomorrow. I am going to be a little late. It is difficult, when time divides into mosaic shards to pull a book into focus. I have decided that I need to re-write a chunk of pages. Not too many. A series of clarifications have jumbled up against one another and now the section seems scrambled rather than clearer.
How I would love to give up the other work that breaks up my time. Develop an expertise in sustained concentration. In New Author Top Trumps, that would be my losing score, every time. But at least, if it were only my own habits that caused the fragmentation, not the need to do a scuffling number of other jobs, I would have greater impetus to marshal my magpie mind. More of the black and white, a bit less of the ‘oooh, shiny!’
The image shows a quote from Twice the Speed of Dark. There is a large part of the book written in the voice of Caitlin, trying to unravel both the confusing darkness of death and the story that lead her there. I loved writing these sections, letting an image, a sense of material, almost a painterly sensibility take over, less closely focused on the plot and psyche of the characters. I have decided that I will make a separate, illustrated book of this section, called Gravity. After the scritchy scratch of untangling words, it feels particularly tempting just now, to drift into the broad strokes of black and light, of shape and texture. Back to the gestural, sweeping easiness of visual art. I wonder if all writers feel these different systems at play, if I just describe the kinship to visual art because it is something I understand.
I have mild tinnitus, coffee makes my skin go white noise, none of my glasses are just right and words seem very small and tangled. How liberating a fat brush dripping with paint would feel. And yet, I would still chose these days, the writing equivalent of that fat brush. If, that is, I had the time.
Funding my book with Unbound has been a fascinating process. There have been unexpected benefits that go beyond the buzz of having my book published.
Unbound came into being as a response to changes in the publishing industry. Good books were not getting published because their commercial success couldn’t be guaranteed. There has been a steady drift toward projects with TV or celebrity tie-ins, so whilst the business of books in general may have been in unexpectedly great shape, areas such as literary fiction have been struggling. Thus the clever people at Unbound came up with a way of addressing this. As well as a way of securing publication for a wide array of books that might not make it in the more commercial sector, it offers a fantastic connection between writer and audience.
Is it for you? Are you about to launch your own crowdfunded book, with Unbound or any other platform? Here, with a little help from my Unbound friends, are some tips and observations on crowdfunding. (Most of them work for promoting a book too.)
1)THE AUDIENCE IS ELUSIVE. It was very much harder than I had anticipated to reach the people that I didn’t already know.
2) TOUGH – YOU MUST HUNT THEM DOWN. You will need strangers to buy your book so start looking for them early. The audience has no need of your words, there are millions of other words already out there that they could gorge on for all eternity. But they will pledge because you make yourself of interest to them, because you let them know you are there. Initially this will probably be because they love you or care about you. Very few will pledge because they happened to read your synopsis and think you are a genius. But you have to find ways to reach them any way.
3) FINDING YOUR VOICE IS DIFFICULT BUT YOU ONLY HAVE TO DO IT ONCE. I don’t mean your writer’s voice, that bit is dealt with already. I mean your professional author voice. That is, if you want to get your book funded and subsequently aim to give up or cut back on the work you are doing to pay your way whilst you write.
Social media guilt starts to drag around behind you like a damp, mildewed cape hanging limp and heavy from your shoulders. Smart people who are good at selling books tell you to do it, do it hard, do it more. Every day, engage, build connections. It takes up a helluva lot of mindspace to even think of how that might work. But eventually you seem to find a kind of honest approach, one that doesn’t feel like a fake or an uncomfortable hard sell. Then it can be quite fun.
Apart from odd moments when you suspect all your friends hate you and wish your computer would break.
4) IT HELPS ENORMOUSLY that Unbound have selected the manuscript. It shouldn’t matter, the selection does not of course, suddenly make it a better book than if I had self-published, but it gives people confidence in it.
5) MAKE NEW FRIENDS. I have come into a fabulous, not exactly secret, but almost, back-stage community. A number of other Unbound writers get together on a regular basis via the medium of Facebook to share tips, moan, high-five, amuse each other and become friends. I’ve even met some of them and hope to do so again. It is wonderful support. A kind of unofficial, ad-hoc scaffold built from the finest materials. There are many different writers, a magically wide array of books (some of which I have made pledges for myself) all come together into a helpful and supportive community. A great resource. It is sometimes the only place you can go to off-load anxiety or boredom or disappointment with progress. You can’t actually tell a friend who has been generous enough to back your project that you are fed up with how slowly it seems to be moving without it sounding like a barely-disguised wheedle.
It has been so valuable and mood-lifting, informative and smart. It is great to know that when someone feels hollow or disappointed by small rewards gained from huge effort, a group of cheery and funny people who totally get the feeling will gather round (temporarily taking a break from penning the next masterpiece/suspiciously ready to engage in an easy online-distraction) to tell them how well they are doing and that they shouldn’t give up.
6) LOVE YOUR OLD FRIENDS. Most wonderful of all is how generous friends, colleagues and family are. I have had so much support. Way more than I expected. Which is incredibly lucky, because see 1). People have been amazingly generous. Like other authors, I have found that it has been by far the bulk of my backing. None of them had to pledge, there is no obligation. It is generosity that makes people pledge, a generous desire to help, a generous desire to fund the arts, a generous desire to make something happen. It is humbling and up-lifting. And, unexpectedly, it made this process, though it has sometimes been difficult, scary and definitely hard work, one that is ultimately very rewarding.
Of course I will never know if my book would have eventually been published by a conventional publisher, but probably not. So I am deeply, immensely grateful to Unbound for making it possible. The opportunity to invest in books that may not make a great deal of money is precious for all of us. And in all my dealings the people at Unbound have been unfailingly kind, helpful and engaged.
It feels great that so many people have invested in my book, even the ones who intended to pledge but never got round to it. The openness of the process has made them aware of what I am doing and interested enough to talk to me about it and that is an investment.
Crowdfunding, asking for help or support, finding people to invest in your work is daunting, it can be very hard work. But it is also uplifting and exciting, and possibly the only option if you don’t want to go it alone. I am very happy with the story so far.
How much does a story change when the location is changed? Some books rely entirely on the place in which they are set, such as Room by Emma Donoghue, the fact of the mother and son’s imprisonment being the core of the narrative as well as the inventive drive behind the ideas that thread through that narrative. Others would falter without the location, though the action of the book could just as readily happen elsewhere. Wuthering Heights is an example; the moors are so woven into the love between Cathy and Heathcliff, being almost an extension of their own wild souls, that though we know such destructive, hungry relationships grow in other parts of the world, it is impossible to imagine the transplanted story being told in the same way.
“Heathcliff, make the world stop right here. Make everything stop and stand still and never move again. Make the moors never change and you and I never change.”
Other books use places as a metaphor to highlight a current theme. The heath in King Lear, the jungle that slowly engulfs Tony in A Handful of Dust.
And of course there is both travel writing and historical or biographical writing that cannot be taken out of its homeland, even when the book is fiction such as the wonderful A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James or one of my recent top fivers, The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. In these instances, the places can be both a matter of unavoidable fact and an amplifier of mood and theme.
Plays regularly relocate in time and place, always making a claim that a new light is thrown onto both the original text and the alternate context in which it is played. The same is true of written stories and literary classics, though it is more common for the update to appear as a film and usually it seems that the transformation of interest is the one of time rather than place.
When writing Caitlin’s odyssey through the realms of death, though I hadn’t yet decided the reality of Caitlin, I had confirmed the necessity of her voice and had a clear sense of the setting. Milton’s Paradise Lost had lodged in my imagination as a place of enormous, glittering blackness, the thick dark black of etching ink; waxy, dense, groundless, with enough intent to form a location made of speed and direction. It was this sense of place that was the key. Not heaven or hell, but a vast cosmos driven by unknowable extremes of energy that carve out its changing forms in the blackness.
I pull against the blackness that would once more fling me out past the centurion path of comets, further than the space-bound eyes of man can reach. I don’t want to disappoint but there is nothing to tell. There is more of the same. There is still no place in which I may claim to be. I don’t want to disappoint but I have seen nothing that seems to be a heaven. Only earth with her kind sky and her care-giving cradle of gravity and her beautiful sun. How blessed I am when I find her again. How hard I cling.
The beech woods, a gentler, earth-bound contrast, perform a similar role for Anna; a location for her thoughts. In the same way that the vast unknowable extremes of space worked to undo Caitlin so that she could reclaim herself again, the beech woods are so familiar to Anna that they allow her thoughts to reach beyond the location into imaginary worlds, populated with invented souls. It is through this act of imagination that Anna is able to unbind the grief that has crippled her. The landscape is where she frames her thoughts and also where she is able finally, to confront her memories.
Let the trees sooth out these wrinkles whilst you walk among them. Let them shield and shelter, let them be beautiful enough to sooth. And she walks in the woods, the echoing emptiness of a cold day is comforting. The glimmers of her ghosts still glide between the trunks, they too seem soothed and a part of this landscape.
Place remains central to the book I am currently writing too. Not because I chose it but because in hindsight and overview, I notice that it is so. In this instance it is the spaces that operate between, the edges of things. The eeriness of incomplete human presence. Though often chosen seemingly at random as one writes, it is curious how often a look back reveals that the place of the writing has offered something that maps the story to its soul, connects the characters to the subtler themes that live in the undercurrents of the words.
The book I am writing at the moment is about a man in prison. As well as exploring the politics that got him there it also examines his relationship with his own body, a body become turgid and heavy after decades of prison life. As his connection to what exists outside of prison and his own past atrophies, he journeys inward, free to imaginatively roam, exploring his body as though it is a terrain. Here, he is looking at a book, at a diagram of the cross section of skin.
The page in his hand had some text and a diagram, fig 17, Cross-Section of Dermis and Epidermis. Great shafts of hair rose like tree trunks from swampy land. Sweat glands and bulbs of sebaceous oil forced up to the surface. He looked at it, a rippling forrest of dark life. He looked down at the black hairs on his own forearm, a scrambled softness there, furze, gorse, briar maybe. It did not look, he thought, like a forrest. But there is much to see in scrubland. Much furtive creeping, paths tunnelled by rabbits and small boys, litter left by lovers. He traced with a fingertip, slowly walking through that wastland growth. Until breakfast and the pint sized, welcome mug of hot tea in its insulated beaker arrived, he slowly grazed his finger up and down the boggy softness of his once strong arm.
I realised as I was thinking about it that in Twice the Speed of Dark (just this very day gone to the editor, to be published by Unbound in a few months!) there is also use of the body as a terrain, a setting, in this instance, predominantly of grief. The main protagonist experiences her body and her life as being suspended, too damaged to prosper, too repaired to die. She occupies a pallid, managed equilibrium, bound by sadness, wounded by loss. The situation maintains her life just well enough for her to survive as though grief is a parasite and she is the host. She is unable to prosper, to process the loss that infects her until crisis forces a change.
Her arms feel leaden, she is burdened. She drags. She is a ghastly nurse, keeping a poisoned body just alive. A steady diet of callous harm and efficient patching up ensuring that healing or death are both impossible.
In the brilliant Catch 22, though the tone is darkly comedic, there is a character who I think informed this idea, the soldier in white, in a cast so complete that only a feeding pipe at the inside of his elbow and a waste pipe at his groin emerge from the plaster. Yossarian watches in uneasy, horrified fascination as every so often one of the brisk nurses Duckett and Cramer take the full waste bottle from one end of the soldier in white and reattach the rubber hose to the feeding tube entering at the crook of the elbow. The soldier, whoever, whatever he is, is caught in a hideous, perpetual state, a life unrecognisable. The lens we are offered in Catch 22 is bleakly, appalingly funny, but the serious implication is one of careless indifference, endless, trapped futility that mirrors the costly waging of a war that no one seems to fully understand.
It is a while since I have read William Golding’s The Spire, but as I recollect, this is another book wherein the body of the protagonist is a palimpsest, suggesting the body of the Cathedral, as it is built around what he takes to be divine inspiration but the reader can readily interpret as an altogether more earthy energy, suppressed sexual desire forced to express itself in the hubristic building of a great phallic spire.
Another book that comes to mind is Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow. The relationship to the body might seem more simplistically straightforward as the central theme is a modern free-verse take on werewolves. But there is also nuance and shading. In an interview Barlow stated that he believed that the reason so many cultures over so many different tracts of time have told werewolf myths is because of the unique aspect of the domestic dog and its descendancy from predatory wild wolves. The dog brought the wolf to the hearth. Barlow explored the werewolf theme in a modern setting because he saw it was a fundamental way that humans have reminded themselves of their wild, uncivilised soul. The transformation occurs as the body is either forced or encouraged to express our distant, beautiful and terrifying wildness. The body is the site of a profound story.
Out of interest, (and perhaps unconsciously because I have just finished reading the beguiling Solar Bones by Mike McCormack) I searched Twice the Speed of Dark for the word bones. It appears often, as you can see in the images included with this post. If any readers would like to share their own thoughts on books that use the human body as part of their story telling, part of the manifestation of the story, I would love to get your comments and recommendations.
An interview with author Shona Kinsella on the launch day of her new book
Today, I am posting an interview with Shona Kinsella, fellow Unbound author, whose book, Ashael Rising launches today. Firstly, congratulations Shona, I know how hard you must’ve worked to get to this point. I hope you are basking in a celebratory glow of achievement – you deserve it!
Shona has invented a whole world in which to set her book, I was interested to find out more about the way she approaches her writing, so I sent her some questions. There are links at the bottom to connect with Shona and find out more about her book.
Tell me about your writing trajectory, is this your first book? And what lead to you writing it?
It’s kind of a funny story. I have always loved books, for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, maybe 11 or 12, I outlined a series of books called the Unicorn Defenders and sent my outline to some publishers. I was surprised by how many responded – some with handwritten notes added to the form rejection. Anyway, life got in the way as it so often does, I got a bad mark on some writing I did in higher English which knocked my confidence and I stopped writing for years. Writing a book was still the first item on my bucket list though.
Fast forward to 2014. After the birth of my second child I took a career break to look after my children. I was joking with my husband about what I was going to do with all this free time I would have and he suggested that I could write a book. Well it was a throwaway comment but I couldn’t get it out of my head so I decided to give it a go. I sat down at my computer one day with nothing but an image from a dream that had stuck in my mind and from that came Ashael Rising.
In Ashael Rising, is your primary focus on the story? Or the language? What, if you had to break it down, is the key focus of your writing?
My primary focus is definitely story. There are a few points where I think I’ve managed to pull off a nice turn of phrase and I have endeavoured to use language in an elegant way but at the end of the day, without story the language would have no point.
What changed in your life when a) you began writing Ashael Rising b) you began fund raising on Unbound and c) (if you have had enough time to notice!) once you had reached your target?
When I began writing Ashael Rising I think my world both narrowed and expanded. At first I didn’t tell many people that I was writing it. I wasn’t entirely sure that I could do it; that I would have the stamina to see it through or the skill to keep track of it all. Very quickly I became immersed in it. Other things, other interests, fell away as more and more of free time was spent writing or studying writing or listening to podcasts about writing… so my world narrowed. I joined an online critique group called Scribophile and found this amazing community of writers, all supporting each other and driving each other forward. I started thinking about things like diversity and representation in writing. I started thinking about how writing could do some good… so my world expanded.
Crowdfunding was a whole new ball game! I thought I was ready for it but I totally wasn’t. I had to establish a social media presence – something I’ve been avoiding for years. I’m an introvert by nature so it’s really difficult for me to promote myself and my work, start conversations, make connections etc. I suspect that’s probably true of many writers. So I had to learn a whole new skill set. Plus, a few weeks after the campaign started I found out I was pregnant with our third child and I left my day job for good so a lot was going on in my personal life too.
When I reached my funding target and started the editorial stage of the process, I started to feel like a real writer, less of a fake. It’s been a crazy whirlwind time. It’s been a little less than a year since I pitched to Unbound on Twitter and now Ashael Rising is being released. Sometimes it still all seems like a dream.
What would be the compliment of your book that you would most like to hear?
When’s book two coming out? I think that would be the best thing – knowing that someone enjoyed it enough that they want to keep reading. Mostly I want to make people feel something.
And what criticism do you most fear? (you can leave this one out if you like!)
Oh, that’s hard. There are so many things I’m scared of! I guess the one that would bother me the most would be if people thought my characters were flat or uninteresting.
When you invent names, do you have a strategy or do you fish until you find one that sounds right?
The main characters mostly sprang into my head fully formed, names attached so I didn’t really invent them. After that, my main strategy was to look at the linguistic root. I have several cultures in the book so each culture has names that share a linguistic root. So, Ashael’s people, the Folk, largely have names with Gaelic roots, or at least a Gaelic sound. The Agnikant have names rooted in India and the middle east, the Zanthar are more Eastern European. Despite hours of research and fishing about, I never did settle on a name I like for the main antagonist.
Is there significance in the fact that Ashael is an apprentice?
Well, I think it comes from two separate places. First, the story of the apprentice coming into their powers is a fairly common trope in fantasy. It’s useful because it gives you a textual way to explain the magic system without having big chunks of exposition. Also, there are a lot of different ways you can use the student-teacher relationship within your story. Ashael’s apprenticeship gives her the tools she needs to begin to understand what’s happening, without having her being limited or blinkered by years of training.
The second thing is that Ashael is, in a lot of ways, me. Except she’s way cooler than me! I view myself as something of an apprentice writer, still learning my craft, so I think it was natural for Ashael to reflect that.
Is she a healer because she has visions or does her ability to see beyond the immediate develop with her healing and spiritual training?
Hmmm I can’t say too much about this because *spoilers* but the visions are separate from the healing and it does develop over the course of the story along with other abilities.
If you were forced by the literary police to re-set your book in a time and place that is a known part of human history, a) could you do it? and b) where and when would it be?
The setting for Ashael Rising is an idealized version of the days when humans were still hunter-gatherers so I guess it would be in the stone age. Several elements of life as depicted in Oak Cam are based on anthropological findings from that time period. I’m not certain how the land masses at that time would tally with the fairly temperate climate of the book though.
And finally, what are you going to do next?
I have three projects lined up for this year. I’ll be writing for, and editing, an anthology by Unbound authors in which all of the stories will be linked with a library. I’m really excited about this project. I’ll be working with some very talented writers indeed.
I’m also planning to finish a novella that I started writing in November, called The Longest Night. It’s a story set in a (secondary world) equivalent to the arctic. After enduring the difficulties of 2 months of night at midwinter, resources are already greatly depleted and tribe members are falling ill when the sun fails to rise. Banished by his people, Ukiuk sets out across the ice to find the sun.
When I complete the first draft of the novella, I plan to start work on the sequel to Ashael Rising which has been percolating in the back of my mind for a while now.
These images show quotes from my book Twice the Speed of Dark, which is currently at 70% on Unbound. Follow the link above to find out more about the book and perhaps pre-order and support the book to help get it published.
These images are from about five years ago, made before I discovered that I wanted to be a writer. For a short time, I am selling them at a very reasonable price, to put towards funding my book on Unbound. The theme seems related. As Caitlin careens through the dark eternity, the blackness of death, she speculates about the planets, about the waves and energies that construct her new realm:
What a thrill it would be to have a body curved and compact as a swallow, a bird black all over, built with the same gigantic majesty as the darkness that holds the stars. The leading edge of a wing the radius of a planet, calibrated to swoop through the inclines and lifts, the densities and vacuums of black space. To master these migrations and head for the burning hear of a star.
Perhaps I would fly a little first.
These images for sale, limited edition, signed and numbered giclée prints are from a series called Planets. All of the proceeds will be put towards funding my book, Twice the Speed of Dark, on Unbound.
Until January 7th – signed and numbered limited edition giclée print from my Planets series for a special price: A4 only £20, A3 only £35.