Next Steps

I did promise to keep the Journal going this time around, I used to stop them around now, but this format (supported by Twitter and FB) is much easier to use, and the issues surrounding a book don’t stop just because touring has.

The immediate next step is the UK release of River on July 18th. There’s particular interest, over and above it being an important market (though one under great pressure at the retail store level, what they call ‘High Street shops’) because of the rebranding HarperCollins have done with this book. The very different (to me, very beautiful) cover and the change of imprint create an intriguing situation.

Beyond that, my agents are engaged in some fairly intense discussions as to film possibilities on different titles. I have called this process endless foreplay in the past but it matters – obviously – and demands a degree of attention through emails and phone calls and decision-making. Yes, of course, if anything specific emerges everyone will know, here and elsewhere.

This is also the stage when decisions start to be made about the paperback edition for next spring, even though it seems far away, with the hardcover just two months out. But the industry works on long lead times and a lot of considerations go into this. The major chains, for example, are often consulted as to format (trade paperback or mass market?) and cover design (stay with the same one, commission a new look?). Different covers are considered suitable for mass market than the ones judged best for a trade paperback. And different markets have very different looks, too.

The marketing teams have now assembled a ‘quote sheet’ which basically puts chosen excerpts from all the best revews in one place. I have to say, it looks pretty wonderful. River was very generously reviewed. These quotes are important. They end up being culled for the paperbacks, to go on front jacket (most important) back jacket (next most useful) and in the front pages of the book inside.

This is where jokes are often made about cheating. You know, the review says ‘A monumental piece of rubbish‘ and the jacket says ‘Monumental!’ The unexciting truth is that I really don’t know many instances of this happening in the professional book world. We do see it in the film business, though, along with, sometimes, ‘fake’ reviewers created to offer glowing praise to “I Know What You Had For Dinner VI” Hmm: ‘Tasty!’ Sasquatch Forks Scream and Gossip. (Yes, I liked using ‘forks’ here. You know why.)

The Scream and Gossip has never reviewed me, actually. An ongoing sorrow.


You Had Me At … Some Point

I did a panel some years ago during a convention at Harvard. The topic was ‘You had me at hello: how to hook the reader on page 1″. I am afraid I was a tad contrarian.

I suggested, with examples, that we’ve come to wildly over-obsess with desperate, arm-waving ‘look at me’ openings. That books have taken on some of the ‘gotcha’ thinking of summer blockbuster films. The Dan Brown kill-a-person-in-the-opener style.

I suggested that this sort of beginning can’t help but create a tone, style, a set of expectations in a reader for what will follow. That it closes off access to different notes and nuances, and any real consideration (in the writing and the reading) of what I have always called the ‘architecture’ of a book.

Of course you want to draw in – and keep – a reader. Being discarded is, we might agree, a bad fate for a book. But there are a myriad of ways to seduce, and a myriad of reader types, and changing moods and desires in a given reader. People can and do read a techno-thriller and then a book by Jane Gardam or an Alice Munro short story. We aren’t all locked into a single mode of enjoying art.

Given that, I argued (and still do, obviously) the opening of a work needs to be guided by the needs of that work. A long, panoramic book (think Tolkien, or Tolstoy) will require a different immersion, a slower one usually, than a 300 page serial killer novel or paranormal romance.

We’re an impatient society. I joke about the ‘what have you done for me lately’ thing (I think I used it last post here, even) in an age built around dodging boredom via texting and on-demand tv and fast-forwarding. Or six second videos online. But the pleasures of a novel aren’t always or inherently best explored or developed at breakneck speed. We can enjoy vodka shots or chugging beer and also sipping something rare and good, no?

I was put in mind of all this while reading a short, sweet online review of Under Heaven, wherein the blogger talked about truly loving the book after she got through the ‘slow opening’ and she urged her readers to push through that opening. Obviously, I’m pleased, it was a lovely comment, but it left me with some thoughts along the lines of what you see here, and a little more.

One is that, as it happens, there were a lot of readers and reviewers of Under Heaven who thought the opening was their favourite (or one of them) of all my works, or even of books they’d read. It is a very particular, mood-shaping start, a set up for a story that moves a character from extreme solitude to a thronged, dangerous urban space. It was also meant to lay in many of the themes of the novel and a particular set of values in the culture, and establish a couple of the ultimately central mysteries and conflicts. (I’m being careful not to give details.)

One obvious point here is a variant of one I’ve made before: about dialogue not monologue, readers and authors. How one person’s great action scene is another’s too violent one. One reader’s too slow opening is another’s perfect, lyric immersion into ‘another world and time’.

The other point is a fine-tuning of the one I mentioned above: a very long novel that intends to draw the reader in to a very different setting might not be best served by breakneck speed out the gate or a too-heated come-hither. It might: it can be done, alnost anything can be done with enough talent, but I do believe there are more ways of luring the hapless reader (!) into the devious author’s castle than a flamboyant gotcha on page one.

Context matters, so does purpose. We use the words novel or fiction to cover a really wide range of writing, if you think about it. And the pursuit of excellence isn’t always the same as the pursuit of eyeballs. Sometimes you want both, but the methods aren’t always so obvious as gotcha.

Put it another way: we get gotten by many different things in our lives, in many different ways. Books are no different.


All Over the Map

This is always a strange time for me. I joke that agents and editors get into ‘What have you done for me lately?’ mode, but in fact I am maligning them when I say that. It is pretty much all internal, my own increasing feeling that I need to figure out a next book.

I’m reading widely. If I say ‘all over the map’ that is pretty much the truth. I actually try not to narrow to times and places yet, I don’t want to, even subliminally, close myself off to being struck by a sudden idea. (I’m the same way when I actually start writing, I hate talking about ‘what this is about’ too early, because what it is about is still taking shape. The more I describe it, the more a new book risks coalescing around the way I talk about it. I am one of the worst ‘proposal writers’ on earth. Or, putting it another way, my editors know not to take anything too seriously, by now.)

I’m also still monitoring events as we head towards the launch of River of Stars in the UK a month from now. We’ve had a ‘soft’ rollout already, with the e-book available there since April when the US and Canadian editions appeared, but their hardcover (and audio) editions have not yet been launched. One advantage my publishers in the UK have is that they are able to use the reviews and coverage that started accumulating in the spring (River has been really generously received). Even on the book itself they have quotes – and normally, with a worldwide simultaneous release you can’t do that till the paperback. Here’s the full UK cover. As part of my ‘inside news about how books get made’, have a look at the number of positions that are to sign off (in theory) on a cover.

River of Stars UK cover

Last note. As I’ve mentioned before, I take real pleasure in new countries acquiring rights to the books. I wonder if it is partly because I’m Canadian: that sense that the wider world matters more. In any case, I happily signed contracts for Macedonia (the Mosaic pair) and agreed to terms with an Indonesian house for Under Heaven and River of Stars last week. Time to give a shout-out to the foreign rights team at Trident Media, who handle all of this.

“Not Dark Yet…”

Okay, so I am among those who like to quote Dylan (Dylan Thomas, too).

It has been a week or so since last posting here, but I did alert that these entries would slow as touring ended and my next phase began. I’m not going to go away, though. After discussions with friends and colleagues, and being very much aware that some people put a lot of work into setting up this WordPress site, it would feel wrong to bail. I’m also conscious that some people seem to enjoy these, even indulging me when I ‘go wide’ with posts.

In addition, and on a more pragmatic but also critical level, River of Stars is still in launch mode. My UK agent emailed an hour ago (triggering this post) that he received his hardback copy of the book today and ‘it is stunning‘.

This counts as a sentence you like to read from an agent. Maybe ‘Dan Brown is in our dust!’ is another, but, really…

You may recall that the senior team at HC UK, led by Emma Coode and with a lot of input from Amy McCullogh, have planned a major repositioning of my work there. Beginning with a gorgeous and very different new cover for River of Stars (the one on this side of the ocean is gorgeous too; these two looks represent a fascinating example of how differently the same book can be well designed). We’ll start seeing some evidence soon how that new plan plays out in the UK. Book is out on July 18th in hardcover there. (Ebooks have been on sale from April.)


I got a very good email this morning from a clever magazine editor friend, regarding letters to the editor concerning a piece she’d written. She’d asked the letters editor, ‘I guess it’s too much to ask that letters actually respond to the piece itself.’ And that person replied, ‘That’s definitely asking a lot.’

Ouch. And yes, alas.

We had been discussing reviews, the frequent tendency of people, whether print professional, online magazines, bloggers, or on places like Amazon or Goodreads to impose their own agendas, understanding, expectations (prejudgments, too) on a work when they assess it.

There is nothing new about this (though the forums for people sharing views have grown exponentially), nor is there anything surprising. I have spoken and written for a while about fiction (any writing, any art) as a dialogue between artist and consumer, not a monologue. Having said that, sometimes you have to blink at what people are taking away from reading your book (article, essay, whatever). What they find, as much as what they don’t.

I think we’re all too quick. I think it may even link to the media fiascos of fast false reporting on recent tragedies. Sometimes these review issues might be because of a deadline, but more often it feels to be just the nature of our society. Read (or watch or listen). Declare a quick opinion. Move on. Art – and our response to it – needs more nurture. No?