The Decline of ‘Lit Fic’

Bookstore Shelves

I have some concerns about the state of literary fiction in Australia. And what follows here is largely anecdotal – I haven’t done all the research via BookScan figures nor gone through all the data. But I have concerns, mostly about the exposure of literary content, and where commercialism inevitably appears to be shifting the market.

Also, this is not about my latest book. I mean, it is, but only by extension – I honestly don’t know how well ONE is selling, or isn’t as the case may be. But being an author of literary fiction, I am, of course, concerned from a selfish standpoint as well. But it’s not just that.

Here’s the thing: Several times in recent years, I’ve heard about a great novel, and I’ve gone looking for it in a bookstore and haven’t been able to find it. Now, more book sales have shifted online, so of course, I can find it there, but there’s something about physically holding a book, about smelling it, seeing the words right there on the paper. That experience can’t be replicated via digital means.

Has that stopped me buying said book? In some cases, yes, and that raises a concern about discovery. Are people buying fewer books – particularly literary works – because of lack of exposure? And does that, by extension, skew sales stats, which then leads to even fewer booksellers stocking more literary fiction?

Certainly, there’s an argument to be raised around this – the biggest bookseller in Australia is Big W, which only stocks commercial fiction. The biggest chain bookstores (QBD and Dymocks) also both increasingly emphasize commercial novels. And that makes sense, as that’s what makes them the most money, but it also means that when people go looking for a book, they’re now far less likely to discover a new literary fiction work, and that must also have an influence on upcoming and aspiring authors who see what’s in bookstores and factor that, inevitably, into what they need to write to become a published author.

Is that healthy for literary culture?

Last year, an Australia Council/Macquarie University study found that literary fiction was the least popular book category in Australia.

As reported by The Australian:

“The most popular genre is crime, mystery and thriller novels, followed by biography and memoir, cookbooks and historical fiction. A minority of readers, 48%, say they are interested in literary fiction, but here’s the knockout number: only 15% actually read it.”

You can see how that data is reflected in what the aforementioned retailers stock, and such findings have been reinforced by various other studies which have examined the slow demise of ‘lit fic’. Consequently, that also means there’s less money for literary writers – research conducted in 2015 showed that authors of literary fiction were the most likely to report that “insufficient income from their writing prevents them from spending more time on writing”.

Does that mean writers need to tailor their content to fit into a changing market, as opposed to writing what best fits their work? And if so, what does that mean in practice?

Chuck Palahniuk touched on this somewhat in a recent interview with Joe Rogan, using the example of Cheryl Strayed and her book ‘Wild’. Wild, which went on to become a major commercial hit (and was turned into a movie by Reese Witherspoon’s production company), originally included one particularly disturbing scene which Strayed’s publishers removed. Why? Because they wanted it to be a ‘big’ book, they wanted it in all the bookstores, and some of the major commercial outlets, they knew, wouldn’t stock it if it included such content.

That changes how people approach writing, right? And if all you see in bookstores is commercial, potentially gentrified content, that will then shape how others look to communicate. That’s a concerning, large-scale trend of note. Right?

It concerns me that our bookshops are being dominated by commercial fiction, and that literary culture is inevitably being diminished by such trends. That’s not to say there’s not a place for commercial works, for action thrillers, for romance, for historical fiction. This is not genre-based elitism, but in-depth literary fiction seeks to expose the heart of societal issues, and the varying capacity of language itself.

The best writing either raises something you weren’t aware of, confronts you with something you’d rather avoid or contextualizes a subject in a way you weren’t able to on your own. That then leads to new perspective, new discussion, a new way of looking at things that you hadn’t considered previously. Other forms of fiction are able to do this, it’s not exclusive to the literary genre, but the focus outside of lit fic is clearly more on quick-hit entertainment, a distraction from the daily grind. Again, that’s fine, but it often lacks the depth of purely literary work.

The question is, are readers less interested in literary fiction, or is the lack of exposure to literary fiction leading to a decline in popularity? And I don’t know the answer. No one does. But it’s a concern. It’s a concern that we may be losing something of our artistic culture to the swell of commercial trends.

I don’t know how this can be fixed, but it does feel like its something we can’t afford to lose. And definitely there are others who are working to address this. The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne is a good example, putting on a never-ending stream of literary and cultural events. I can also vouch for my own publishers at Random House and their passion for literature through my work – there’s never been a question of commercialisation or editing to fit my novels into a certain box. But the bottom line does have to come into play at some point, it has to be a consideration.

And as more and more commercial fiction gets sold over literature, are we going to reach a point where our best literary writers are being drowned out and forgotten within those shifting tides? Are we already missing out on a generation of new writers who are moulding their voices into genre-specific categories that don’t quite fit their artistic vision, but do match their commercial ambition?

What does that mean for our overall artistic health?

As I say, I don’t have the answers, but it is a concern. And I hope we don’t simply lose great work because “the dollars don’t make sense”.

 

My Writing Process

One thing that aspiring writers often want to know about is planning.

Well, that and ‘which word processing app do you use?’ (I’ll give you the tip, you can write on a stone tablet and if it’s good, publishers will pay attention, but if it’s not, they won’t. It makes virtually no difference which you go with).

My planning process varies for each project, but here’s my basic outline of how I go about things, which might help provide some insight into the steps required – at least from my perspective.

Sparking Ideas

First is obviously the idea.

I’m usually inspired by stories I read – both fiction and non-fiction – and things that stick with me. Why does that story affect me so much? What is it about that element, that section, that thing, whatever it may be, that gets to me and keeps me coming back to it.

For example, with my first novel Rohypnol, I couldn’t shake the confusion of trying to understand why someone would want to spike someone’s drink. For ONE, it was about past relationships, and how they’d changed who I am, how I trust – why do we let people have such a huge impact on us?

Other themes in other works stem from questions like who we are, and how our experiences define our actions, my struggle to deal with the idea that someone might bully my kids – and how I’d be powerless to stop it, the nature of revenge and the futility of retaliation, how our efforts to protect our kids from the ills of the world may be creating unconscious stigmas around the very things we should be looking to fix.

These are the questions that get me thinking, that spark ideas which will ideally fuel narratives that enable me to explore them, and understand them better for myself, and also for an audience.

How those ideas start is always different, but I’ll think them over and start to formulate ways I could explore them. Sometimes those ideas fall apart, or stagnate at a certain point. Other times they start to flow, enough for me to start writing. And that’s when I begin.

Initial Notes

Once I’ve gone over and over an idea and come up with a narrative that feels like it might be something, I normally start writing, just to see, at this stage, just to poke it around a bit.

Is there a voice that comes through, a style? Is there an approach to this story that feels right, and that awakens something within me that I then feel compelled to get down?

Normally, by this stage, I have a fair idea of whether or not the story is going to work. Whether that’s as a short story, a novella, a novel, that’s harder for me to say, but there’s something there, a thread to follow, and I start to feel a compulsion to come back to it and keep going.

By about 15k words (but normally earlier), I’ve got a fair idea of a potential structure, and how it’ll play out. Then I usually go on to planning it out in a bit more detail.

Mapping the Story

Because literary fiction has no definitive structure or story scaffolding that can help keep things on track – unlike, say, thrillers or fanstasy novels – this part is largely flying on instinct.

What feels right for the story? What needs to happen here to lead to the next part? Are there any gaps that need to be filled, or elements which could be added to reinforce the main themes?

Here, I’ll write the chapter breakdown, with notes on what has to happen in each, which I put together by just thinking through the progression based on the structure I’ve at least somewhat settled on in my initial writings.

notes2

(My handwriting is also very difficult to read, even for me at times. So there’s that too)

That makes it easier for me to visualize the whole story – and most importantly, see gaps and places where things can be added (my stories are always shorter, if anything, so I generally need to add things in to fill them out and complete the broader picture).

I also have notes on a whiteboard near my desk, so that I can sit before the whole listing and take it all in.

plans

Sometimes, I do this after I’ve completed the first draft, but I always do it at some stage to help me plan out the progression.

Cross-Checking the Elements

Here’s a step that I think will help all writers – once I have a plan that feels solid, I cross-check that against Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ model, which, theoretically, all stories are based upon.

myth_quest_model_04

Now, The Hero’s Journey is up for interpretation – check out ‘The Writer’s Journey’ by Christopher Vogler to get a more modern take on the Journey and its varying applications in modern storytelling. But basically, if you have a feel for the progression that audiences expect from stories – which you already instinctively do through your consumption of books and movies over time – then you can get an understanding of what will help make your story more compelling.

Does that mean you have to make changes to make it to fit into a formulaic structure? Absolutely not. I cross check my progression against the basic Hero’s Journey model to see if I have the key elements there, the things that will likely help keep audiences engaged.

You can, of course, follow the Journey to the letter – George Lucas did this when we wrote ‘Willow’. And that was okay, but it wasn’t a huge success, which underlines that The Hero’s Journey is not prescriptive. It’s really a base guide, of sorts, that will help ensure your story is as engaging as it can be.

You don’t have to adhere to it, you should definitely go with what feels right, but if there are any elements missing, it may give you something to think about, structurally or story-wise, which could help enhance the way it plays out.

Refining and Evolving

Once I have a full first draft down, I take it to the printers and print it out. Which is when the real work begins.

This is a hard part to swallow for some writers – once you’ve got your first draft together, and you’ve been thinking about it for months, you’ve been working on it for months, and you’re so excited that you have this thing you’ve finally done, this is where you actually need to work it. This, unfortunately, is not the time to show anyone.

Stephen King described the drafting process in his ‘On Writing’ book (which is great, even if you don’t like his books. I don’t like his books):

“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.”

My variation of this is that I write a first draft, and by the end of that draft I have an idea of the voice the story needs. I then seek out other books with similar voices, so that I can see how they’ve done it, then I read and re-read certain books and passages in the style I’m going for, hoping to adopt some of that flow in my work.

The risk is that you can start to sound too much like those you’re emulating, but the likelihood is, you won’t. You have your own writing style, as do the writers you’re getting inspiration from, so while you can get on a similar wavelength, you can’t totally re-create it. And you don’t want to, you just want to help smooth the edges of your prose and bring it into line with the voice and approach that best fits.

I generally have a few books I use for inspiration on each project, and I read them intermittently before I write each day. I find that if I read outside of the style I’m trying to write in, that can have a negative impact – at least till I’m at the point that I feel confident that the voice of my work is strong enough to stand on its own, and fuel the rest of its direction through the power of its own narrative.

So, as noted, I print out the first draft, then the work begins on really editing each section, with pen written notes all over the place – stuff I’m going to have to add in later.

notes1

Yes, I work with a pen. My first drafts are always written by hand. I find it helps my writing flow, it helps the thoughts spill from my brain in a more natural way.

This first re-write – effectively a second draft – is tough. As you can see from this page, I add in heaps of notes, I fill in new sections on the opposite page, I write new parts in my note book to add in. It generally takes a couple of months to go through the first draft (I work on my fiction writing around 3 hours each school day, when I’m free of my day job and kids), then it takes a couple of weeks to enter in all these freakin’ edits (I honestly hate myself for adding in so many notes every time – why do you do it? Why make more work for yourself?)

From there, I print it out again, and I get it bound at the local Officeworks. I find that having a physical copy of it in front of me gives me a clearer idea of what it will look like to readers, and helps me with my objectivity, separating myself from the work.

I then go through the whole process again.

Generally, once I’ve re-drafted and added in and done all I can after the second print/edit process, then I feel like I have it down, at least to the point where I can invite readers. But this is also a case-by-case proposition, and largely based on feel. Do I feel like I’ve got it right? Is there anything more I can add or enhance? If it sits uncomfortably, I know I have more to do, so I stick with it.

This process will also involve a bit of sitting in front of my whiteboard, and lying in bed till all hours staring at the roof, going over each part again and again.

Once it feels right, when I feel like I can’t think of how to improve it, that it’s covered off all I intended, that’s when I can send it out.

More to Come

So, that’s how I basically go about planning – and there’s obviously specific research and variations for each project, no two are ever the same.

Sometimes, the research takes ages, and often involves visits to the places in question to get a true feel for the space you’re trying to inhabit. So that’s not a small part either, despite my not delving into it in depth.

Also, another part that can be tough to swallow – I know that, at this stage, the project is nowhere near complete.

From here, readers will come back with notes. The good notes are annoying because they highlight generally obvious mistakes or discrepancies that you should have picked up. Ideally, they aren’t so significant that they dismantle your entire premise, but it can happen, which is why you need to be as harsh on yourself and your own ideas as possible, and conduct relevant research and inquiry, before you open yourself up to readers.

The bad notes are annoying because they don’t help. Not all comments and notes are created equal, but you shouldn’t outright dismiss anything, from anyone. All are worthy of a moment of consideration. You read them over, take them in, then match them against your vision for the project. If you feel like what you have aligns with what you’re trying to communicate, keep it as is. If they raise a relevant point, regardless of your personal feelings – and especially if more than one person highlights the same concern – then you may need to re-edit.

And even this is all before the real editing process has begun (if you’re lucky enough to get published), which is essentially a variation of the first noted drafting stages, but with professional input, ideally from an editor you like and trust.

And that also takes months and months of back and forth.

It’s hard, there’s a heap of work involved – which is why it’s a little heart-breaking to see discounted books, knowing the work the authors have put into them.

But it’s what I do, it’s what all authors do – you’re driven to write because you love it, because the story speaks to you and enables you to understand something about the world in more depth, and hopefully facilitate the same for your readers. It’s not about money or fame for the vast, vast majority of writers, it’s part of who you are. It’s what I would do regardless, what I can’t help but come back to (but don’t tell my publishers that or I’ll torpedo any marginal negotiating capacity I have).

So yes, it’s a lot of work, and a lot of potentially unforgiving, unpaid, and definitely unappreciated effort. But if you want to get it right, you’ll do it, and you’ll know when it feels like you’ve hit the right mark.

Hiatus

I’ve been quiet lately, I haven’t written much here (obviously). But there’s a good reason, or a few really, which I hope to have more on soon.

In the meantime, here are some writing type notes that have happened/occurred to me recently.

  • I recently attended the Canberra Writers’ Festival as both a speaker and attendee. Our session (it was me, Jack Heath and Ellen Broad, chaired by Sandra Phillips) felt like it was enjoyable and hopefully conveyed some helpful info – I hadn’t done a panel session in some time, so was good to get out there and speak. Ellen’s research, in particular, was hugely interesting – its non-fiction, so not quite on theme for this blog, but Ellen looks at the ethical application of artificial intelligence. Ellen’s book ‘Made by Humans‘ is definitely worth a look.
  • I also saw Irvine Welsh speak at CWF. I love Trainspotting, less so his subsequent works, but it was interesting to hear the man himself. It did get me thinking about the challenges of framing yourself as a writer, though. For me, Welsh didn’t talk enough about his writing process, but I’m likely not indicative of the broader audience in that regard. Mostly, he told entertaining anecdotes from his life – which makes sense, because he’s Irvine Welsh, the guy who writes about drug-addicts and the hijinks they get up to in their pursuit of the next fix. As such, people probably love hearing those stories – but it must be hard to avoid becoming a parody of yourself in that (which, for the record, I don’t think Welsh has).
  • I’ve recently read ‘The Lace Weaver‘ by Lauren Chater, ‘Census‘ by Jesse Ball, have re-read various books in the style of different projects I’m working on (as I always do/am), and have picked up a couple of new ones to check out – ‘The Ensemble‘ by Aja Gabel and I’m moving through ‘The Mars Room‘ by Rachel Kushner. I’d recommend checking any of these out – all are presented in significantly different styles, but all showcase some great elements of literary function that can help inform your approach.
  • In terms of re-reading books in the style of the project I’m working on, I’ll put together a post about that, and one about the use of social media by authors (being in charge of editorial at Social Media Today, I’ve got a pretty good understanding of this element).

While I don’t have anything specific to report on writing projects right now, I have written more in the last few months than I ever have before, and it’s been great to get back into the process. I have a set writing schedule now established, where I go and write for several hours each day, and it’s working out great so far. Hopefully some interesting things come of it.

I plan to put together some more updates and posts here soon – in the meantime, you can get some slight hints about the projects I’m working from the ‘Work’ menu above, or go here and here.

Writing process

census

I recently read an interview with Jesse Ball, whose book ‘Census‘ I also recently finished.

In the interview, Ball noted that he generally takes between four and fourteen days to write a novel.

Fourteen days. That’s it.

Ball’s approach highlights, once again, that there is no prescriptive process to writing, that each creator is different, and will take a different approach. That’s why the viability of writing courses and the like is hard to quantify – because you can’t follow a prescriptive approach and hope to become a published author.

If there was a linear, simplified procedure that every aspiring writer could follow, they would do so, but as with all art, you need to find your way into it yourself, then build upon it with your own inspirations.

In some ways, it’s intimidating, thinking that some people are able to bash out great works of literature in such a short amount of time, but in others, it’s somewhat liberating. You don’t have to spend years putting together your work, you shouldn’t feel like there’s any obligation for you to write in isolation, or in public, or to have read certain books or know certain styles.

In certain respects, it may even be better not to know all the details. I would definitely advocate for learning as much as you can through reading, but there’s also something to be said for finding your style, then sticking to it. That could mean you don’t have to have read all of Hemingway’s great works, that you don’t need to understand the intricacies of ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’. I suspect they would help, but in some instances, that lack of structured, traditional process could lend itself better to creating the work you want.

Essentially, writing is personal. Its a part of you that you’re getting out and putting onto a page. For that, you need to find the best way within yourself, the process which truly reflects the work you want to create.

There’s no step-by-step process for this, it will be different for everyone. Maybe it takes you four weeks, maybe forty years – but the important thing is that when you read it back, that it reflects exactly your vision, and that you can’t think of anything more than should be added or removed to clarify it. Then you’ll be able to pass it onto readers and take in their feedback in a more constructive manner.

Definitely readers, and reading, will help refine and improve your work, but the answers to unlocking it lie in your own approach.

Writing targets

writing by hand

One of the most common questions writers get asked is whether they have a set word count they like to reach each day, or a target for the week to keep them on track. I don’t have a set target, but here’s how I measure my workload:

I write almost all of my fiction work by hand first. I don’t have a good reason as to why, but it feels more natural, more flowing. For some reason it generally works better for me. Some days, my fingers start to hurt from holding the pen for too long – it feels like a blister is forming on the edge of the tip of my finger.

It takes a lot of words to get to this point, so when it happens, I know I’ve had a productive writing day.

See, handwriting does still have benefits.

On Making it as a Writer in Australia

One thing I’ve noticed with my latest book, having had my previous novel come out some years back, is that the landscape for promotion has changed significantly.

The most obvious example is the declining number of bookshops – back in 2007, when ‘Rohypnol’ was published, Borders was still around, there were more independent bookstores, and local booksellers generally saw much more activity.

You can see this reflected in the below chart from Macquarie University’s “Disruption and Innovation in the Australian Book Industry, published back in 2016.

trade books

The evolution of online booksellers changed the game significantly for local bookstores – and consequently for creators – which is arguably more acutely felt by writers of literary fiction. Underlining that point, Macquarie’s report also found that Big W has now become the single biggest book retailer in Australia, a chain which, in fiction terms, clearly focuses on more commercial works.

And that makes sense – publishing is a business like any other, and they go with what’s likely to bring in the most money – but the flow on effect for literature is that it makes it that little bit harder to find avenues for awareness, and for promoting your work.

The other element at play here is the squeezing of editorial departments at major publications – while I’ve been lucky to have had my book reviewed in major papers, the outlets through which you can actually boost awareness of your work is shrinking.

The solution, according to most, is social media – Facebook has more than 15 million users in Australia, or up to 70% of the internet active population, while rising platforms like Instagram (9m Australian users), Snapchat (4m) and even older players like Twitter (3m) offer significant reach.

Through specific audience targeting, you can definitely use social ads to help raise awareness, but the real key to social media lies in being ‘social’, in building an engaging presence through activity, which means remaining constantly active on each platform. And that’s not always viable when you have writing projects to work on.

But it is important – social media, particularly through relevant groups and discussions, plays a key role in raising awareness, and there are thousands of book-related groups on Facebook alone to tap into.

book groups fb

The trick then is to raise awareness of your work amongst these people who are actively discussing books, and seeking book recommendations. But you can’t target groups, specifically, with Facebook ads – you can target people based on interests and behaviours, but focusing ads on groups is not possible. Yet.

Even so, utilizing social media to boost awareness is a key element, but social is an entertainment platform in itself, not a purely promotional vehicle. Which means more work for you.

There’s also the opportunity to boost your exposure through eBooks, enabling you to reach new markets, but figures show that eBook sales have slowed in recent years, with most people preferring physical books.

There are various considerations in this shift, it’s not as straight-forward as saying physical books are winning out, but it does show that eBooks will likely not contribute a significant amount of any book’s overall sales. eBook sales currently account for around 20% of the Australian market.

Basically, raising awareness of literary work in the Australian market is difficult, which is another challenge to consider with your work. And that’s fine – even having the opportunity to have your work published is a privilege, but it is another element to keep in mind, which points to the value of building an audience, through your own blog or other means, even before you reach publication.

That means attending literary events, meeting people in your local scene, getting involved where you can. Writing is obviously a solitary pursuit the majority of the time, and putting yourself out there can be intimidating. But in order to maximize interest in your work, it’s an essential, especially as your outlets for exposure become more limited.

While the initial path to publication is very tough, making an income as an author is, in itself, a significant challenge. According to a report published in 2015, the average Australian author only earns around $12,900 per annum from their writing, nowhere near enough to live on.

In many respects, that’s disheartening, but there are opportunities outside of your work itself to generate income (doing talks, hosting classes, etc.), while it also means authors need to question what it is they’re writing for.

It’s not easy, and the likelihood of you become a full-time fiction author are not high – if you choose to stick with it, you need to love it. And you need to find ways to make it work.