Charlie Hill’s Literary Fiction Manifesto

I’m Pressing This amusing, perceptive and heartfelt post on the state of and prospects for literary fiction; it deserves a discussion I think. I’ve already added my own comment.

writers’ hub – Literary Fiction Manifesto – Charlie Hill.

Working title

A few fellow travellers in the online community have asked the title of my recently-completed novel – so that they can spot it when it arrives in their local bookshop. Charmed though I am by the sweet confidence of this request (of course it’ll get published, of course it’ll end up in a Waterstones or Borders somewhere near you … do you know what the odds are, people?!), I remain unsure of whether or how to respond. That’s because while I know what I call it, it’s not at all certain that a publisher will want to stick with my moniker. I sympathise. At this point I’m not even sure I want to stick with it, for reasons that will become clear. But I do need to respond, maybe spread the dilemma around a bit. Here goes.

To tell this story properly I should start at the beginning, with a quote from the 1967 preface to The Book of Imaginary Beings by the incomparable Jorge Luis Borges:

“We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon in the same way that we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that fits man’s imagination …”

That struck me when I first read it several years ago as a wonderfully elegant metaphor for what it is we do when we read and when we write – we take something completely invented, and from it try to extrapolate a recognisable truth. When I started writing my novel almost a year ago I knew I didn’t know what to call it yet, so I filed those earliest drafts as The Meaning of Dragons. I suspect I will use this again and again, as an obtuse but portentous working title, until I know what it is I’m really writing about.

As happened with the current novel. Ten thousand words or so in I had the principle characters, events and narrative arc, and had set the various parallel plotlines off and running. I knew what it was, and I had a new working title that actually captures what the story is about: ®Evolution. Yep, you got it. The book is about a revolution in terms of an upheaval; and revolutions in terms of repeating cycles of events; and the artificially engineered evolution of the human species by massively powerful corporations for equally massive financial gain. The circle around the ‘R’ to create the commercial registration mark both tells you there’s a mercantile imperative at work, and subtly hints at an orbit, the sense of something revolving. I wasn’t sure at first, but as the chapters rolled past and the story took on the weight and heft of truth, it felt right. I was writing about the ®Evolution.

The problem, of course, is that it’s a visual quip. The triple entendre only works when it’s read, not spoken. Say it out loud and you lose two-thirds of the meaning. Plus, verbalised it’s no longer unique. As my agent put it, there’s a lot of revolutions out there.

Had I thought of any alternative titles? Just, you know, in case.

So, I’ve been trying to. It’s been tough. I’m committed to the ®Evolution. But having had to think about a potential two more books to follow the first has helped, because now I can envisage them as a sequence of stories which together would chronicle the ®Evolution. I could make it the omnibus title instead of the name of one particular novel.

On the off chance that that’s how it pans out, the title of my first book might end up being Gemsign, which also encapsulates many of the key elements of the story. And before you ask, I’m not going to even begin to explain the significance of that word to you – not yet, anyway. Feels like tempting fate. When I know it’s really on the way to a bookshop near you, I’ll tell you what it means.

By which time, it might be called something else.


From an agent, agency

I now have an agent. A literary agent. Someone who thinks my novel is good enough to sign me up and try to sell it. Someone who thinks my writing and characters and storyworld are good enough, in fact, to ask me to sketch out ideas for another two. Just in case a publisher might be interested in buying not only the one I’ve written, but a couple more I haven’t. (Apparently this can happen, even to new writers. Who knew?)

It’s difficult to describe just how seismic this feels. And how sudden. The Chronicle of the Writer is supposed to be a long, dusty, desolate journey, punctuated by rejection, fraught with self-doubt, seasoned with the salt of inky tears. You’re supposed to take at least a couple of years to write the thing, a few more to polish the manuscript and your courage, before you set forth into a hostile wilderness where no one reads your submission or returns your calls or – heaven forfend – wants to represent you. And I had already cheated; while the idea that became the book had been slowly developing in the back of my brain for several years, with occasional eureka moments as parts of the whole came clear, I only started properly writing it last April. I finished in October. Even though it was about as good as I thought I could make it without the services of a professional editor, when I sent it out in early January I still had the uneasy feeling of being way, way, way ahead of schedule.

So I was all set to get knocked back, as custom dictates, and indeed a few rejections had started to trickle in. But then I got a request for the full manuscript, and within a week the offer, from a publishing veteran no less. It all feels a bit miraculous. So now, of course, my innate superstition (which I claim not to have but which, let’s face it, we all have to some degree) is kicking in. Surely I can’t dodge my period in purgatory. Things can’t keep going quite so incredibly well. Can they?

Well, maybe they can. Because I’ve spent the weekend thinking about those other two books – setting out possible scenarios, core themes, central conflicts. Writing them up for my agent. Before, although I had created a world sufficiently complex and populated to generate many more stories, I had barely allowed myself to contemplate them. Now I’ve been given leave and licence to do just that. The stories are starting to take shape. Not only have I secured an agent; I have also, through some strange hoodoo, acquired agency.

Maybe I skipped a couple of steps to get here. So what? I’m looking at it this way – whatever time I don’t have to spend in the Slough of Submission, I get to spend writing. That can only be a good thing.


Poetic distraction

I don’t write poetry. Not really. Not seriously. And on the very odd occasion when I very occasionally do, I am invariably in a mood which can only be described as weird.

It’s a conflicted condition: at once focused and distracted, overflowing with language yet linguistically constrained, dreamy and jittery. It puzzles me. And, I suppose, the writing of a poem is a way of trying to impose some kind of structure and sense on an insensible state. Like being caught in a riptide, the only way out is to swim with it for a while, appearing to give in until you can sneak out, at the gentlest of angles, before the current catches on. To scratch the itch that will placate, but never exorcise, this particular imp.

I drifted into this once-in-a-blue-moon mood last week, around the same time I was setting up this blog, working on a structural revision of the final chapter of my novel, and writing copy for a business website. Now multitasking is something I’m good at, but this was a bit much. My brain didn’t exactly seize up, but my subconscious serenely reprioritised. Laptop abandoned, I found myself in the window seat, notebook on knee, pencil in hand and bleak winter landscape arrayed before me. I could have been a Bronte heroine.

The funny thing, though, about surrendering to that sweet melancholy, is how the words just come. And how, even though no one but you may ever quite grasp the sense or the structure you see in it, you know when the words are perfect, or when they’re close but not quite right, or when they are as awkward and wrong as a mistranslated verse. You feel the rhythm of it. You move to the beat.

I wrote the damn poem. I’m not displeased with it. Getting it down felt like waking up.

You can read it here.

On becoming a writer

I’m a writer.  I never used to say that out loud, and it still sounds strange and new to me. Which is odd, because I have written and written and written, for years and years and years. Oh, it never said so on a business card. Those always said Manager of this, Director of that. Executive. Consultant. Different responsibilities, different industries even. But all of them, without exception, required thinking about things, and the coherent organisation of those thoughts into a narrative, and the writing down of that narrative. Marketing copy, reports, proposals, policies, strategies. Not as boring as it sounds, and it pays the bills, and I’m good at it.

But the really interesting stuff was always … the other stuff. Scribbled down randomly, irregularly, almost in secret. In the last five minutes before falling asleep, or between appointments. Half an hour’s jolting ride on a train, pen skipping and juddering across a poem or an essay or an imagined conversation. A weekend, maybe, spent in pyjamas, lost in an idea, a marathon effort to get – it – down before time and mental space ran out.

Gradually, more of this. More time, commitment, more of a need for it. As with so much else it turns out the more you do, the more you can do. So weekends become weeks, weeks become months. Verses become poems, a snatch of dialogue morphs into a screenplay. An idea, a strange, shapeless notion about an inexplicable character in an unthinkable circumstance reveals itself as a novel. And that has turned out to be the most powerful experience yet. You become omnipotent, layering slivers of reality onto a foundation of whim, until the world inside your head feels as complex as the one outside.

There’s no going back after that. I’m a writer. Here I am.

  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

    In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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    The 3rd Book of the ®Evolution

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