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Monday, April 12, 2010

ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS…

Martin asked a few questions before the weekend, and here are the answers:

1. Do you ever feel frustrated and fed by all the appearances and places you have to visit, when you could be writing and being with your family, or do you enjoy all aspects of being an author?

No, I don’t feel frustrated and fed-up! More now than ever, an author has to make an effort to go out and create his or her own readership. The vast majority of books published receive no support – financially or promotionally – from the publisher, and thus the responsibility lies with the author to work as hard as he/she can to find and connect with new readers. In the UK we publish 133,000 books a year. That’s 30 every hour, twenty-four hours of the day. I would guess that only two or three percent have a ‘marketing/promotional spend’ attached to them, and the rest are reliant on word-of-mouth, personal reference, the enthusiasm of booksellers in bookshops, reading group support and the promotional efforts of the author. There are, of course, authors who find the personal aspect of writing – meeting new people, doing readings and signings – intensely rewarding, and then there are authors who do not like making public appearances. It is true to say – in the main – that those authors who make the effort to go out and meet readers have an infinitely greater chance of selling books, and as a result have an infinitely greater chance of continuing to write and publish, because only with booksales sufficient to warrant further investment from the publisher do authors continue to be published. Personally, I love to travel, I love to talk about books, I love to meet new readers and spend time with people who are as enthusiastic about books and writing as I am. Hence I make the effort to do as many public events as possible and support the libraries as much as I can. I could stay home all year, but then I would write three books a year, and being only able to publish one I would soon get very frustrated with all the backlogged material that I knew no-one would ever read!

2. Do you ever get nervous when having to speak in front of an audience? If so how do you cope with it?

I don’t, no. I know that ‘public speaking’ is terrifying for most people, but I have never really had a problem with it. In all honesty, I don’t know that there is any other real or workable solution for ‘stage fright’ than forcing yourself to go out and do it.

3. How do you react to criticism? Either from the public or from publishers, agents, editors. i.e. if there’s a particular scene that they want cut out, but you want left in, how strongly would you argue your case? Or if they don’t like a book, would it make you write differently?

This is several questions as once; we’ll take them individually.

- How do I react to public criticism?

Well, it’s par for the course. It’s something that you have to accept will always be there. It bothers me greatly when I read reviews on amazon, and someone says, ‘This is rubbish. I have a six year-old who could write better than this’. Sometimes the comments are wholly vicious and unpleasant. The frustrating thing for me is that I meet a lot of people who have read and enjoyed the books, and yet they don’t put reviews on the net. Amazon – fortunately or unfortunately – is one of the very, very few public forums where people can post reviews that will be read by people. In my experience, the number of people who post reviews versus the number of people who have read the books in infinitesimal. I really wish people would post reviews! Regardless, the bottom line is that you are not going to please everyone, and if you spend all your time worrying about what people think then you’ll never do anything for fear of criticism. You learn to accept it, to try not to be bothered too much by it, but sometimes the things you read are so hostile that you wonder what purpose the person is trying to accomplish by saying such things.

- How do I react to criticism from agents and editors?

Well, you don’t get criticism from agents and editors. You get suggestions, advice, recommendations. They don’t criticize, per se. If your agent or editor reads some part of your work and feels that it’s not right, or could be better, then they certainly wouldn’t refrain from saying anything, but it’s never done with a negative slant. It’s always approached with a view of making your work as good as possible. Aside from that, your agent or editor works with you because they enjoy your work, your style, the type of material you produce, and thus criticism – in the accepted sense of the word – is not part of your relationship.

- If there’s a particular scene that they want cut out, but you want left in, how strongly would you argue your case?

Very strongly! The thing you will find with your editor is that he or she will generally operate on the basis that it is your book, it is your creation, and they will honour your wish to maintain it as you wrote it. If you feel very strongly about a scene, then I would generally imagine that the scene was integral to the plot, and thus I don’t think an editor would ask for it to be removed.

- Or if they don’t like a book, would it make you write differently?

Well, if your publisher didn’t like a book they have the right to refuse to publish it, and would actually ask you to deliver another book to them. That has never happened with me. I wouldn’t think there were very many cases where a publisher ‘didn’t like’ a book. I know that in the vast majority of cases authors have to make editorial changes to their work – big or small – based on recommendations from editors, but not to the extent where they would have to write differently, or scrap a book completely.

4. Do you have complete control over what you write? What I’m asking is, do you have to target a particular audience when you’re writing, as set out by your publisher? I remember a couple of years back when you wanted a book out earlier, but it was put back by your publisher?

Yes, you do have complete control over what you write, but – once again – you are contracted to a publisher, and the publisher has the right to refuse to publish a work that it is unsatisfied with, or feels is inappropriate. I don’t know of any author who has been asked to ‘write to a particular audience’ as such. I can imagine that there are certain authors who – having found a receptive audience – then continue to write a particular type of story to serve that audience, but I don’t know that authors are ever coached to fulfil a particular brief that their publisher believes will fulfil a ‘market requirement’. In my experience, the publishing industry as a whole is not that mercenary. And as far as a book being put back or released on a different date by a publisher, this is only done because the publisher believes that waiting to publish it will give it a better chance of garnering attention in an already very jam-packed publishing calendar.

5. What do you think of contemporary writers? Ken Follett, who I rate very highly, was very scathing about Hilary Mantel, the recent Booker Prize winner. I have started reading a few of these, i.e. William Boyd, Sebastian Barry and others, and have found them very good, and not all as difficult to read as I imagined.

Unfortunately I cannot answer this question. I have not read any books by Ken Follett, Hilary Mantel, William Boyd or Sebastian Barry. However, I will say that I have no interest or desire to be critical or negative about any authors’ work, regardless of who they might be or the quality of their novels. I know what it takes to produce a novel, and I know that the vast majority of books are written by extraordinarily committed and hard-working people. As Aldous Huxley once said, ‘A bad book is as much a labour of love as a good one’, and the idea of criticising another writer’s work is anathema to me.

6. I guess you’ve met lots of writers now in your time, even some of the greats and I just wondered what sort of people they are? I know some of them in the past have a reputation for being difficult or having problems. Alistair MacLean and Ian Fleming had drink problems for instance, Virginia Woolf had mental problems and committed suicide. I’ve heard JD Salinger was a bit of a recluse and so on.

In my experience, I have found writers – on the whole – to be generous, interested in others, intelligent, humorous, well-read, eager to answer questions and meet their readers, and of the view that they are themselves very fortunate to be published, and willing to help and advise unpublished writers. I can honestly say that – as a professional writer for the past seven or eight years – I have yet to come across a writer I have disliked or found to be rude, offensive, self-important or anything else. Of course, I have not met all writers! Amongst those I have met who I have found to be wonderfully receptive, good travelling companions, and great to share a stage with at events and suchlike are Mark Billingham, Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Jeffery Deaver, Laura Wilson, Chris Simms, Steve Mosby, Kate Mosse, Laura Lippman, Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, Robert Crais, Simon Kernick, Lee Child, and many, many more. I think writers – especially crime writers (as these are the writers I have greatest exposure to) – are a wonderful fraternity, each supportive of their fellows, and each as generous as the other with their time and encouragement. I think all people, regardless of profession, have their idiosyncrasies and oddities! The simple fact that those in the public eye have those idiosyncrasies and oddities made known does not make them any less ‘ordinary’. I don’t think being a writer predisposes you to alcoholism, depression or anything else, any more than any other profession might!

7. Have you ever thought about writing in another genre besides American crime fiction? I was thinking of your 22 unpublished novels. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how they do today? Not that I’m saying you should give up your present genre as you do it so well.

I have no plans to write in another genre at the moment. I think the ‘genre’ within which I write encompasses everything I want to write about – the spectrum of human emotions, history, politics, music, culture, social commentary, conspiracy theories, crime and punishment and all else. The one thing I see in the ‘crime fiction’ genre is that it does encompass all genres and all subjects. You can write a crime novel that is also a love story, a thriller, a conspiracy, a historical work, and thus you have a huge canvas with which to work. My earlier works, for the moment, are staying in the attic where they have been for the last twenty-something years. It would take as much tiem to work one of them into publishable condition as it would to write another book, and writing a new book is always so much more interesting.

8. Is there any more news about the filming of AQBIA?

No, no further word yet. This is the nature of the film industry, it seems. You hear nothing for three years and then everything happens in a fortnight! We shall see what transpires…

9. What do you think of E Readers? Will they mean the death of the printed word, or the saviour of the publishing industry?

I don’t think they will mean either. I think e-readers will be used alongside books. Recordings of music never took the place of live music. Photography never took the place of painting. I think there is a disposable, give-away, tactile, share-able, inexpensive, lend-it-to-someone-and-don’t-worry-about-getting-it-back, gift-orientated, sense-fulfilling quality to books that will never be achieved with anything but a real book. I think e-books will increase in popularity, but I don’t think they will ever exceed the sales of hard-copy books.

12 comments:

martin said...

Hi Roger,
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, and I think you said some very interesting things. You are lucky in that you are able to speak so eloquently in front of an audience, about a subject you are so passionate about. As you know I share your passion about books, both reading and writing, and am avid in both. I agree too that in todays market you have to do all you can to promote and publicise your work. And in your shoes I would welcome the chance to meet other authors and similiar minded people. However, seeing your calendar for all the events you attend, I would be aghast, and wonder if I'd ever get down to any serious writing. I imagine even you must have to draw the line somewhere. Obviously, each individual author is different. I know Cormac Mccarthy has only ever given one interview to Ophra recently due to The Road. It's good to know that editors, publishers agents etc are mostly supportive and constructive in the help they give. However, I would say, that it must be difficult to maintain the extremely high standard you set yourself. At some time the law of averages says that one book will be better than another, and so on. And along the way it's possible to have a bad book published. I read some shockers,which might never been published had they been written by someone else. Although for instance King and Koontz have for years produced brilliant books, in recent years although still very readable, they have fallen below their incredibly high standards. Fortunately in your case, every book has been of an excellent standard. But with dealines to meet, and contracts to honour, the pressure to keep coming up with the goods and new ideas must be immense.
I'm a little disappointed to hear you wouldn't try another genre. Because I think you'd probably be able to turn your hand to any type of writing. Peter James is one who moved from thrillers to crime, and Ken Follett too, can do historical as well as present day thrillers.
I hope very much that AQBIA film, does eventually see the light of day, but that must be a little frustrating, but so exciting when it does happen. It'll be great to see if the characters etc will turn out as you envisaged them.
Thanks again for taking the time to reply. It's been a valuable in sight into your craft, and it does you great justice that you're prepared to share this.
My best wishes fot your continued success
martin

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R J Ellory said...

Martin,
I don't think I would ever completely rule out the possibility of writing in another genre, but - in all honesty - I feel I have been given the chance to pretty much write whatever I want. I think all the books I have published have been quite different. There is very little similarity between, say 'City of Lies' and 'A Quiet Belief In Angels'. The Thriller/Crime genre, as I mentioned, and certainly as I see it, gives you such scope to write about so many different things, and I feel there is so much yet to explore. I think the one thing I will never do is create a 'series character'. I don't think I would be happy writing about the same central protagonist through a number of books. Anyway, I'm glad the answers were of interest, and it was good to talk!
Best wishes,
Roger.

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