Bird of Passage - What's In A Name?

If you have a quick look at the last post but one, you'll see that I was debating over the choice of name for my new novel, the one that I'll be publishing to Kindle in a few weeks time. I've scheduled it for 18th November, and I'll be having a launch event on my author's Facebook page, on or near that date - depends how quickly I can pull everything together. I say 'my new novel' but there are three novels - Bird of Passage, a big, romantic Polish epic called The Amber Heart and a brand new Scottish historical novel, which isn't quite finished, but soon will be, called The Physic Garden. I've scheduled Bird of Passage as an eBook this year, and I'll make some decisions about the others early in 2012. Watch this space!

Don't ask me how I've managed to get so much work ready to go, all at the same time, but a lot of it has to do with being 'distracted' by plays over the years, but wanting desperately to carry on writing prose fiction at the same time. Well, I did carry on writing it, but it's definitely 'mid-list' fiction, which doesn't slot neatly into any one genre. I've been having a hard time selling it in the current market - and that's even with an agent. I've had lots of 'rave rejections' as my colleague Maggie Craig calls them - editors saying how much they love my writing, but 'the marketing department doesn't think they can sell it.'

Only a little while ago, I heard yet another a literary agent talking about the death of the mid-list. Well, I hope she's wrong, because not only do I write it, but I love to read it. Besides, I'm pretty sure she wasn't taking Kindle and other platforms into account.  eBooks are - thank heavens - providing a home for the kind of mid-list fiction that so many of us love - well written, thought provoking novels, telling stories we want to read, a slow burn rather than a flash in the pan - perhaps not wildly experimental or narrowly structured, but absorbing fiction that leaves us satisfied in some deep way.

Anyway, after much agonising and consulting of friends (and then ignoring their suggestions, sorry folks - but the consultation really helped!) I went with Bird of Passage.It seems to me to encapsulate everything that the book is about. The novel has been described as 'Wuthering Heights Meets The Bridges of Madison County.' I've always loved Wuthering Heights, and it did start out as a sort of homage to that novel, albeit with a Scottish/Irish setting, and a story spanning the years from the 1960s to the present. Back when I was regularly dramatising classics for BBC Radio 4 - and although they let me loose on everything from Ben Hur to Treasure Island - they would never let me dramatise Wuthering Heights. I've blogged (crossly) about that before! So I decided that I had to write my own novel.

It's about a boy called Finn, who is sent to a Scottish island farm to work as a 'tattie howker' - the Scottish name for potato harvester. (There's a very old photograph of them above and a painting by my husband, Alan Lees, below.) Even when we moved to Scotland in the 1960s, people still came over from Ireland, usually from Donegal, to dig the tatties. They were sometimes treated very badly, and their accommodation was not the best. In Bird of Passage, Finn strikes up a friendship with the grand-daughter of the farmer, a girl called Cairistiona, always known as Kirsty.

Kirsty becomes a talented and ambitious artist, but her work is inextricably tied up with her love, not just for the island itself, but for Finn, who comes and goes like the mysterious corncrake which visits the island every summer. Finn, however, is psychologically damaged by a childhood so traumatic that he can only recover his memories piece by piece.  What happened at the brutal Industrial School, to which he was committed while still a little boy? For the sake of his own sanity, he must try to find out why he was sent there in the first place, and what became of his mother. As he struggles to answer these questions, his ability to love and be loved in return is called into question. He is the Bird of Passage of the title – a wanderer from place to place, a summer visitor who can call nowhere home.

Looking back at the novel now, I can see that what began as Kirsty’s story, gradually, over successive rewrites, began to change, and began to focus more and more on Finn. I found myself needing to know exactly why he was the way he was. It was as though he was insisting on telling his story and the more I wrote, the more central it became. Now, I think the balance is probably right. Kirsty is still a major figure, but Finn has his rightful place too. And there is a mystery at the heart of the novel that only Finn can solve - for himself, but for us too.

Meanwhile, a young digital artist called Matt Zanetti has done some superb cover art for me, a picture which seems to reflect the feeling of the novel  precisely. A picture, moreover, which convinced me that I had got my title right. But I'll save that for a later post! 

Some Thoughts About eBook Pricing - and Guilty Lending.

The other night, in one of my frequent sleepless spells (my mind doesn't seem to take any notice of my body's manifest need for sleep, these days) I found myself thinking about the price of eBooks. Most writers who are publishing their backlists or their own new 'inventory' tend to go for the cheaper option, keeping the price around the £2.00 mark or less. Much less, in the case of small collections of stories, for example, which generally sell at 80 - 90p. 
I've heard various pronouncements from conventional publishers on this score, most of them attempting to justify their prices for downloads which are generally much closer to the prices charged for 'paper' books. 
But no matter how good the cause, there is an optimum price beyond which people - especially young people, who are in the habit of downloading music and games - are reluctant to go. In fact there is some evidence from the overall download industry, that reasonably low priced downloads tend to curb piracy. Illegal downloads are and will increasingly become a problem, but all the same, current evidence suggests that the majority of people are law-abiding - at a price! It may not say much for public morality, but it's a fact that if people can download cheaply and legally, that's what most of them will do. 
I've heard publishers and even writers justifying their higher download prices by talking about 'payment for content' and it's a reasonable point to make. 
The amount of work that goes into a novel is huge. Nobody is more aware of that than a novelist! But then the amount of work that goes into - for example - even a small downloadable I-Phone game is also huge, and generally involves three or four or more people going flat out for months. The single geek, working alone in his bedroom, much loved by news programmes, is rare these days. Game development is a professional pursuit and commercially licensed software costs a fortune. So does the necessary hardware. And yet these downloads are generally sold for pennies rather than pounds, with their makers depending on volume of sales to bring in the cash. 
Besides, the pronouncements of publishers declaring that they (and we) must 'pay for content' would be somewhat more credible if conventional advances were not already so low and royalties so tiny that most authors almost never manage to 'earn back' even very low advances, so that they are left in a constant state of guilt - an unhealthy state of affairs and one which isn't conducive to good working relationships.
However, the thing that gave me my small moment of clarity, at three o'clock the other morning, was the fact that I was finishing an extraordinarily good book called Five Quarters of the Orange, by Joanne Harris and - dear reader - I must guiltily admit that I had bought it from the second hand bookshelf in our community shop. You can salve my conscience by going away and buying a copy right now. Not only that, but as I finished it, with a sigh of satisfaction (it really is a very good book!) I found myself thinking of my various relatives and friends who might also like to read it, mentally making a little list, who to give it to first, and then she could pass it on to that friend and so on and so on...A chain of people, reading the novel, and not a sou going back to Joanne or her publisher, who put in all that work in the first place. (I do buy new books, often, honest - but I still felt guilty!) 
But it also struck me that - now that I have a Kindle - if I had come across this novel at, say, £1.90, as a download, I would have clicked and bought it without a second thought. But if I had seen it in a bookshop, I maybe wouldn't. If I had money I might, but I can't even afford to heat my house, so books are a luxury. Reading, however, is as essential as breathing, so I can justify low priced download treats.And it also struck me that most of the friends to whom I had considered lending the book would almost certainly have done exactly the same. And then I started to add up the small amounts of money which would be generated for writers and publishers by each of those downloads, and it very quickly came to more, quite a lot more, than the price that somebody paid for the original book, the same paperback copy which lots of people will have read, by the time it has been passed around. 
I can't believe that publishers live in such commercial seclusion that they are unaware of just how much casual borrowing of paperbacks goes on, here in the real world. Wouldn't it be better if we paid just a little for a download instead?
Of course, charity shops will suffer in the future, if this takes off in a big way. But then there's all the difference in the world between the small charity or village shop with its shelf or two of paperbacks, and the big charity business, competing with struggling bookshops, and selling thousands of freely acquired, almost new books at commercial prices, with no benefit to writer or publisher at all. The former will have no trouble finding donated books. The latter may begin to struggle a bit. I know they do sterling work, but still - I find it quite hard to have much sympathy. 

Enticing Book Titles - Decisions Decisions.

I've been thinking about titles this week, and here's the reason why. I'm planning to publish a new novel to Kindle in time for Christmas - I'm currently aiming to have it ready to go in November, but the title is giving me pause for thought. And the time is coming when I'll have to make some definite decisions, if only for the sake of the cover artist.

I know a great deal has been written about titles, and how attractive or otherwise they are. There are certainly fashions in titles. The wonderfully quirky and excellent 'Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' spawned a whole set of less than wonderfully quirky imitation titles which made me - personally - want to avoid the other books like the plague so I never found out whether they were good or not. A recent analysis revealed that best sellers often include specific words: dead, blue, girl, spring to mind, but there were others. The devil was more popular than God - in titles, anyway. But maybe he has the best books as well as the best tunes.

In my many years of experience of writing stories, plays and novels, I've come to the conclusion that you either know the title right away - probably before you have written the book.... or you have real problems. There is no happy medium. I knew that The Curiosity Cabinet could never be anything but the Curiosity Cabinet, and that was long before the novel was written, when it was in its first incarnation as a trilogy of plays for BBC Radio 4.

My story A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture had a name, even before the first draft was written. I had the idea for the story when I was wandering round a 'museum of torture' in a small Italian town on a quiet afternoon in October. My work in progress - a novel called The Physic Garden - will almost certainly stay with that title come hell or high water, because it seems so right for the book.

But sometimes, even while you love what you're working on, the title doesn't quite gel. My Polish historical novel went through almost as many titles as drafts before I finally settled on The Amber Heart. And this is also what has happened with the book known as The Summer Visitor. This is another novel with a Scottish island setting, similar to The Curiosity Cabinet, although the story is quite different. I don't know why I felt the need to explore this setting again in fiction but sometimes these things just happen.

It starts in the early 1960s when a young Irish boy, Finn O’Malley, is sent from Ireland to Scotland, to work at the potato harvest. He forms a close friendship with Cairistiona (Kirsty) Galbreath, the farmer’s grand-daughter. But later on, when Kirsty moves away from home, the threads that have bound these two friends so closely together begin to unravel, and it seems that only Kirsty’s ambitions as an artist can give her the fulfilment she seeks. Kirsty’s work is inextricably tied up with her love, not just for the island itself, but for Finn, who comes and goes like the mysterious corncrake which visits the island every summer.

Finn, however, is psychologically damaged by a childhood so traumatic that he can only recover his memories piece by piece – and slowly. What happened at the brutal Industrial School, to which he was committed while still a little boy? For the sake of his own sanity, he must try to find out why he was sent there in the first place, and what became of his mother. As he struggles to answer these questions, his ability to love and be loved in return is called into question.

So that's what it's about. Loosely. You'll have to read the book to find out more! But the title is still giving me pause for thought.

It started out as a novel called Darragh Martin. The story was completely different and has been drastically rewritten since. Somewhere along the way, the main character changed and his name changed too. Later on, it became The Corncrake, which I still quite like. I thought about The Bonny Irish Boy, but I don't think that does it, because he isn't bonny at all. The Corncrake is a mysterious bird - a summer visitor - and that's exactly what Finn is. So The Corncrake is still an option. Eventually I settled on The Summer Visitor which I still like. But then somebody suggested that The Water's Wide might be better and now I'm not sure. A quick poll on Facebook and Twitter has resulted in more confusion since nobody seems to be in agreement and yet all their reasons are valid and interesting! (Focus groups, eh?) Some kind person, however, has just messaged me on Twitter to say that he likes either The Summer Visitor - or Summer Visitor. And I'm thinking he may have hit on something. Because for some reason, Summer Visitor is better than The Summer Visitor, in my mind anyway - but I'm not sure why!