Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How Stephen Fry made me do it

As I get closer to the finishing line with A Box Of Birds, I thought I'd tell the story of how I got my first fiction published.

I'd never had any success with getting stories into print. I was finishing off my PhD at Cambridge, and I'd had a poem accepted in the May Anthologies the previous year. The guest editor had been Seamus Heaney, so you can imagine what a trip that had sent me on. That year I had been on the student-run selection committee (no advantage since we—quite properly—weren't allowed to vote for ourselves). We felt that we were doing something important with some pieces of writing that showed huge promise, and that we might even be helping to launch some careers.

For the next year's prose anthology, Stephen Fry agreed to be the guest editor. I sent in my submission, waited, and eventually heard that it had been shortlisted by the selection committee. The next step was for the shortlisted entries to be posted off to Stephen, who would read them through and make his selection.  

I didn't feel particularly hopeful. I'd had lots of rejections from literary magazines, and I'd come to assume that people just didn't get what I was trying to do (it's the excuse I still make to myself). Also, I was a Natural Scientist, and everyone else was studying literature and had read everything and could deconstruct texts very cleverly. They knew about Jane Austen. I knew about language development in children. It didn't seem to be a great platform for an assault on the literary world. 

I got lucky, however. Stephen picked twelve stories and one of them was mine. 

It was called 'A Photograph', and it was about adolescent sex and a tribute band called The New South Wales Police. I was very young, in my early twenties. In his foreword to the collection, Stephen wrote: 
You will not find bombast, precocity, self-indulgence or self-importance here. You will find stories that are magnetically readable, memorable and moving. 
When I look at those stories now, particularly my own, I feel that Stephen was being kind. A couple of days before I heard that 'A Photograph' had been accepted, I wondered in my diary whether I was angry enough to be a writer. 'I'm playing,' I wrote. 'I'm feigning. I have this little uninteresting life and, worse, this little uninteresting mind. I shouldn't be bothering.'

Actually, when I read back through my diary from that time, I can see that I was pretty angry, but about the wrong things. I was angry at people for not responding to submissions, for apparently not being interested in fiction that took risks and tried to go somewhere new. I was angry, but not in the right way. I wasn't yet able to channel that deep sense of outrage that propels a writer—to persuade my readers that there was something important that needed saying, and that I was the person to say it. When my dad died, three years later, I had plenty to be angry about. I think my writing changed then. I haven't really continued with short stories, although I have huge respect and admiration for the form. I've been drawn to the bigger canvas of the novel, the space it gives you to master a perspective and send lives into collision with each other.

I was writing a novel back then—my first—and struggling with it. (It was never published.) There were things I was supposed to be doing: applying for fellowships, securing an academic job, and joining the race to become a professor before the age of forty (or whatever other daft self-imposed goals seemed to matter to giddy young academics). I wasn't just losing the pace: I was turning on my heels and sprinting off in the wrong direction.

It was 1994. Looking back, I feel I could have saved myself so much pain. Nothing's going to happen any time soon, I would have told myself. Forget your daily word count. Forget the agents and those hopeful submissions. Wait. Enjoy it for what it is. Master your craft. And, in twenty years' time, you might have something to show for it. 

In later years, the May Anthologies (now the Mays) went on to discover a few literary names, most famously Zadie Smith. Stephen didn't do too badly either. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Crowd-funding: the endgame

A Box of Birds is now 78% funded. Hundreds of people have played a part already in helping me to make this book happen, and now we’re into the final phase.

I still need around a hundred more supporters. Please pass the message on to your friends, use Twitter and Facebook and generally spread the word. You can see who has already pledged by going here.

This blog post has a summary of the publicity I’ve been doing and details of some forthcoming events. I've answered some questions about the crowd-funding process here.

I've been working on this novel for more than a decade, and so you'll understand why I'm keen for it to see the light of day. I’ve loved every moment of the writing process, and I can’t think of any better way I could have spent the time. I hope that that joy comes across in the writing. The first three chapters have already been published in my Unbound shed, but I’ve put them together in a handy .pdf if you haven’t yet had a look.

Some of my Unbound stablemates have been writing about what crowd-funding means to them. Katy Brand explains why she chose Unbound over traditional publishers, and Stevyn Colgan has been reflecting on his own experience of crowd-funding his new book.

Things happen to Unbound books. Tibor Fischer published his new collection with them and it was recently chosen for the Fiction Uncovered promotion. Unbound books can get noticed and win prizes. Several people told me that crowd-funding a literary thriller was an ambitious thing to be doing. It's taken some work, but it's happening.

Some may feel that £20 is a lot to pay for a book, and we’re certainly used to paying less online. Bear in mind, though, that the author pays for those sensational online discounts, by losing up to 60% of their already modest percentage. Unbound’s model is much fairer for the author, with a basic 50% profit share with the publisher. And you are investing in a writer's talent and ideas, by supporting a book that would otherwise not see the light of day.

Please help me to cross the finishing line. I’ve set out some ideas for what you can do to help in this blog post. Whilst you’re at it, have a look at some of the other wonderful books on offer. Unbound books make great presents, but they also make great books happen.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Lorenzo Circuit: fact or fiction?

DTI image
DTI image (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've had a lot of fun writing A Box Of Birds, but nothing has given me quite as much pleasure as making up this kind of thing:
I touch the remote. Another hologrammic brain ghosts up in front of our eyes, its shapes made perfect by countless superimposed iterations. Running through it, like the root system of some supernatural orchid, is the vermilion net of the Lorenzo Circuit. I’m always stunned by it, humbled and threatened by its beauty, by the ambition of the thing as much as anything. It leaves nothing out: the control systems of the frontal lobe, the emotion circuits of the limbic system, all the linked factories of meaning that patch the human cortex. That swirl of self on the screen shows me a dream of connectedness, challenges me to be more whole than I am.
This is an extract from Chapter One (which can be read in its entirety here). The Lorenzo Circuit is (in my protagonist Yvonne's words) 'the deep root-system of the self... the basis of memory, emotion and consciousness in the human brain'. It is fictional, but I also think it is plausible. Much of the plot of A Box Of Birds hangs on the race to map its secrets.

Here's the context. One of the most exciting discoveries in the recent neuroscience of memory has been the finding that there is a core network that underlies capacities as diverse as autobiographical memory, simulating future events, thinking about the mental states of others, and daydreaming. Neuroimaging studies have shown that similar cortical areas activate when people are doing these tasks, and evidence from brain damage (such as studies that have looked at future-oriented thinking in people with amnesia) has confirmed the neural overlap.

I wanted to take this idea of a core system underlying memory and run with it as far as I could. In the novel, I imagine how a team of researchers might become obsessed with mapping such a circuit, using the techniques of connectomics such as diffusion MRI. Yvonne's world is technologically more advanced than ours—she has access to portable neuroimaging devices, for example, such as those on view in the first chapter. But the Lorenzo Circuit is plausible in the context of our own science, particularly given the breakthroughs in connectomics and neuroimaging that have been making the news in recent months.

If you knew enough about this fictional circuit, my characters reason, you could start to understand how memory and emotion come together in creating a conscious self. When Gareth (Yvonne's unstable student) gets hold of this information, it gives a new focus to his scheme to augment memory artificially. As the truth emerges about the secret experiments that are going on at the headquarters of the rival biotech, Sansom, the mapping of the Lorenzo Circuit takes on an entirely new urgency. And that's where the story really hots up.

(If you like the sound of this, you can help to make the book happen by going here.)

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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Extraordinary 75% giveaway!

At some point in the next hours/days/weeks A Box Of Birds will reach 75% of its funding target. To celebrate, all new subscribers (from now until the 75% mark is reached) will be entered into a draw for a free signed copy of one of my books. Here's how it works: 

1. Subscribers to the book are listed here. I'll be keeping an eye on this list and noting who subscribes between now and the point when 75% is reached. 

2. The names will go into a hat, and I'll ask a small, unpaid research assistant to choose one name at random. 

3. I'll invite that subscriber to choose a book and an inscription. You can win a copy of any available edition of any of my books, including translations, and I will sign it and send it anywhere in the world. That includes a first edition of my previous novel, The Auctioneer, and my new non-fiction book, Pieces of Light. (It doesn't include my academic books which are a. expensive and b. boring.)

That's all. The draw is open now and it closes when the book hits 75%. Start pledging!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Meades on memory and place

I had the pleasure yesterday of doing my first reading from Pieces of Light at the Hay Festival. The event, chaired by John Mitchinson and Unbound, put me together with the legendary Jonathan Meades, whose new book Museum Without Walls is a funny and incisive collection of writings on architecture, places and the people who inhabit them. Looking dapper and ever so slightly decadent in his overcoat and silk scarf (Hay was rather chilly this year), Jonathan read out a hilarious demolition of the aesthetics of the Olympic site, which included one of the longest and funniest lists you will ever read in the pages of a book.

I read an extract from the 'Walking at Goldhanger' chapter of Pieces of Light, which describes a walk I took along the Essex coastline in search of memories of my Dad. One of my interests in this book is in how we negotiate memories of people who are no longer here—with 'negotiate' being the operative word. I talked about how memory functions as a kind of bricolage, a putting-together from 'scrounged materials intended for other purposes', to use Meades' words. We reconstruct the past by putting together different kinds of information—sensory, perceptual, factual, semantic—and creating the collage in different ways each time we are called upon to remember. 

There were some great comments from the floor, including one accusation that I was being 'intellectually arrogant' by claiming authoritative knowledge about how the questioner's own memory worked. I responded by saying that I wasn't just reporting the findings of a couple of psychological surveys, but rather summing up decades of careful research by outstanding scientists who have used a range of different methods. If it is intellectually arrogant to aim for a robust, phenomenologically sensitive science of human experience (which challenges the myths of memory's function and rejects a simplistic reliance on introspection and 'just-knowing'), then I will happily accept the charge.