Shh… I can’t hear you!

In my personal life, as in my professional life as an author, I can’t help wondering when our culture became so… well… shouty.

Until a few years ago, I always used to follow a soap – The Archers and Eastenders in my twenties, Neighbours in my thirties and forties, Doctors in my fifties. I liked getting to know the characters over a long period of time, and sharing the minutiae of their everyday lives.

I lost interest when the minutiae got squeezed out, and each of these soaps became a continuous onslaught of extraordinary events.   Arson, beatings, kidnappings, murder… black and white characters, dastardly villains with no redeeming features… The third time the coffee shop got burned down, that’s when Neighbours got boring for me.

I stopped watching the News too, as it gradually began to feel more like clips from an action movie, or a disaster movie. Even the weather reports seem to be plagued by the same need to sensationalise everything. This week, for example, we have apparently been hit by a ‘weather bomb.’

I find it frustrating because for me, ordinary people and ordinary life are endlessly fascinating. I relate to real life stories; I want to read and to tell the stories of ordinary people like me.

Professionally, this is a problem, because it means I’m ‘too quiet for the market.’ If you want to get a publisher to take on a book these days it has to have a ‘strong hook,’ which generally means be out-of-the-ordinary in some striking way.

I wrote my YA novel, ‘Drift,’ because I wanted to help other survivors of sibling suicide feel less alone in that already extraordinary grief. The whole point of my book was that it should feel real; it should feel like any young person’s life, suddenly disrupted by something that could happen to anyone.

‘Drift’ was deemed ‘too quiet for the market’ although all the editors were very positive about it. One suggested I read a current best-seller about teen suicide, which had a great hook. This book was built around a series of suicide notes the dead person had left in which he blamed various family members and friends for what he was about to do.

Interesting, maybe. A hook, certainly. But a real story that could be your story or mine?

Another MS of mine that has been rejected on grounds that it’s ‘too quiet’ is about a child who has been home-educated, starting mainstream school for the first time at the age of twelve.

The current bestseller on that theme is about a boy who has been home-educated because he is hideously disfigured. ‘My name is August. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.’

The book has masses of enthusiastic reviews, and I’m sure it’s wonderful, but I personally was put off by the big hook of his disfigurement. Home-schoolers entering regular school – that’s interesting enough for me. I don’t want the added distraction.

I really relate to a recent post in Authors Electric by Catherine Czerkawska, The unexpectedly long life of an eBook, where she says

I always used to wonder what ‘too quiet’ meant – none of my agents ever seemed able to explain it satisfactorily. Then a writer friend said ‘they’re looking for a stonking great story.’ I could see what she meant – and could understand why that was what publishers wanted since they are always on the hunt for the next blockbuster, even though they have no idea what that might be – but it struck me that I don’t always want to read a stonking great story. Sometimes – quite often really – I want some Barbara Pym or similar.

When I’m looking for something new to read or watch or write, I sometimes feel like someone in a crowded room full of people shouting at the top of their voices; I wish they would quieten down and talk to me properly.

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15 thoughts on “Shh… I can’t hear you!”

  1. I agree Jen – far too much shouting! Literally as well – for example panel games on TV where everyone shouts loudly at the same time and you end up missing half of what is said. Almost everything on TV is noisy and ‘in your face’ from audiences cheering and clapping so you can’t hear the entertainment to alarming news items being shouted at us. Thankfully radio has yet followed suit…. However, it worries me a lot that everything is sensationalised and noisy – it is as if life out there is superficial and unreal, giving no time for quiet contemplation and useful insights. Thanks for this blog it has been really interesting to read and dare I say it – contemplate.

  2. I completely agree. It means everything is being twisted these days to fit an image which the “image makers” have! I do feel we need to fight this because I totally agree with you that it’s the minutiae of life which is so fascinating and I have to hunt these days for fiction which has it. Can you imagine Jane Austen being sent away to find a hook? What we end up with these days is everything being much of a muchness while apparently being totally unique! How’s that for a paradox!

  3. ‘Can you imagine Jane Austen being sent away to find a hook’…. I LOVE that! Thank you for this brilliant comment!

  4. Hi Jen, How I agree with you. Reflections on a quiet life are far more appealing and plausible to me. I have recently found that even the story lines in the Archers are distressing and nerve racking. I don’t find it entertaining any more. I don’t want to listen these days – after years of it being part of my ‘fantasy treat’. I much prefer desert island discs these days, and other programmes based on real happenings. I can’t comment on TV as I never watch it – far too over stimulating for my ‘peace and quiet loving’ senses.
    Tessa

    1. Ooh that’s interesting – I didn’t notice it, but I tend to go straight for the ‘real lives’ category rather than drama when I’m looking for a podcast now.

  5. I agree, Jenny! And these books that you were advised to emulate seem much too contrived to me. I love a good adventure story but sometimes it feels as though editors are asking us to bolt something on to a different kind of book altogether!

    1. Yes, that’s it exactly. And asking us to bolt on a new kind of author that has no place in the author we are and want to be.

  6. I totally agree with you on this Jen. It’s not just books, or tv that I find ‘shouty’. Every aspect of media seems to have to compete all the time and most of it is just loud noise for the sake of it.
    Like you I often like to seek refuge in reading a novel that is quiet, slow paced and gentle. Bliss!

    1. It is every aspect of the media, isn’t it? Actually, in new media, I guess that’s why I enjoy blogging so much, and reading thoughtful blogs like yours

  7. At least they told you why they were rejecting it. Of the many publishers I’ve approached – first for my short stories, then a few times for my novel – they all said it “doesn’t meet our needs at this time.” I reviewed the requirements for their “needs” and never could understand what exactly they meant. Such generic responses are akin to ‘Fine,’ when you ask someone how they’re doing. That’s why I’ve resorted to the self-publication route (very soon) where the “needs” will be whoever discovers my work.

    1. I still get those generic responses too sometimes, but I think the difference is if you have an agent (in the UK anyway), because it’s so hard to get an agent, and to get each piece of work up to a standard that the agent thinks is publishable before they’re willing to send it out, that publishers do at least have to tell your agent why they are rejecting it. The traditional route has got harder and harder in recent years, so I’m delighted we have the choice of self-publishing now.

  8. I have not published two comments on this thread because they are not relevant to this topic, but have scheduled an article about being a published author for next week, in response to them

  9. Reblogged this on VitalWrite and commented:
    A wonderful post that sadly sums up today’s society – more action, more OTT drama, more violence – but is that what we really want? I for one love a slower paced book that feels real, that I can absorb gradually, soaking up thoughtful writing, rather than having it attack me with shocking revelations.

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