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.