Man Booker Prize: statistics

As you may know, the Man Booker Prize was awarded to New Zealander, Eleanor Catton, for her second novel, The Luminairies.  This was the last year that the prize is open only to British, Irish or Commonwealth citizens.  Beginning next year, novels published in English and released in Great Britain will be eligible.

Adam Frost and James Kynvin of the Guardian, complied these charts which are based on more than 40 years of data.  They show what it has taken to win this prestigious prize. 

1.  Male writers have a 2:1 advantage over women.

2.  It’s best to be British: 27 of 45 winners were British, although chances of a non-British person winning have tripled in the last 20 years.

3.  Almost two-thirds of the winners were privately educated.

4.  Almost one-third of the winners attended either Oxford or Cambridge.

5.  One must remember that the judges tend to be white, British, privately educated at either Oxford of Cambridge, and that prior judges have won the prize.

6. The average age of the winner was 49, and the age range is 28 (this year) to 69.

7.  There is quite a range of which book, in an author’s portfolio, won the prize, but for seven authors it was their fourth novel.

8.  More winning novels are set in the past than in the present.

9.  Different authors have different words they favour.

10.  Sales will increase very dramatically!  Even being short listed makes a difference, and it’s good for the author’s backlist, as well.


Judges’ Commentary: Efraim’s Eye

I submitted Efraim’s Eye to the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards.  It did not win an award; there were 2,800 books submitted.  But, I did receive the judges rating which is as follows:

On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is “needs improvement” to 5 “outstanding”:

Structure & Organisation: 4

Grammar: 5

Product Quality & Cover Design: 3

Plot: 4

Character Development: 4

The judges commentary is:

“The writing crackles with authenticity, and tells a compelling story that lends itself to the thriller genre.  The crosscutting of scenes and shifting between viewpoints is cinematic in nature, and so this book would lend itself quite well to being filmed commercially.  The cast of characters, especially Paul as he emerges to become the primary protagonist, are individually and collectively, certainly strong enough to command center stage throughout the novel and will successfully engage the reader’s interest in wanting to know what will happen next.  This is a really entertaining plot that could easily appeal to a wide audience.

The novel would benefit from some additional character and peripheral description during dialogue.  For example as a character speaks, ‘he ran his fingers through his dark curly hair’, or, ‘she spoke faster than usual, no longer in the slow monotone’.  In these two hypotheticals, the curly hair and the speech pattern would have been introduced early on as character tags, and referring to them keeps these characters fresh in the reader’s mind during dialogue.  Similarly, as during ‘real life’ conversation, characters can be aware of their surroundings: hot or cold or rainy?  Some detail catches the eye, there’s a noise in the background, perhaps pleasant, perhaps bothersome, but in either case noticeable.  This sort of texture will enliven dialogue on the printed page.”

I think the feedback in the second paragraph above is very helpful, and I agree particularly with the first comment about additional characterization.  I think additional characterization beyond the dialogue itself is helpful to the reader, not only as a character tag or reminder, but as an indication of the character’s personality and emotional state.  I think one needs to be careful of peripheral description of the setting.  The question for me is: does it contribute directly to the situation in which the characters find themselves or to their state of mind.  If it does, by all means add it; if it doesn’t, it will seem extraneous.

Getting Started

I’ve found that writing the first chapter of a new novel is the usually the most difficult.  By way of contrast, when I’m approaching the end, I know almost exactly what’s going to happen, I’m full of energy, enthusiasm and motivation, and I can easily write ten pages in a day – not that those ten pages don’t require some major editing before I consider them complete.  But finishing a novel, for me, is the easy part.

The place where a new novel begins is in my head.  I get an idea.  For example, in the case of Sin & Contrition: wouldn’t it be interesting to write about six characters who grew up together – three boys and three girls.  They live different lives but they continue to interact, and most importantly, they do some things that they shouldn’t have done.  Sometimes accidently, sometimes on purpose.  And it would be interesting to reveal their reactions to their ‘sins’.   Are they sorry or not; how do they justify it?  What are their feelings about it later in life?

Usually after getting an idea, I’ll mull it over for a couple of weeks.  I think about how the story would unfold and develop ideas for making it more interesting.  If I’m still keen on the idea, I’ll prepare an outline of the story, of the characters, and of the messages that I hope the reader will take away.  At that point, I’ll get started. 

Some weeks ago, I started on a new novel.  It was to be an allegory set in the Middle East, and it would feature a professor of philosophy and a Saudi princess as its principal characters.  I had done some outlining, and I was definitely ‘up for it’.  But when I started writing, it was a chore instead of a pleasant task.  My enthusiasm wasn’t there.  I still thought it was a good idea, but I just couldn’t develop the creative energy.  I decided to put it aside.  It may be that the currently confused environment in the Middle East was a contributing factor to my hesitation.  Anyway, about half of chapter one is written, and I like what I’ve done, but it will have to wait.

I had a somewhat similar experience with Sable Shadow and The Presence, my fifth novel which is about to be published.  In that case, I wrote several chapters, but I lost my way.  What’s the point of this book?  Where’s it going? In the meantime I wrote The Iranian Scorpion.  When that was finished, I revisited Sable Shadow and The Presence, and I began to develop a comprehensive vision for the novel.  I re-organised and re-wrote big chunks of it. Then the enthusiasm began to come and I finished it.  I’ll tell you when it becomes available.

Probably something similar will happen to my Middle Eastern allegory about the Saudi princess and the professor of philosophy.

In the meantime, I’m writing a sequel to The Iranian Scorpion, and I’m half way through the first chapter.  Robert is back in the States, and he has met up with Mary Jo (his father’s young fiancée).  They are working on solving a crucial problem from her past: her relationship with her father.  I can tell you that his next assignment will be in Peru, and that will take him into a dangerous region of north Africa.

Franzen on Twitter

There is an article in today’s Telegraph in which Jonathan Franzen, the American author of The Corrections and Freedom, finds that freelance writers being forced into “constant self-promotion” instead of developing their craft “particularly alarming”.  He told Radio 4’s Today program that he used technology constantly, but warned that is was a “weird compulsive, almost addictive thing which doesn’t seem to have much to do with what were thought to be the great benefits of it.”  He claimed that young authors were being told they must improve their social network presence before their manuscripts were considered.  “Agents will now tell young writers, ‘I won’t even look at your manuscript if you don’t have 250 followers on Twitter’.”

He said that observers could see the “demolition of the independent book business and really the demolition of the brick-and-mortar book business” by internet sellers.

Speaking of Twitter, he added: “But really this kind of crowd-sourcing model – everything shared, communal – doesn’t really work.  Most important, the whole definition of literature is that people go off by themselves, develop a distinctive voice.  It’s not a communal enterprise.”

I think that Franzen makes a very good point, and it’s the reason I don’t have a Twitter account.  For me, writing a 140 character tweet every day would be a time-consuming exercise in triviality.  What could I possibly say, every day, in 140 characters, that would be insightful about my writing in particular or about the writing of fiction generally?

The reasons I have this blog is that, once a week, I have to try to say something insightful about the business of writing.  It makes me think about what I do, what other writers do, and how and why we do it.  It’s a kind of discipline.  Initially, I had thought I would enter into a dialogue with interested readers.  This, unfortunately hasn’t happened: after two years, there are only six genuine comments.  If I want to read what people think of my novels, I’m better off looking at the reviews I have received.  Still, some people are following this blog: about 1000 per week, not including spam.

I can’t help but comment on Franzen’s “constant use of technology”.  I remember him saying a couple of years ago that he did not have Internet access at the desk where he wrote.  I could not write without almost constant Internet access, because it helps me keep the settings real, interesting and credible.

Technology does have its drawbacks, though.  Earlier this week, I replaced a ten year old desk top with a new, state-of-the-art laptop, which I have connected to my keyboard, monitor and mouse.  Going from Windows XP to Windows 8 was a bit of an ordeal: ‘how do I close this window?’.  And, I had to get professional help to move my email, calendar, and contacts from Outlook Express on the old machine to Outlook on the new one.  But it’s done now: much faster and more reliable.  Besides, I’ve even got an iPhone (instead of my ancient dumb phone) which can tell me more about the world than I could possibly want to know.