March 13, 2013 , 0
I’m sending this week’s post a day early because I’m off down south (near London) to lead workshops in medical ethics. A whole day of challenging people to think about my favourite subjects. Wahey!
And a welcome break, because I have to confess, I’ve been feeling rather discombobulated and chagrined this week. Why? Because the time is fast approaching for me to resolve the matter of how I publish Over My Dead Body, and the decision certainly wasn’t made any clearer when I delved into the whole business of trying to get one’s book noticed amongst the welter of volumes coming off the press every month. Which led me to marketing, publicity campaigns, reviews and networking … yawn, yawn.
Literary journals like The Author are packed with useful advice but they’re also brutally honest too, showing up pitfalls and problems – writers telling it just like it is for other writers. So it wasn’t long before I had to face some unpleasant truths. OK, most of us recognise that the odds are stacked against our wee book. We know all about the scramble for a share of the market, and that the winners are the ‘ones with the sharpest elbows‘, as Graham Joyce puts it.
- sock puppeteering (assuming a false online identity for the purpose of publishing superlative reviews on one’s own work);
- disparaging rival authors’ work under a pseudonym;
- rewarding bloggers in return for a favourable review;
- paying cash for a ‘book-of-the-month’ accolade.
to name but a few.
Surely one’s own personal integrity has to count for something – I for one want to sleep easy in my bed.
But for all us, squeaky clean though we may personally be, any attempt by even a few to distort the picture by the use of these unpleasant or unworthy or downright dishonest tactics devalues the very currency of reviews. Who will ever believe in us?
London here I come. Hopefully I shall come back a calmer person and the old subconscious will have sifted and sorted the pros and cons for me.
February 7, 2013 , 2
Not much time for literary reflections this week, I’ve been fully occupied helping my daughter turn almost 90 metres of fabric into curtains for a city centre flat with massive windows. Gorgeous rich material, thick thermal linings, and the finished articles so heavy it takes two of us to lift each one.
The thinking, planning and cutting require full concentration, but once the lengths are cut and the patterns matched, pinning, tacking, sewing 3 meter long seams gets a bit repetitive, and the old mind is free to wander. At one stage it wandered into the issue of retirement.
Plenty of folk (most I suspect) think I’ve retired. They don’t see writing as any kind of work. I’ve got used to that, and nowadays I rarely challenge them. Given the general sense that an awful lot of folk think they could write a book if they only had the time and weren’t busy doing more important things, it’s an pretty abortive mission.
Besides which, retirement’s a rather slippery concept, isn’t it? This week Olympic swimming medallist, Rebecca Adlington, announced her retirement – aged 23! She has recognised the demands of competitive swimming – a young person’s sport, as she says. She knows firsthand what it takes to reach the very top, and she acknowledges that her body cannot do that any more. She will move into something else. But she and the press call it retirement.
So, what does retirement from being an author look like? At the moment I love what I do; I’m bereft when I can’t sit scribbling. Ideas still flood in. Plots still emerge. Characters still come alive. I’ve started to get feedback on my latest novel, Over My Dead Body, and two of the critics say this book is my best yet. Others may not think so, but such endorsement is enough to make me feel I’m not ready to write that final ‘The End‘ just yet.
‘There is no silver clock to be handed to you by the managing director, no pats on the back, no speeches.There are not even colleagues around to tell you that your time is up. Thousands of authors, all over the world, are working away right now without having noticed that they retired several years ago.’
Succinctly put. I shall hold that thought.
March 15, 2012 , 0
I’m deep into my next novel at the moment so my mind is rather preoccupied. I’ve been experimenting with several different narrative voices, but the current one seems to hit the spot. The prose is flowing more smoothly; indeed I’m having to get up in the night to commit the torrent of thoughts and words to the computer. It’s a good feeling.
But the better the fictional life goes the harder it is to psyche myself back into the real world. A good time perhaps to share a few more assorted gems gleaned from my catch-up of literary journals during the winter months. Today’s snippets come from Mslexia (‘a journal for women who write’) and The Author (the official publication of The Society of Authors). In no particular order …
On writing and living
Katherine McMahon, novelist: ‘When I was talking to biographer Hilary Spurling about writing, she said unequivocally: “If someone asks me whether they should become a writer, I always say: not if you can do anything else.” After all writers are by their very nature outsiders, watchers, not only of others but of themselves. There’s a touch of dysjuncture between living and writing … To be a writer is to contemplate one’s humanity in all shades from brilliance to murk. Living and writing: a dangerous, exciting, compelling combination.‘
Me: And satisfying and disturbing, and grounding and exhilarating, and zapping and invigorating.
On the definition of a writer?
Robert Hull, children’s poet: ‘The question pops up each time The Author arrives. To be able to say “I published a book last week” or “I’ve a collection/novel coming out next month,” would be a good answer: “Yes, of course you’re an author.” Whereas (to anticipate) to say in 2016 that “I published a book in 2011″ wouldn’t persuade anyone. In that five years my claim to authordom will have faded. …
But perhaps, if I’ve not published anything for a while, and am not likely to, I can still be a ‘writer’. After all many, many people are ‘writers’. They emerge from Creative Writing degree courses in their hundreds …
Evidently the noun is a problem. The verb makes less of a claim. “I’m a writer” says that existentially that’s what I “am”. But “I write” is both more modest and more accurate. Writing is one of the things I do. I also ride a bike, go to Greece when possible, do a bit in the garden, cook occasionally. I’m not thereby a biker or a gardener or a traveller or a cook. The verb fits, but the noun surrounds one with a kind of aura, intimating that the activity is all-consuming; it defines one. Which it can do legitimately only if it is all-consuming.
It is in a sense all-consuming to have to earn one’s living by an activity. “I’m a bus-driver,” sounds right; it can hardly mean that I occasionally drive a bus, when I’m in the mood or can afford it. Nor can I be a nuclear physicist at weekends. Not without making the neighbours nervous.
I do not need to be “a writer”. I can focus on the verb, on writing. I can make a psychological retreat from clinging to authordom to finding satisfaction in writing … ‘
Me: A comforting answer to a perennial question.
On the benefits of writing
Linda Kelsey, confessional writer: ‘Sometimes I feel I don’t know my true feelings about anything until I write it all down. Only in the process of writing, it seems, do I get to the emotional core.‘
Me: That’s been one of the unexpected benefits for me of writing a blog. Helps me analyse issues and marshall my thoughts more carefully and succinctly than I otherwise would.
On the process of writing fiction
Susan Hill, journalist, broadcaster, publisher, author: ‘Fiction is about putting yourself into someone else’s shoes and walking around to see how they feel.’
Me: Indeedy. Reminds me of the Indian proverb: Judge no man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.
On the reason for writing fiction
Gillian Slovo, author, journalist, playwright: ‘… fiction can go places that nonfiction cannot go, because it can inhabit the field in a full-hearted way.’
Me: My sentiments exactly. I’m currently totally inhabiting the world of a family torn in two by a terrible car crash. Steer well clear!
On fictional characters
William Nicholson, screenwriter,playwright, novelist: ‘I want to read about and write about people the author loves. For me, the greatness of the novel form is about going into the hearts and minds of people.‘
Me: Mmhm. Me too. If the author doesn’t engage with them, why should I?
On excellent literary blogs
Amanda Craig, novelist, journalist and broadcaster: ‘I’d recommend … Cornflower for intelligent, non-metropolitan fiction reviews (cornflower.typepad.com) – and best of all, Lynne Hatwell for thoughtful, knowledgeable, kindly reviews and musings on Devon life (dovegreyreader.typepad.com): a model to which I think all blogs should aspire.’
Me: Hear, hear. Two of my favourites, too.
On promoting one’s books
Joan Smith, novelist, essayist, columnist and campaigner for human rights: ‘The entry of showbiz values into the business of authorship means that some publishers are looking for “personalities”, larger-than-life characters they know how to promote, as much as writers with original talent … Increasingly, novelists need to be able to sell themselves as well as their books, a demand that works against anyone who is reticent by nature.’
Me: Tough on those who’ve been breastfed on modesty and humility too.
On connecting with the reader
Andrew Taylor, novelist: ‘… despite all the evidence we provide to the contrary, the myth persists that authors rather than their books are somehow strangely fascinating and even touched with a sort of moral authority … through our books, authors have an indefinable but undeniable connection with the minds of their readers that gives us a curious status in our culture.‘
Me: I once gave a lift to a woman who, in the course of our journey, asked what I did. When I told her, she stared at me in open-mouthed wonder and murmured, ‘I’ve never sat next to someone who wrote books before.’ Nothing I could say would diminish her awe.
On meeting a favourite author
Margaret Atwood, poet, novelist, essayist, literary critic: ‘If you like paté, don’t bother meeting the duck.’
Me: I used that quote at my book launch a couple of weeks ago. And I hope it leaves you smiling today.
Amanda Craig, Andrew Taylor, Cornflower, Dovegreyreader, Gillian Slovo, Hilary Spurling, Joan Smith, Katherine McMahon, Linda Kelsey, Margaret Atwood, Mslexia, Robert Hull, Society of Authors, Susan Hill, The Author, William Nicholson
April 14, 2011 , 0
Lots of varied commitments this week, chopping up my days, so I’ve been dipping in and out of author-related reading – reducing the pile of journals, newspaper cuttings, etc. which tend to accumulate when I’m lost in writing during more creative phases.
I’m quite sure you wouldn’t be interested in most of it – gloomy news about declining advances, abuses related to electronic publishing, tax anomalies, and such like woeful developments guaranteed to send any mid-list-or-below career writer into a deep depression. Yawn, yawn. But you might just be amused by a few gems discovered in amongst the serious stuff, so here goes.
Recently the Society of Authors did a survey of its members asking about author appearances – at literary festivals, signing events, schools and conferences, that kind of thing. The report made interesting reading, but my favourite bit was the postscript:
‘There’s always someone in the audience who knows more than you, even when you’re talking about yourself.’
Just the thing to tattoo somewhere on the mind as reassurance for that nasty moment when someone flummoxes you with a totally unanswerable question.
Then there was Simon Blackburn writing in The Author. He quoted the late Bernard Williams’ lament that much philosophical prose seems to aspire
‘to resemble scientific reports badly translated from the Martian.’
I know exactly what he means.
In a different edition of The Author I found an article commiserating with authors who get one star ratings on Amazon. Mercifully I haven’t suffered from that affliction thus far (says she, tempting fate very unwisely) but it must surely be demoralising. Not necessarily, says Nigel Wilcockson of Random House. Sometimes it’s a case of personal jealousy/vindictiveness against a writer. And that’s been the case from as early as the 19th century. Blake received this:
’an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.’
And Dickens got:
‘he can scarcely attract the attention of the more intelligent classes of the community.’
So lift up your hearts and sing, all you vilified writers; at least you’re in good company!
Even frankly abusive comments can be well-expressed. How about this invective against Croker from his rival Macaulay in 1831:
‘the merits of Mr Croker’s performance are on a par with those of a certain leg of mutton on which Dr Johnson dined, while travelling from London to Oxford, and which he, with characteristic energy, pronounced to be “as bad as bad could be – ill fed, ill killed, ill kept, and ill dressed”.’
Or much more recently, Steven Fry’s dismissal of Baron Christian de Massy’s memoir as
‘that marriage of style and content we look for in all great writing. A shatteringly vulgar and worthless life captured in shatteringly vulgar and worthless prose.’
Wonderful – as long as you aren’t on the receiving end.
One of my personal favourites came from the Letters Desk of the Daily Telegraph in response to a piece about school reports:
‘When the workers of the world unite it would be presumptuous of Dewhurst to include himself among their number.’
Have a fun week!
July 1, 2010 , 0
A fair chunk of this week could be labelled as ‘stock-taking’. The sixth novel just out … the next one finished … the eighth well on its way … where next? I blame the dawn chorus – it seems to reach an astonishing crescendo at 4am and acts as an most reliable alarm clock. Thereafter I lie in bed reflecting … and counting questionmarks … and somehow idle thoughts have a habit of turning into heavy duty contemplation.
Stats don’t help. Did you know that over 130,000 new titles were published last year in the UK alone? Hard to picture that number, isn’t it? Of course, set against calamities like the current serious repercussions from the budget, and more deaths in Afghanistan, and England’s comprehensive trouncing by the Germans, this news is small fry, but for a writer it’s a significant statistic. How is anyone going to notice my little books in that avalanche?
So it was especially gratifying to learn that Waterstone’s in Princes Street made a bit of a feature of Remember Remember on one of their internal displays – of their own volition, I might add; no financial incentive from the publisher. I didn’t actually see it but someone in the book business told me about it. I’m not too proud to have sneaked in specially to stand and stare, (and taken a snapshot for you,) had I known, but by the time my spies reported, the store had moved on to their next feature.
It’s a funny old career, mine. And as Andrew Rosenbeim, Editor of The Author (the official journal of The Society of Authors) says: ‘Trying to make a living by writing … requires a skill set that isn’t gifted on birth, a persistence that would deter most, and a commitment which, oddly (considering that writing is about communication) is almost impossible to convey.’
The advice generally handed out for nothing: Don’t give up the day job! Having already given mine up a few years ago, I need to periodically review progress and weigh up options. Hence this week’s naval gazing.
Oh, I nearly forgot … I learned this week (from Amanda Ross writing in The Sunday Telegraph) that some publishers and editors pay to get their books onto lists – yes, as in greasing palms with real filthy lucre. And there was I taking the statistics re bestsellers on trust! I’m sure there’s a moral lurking there somewhere.