26 January 2015
My Business Plan – An Interim Report
Two weeks ago I took the brave step of setting out my plan for the forthcoming year in public. A bold statement of intent perhaps but it also makes me a hostage to fortune. I would not normally revisit it so soon but for the effect it has had on both my actions and my attitude. I’ve been galvanised into doing something and for the first time in months I feel as though I’m actually getting somewhere.
You may have noticed that my recent posts on the subject of writing have been laced with a degree of frustration. To tell the truth, I’ve probably spent more time whingeing than anything else. Ok, so my routine had been seriously disrupted. I was anxious to write but my time was being taken up with the tedious task of proof-reading THE BURDEN before it went back to the publisher. No one wants to read a badly edited novel but it seemed to take for ever. Then it was Christmas. This involved not just the normal round of celebrations but guests for a week beforehand and guests for a week at New Year. It also included five round trips to regional airports fetching and carrying – so no chance of settling to anything. A family responsibility in the North provided further diversions. But these issues are now for the most part resolved although it was not until 14 January that I was able to finally call my time my own. Since then I’ve had ten days uninterrupted work – what a difference it’s made!
My first priority has been to begin rewriting MÄLAREN. I already have a first draft of 94000 words which I’d managed to read through in the break between guests. It’s a bit like the curate’s egg – good in parts. Fortunately, the opening section is one of the good bits and doesn’t need much in the way of revision. In the ten days I’ve had available I’ve worked through it and I now have 18000 words I’m happy with. I’m not fooling myself that the rest will be as easy – the next section is probably the worst part of the whole book and will need a lot more attention. But at least I’ve made a start. And as the Chinese proverb tells us, in a journey of a thousand miles, the most important step is the first one.
Secondly, the hard work I put into arranging my ‘Winter Tour’ of bookshops in the region is beginning to pay dividends. After five such events I’ve clocked up almost 10% of my total booksales target for BIRDS OF THE NILE. With another five already booked in before the middle of March, things are looking good for another 10%. The conversion rate in bookshops is an order of magnitude above what I’ve been used to at Lit Fests and Writers Groups. Up until now I’ve described my booksales progress as resembling a century by Geoff Boycott – compiled in ones and twos over a long period of time. I’ve not yet reached 20x20 scoring rates but I’m rattling along by comparison.
This bodes well for the launch of THE BURDEN. I’ve just received notice from my publisher that my complimentary author copies have been printed off. Subject to their inspection and approval, this implies that I could order sales copies now, well ahead of the nominal publication date in April. I’m choosing not to. My strategy is to continue the Winter Tour in an attempt to push up sales of BOTN to 80% of target by mid-March. Then it will be York Lit Fest and I’ll be heavily involved with that. Once that’s out of the way, I can focus exclusively on launching THE BURDEN and hopefully revisiting those same bookshops again with a Spring/Summer Tour – twice the fun. Meanwhile, a meeting today with Explore York Libraries has opened up other possibilities in respect of Reading Groups and author appearances.
These things might sound like small victories but they all add up at the end of the day. In the game of Snakes and Ladders that is authorship and the publishing industry, most advances are made one square at a time. Ladders rarely present themselves and besides, you have to move on a square to land on one. To take the Chinese proverb one step further (no pun intended), it’s a cinch by the inch but it’s hard by the yard. So as long I continue to move in the forward direction, I’m happy.
Just as long as I don’t tread on a Snake...
19 January 2015
Our Multicultural Muddle – Part One
Some time last week, post-Paris but pre-Belgium, I heard Nick Clegg give an interview on BBC Radio 4’s breakfast programme. He was asked as to whether he was going to buy a copy of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine. It was a typical smart-arse question of the type smart-arse interviewers like to concoct to try and trick their respondents into a false or damning reply. As you might expect, Nick Clegg adroitly avoided giving a direct response. I suspect the real answer was ‘No’ – if only because I doubt whether Nick Clegg buys any magazines at all, but I’m sure he’ll have made sure he saw that particular edition.
I raise the issue because I was asked a very similar question myself. I’m a member of a authors group with a Twitter account. Did we want to tweet the Je Suis Charlie hashtag as a means of showing our support? Our responses were split, some yes, some no and one of our number even went so far as to violently object on the grounds that Charlie Hebdo was being deliberately provocative in order to sell more magazines. I’ve no evidence of that although I’m also in the no camp but for an entirely different reason.
This is not, I hasten to add, because I’m a supporter of jihadi terrorism – the killings were brutal, shocking and not to be condoned. Nor is it because I don’t want to show solidarity with the French (although I have my reservations). I’m also fully in agreement with the right to freedom of speech - but it comes with conditions.
Freedom in general and freedom of speech in particular are to be treasured. They are a gift we should value highly and when necessary, fight for. Having said that, we are not entirely free to do as we wish, nor I suspect, should we be. I had plenty of time to muse on the subject last weekend when l drove from York to Beverley – on a prescribed side of the road and at rigidly prescribed speeds. Nor am I free to say exactly what I like whenever it suits me. The laws of libel and slander constrain me and there’s probably something somewhere about incitement to racial hatred. But reIatively speaking, we in the UK probably enjoy as much freedom as anyone else in the world and probably as much as is good for us.
But in my view, such freedoms come with the responsibility to use them wisely. Freedom of action exercised without responsibility leads to anarchy and the likelihood of those freedoms being withdrawn. If we want to live in a peaceful world and have the opportunity to enjoy our freedoms we must be careful what we do with them. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech has been used to cause offence - and there are consequences. By publishing caricatures of the prophet, many Muslims feel insulted. It doesn’t excuse such a violent response but it does lend an element of understanding.
We in the West find that offence puzzling. We don’t understand why someone should feel aggrieved simply because we make fun of their god. We have a long tradition of satire – other countries do not. Satire is by its very nature provocative. Some would say that in order to succeed it has to offend. The leaders of our society know that and are inured to it. I welcome it as a means of exposing their hypocrisy. We are also not above satirising our own Church even though this might offend the minority amongst us who support it, so why should we treat Muslims any differently? I’m not suggesting that we should, and certainly not because we run scared of any retribution, but simply that we accord them the same respect as we would accord any neighbour. I don’t set out to offend those I live next to and I would not wish to give offence to Muslims simply because what offends them is nothing more than chaff to us.
In the long history of the world it’s not that long ago that we in this country, and in Europe, were in the habit of punishing those who mocked the established religion by burning them at the stake. We might claim that we’ve ‘moved on’ and become a more civilised society but just because we no longer have a roof made of glass doesn’t entitle us to throw stones. At the risk of sounding hypocritical myself and offending my neighbours the Scots (although I’m sure they’ve heard this before) I once heard a gentleman described as someone who knew how to play the bagpipes – but didn’t. The case here is much more serious but the principal is the same and being thought civilised in the modern age of multiculturalism must have new meanings.
So yes, I’m all for freedom of speech but there’s a price to pay for having it. It’s called exercising restraint. And, like Nick Clegg, I won’t be buying Charlie Hebdo this week.
12 January 2015
My Plan for 2015
It’s about now that I sit down to write my business plan for the forthcoming year. It’s a habit I began at the end of 2012 when I suggested that every writer should do so. You could (rightly) argue that I was making a rod for my own back since once I’d persuaded everyone else to do it I could hardly not do so myself. And looking back at my previous efforts, I notice that in each succeeding year my post on the subject gets progressively later. Here we are in what is in effect the middle of January and I’m only just settling down to it. Life gets more and more complicated, it seems.
But I don’t regret making the commitment. I remain convinced that setting these things down on paper makes them much more likely to be achieved. Even more so when they are displayed in public and one can be held to account. One doesn’t like to be seen to have failed.
And have I failed? Generally speaking, I don’t think so. I may not have completed everything I set out to do in 2013 and 2014 but for the most part I got things done. My third novella went to ebook and BIRDS OF THE NILE was published successfully. Sales have yet to reach their final target but I’m 67% of the way and now that I’ve discovered the power of the bookstore book signing I have every chance of getting there. Finishing that task will have to carry forward to 2015.
What started life with the title AS DAD LAY DYING has morphed into THE BURDEN. I rewrote it, found a publisher for it and it comes out in the Spring. A major task for this year is to see it successfully launched. True, I failed to find an agent for it or any other of my work and this remains a hole I really need to fill. Something else to carry forward into 2015.
One of my objectives for 2013 was to write the first draft of a third novel, MÄLAREN. That I did, although it has lain untouched in my work in progress drawer ever since. Now that THE BURDEN has flown the nest, I’ve fetched it out and begun reworking it. As yet I’ve only succeeded in reading it through and all I can tell you is it will need an awful lot of time and effort before it’s ready to see the light of day. Probably a whole year in fact ie. 2015. This must be my first priority since actually writing something will always take precedence.
The sooner I get that done the sooner I can begin another first draft. The work I have in mind has a working title of IN A STRANGE HOTEL. If I could get started on it some time this year, that would be wonderful.
So that just about completes my objectives for 2015. And so that there’s no confusion, in either my mind or yours, I’ll reiterate them here.
- To rewrite and prepare MÄLAREN ready for publication in 2016
- To successfully launch THE BURDEN
- To achieve my sales target for BIRDS OF THE NILE
- To find an agent
- To begin the first draft of IN A STRANGE HOTEL
See what I mean about life getting more and more complicated? Goodness knows what next year will look like.
30 December 2014
An Absence of Thought
It’s some considerable time since I visited these pages. Far too long in fact. Worse still, I’ve really had nothing to say. Other than my newsletter of late October there’s been nothing posted here since my two articles about the publishing industry back in September. What on earth have I been doing, I ask myself? The answer, it seems, is fairly simple. Having had the go ahead from John Hunt, I became obsessed with preparing THE BURDEN for publication to the exclusion of all else. Fortunately, that task is now complete and hopefully I can move on.
In writing terms, the last four months have been conditioned by a single event. The York Festival of Writing was a watershed for me. I remember building it up in advance and telling myself that its outcome would decide things for the foreseeable future. How true that has been! Although whether it was as a natural result of the decisions that were made there or whether I was determined to make it so, I haven’t stopped to think. I’ve even had to go back to my papers and look up the piece of work I pitched as I’m sure it wasn’t THE BURDEN itself. That had already done the rounds some time before and accrued its allotted share of rejections. My principal objective at York was to attract an agent and I was using material from another work in progress, BOXED IN, to do it. When that failed (as the pessimist within me would say it was bound to) I reverted to Plan B and immediately sent THE BURDEN off to John Hunt. They responded within days (bless them) and I remember my yelp as their first (positive) reader review appeared on their website. I’ve been driven ever since, my head’s been in a cloud and it’s only now that I’ve come back down to earth.
Ok, so you’ve written your novel, slaved away over countless redrafts and a sizeable chunk of your life has disappeared while you were at it. Acceptance for publication is great and justifies your efforts – but there’s still a lot more work left to do. Take proofreading for example. No point in having your carefully constructed masterpiece spoilt in the hands of your reader by typos and poor layout. To do this properly can take weeks and it’s while you’re slowly reading through it that you discover that you never did straighten out those little glitches in the plot you always meant to deal with. Another rewrite ensues. Which means another proofreading is required etc. And if you’re not careful, this circle can go on ad infinitum. It’s akin to owning property – there’s always some job or another waiting to be done. Wasn’t it Leonardo da Vinci who said ‘No work of art is ever complete, only abandoned’? Well, at some point you either abandon it or you go insane. I reached that point a week or so before Christmas – abandoning it, I mean, not going insane although my family might have you think different. Eventually I forced myself to let go although I could still see areas for improvement in the text.
And don’t even talk to me about the book cover. Another source of anxiety and procrastination. I’d always had it in mind to make the cover image the reproduction of a child’s drawing. This comes from a scene in the central part of the book in which Frank, the main protagonist, sets something down on paper in his first year at school that effectively describes his life and his fears. It goes to the heart of what the book is about. Great material for the cover, you’d think – until you actually have to do the drawing yourself. Imitating what a five/six year old can do naturally isn’t easy (on the right paper, with the right crayons) and at one point I found myself with 20/25 discarded attempts lying on the floor around me, none of which were quite what I wanted. Undaunted, I took them to a meeting of our local novelists support group where they received short shrift. A little miffed, I called in some help from my original publishers, Stairwell Books, well-known for their artwork, and got some good advice. Another dozen or so sketches and drawings later and I had what looked more like an idea for a cartoon series than a book cover. In desperation I turned to Shutterstock and selected an appropriate image, then presented all three versions to whoever showed up at my house for mince pies in the pre-Christmas period for adjudication. Unsurprisingly, the Shutterstock image won hands down. I returned my feeble attempts to their folder and settled for what was safe - but it had taken two more precious weeks.
Anyway, all done now and the files have been sent off to John Hunt. With luck, and no more glitches, I should see the book formally published in about six months time but with author copies available in the early spring. All of which means I’ve been able to relax a little over the Christmas period and enjoy a few mince pies of my own. Things can at last return to normal – whatever that is – and I can start planning for what comes next. After two years hard work, worry and all this anguish over THE BURDEN, there’s really only one thing I can do – and that’s start writing another novel. Work on MÄLAREN begins tomorrow. My family can hardly wait.
27 October 2014 25 Stratford Way
York. YO32 9YW.
Let me begin by apologising for the ‘circular’ nature of my letter but it seems like the best way of communicating with everyone at the same time. Believe it or not a year has passed since the publication of BIRDS OF THE NILE and I want to take the opportunity to report on what’s been happening.
Firstly I’d like to thank you for your support - for coming to my booklaunch, for attending my events, for inviting me to speak or simply for just being there. The last 12 months have been extraordinarily busy and I don’t think I could have survived without the tremendous encouragement I’ve received. The amount of promotional work involved in getting a debut novel off the ground is phenomenal and takes up 80% of my time.
Since publication day I’ve travelled the length and breadth of Yorkshire (if not quite the country), appearing at a total of 14 Literature Festivals. The highlight was being invited to Kings Lynn Fiction Festival for the weekend where I was treated like royalty with my own chauffeur! I’ve also visited a similar number of writing groups to share my writing experiences. No chauffeurs, but I’ve been made very welcome all the same. I was also delighted to be the guest speaker at East Yorks RSPB AGM where I was able to meet up with many of my birding friends.
In York, besides being on the committee of the York Literature Festival, I continue to be a member of York Authors, an organisation set up to promote the work of professional writers in the city. And since the beginning of 2014, I’ve secured a spot on BBC Radio York where once a month I join presenter Elly Fiorentini in Book Talk to chat about the latest releases.
Small wonder I have any time to write! That however is still my biggest priority and I ensure I devote the first few hours of the day to it. The discipline has paid off and I’m pleased to be able to tell you that John Hunt Publishing has offered me a contract for a second novel. I’ve accepted and I expect to see THE BURDEN in bookshops some time next spring.
Meanwhile, I hope all is well with you and I look forward to seeing you again soon.
29 Sep 2014
The Future of Publishing – Part Two
Last time, I looked at the distribution chain for a printed book sold through bookshops as opposed to a self-published ebook and questioned how the price of the first might be justified compared to that of the other. In particular, I highlighted the role of agents, publishers and bookshops themselves whose presence, unlike that of printers and distributors, is not strictly necessary to the process of selling a printed book. I asked what value they added and suggested they need to look carefully at the role they play in the distributive chain rather that simply telling us we should all buy our books in a bookshop instead of from Amazon.
Let’s start with agents. Their principal role is as gatekeepers, filtering out the dross and using their expertise to ensure that only books that will ‘sell’ enter the system ie. books that the reading public want to read. In doing so they are providing a service as they are saving the reader the time and effort required to find these books for themselves. Agents typically receive a hundred manuscripts a week. Imagine having to leaf through all that lot to find something you want. And they don’t always get it right - it can be very hit and miss.
There are no agents for self-pubbed ebooks. A lot of authors go down this route because they got turned down by agents or because they couldn’t be bothered with them in the first place. There’s a lot of dross out there (trust me) so how does the online reader find what they want? By word of mouth, recommendation and by looking at the reader reviews on Amazon and books sites like Goodreads. In other words they surf the online bookshop. Occasionally they turn up a gem that the agents have missed. If I were a publisher, I’d be keeping a very close eye on the ebook market with a view to picking up books with a proven track record online and turning them into bestsellers in print, cutting out the agent in the process. As more and more readers use their computer to find their reading material so the value of the agent will diminish.
The publisher is one more means of validating a book for the reader. By publishing it, the publisher is saying it’s fit for purpose ie. of good quality and it meets our needs. We look to our publishers to perform this task for us. More importantly, they are responsible for setting the RRP (Recommended Retail Price) which, in theory, establishes their return. I say in theory as they appear to have lost control of this important function and given it over to Amazon. Amazon, it seems, can sell at whatever price they like. The price to the public of my own book BIRDS OF THE NILE varies greatly online. This is fine – or it would be if the return to the publisher were constant, but I don’t think it is. I may be wrong but I believe the nature of Amazon’s contract with a publisher is for a fixed percentage of the sale price, a situation which allows Amazon to drive down the publisher’s profits at will. The publisher of my short novellas, Stairwell Books, have declined to put their print books on Amazon because they fear that Amazon’s discounting practices will undercut their margins to the extent that they will actually incur losses. This, they say, is Amazon’s game plan – to put them and others like them out of business and then move into the space that’s been vacated. A higher profile example is the current spat between Amazon and Hachette over the price of their ebooks. The whole industry is holding its breath over that one.
I can’t see how a situation where Amazon can have unlimited access to a publisher’s output and also dictate the price they buy it at is either fair or sustainable. Publishers have got to fight back. Either they renegotiate the nature of their contract with Amazon and instead of accepting a fixed percentage they receive a fixed price, or they withdraw their books altogether from sale through Amazon and make them available via their own online outlets or sell them through bookshops. If they don’t, there’s a danger that it’s not just bookshops that will go out of business, but publishers as well. Some consolidation has already started taking place amongst the major players.
And what of bookshops themselves? What service do they provide? Many retailers today are focussing on the ‘shopping experience’. They know that what they sell can be bought cheaper online but they maintain a High Street presence because as consumers we like the ‘touchy, feely’ vibe that a shop can give us. We like to browse and to be made to feel more comfortable about our choices by making them in pleasant surroundings. Bookshops these days have things Amazon can’t give us eg. the opportunity to handle a precious object, cafés and real, live author events. How can they turn these tangible advantages into custom and prevent their potential buyers from going home and ordering online at a lower price?
I faced a similar problem as a Financial Consultant when it came to the sale of Life Assurance. I represented a company which was a household name and carried with it the promise of quality. I gave my clients ‘advice’ that came not only from the extensive training I had received but also from the years of experience I had accumulated. I visited clients in their own homes and at their own convenience. I liked to think they trusted me and valued my involvement. These were the benefits I provided them with. But I was only too well aware that despite all the time and effort I might have invested on their particular case, they could accept my advice and then obtain exactly the same product online at a lower price. Since I was a commission-only agent, my livelihood depended on me making the sale and I was fortunate enough to be able to convince enough people of my worth.
I could ‘close’, but unless the agents, publishers and bookshops start to think more radically about their place in the publishing process, its worth and how they ‘sell’ it, so could they – albeit in an entirely different way.
22 Sep 2014
The Future of Publishing – Part One
So, Scotland has decided, the Scottish debate has ended and we can all return to more prosaic matters. Hmm ... somehow I don’t think so. Scotland’s devolved powers have still to be confirmed, the English cat is now out of the bag and we have a General Election to negotiate before the end of May next year. Politics suddenly looks interesting again.
But so does the future of the business I work in ie. publishing and as much as I would like to indulge myself and hold forth on constitutional affairs, this column is supposed to be about writing issues and things are equally as dramatic here. Last weekend I attended the Festival of Writing held at The University of York. So did around 400 other budding authors and a considerable number of agents and editors. It’s one of the biggest conventions of its kind in the country and besides enabling writers to benefit from the top-class workshops on offer and pitch their work directly to influential people, it’s also an opportunity to catch up with the latest trends in the industry. First up on the Sunday morning was a panel discussion on The Future of Publishing. You can’t afford to rest at these events and despite a late finish for many after the Gala Dinner the night before, the lecture theatre was packed with delegates anxious to hear what might lie in store.
The principal drivers in publishing at present are the advent of electronic reading devices and the inexorable rise of Amazon as a distributor. The discussion panel consisted of a children’s book editor, two agents and a gentleman whose livelihood revolved around the publishing of ebooks (no surprises as to where his sympathies lay). One thing they all seemed fairly agreed on – ebooks have stabilised at around 40% of the market, a figure confirmed by my own publisher. This means that the printed book will still survive. Certain books are not suited to the e format and unlikely to be so for the foreseeable future, children’s books for instance and those publications which are heavily dependant on lavish illustrations, the kind we like to display on our coffee tables. It’s also reasonable to assume that many novels will still be printed as many of us like the touch and feel of a book.
The next question then is where will we be able to obtain them? The answer seems to be Amazon, a conclusion that most in the publishing industry find unpalatable. But even here the panel appeared united in admitting that Amazon is an amazingly efficient online distributor both in terms of its cost and its service – it ‘delivers’ the books we want at low prices, quickly and directly to our door. What more could consumers want? Exactly, which is why the conventional bricks and mortar book industry needs to think through its response far more carefully than it has done so far. To tell us that ‘we must support bookshops’ by insisting on purchasing from them, as advocated by one of the panellists, is to hide one’s head in the sand and remain in denial. Fine for those who are passionate enough about the physical book to put their hands deep into their pockets but that wont wash with the general book-buying public. These are the people who quite understandably browse their way round Waterstones for their ‘touchy-feely’ experience and then go home and order what they want online at considerably less price. Try telling them that their Christmas shopping expedition is going to cost them an extra £20 or so for the half dozen volumes they’re planning on putting in stockings if they’re loyal to their bookshop. It all smacks of King Canute trying to hold back the onrushing tide - take that line and you’ll get swept away. At some point in time of course, the bookshop will no longer exist and the consumer will be denied their browsing experience - but by then it will be too late and they can still get what they want from Amazon anyway.
So, unless something dramatic happens, Amazon’s going to rule the publishing world (and possibly some others besides). They already dominate the distribution of ebooks and seem set to do the same for the printed version. At present this suits the consumer but a monopoly situation like that is never going to be good in the longer term. Once they’ve captured the market, prices will inevitably go up, the good service we’ve enjoyed up until now will cease and the benefits we currently enjoy from bookshops will disappear. What can be done about it? Rather than the unrealistic solution offered by my panellist, here’s my own line of thinking.
Firstly, let’s look at the chain of distribution in publishing. I’ll begin with the assumption that an author wants to write a book and a reader wants to read one and is prepared to pay to do so. In other words we have the basis for a market. What readers are prepared to pay for this privilege is an issue. So is whether authors wish to earn a living from their writing. The large majority will understand that they cannot but continue, like me, because they have something to say or because they do it for the love of their craft.
The distribution chain for conventional bricks and mortar publishing is as follows. The author engages an agent who sells the idea of the book to a publisher. If so persuaded, the publisher uses a printer, the book is sent to a distributor who passes it on to a bookshop who (eventually) sells it to the reader. A long and complicated process. Compare this with the distribution chain for a self-published ebook. An author puts their book onto Amazon KDP and a reader downloads it. No wonder all the middlemen are panicking. The distribution chain for the self-published print version is not much longer and merely adds the services of a printer. Companies like Lulu and Smashwords, together with the advent of print on demand, make all this comparatively easy. It’s not rocket science and any author who sets their mind to it can get their book ‘out there’ in both print and e versions in a short space of time, something Amazon is happy to help them with. More and more books are being self-published and the market is becoming flooded with cheap, and quite often poor, literature. Never mind the quality, feel the width.
What becomes clear in all this is that rather than assume a right to their position, the middlemen need to think carefully about what value they are adding to the distribution chain, how much the reader is prepared to pay for their services and how that service is communicated and delivered to the reader. These are the basic principles of marketing. In other words, when a reader buys a hardback book in a bookshop for £19.99 what are they getting that they can’t get in a ebook from Amazon at £1.99?
If my panellists are right and the printed book does have a future, then so do printers and probably distributors (unless print on demand takes over). Their services are well-defined and don’t concern us here. It’s the agents, publishers and bookshops who are the problem and that’s where we should focus our attention.
Next time, in Part Two, I’m going to look at each of these areas in turn and establish exactly what it is that they’re contributing that costs us all that extra.
15 Sep 2014
Scotland Decides – Why I’m Hoping for No.
My original intention this Monday was to post an article about trends in art and fiction. Sounds interesting you might think, but the topic pales into insignificance by comparison with events north of the border. The Scottish debate is far more important and in the same way that Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband abandoned PMQs last week to go and visit the people, I am abandoning my blog today in favour of making the same argument. And if by doing so I can persuade just one person to change their mind and vote No on Thursday, then the effort will have been worthwhile.
Firstly let me say how right I think the party leaders were. The situation demands it, although I can understand why they might have wished to stay aloof up until now. No-one, least of all the Scots, likes to be lectured on what to do by Westminster politicians. Their incursion might still do more harm than good but better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all.
Personally, I wish they had done so before. This, in the hope that it might raise the level of discussion since what I have seen of the Scottish debate so far has filled me with despair. Every time I’ve tuned in it seems that the emphasis has been primarily about the economics of the situation and the tone in which has been conducted has become progressively lower and lower. Watching Salmond and Darling arguing the toss over the numbers is dispiriting to say the least. Imagine what it would be like if Scotland elects for divorce and they’re reduced to squabbling over the estate.
One of the problems is that no-one seems to be able to agree on the facts, never mind their implications. How much oil is actually there? Who owns it? Can an independent Scotland keep the pound? What effect would it have on business? One side claims one thing, the other something else. My suspicion is that the answer is really quite simple. Yes, Scotland would benefit from oil but would probably lose the pound. As for business, its leaders have made it plain that they think they would suffer. Based on this, my judgement is that in the long run Scotland would be worse off economically.
But in my view this misses the point. We’re fond of making jokes about the depth of Scots pockets and the short nature of their arms but I believe this decision is more likely to be made based on what’s in their hearts rather than what’s in their wallets. If Scotland is to be ‘worse off’ as a result, then many of its inhabitants will think it a price worth paying for their freedom. For a country that’s suffered the loss of such staple industries as coal, steel and shipbuilding in their recent history and yet has still survived, the prospect of a little more economic deprivation is surely something they believe they can cope with.
That they should seek independence is entirely understandable. I have always argued for less government and that where possible, decisions should be taken by individuals rather than bureaucrats. Devolution points in that direction. The Scots probably feel the same about interference from Westminster as we do about Brussels – and we all know how that plays here.
Added to which many Scots bear a natural antipathy toward the English. After all, in the course of human history they’ve been enemies for far longer than they’ve been friends. Most of the time that takes the form of healthy competition and good-natured banter but for some it’s a deep-seated hatred. That’s unfortunate and leads a small minority of people south of the border to suggest that the rest of us would be better off without them. The Scots are a troublesome lot, they say, let them go their own way.
Wrong. And I say that not because we might lose their oil or because they might lose our pound but because I VALUE THEIR FRIENDSHIP. And yes, we could still be friends if they left The Union but in fact it goes further than that and I want them to remain part of our family of nations. Why? Because Scotland is a great country and the Scots are a great people. Theirs is a small nation but it punches far above its weight. It has produced some of the finest scientists and engineers that the world has ever known. It has given us great art and great literature. It has provided distinguished leaders in the fields of politics, commerce and industry. It has a great heritage and a national identity which is the envy of many – England, Wales and Northern Ireland included. So how do I feel about the prospect of them wandering off into the blue? Devastated. And I know I speak for many ‘down south’ when I say so.
I don’t suppose I have a drop of Scottish blood in my veins. My mother is English and my father was Welsh and spoke the language. As a result I suppose I feel more ‘British’ than anything else and I am certainly ‘of these Isles’. But so are the Scots and to lose them would be akin to losing a limb. My association with them makes me proud.
In conclusion let me say this. If it came to the crunch (as it has done in the past), if the chips were down and we had to face up to the rest of the world, then of all the people I’d choose to stand alongside me, rather than some dodgy European or other weak-kneed foreigner, give me a brave true-hearted Scotsman every time.
So, if you have a vote on Thursday I urge you to forget all that contentious stuff about the oil and the pound but understand this. YOU ARE WANTED and for goodness sake say NO. Without you we are all the poorer.
8 Sep 2014
Why Do Writers Write?
I regularly buy The Daily Telegraph – once a week, on a Saturday. Not for its political opinions I hasten to add, I’d be just as happy to read The Independent, although I usually find Charles Moore’s views eminently sensible. No, I buy it primarily for the chance to do the Prize Crossword (I’m an avid fan) and because the Review section contains the week’s TV guide. The same Review also provides an ongoing insight into the world of books and after I’ve read the headlines this is the next thing I turn to. Last week’s edition proved particularly fruitful as it included a ten-page special on fiction about to be released this autumn, but what started out as a potential reading list turned into a major thought provoking exercise and may well change the way I work.
That September brings a slew of book launches comes as no surprise. Our sleepy summer is over and we have woken up to find that the children are back at school and Christmas is looming on the horizon. What better idea for a present than something to read. My interest however, lies in the fact that I need to keep up to date professionally plus I have two reviews every month to do for Book Talk and good material can be hard to find. Here were eight ready-made opportunities – and they were all in the genre I tend to inhabit ie. literary fiction. I emerged from my Sunday morning perusal with two distinct possibilities, one maybe, five definite rejections and the nagging question as to why I had made these particular choices and why these writers had chosen to write what they did.
As we know, what appeals to us in literary terms is a very individual thing – one man’s meat etc. – and what resonates with me will not necessarily suit someone else. I have never been able to get to grips with Martin Amis or Will Self for instance, either in terms of style or content, so THE ZONE OF INTEREST and SHARK were not for me. I avoid anything futuristic so Howard Jacobson’s J and David Mitchell’s THE BONE CLOCKS also fell by the wayside. As for Ali Smith (HOW TO BE BOTH), her novel involves duality of both gender and time, ‘in the best modernist tradition’ I was told. So much so that it will apparently be a matter of chance as to which narrative readers will encounter first – half the copies of her book are published in one order, half in the other. Hmm ... I confess to having an interest in ‘the modernist tradition’ if only to compare it with trends in the art world and I intend that to be the subject of a separate piece, but I don’t think I actually want to read the book.
So what do I want to read? I’m always intrigued by Ian McEwan so THE CHILDREN ACT is on my list. I’ve never read Sarah Waters but THE PAYING GUESTS sounds good. I seem to recall that an earlier work of hers, THE LITTLE STRANGER, is on a bookshelf somewhere so that might provide a good introduction to her style. My one maybe is Rachel Cusk and OUTLINE, the reason being that the book is a series of conversations designed to show how self-effacing its narrator (and presumably modern womanhood) can be. And since this is a conceit that is bound to annoy me, it’s probably best avoided.
I am at least clear as to why I made these choices. They are all realistic (nothing surreal or futuristic here), they all deal with human relationships and they are all reasonably contemporary ie. set within this or the last century. The reason I am drawn to such books, I have discovered, is that they might help explain the world as it is to me. But is that why the authors wrote them? Did they set out with that particular intention or did it just happen accidentally? What caused them to choose their time, place and subject? Why do they write what they do? Why indeed do they write at all?
The critics usually take delight in implying some kind of purpose to these things. Why else would critics exist? THE CHILDREN ACT is alleged to be a thinly-disguised tirade against religion. Sarah Waters is known for inserting lesbianism into contexts where it has previously been impossible to do so, while Rachel Cusk’s work is held to be blatantly autobiographical. Whether this was what the respective authors set out to achieve when they wrote their books is open to question. Perhaps there were psychological factors at work. Maybe they just had something on their minds, wanted to set it down on paper and decided to let the critics sort out what it was actually about later on. In the introduction to my copy of THE SOUND AND THE FURY (William Faulkner) Richard Hughes tells the story of a celebrated Russian dancer who was asked what she meant by a certain dance. She answered with some exasperation, ‘If I could say it in so many words, do you think I should take the very great trouble of dancing it?’ Could things really be as simple as that?
Up until recently I thought I knew why I write. Firstly, it gives me purpose. Purpose is a wonderful thing. Without it we wither away, in every sense. Secondly, it’s a form of self-expression. It’s one of the ways I let myself, and others, know who I am and what I’m about. There are stories in my head I was (and still am) desperate to tell but I don’t necessarily know what they mean. I’ve said in my various biographical notes that my only intention was to entertain the reader and that I had no political or moral message to convey, or at least, none that I was aware of. More recently, and particularly in light of the above, I’ve come to think differently. Yes, my shorter works, the novellas, probably are pure entertainment but a serious novel like BIRDS OF THE NILE needs something more than that to sustain it. I came to realise, after it had been published, that it was in fact an exploration of the character of Michael Blake. I was still trying to entertain my audience because I needed them to continue reading but through the story I was telling I was hoping that they would ‘get’ him as a person. Now, when someone has read the book and tells me that they do, it’s a source of immense satisfaction. And I think I know why.
Michael Blake is clearly an extension of my own personality. I am a large part of him and he is a large part of me. So when someone tells me they understand him they are in effect saying that they understand me. So in just the same way that I read the books of other authors to try and understand their world, perhaps I write novels so that other people can try and understand mine. And if this puts me closer to Rachel Cusk than the rest, so be it.
Although my books are by no means intended to be autobiographical. I may be a keen bird-watcher and I may have been on a trip on the Nile, but I wasn’t caught up in the Egyptian revolution, I haven’t gone blind and I certainly didn’t fall in love with a Malaysian student half my age. My life informs my work rather than defines it, although I still can’t escape the thought that my own beliefs and feelings somehow seep into those of my protagonists and that however inadvertently, I am surreptitiously passing these on to my reader. If my reader can gain something from that, so much the better, but let me assure you, there is no deliberate message. There may well be one hidden in there somewhere, but like the Russian dancer, I’m not sure I know what it is.
One day a critic might read my work (I wish!) and tell me what my books are about and what it is I’ve been trying to say – the literary equivalent of a visit to a psychiatrist if you like. In the meanwhile, I know enough about things to conclude that I should cease this pretence that my books are merely entertainment and get on and change my biography.
1 Sep 2014
The Author As Character
As those who regularly read my column will know, I often take part in Literary Festivals and give talks to writing groups. One of the seminars I present is entitled ‘The Modern Author – A Skill Set for the 21st Century’. In it I argue that it’s no longer enough merely to write a good novel but that for those who inhabit the lower echelons of the literary world, it’s also essential to promote yourself. In an article he wrote in advance of last year’s Hay Festival even self-confessed middle-ranking author Will Self admitted as much. Faced with a choice of candidates for publication, today’s publisher is more likely to choose the one who is prepared to put themselves in front of the reading public, has a website, facebook page and an active twitter account with thousands of followers.
Recent events have caused me to take the argument one step further. I now believe that it’s not only necessary for The Modern Author to vigorously promote themselves but that in doing so they must also display character.
So what has caused this advancement in thought? Up until now, whenever I’ve been lucky enough to confront the reading public, I’ve been focussed primarily on my own performance. More recently I’ve been at a couple of events which have given me the opportunity to observe the performance of others and the response they created.
As an instance, in the middle of March I was lucky enough to be asked to appear at Kings Lynn Fiction Festival. At times I found myself amongst a panel of nine or so other authors and when attention was directed toward someone else I was able to study the audience and the reaction they displayed to particular individuals. What I noticed was that those who read well, spoke well and voiced positive opinions produced a far more active response than those who mumbled and effectively said nothing or were unintelligible. Well that’s no surprise, I hear you say. Exactly – which is why it’s odd that the people concerned hadn’t cottoned on to the fact and taken steps to do something about it.
Take reading for example. I say this because it strikes me as the simplest of these subjects to get right as it can easily be prepared for in advance. And yet how many of us practice our reading skills at home before appearing in public? Very few, I suspect. And speaking of preparation, how many open mics have you been to where someone gets up on stage and spends the first few crucial minutes searching through sheaves of grubby hand-written notepaper looking for what to read? Or, in an attempt to convince us of their up-to-date technology credentials produces a mobile phone to read from only to find it’s low on battery? And while Sad Syd rambles on I’m sure it’s in here somewhere the audience has already lost interest and moved on. Or perhaps I’m wrong and it’s thought ‘clever’ amongst creative types to appear disorganised and be the absent-minded professor of literature.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve also seen the confident reader, book-marked item in hand, ready to hold forth, only to lose their public yet again by prefacing the extract from their latest novel with a convoluted introduction which turns out to be longer than the piece they finally read. Why can’t they get it right?
At another festival I attended out of personal interest, the stage was occupied by an interviewer flanked by two contrasting authors. One was tidy, well-presented and confidently although softly spoken, while the other was untidy and dressed in sweat-shirt and jeans (with the emphasis on sweat, I hasten to add). And while the first made eye contact with the audience and listened appreciatively when his companion was speaking, the second totally ignored everyone else and spent most of his time staring up at the ceiling or down at the floor whilst biting his nails. He looked extremely uncomfortable with the whole idea of being there at all and seemed as if he couldn’t wait to get away. So much so that it was a topic of conversation amongst my fellow attendees afterwards. No prizes then for correctly guessing who had the longest queue for signings at the bookstall. And this totally irrespective of the merits or otherwise of their books. The potential saving grace for author number two was the fact that he was so clearly distressed (we thought he might slit his own throat at any moment) that this might be reflected in his work and give an edge to his fiction. Which merely serves to emphasize my point - rather that than have no character at all, I suppose.
We live in a world of celebrity and who you are has become just as important as what you do. A while back we’d never heard of Maria Miller – suddenly we were all familiar with her and it wasn’t because of her political opinions. Most of us hadn’t a clue as to whether she was on the raving right or if she was a member of the lunatic left – all we cared about was that she’d been accused of fiddling her expenses and so whatever her thoughts and policies we were more disinclined to vote for her. As authors we should learn from this and make sure that our work isn’t ignored by our failure to behave acceptably in front of our audience.
I used to work as a waiter during my school holidays and long vacations. Amongst many other things I learnt that good food can be spoilt for the customer by presenting it poorly. So yes, The Modern Author doesn’t just have to write a good book and be active in promoting it – they also have to do it with a certain degree of style.