Monthly Archives: April 2013

Does the person matter?

I know that no matter how much you like someone as a person, if their writing is truly terrible, you’re not going to buy their second book. But is the opposite also true? If you really like an author’s work can you continue to buy it (and therefore support them financially) if as a person that author is making what you consider to be reprehensible and even repulsive statements in public?

A fairly well-known indie-published author who has subsequently signed a traditional publishing deal for paperback wrote a blog post which he has subsequently deleted, in which he relayed a quite reasonable story of his own negative reaction to someone he met, but ended it with a misogynist/ somewhat sexually threatening remark. He has retracted and apologised, so I’m not going to name him here, but I had read the blog post – it was in fact the first thing I’d ever read by him. I had heard about him and thought about buying his book. This weekend I was standing in WH Smith’s, looking at this paperback and thinking about buying it. But I couldn’t bear to – the author had intruded too much into my image of the novel.

Similarly a fairly famous American sci-fi author whose novels I have read and loved in the past has made some fairly inflammatory remarks against gay marriage recently. This puts me in more of a quandary – in the first case I’m never going to know what I’m missing, but in this case I do and it hurts, partly because I’m the kind of person who finds an author they like and then reads EVERYTHING that person has ever written. But I don’t agree with him on this, and it’s not just a case of not agreeing, it’s a case of finding the way he has expressed himself in public – using his status as a well known author – to be extremely offensive and narrow-minded.

So, should the way an author behaves or believes affect my book-buying, if that author doesn’t put those behaviours or beliefs into their book-writing? I am afraid that for me, I cannot separate the author from their work. I am not bothered by differing politics, or differing beliefs, just extreme and offensive ones. I know that I am making a commercial decision when I buy a book, and my money is going more or less directly to the writer, or some portion of it is. I was interested to find that I feel this way. But these two authors have lost me as a reader.

Make Good Art (even if it doesn’t pay)

There have been two highly distressing anti-arts news stories this week: one from the US and one from the UK.

The first came two days ago in the form of an interview with two married artists (one poet, one musician) from Minnesota, who are under investigation by their state’s tax authorities. The argument boils down to: you can’t be a serious artist, because you’re not making enough money, so this must be a hobby, and your expenses are therefore not tax deductible. Art is only art if it makes a profit after a certain amount of time, and if it doesn’t you must stop and go and get a job in a biscuit factory.

The second one was a speech given by the UK Culture Secretary of all people, Maria Miller, who insists that culture must contribute to the economy. Sam West, Chair of the National Campaign for the Arts wrote eloquently about this here. Miller said government funding for the arts is less than 1% of total government spending in the UK. In fact it’s 0.01%.

The thing about arts funding from the government is that arts that are in themselves profitable and of direct economic benefit don’t need funding. The arts that need funding are the ones that don’t make a profit. The ones that inspire the children. The ones that benefit mental health. The ones that enable people to make sense of their lives. Art is valuable for what it is for us, what it does for us, and how it sits inside us. It’s a statement about what the world should be like. It might not pay. But it makes the world a better place in ways which money can’t buy. Because value is not the same as price (and I think I pinched that from Sam West, so apologies).

There’s only one response to make to either of these stories, once you’ve ruled out weeping in a corner and rioting in the streets. Watch this. And: Make. Good. Art.

Ghost-writing

This morning I finally got a moment’s quiet to sit down and finish a piece of flash fiction I’d had the idea for, and mostly written, in early January. I’d been putting this off for a while, because I couldn’t find the draft. This morning I decided to sit down and recreate the whole thing from scratch.

There’s a lot of stories and writings out there that I’ve half begun then lost. In notebooks, on stray sheets of paper, on old computers, and even on some floppy disks I still have but cannot open. They haunt me, my own personal ghost brigade. Because some of them are good stories. But when you sit down and try to recreate them, there’s something missing. This morning, it was the character’s name. I knew I’d coined her something great. I knew I’d loved her name. I could not remember what it was. Not the first inkling of an inkling of a clue.

The ghost of the piece is there, on the page, but you can’t actually pin it down. You can’t see it clearly enough to draw round it. You can get a vague approximation of the shape, but the details, the pin-prick accuracy, is gone. It might be better, what you’ve re-written, re-thought, re-created. But you always feel it’s worse, because of those ghosts hovering in your mind’s eye. That story I lost, that was the one. That novel opening, it was perfect. If only I still had it, I could finish, I could sell, this would be the breakthrough.

It’s all another way of procrastinating instead of writing. Which is what I told myself firmly when I sat down to re-create this piece, which let’s face it, as flash fiction, was not going to be too awful as a job of re-writing, and I knew I liked the idea, which was still all there. (Flash fiction is a bit like writing jokes, I think. The concept and the punch have to be strong. Every word counts, but it’s the idea that grabs you and unsettles you – or makes you laugh.) And about ten minutes and as many false starts later, I typed the title, which I’d known all along, at the top of the page, and then suddenly realised I’d done that before, and did a search for the title. For some reason, I’d not thought to try that before…

And there it was, waiting for me. I polished it, deleted some words, rewrote others, added an extra hundred words on top, and subbed it. Exorcised.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

Last weekend was one of my favourite yearly-if-I-can treats: a double bill of my favourite Shakespeare company, Propeller. They are an all male company, but that isn’t, I don’t think, the main thing about them: they have a very physical, committed approach to Shakespeare. Their key focus is on the clarity of action and words. They make each play a theatrical event. That sounds like it’s obvious, but it really isn’t, and it’s not true of all Shakespeare productions these days.

Anyway, that was a fun day – a gripping production of Taming of the Shrew that I didn’t like/ agree with the interpretation of, and a fabby production of Twelfth Night which I previously saw in Coventry during its first week, and loved, although it had got even better by this weekend. So, in summary, if you can go see them, do. 

Shakespeare carried on being on my mind though, when I saw a comment on the Kboards discussion forum, on a thread about how to promote indie published literary fiction. Basically the consensus was that literary fiction just isn’t going to make you the big bucks. One commenter, the indie author J Gordon Smith, had the canny idea of getting a title for your novel by simply reading through Macbeth until you’d found a short quotation you could use or adapt. I loved the cynicism of this – after all, I thought, it worked for Faulkner.  But I wondered how many other people it had worked for. Turned out, more than you knew. Just try to avoid ‘the seeds of time’ and ‘all our yesterdays’. I was quite intrigued to see, however, that one of my favourite authors, Diana Wynne Jones, also had a book title attributable to Macbeth – Charmed Life. Shakespeare had all the good lines, apparently!

End of the line

Well, it’s 100 days (101 actually) into 2013, and the 100k in a 100 days challenge, that I wrote about earlier, is over. Did I make it?

Well, that’s several questions.

  1. Did I write 100k?
  2. Did I write every day?
  3. Did I write more than I usually would?

The answer to 1 and 2 is ‘no’, I’m afraid. I hit 70,875 (and between us, the challengees wrote more than 3 and a half million words). I mostly wrote these on dayjob words and contract work. I did write some of my WiP, although nowhere near as much as I’d hoped.

Question 3 is a bit more difficult. Probably the answer is yes, although I think that maybe not by much. What is interesting is looking at the patterns of my writing. I definitely write in spurts – some days nothing, others several thousand.  I was interested to read this post on Cal Newport’s blog which supported the idea of short intense bursts of work. Of course, he’s talking in an academic capacity, so maybe that’s relevant to the dayjob, and not so much to the fiction writing.

What I found interesting was that I could write 70000 in 3 months. But then, I kind of already knew that. I wrote about 60k of my doctoral thesis in a little under 2 months (deadlines REALLY motivate me).

There’s another 100k in a 100 days challenge starting July 1st, and I’ll be signed up. But this time I’m only going to count fiction. I’m willing to bet I’ll find it much harder and I’ll get much less close to the target (I’ve just worked out if I’d included blog posts in the word count it would have been 75k, which is pretty damn respectable). In the meantime, between now and then, maybe I’ll just try every day…

So, Question 4:

                          4. Was it worth it?

That’s 100% yes.

Will I shell out cold hard cash for indie-published books?

So I read The Emperor’s Edge by Lindsay Buroker. And I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty good. It was certainly as good as many traditionally published novels which I’ve read. A couple of clunky sentences here and there which might have been removed by an experienced editor – but which might equally not. A couple of reviews on Goodreads condemned the plot for being linear – which I guess it was, but no more than many novels.

I think it’s unlikely that I would have paid out money for The Emperor’s Edge as an e-book. If I’d had the chance to flip through the book in a store, I’d have taken a chance on an unknown author – but the point about the new world of internet shopping is that it is very difficult to do that. But now I’ve read it, am I going to buy the sequel? The answer is, I already have. And what is more, I paid the higher price to order both the book I’ve read and the next two in POD (print on demand) paperback. I want to lend them to people who I know would enjoy them.

Buroker has made a highly intelligent marketing move in making her first book free. Of course, she can also write, which always helps. If she couldn’t, no matter how many free downloads, she would simply never translate those into sales.

Over on The Passive Voice someone commenting on a post suggested a good move for the big book chains would be to install POD machines in some of their flagship stores. I think it’s a genius idea. The real value of the ebook revolution is the availability of absolutely anything you could want – everything, as I said previously, getting the chance to find its audience. POD in store would give the people like me – and there are many of us – the opportunity to have the same range of choice in hard copy that we have over the ether. The only question is whether traditional models of book selling will catch up to this revolution before it pins them to the wall and shoots.

Finding your niche

One of my favourite authors in all the world is Victoria Clayton.  A few years ago I picked up a book in Oxfam called Dance With Me. I read it rapidly and then sought out every other thing Clayton had written. I bought Dance With Me for friends and relatives. I made my mother and my sister read the books.

Broadly falling into the romantic fiction category, Clayton is a rather unique author. Her stories are set in the 1970s, featuring down-at-heel aristocrats and art history geeks, embarking on hilarious and unconventional love affairs and adventures. They have the occasional swear word.  They are all beautiful. They don’t sell enough to keep them in print. Although they are wonderful books, they are not quite enough like anything else for them to be easily pigeon-holed.

I’ve just finished the most recent book, Stormy Weather. Clayton self-published it as an e-book on Kindle. I loved it, and devoured it at the same rate as her earlier works. I’d have preferred it in print. But I’m glad there was somewhere for her to go when no traditional publishing deal was forthcoming. It seems to be one of the main advantages of the indie publishing (as self-publishing is now known) revolution: everyone can find their niche, because no matter how small it is, it is now worth the effort to publish. Books can stay ‘in print’ forever, so they can take their time to find their audience.

Having said that, I’ve resisted buying Stormy Weather for some time. It’s the fact that I’m paying the same amount of money for an e-book that I’d expect to pay for a paperback (although frankly that I expect to be able to get a paperback for £5.99 is probably a mark of growing up in the 80s). It was worth every penny, but I can’t help feeling that an e-book isn’t an object in the same way paper is. The reviews of the book on Goodreads suggests that others feel the same. There will no doubt be some kind of settling down into the new world order at some point. We shall see. In the meantime I’ve downloaded a e-book by the self-published but well-respected Lindsay Buroker.  http://www.lindsayburoker.com/. It’s the first in her series. It’s free. We shall see if this leads to further actual spending…