At the risk of 'bugging the life out of people' (see Nicola Morgan's recent ABBA Post of the 24th below), I've got a new book coming out next week. February 2nd, in fact, and I'm going to mention it because having a book published is one of those things that doesn't happen all that often to me, although with so many books published it is obviously happening all the time to other people, who then bleet and tweet about it, to Nicola's annoyance. I suppose that's part of the problem. In her perceptive way has put her finger one of the profound contradictions of social networking, and publishing for that matter. To an individual author, a book being published is A Very Big Thing; to everyone else, it's another 'so what?'. Cursory glance only before we go on to our own tweet, Facebook page entry, blog or planning our Virtual Launch.
At the risk of bugging, I anticipate publication of This Is Not Forgiveness with the usual mix of feelings: pride and a sense of wonder that my name is on the cover, but also complex feelings of nostalgia and loss. When I turn the pages, it is like looking through a strange kind of diary. I remember where I was when I thought that, wrote that, added that detail. It happens over a summer and I wrote it over a summer, so the weather, the descriptions, are like snapshots of particular places at a particular time. And there is something perfect about a book that is about to be published, before it goes out into the world to be the object of scrutiny and criticism, before it has a chance to fail.
I have another reason for nostalgia. This Is Not Forgiveness is a topical thriller set in the present and this is seen as a bit of a departure for me. I'm now known mostly for writing historical fiction. If not those books, then the old Point Horror Unleashed titles - Blood Sinister and The Vanished. But my first book was a contemporary thriller for teenagers. Every Step You Take. It was published in 1993. So long ago, that when I went to get the rights back from the publisher, they claimed never to have heard of it. That, too, was a contemporary thriller, so in a way, I've come full circle, returning to my roots.
That book was published into a different world. I'm typing this blog on a laptop, it is going straight by WiFi onto the 'net. I'm uploading pictures to go with it. I typed Every Step on an electric typewriter. Laptop, WiFi, 'net, upload? Terms not coined yet. I sent it off as a paper manuscript by Special Delivery, posted at the local Post Office (now a cake shop) not by attachment as I would do now.
The Internet was in its infancy, so no e mails. Publishers sent you letters. All you had to do was open the envelope, read and file. Everyone sent you letters, so it was easy to keep track of things. No matter how hard I try to be organised, finding things in e mails is like sifting though spaghetti. As for publicity, it didn't take up any time at all because there wasn't any. My first school visit came randomly from a librarian wh
The other day, I was discussing with my family whether people can change. Actually, it wasn't so much a discussion as me posing a theory, them agreeing, and then all of us providing more and more evidence. Which is pretty much my favourite kind of discussion, at least while on holiday.
My theory was that it is very difficult, very difficult, and relatively rare, for people to change themselves. (And this has an implication for novelists, as you'll see.)
Of course people do change. We know that. Any individual changes a tiny bit each day, imperceptibly, adding up to large changes over decades. Sometimes, changes can be more sudden, especially during the growing up years. Various landmarks change us: leaving school/university, having children/not having children, close bereavement, major changes of circumstances. These bring changes to our personalities over the years, and changes to our habits.
But these changes tend to be a) gradual b) an adaptation to changed surroundings/ environment/ people around us and c) largely involuntary. They do not answer the question: CAN people change? In other words, can they change when they want to? Can we often change our behaviours when we see a negative consequence, or, indeed, a positive one? (I know that people sometimes can - change addictive behaviours, for example - but they generally need a great deal of help and intervention.)
The reason I was thinking about this was because I am hopelessly useless at changing bad behaviours. How many times have I looked at the bathroom scales and said that I was going to eat less, exercise more? (Twice today, anyway.) How many times have I made resolutions to drink more water and less wine; eat more fruit and less sugar; not buy ice-cream "just in case one of my daughters comes home unexpectedly"; do an hour's writing before answering emails; say no to speaking engagements; spend less time at my desk; enjoy weekends properly; be less of a workaholic; get less cross when people are stupid; not snap at my husband (no link there to the previous remark!); do more gardening and cooking (hobbies which I love and are good for me); get up from my desk every hour? Countless times, is how many. And I never change my habits. At all.
I am utterly beholden to my adult, middle-aged personality, which happens to be that of a driven workaholic, hopelessly Type A, unstoppably entrepreneurial, unable to say no to any exciting idea that pops into my head at four in the morning. I was different when I was fourteen and will probably be different when I'm 84. But there is no discernible change between how I am now at 50, how I was when I was 40 or 30. I have a whole different life, but my bad habits and behaviours I'd dearly like to alter remain stubbornly unaltered, even though I recognise completely that changing would be good for me and probably give me a longer life.
SO, writers and readers, why oh why oh why oh why do the characters in our books always have to change and develop? Even if the action takes place over two weeks, or two days. It seems to be one of the unbreakable rules of novels.
The Carnegie Medal even has criteria for characterisation, including:
Are the characters believable and convincing?
Are they [the characters] well-rounded, and do they develop during the course of the book?
Do they act consistently in character throughout the book?
You know, it rather bugs me that a character must
develop during the course of what may be a very short timespan
A constant complaint from many authors is that the whole business of publishing and selling books has become so, well, commercial.
Our sixth most viewed post of the last four years is Nicola's funny, incisive, and - needless to say - crabbit look at her local branch of the Chain Bookseller of the Year, including a visit to its bacon aisle.
As a bonus, the extensive comments section includes a debate between Nicola and publisher Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, with inactive URLS to further thoughts from both of them, which for your convenience I present in active form here:
Number 5 will be here in an hour!
Recently, the Guardian reported the story of author Terry Goodkind, who "turned to Facebook to name and shame a fan who pirated a digital version of his latest novel". As usual when a case of theft is revealed, there were arguments on both sides, regarding whether words should be free or authors should be entitled to protect their work and earn from it. Paulo Coelho is quoted as calling on "pirates of the world" to "unite and pirate everything I've ever written". Coelho has every right to say this of his own work - he is exercising the degree of control (or lack of) that he chooses.
However, I do not recall him calling on pirates of the world to
pirate steal everything that anyone else has ever written.
And this is what the proponents of the "words should be free" argument so often forget. Surely the choice should be made by the creator of the content? Otherwise it's theft.
Whether or not illegal downloading increases sales is utterly beside the point. It may well do so. All my self-published ebooks are DRM-free, not because I want them to be stolen but because I want my readers to be able to read them on any device in as many places as they wish, and if the price I must pay is that some people will steal, that's a price I'll pay. That does not mean that I am happy with anyone stealing it, or that I can afford to be stolen from. But frankly, even that misses the point: theft is still theft however much the victim can absorb the loss.
Recently on my Crabbit At Home blog, I linked to an excellent but long piece
arguing why illegal downloading is morally wrong, but to be honest, when will we stop making the arguments so complicated?
Taking something without the owner's permission is theft and theft is wrong. I grant that if you'd die without the stolen item, it's forgivable. But it's still theft. And last thing I heard, books may be important but you don't generally die for the lack of one.
It really is that simple.
Recently, I downloaded the remarkably wonderful Adblock program, a piece of free software which instantly removes all adverts from my internet experience, including those dreaded "belly-fat" ads on Facebook. After I'd downloaded, I was given the option
of paying a contribution, if I wished. I paid $5.
A few days later, I received this email (my bold):
I wanted to say thanks for paying for AdBlock at http://chromeadblock.com/pay. I wrote AdBlock hoping to make people's lives better, and you just told me that I managed to do it :) Thank you very, very much! &nbs
As all writers for young people know, we not only have to get our books to our intended readers: we have to get past the gate-keepers - adults. Now, adults are some of my favourite people but let me have a little rant about certain members of that group, specifically certain parents. I am a parent myself, so I know how parenty brains work and I’m sympathetic, but sometimes … HONESTLY.
Yes, I know there’s some pretty tough stuff goes on in my teenage books. I’m up front about that and I would totally understand if a parent of a 10 year old (eg) got a bit cautious about some of it. (Though I still think they should worry less about reading choices and more about some other things - like whether their child is reading at all ...) But anyway, I just had a librarian say that she wouldn’t stock Mondays are Red “because of the swearing” and she’d had a parent complain when a book had a rude word in it. Well, I didn’t remember any swearing in Mondays are Red until it occurred to me that I did say “Piss off!” once, when a character was really really really really ANGRY. Frankly, I think piss off was pretty restrained in the circs. And it was a teenage book and a teenage character. And the character didn’t say it to an adult or anything really terrible like that …
OK, I respect people’s views and I hate bad language myself - only ever use it when I’m bloody furious - but let’s see things in context here. Tell me how it’s fine that my books contain a mastectomy without anaesthetic in front of an audience of men (Fleshmarket opening chapter), death by blood-poisoning, trepanning (when a drill is twisted through someone’s skull), drowning, stabbing, snake-bite and the subsequent cutting of the flesh above the bite, a throat being cut, drinks being spiked, a massacre, drug use (without condoning it, btw), a horse being shot … I could go on but I’m actually starting to feel quite bad about all this. Am I really a horrible and dangerous person? No, I write stories, stories that aim to challenge and grip and provide a safe environment for fictional danger and risk.
Anyway, my point is, I can do all that death and worse, but I can’t say piss off? When I’m really really really angry? And when children and teenagers hear far worse every day in the playground and on TV and the cinema? (Which is not to say it's right, but then nor are half the other horrible things about the real world.) So, I should perhaps have had my teenage character say, “O bother!” Yeah, right. That’s really going to work.
Parents need to understand about fiction and its ability to prepare kids in the best possible way for the real world. They need, frankly, to get a bit real and decide which things are really worth protecting them from. Either that, or wrap their offspring in cotton wool, don’t allow them to go to school / watch TV / travel /go to the cinema / go on the internet / phone their friends, or read anything other than Enid Blyton. Oh, except that if they read EB, they’ll learn that girls are pathetic and boys are just the greatest leaders and that taking boats on stormy water across a sea with no adults is an OK thing to do.
Compared with which, the odd piss off seems like a very small risk to take.
There was one Thing You Shouldn't Say to an Author which I quite forgot: "I haven't seen any reviews of Deathwatch anywhere," said a certain author's elderly acquaintance (possibly related) who lives in a tiny village in Scotland, skims "the" newspaper and doesn't use the internet because, although he technically has broadband, you'd never know, and because his computer is perched in a gloomy corner of a poorly designed room which gives him a crick in his neck after ten minutes peering at the screen. And ten minutes is how long it takes his computer to boot. On a good day, with the wind in the west and the fish beginning to bite.
No, well, you wouldn't have seen any, would you? Yes, there were lovely reviews, even in newspapers, even in a few decent ones, but with 10,000 children's books published every year in the UK, the chances of your young* acquaintance's book just happening to be reviewed in the Pittenweem Telegraph are about as slim as a very slim thing. Slimmer even than the Pittenweem Telegraph. (*artistic licence. Anyway, age is all relative.)
Thing is, we've moved on from a thralled reliance on newsprint and so much grubby ink, haven't we? Not that we'd turn our noses up at a review in the Guardian or the Book of the Week spot in the Sunday Times, of course - far from it: crikey, I'd have a party if that happened, or at least open the bottle of fizz which is waiting in the fridge for such moments and rapidly becoming vintage. But we don't rely on them because we have many more, and equally well-written and important, sources of reviews.
No, no, not Amazon, silly! Everyone knows that Amazon reviews are tainted. Lovely as it is to get four or five-star reviews there, we also know that they can be trusted about as far as a strawberry plant in the Sahara: the good reviews are as likely to be written by our mothers** or publishers** as the bad ones are to be written by an idiot / enemy / someone who was a bit pissed and bored at 3am. (I hasten to add that as far as I know neither my mother nor publisher has ever done this, but we can never be entirely sure what our mothers get up to at 3am.)
I'm talking about the growing number of increasingly respected and valued websites and blogs where sensible and knowledgeable people write sensible and knowledgeable reviews. Places like Achuka and WriteAway and the Bookbag and the Bookwitch. It feels to me as though, a few years back, readers moved from grovelling reliance on newsprint (when that was all there was) to a gluttonous and undiscerning vox-pop-fest of democratisation (when Amazon felt like the only place you could buy and comment on books), and that now we have something more useful and adaptable: a healthy array of places where serious, knowledgeable, passionate readers can give serious, knowledgeable, passionate views and share them with the like-minded. Because, after all, what's the point of a review by someone who's not like-minded?
I'm doing an article for the Author on this subject soon (like, er, rather horribly soon ...) and I'd love your views on that phrase in red above. "Increasingly respected and valued" - do you agree? How and why are some of them respected? Which ones do you (as readers or writers) value? Or don't you? As a writer, do you still blush with extra pride when you find yourself reviewed on scrunchable paper? As a reader, do you take more notice of a printed review than an on-line one? Do we care whether reviews are by "ordinary" readers, as opposed to "professional" reviewers. (Deliberately provocative adjectives there.)
Seems to me that people have been talking about the review being dead (and that link is only one example amongst vast numbers that you'll find by googling "review is dead") when in fact it's merely shedding its skin. And, though I don't claim to be an expert on snakes, I do know that when a snake is shedding its skin it looks pretty grotty and acts as though its not feeling very well at all. (I apologise for the technical lingo there.) But then it appears all sleek and gorgeous (for a snake), bigger and better and stronger than before.
The review is not dead at all. It's beginning to hiss loudly. And people are listening.
Gah! What have I said, or what am I about to say, or what might someone think I said, or what did I really mean to say? What if I say something really, really stupid? What if I already have?
Please tell me I'm not the only one. See, every time I'm about to have something published I suffer a serious case of exposure anxiety. It manifests itself in my dreams. I'll have classic exposure dreams - things like needing to go to the toilet but finding that there's only a clear glass door between me and a load of strangers, or realising that I'm walking down the street without certain parts of my body being appropriately covered.
I sometimes have dreams where the News of the World has got hold of the really embarrassing things I did in the past and they're going to tell my parents. (I hasten to add that there were no embarrassing things, other than the time when ... but no, the News of the world will NEVER get that. Will it? Oh my God, what if ....?).
Thing is, having something published IS very exposing. Not in a way you can be arrested for, but in a way which is very anxious-making. We know (or if we don't, we soon find out) that lots of people won't like our book, even if lots of people do. Some readers will be vocal in their opinions, and even when the opinions are positive, many readers will see things in our books that we didn't consciously put there and which we didn't mean to be read into them. We will be misinterpreted and spoken about as though we're really really stupid. We see ourselves written about and talked about. And nowadays the reviews and comments are so permanent - which is good ... and bad. But anyway VERY exposing.
We do interviews in which journalists make weird and wrong assumptions or get facts wrong. I was seriously pissed off once when a journalist came to my house to interview me about Blame My Brain and asked me if she could speak to my older daughter. Now, my daughter hates being interviewed or photographed (after a previous horrible experience) and so I said she couldn't; then, in the article, the journalist referred to my "teenage daughter upstairs in bed". Actually, she was in her bedroom, writing an essay ... Yes, a small mistake, but one which had its effects.
I envy those authors who are confident enough and important enough to play the recluse card and keep their privacy, but even they are inevitably exposed as soon as their book is published. You don't get fewer reviews just because you hide. (Yes, I know we all in theory could be recluses, but we're not really allowed that option. Most of us have to do what we can to raise our profiles, not shrink them. Most of us have to do the equivalent of the model walking confidently along the catwalk, when inside we may feel very vulnerable and self-conscious.)
We lay ourselves on the line, allow ourselves to be hung out to dry, and we're supposed to maintain a calm and smiling exterior, never lashing out at public criticism.
Look what happened to Alice Hoffman and Alain de Botton when they lashed out. OK, they may have been unwise but in the old days it never would have become so public. It's all so immediate, so unforgiving and so hellishly permanent nowadays. (Maybe they have glass toilet door dreams, too?)
The need to be careful about what we say on blogs and websites and in interviews just adds to the exposure anxiety. The SoA has even suggested Professional Indemnity insurance for authors, to insure against the costs of being sued for defamation, for example. And I notice (because I've looked, carefully, paranoidally - is that a word?) that you have to pay extra for including your website, blog or other online presence.
Never was the power of words stronger and more frightening.
I feel a bad dream coming on. Someone, please, tell me I have got the appropriate body parts covered. And if I haven't, wake me up gently.
Today, the Edinburgh International Book Festival ends. Many of you were there, either in the Yurt of all Yurts, or else (if you were lucky) reclining in glorious sunshine, eating ice-creams and watching the booky world go by, or (if you were unlucky) suddenly finding yourself stranded in a sea of mud.
It's been a record-breaking year. I don't know all the figures yet but I know that the first day saw record footfall (over 15,000 pairs of feet); the first weekend saw record book-sales; similarly ground-breaking figures for ticket-sales and, incredibly for a recession, a 10% increase in sponsorship.
The book is not dead. Nor are readers. In fact, here are some:
THE YURT OF ALL YURTS
The Yurt (or Yogurt) is a strange place of peculiar smells and unpredictable experiences. It can make any author feel either unexpectedly important or shatteringly small and worthless. You see people you've only seen on the telly, and you find yourself sharing a drink with them or explaining where the Highland Park is hidden; you experience your chest being peered at by a politician wanting to see if you're a name worth talking to, or you could all too easily trip over a carpet and find yourself on the lap of your literary hero.
In case you haven't been, here are a few images, carefully taken with no identifiable people.
Below is the hospitality table with, remarkably, no one there. It took me a very
long time to catch that.
I do often find myself gazing at the roof, not because I spend a lot of time on the floor but because it's rather lovely:
And the entrance, looking unimpressive, deceptively unalluring and small:
Each year, the Yurtish smells bring back memories of other years. First thing in the morning, when the thin sun slices through the opening, you can imagine that the staff slept there, wrapped in yak blankets, and then unwrapped themselves and washed their faces in dew just in time for the appearance of the earliest authors - did you, Roland? Oisin? Lois? As the day wears on, it's essence of coffee and Highland Park, chocolate brownies and goat cheese wraps, ground into the carpets by shoes of all descriptions. (Including mine, which have achieved a reputation for pointiness and getting caught in carpets.) And in the evenings the woodchip burning stove is lit and it's the dry sweet pininess of a sauna. As the night draws closer, more Highland Park, more wine, more wine, more Highland Park. And the rising laughter muffled in the folds of the roof, disappearing like the smoke from a Mongolian fire.
Just to show that I don't always wear pointy shoes, here are my feet on a day off:
One author told me yesterday of how he could not enter the Yurt when he arrived this year. Panic swept over him as he contemplated, remembered, envisaged the sounds of bursting egos. Like a child at a party who is so afraid of the balloon as it is blown up that he puts his hands over his ears and runs from the room.
Others love it. Love the possibility of meeting just anyone, of being on a level with the biggest names in literature. I have loved it and hated it but I go there in anticipation every time. My favourite moment (not this year) was of meeting Michel Faber and feeling suddenly compelled to do that fan thing.
"Excuse me," I said, "I just have to tell you that I adored The Crimson Petal and the White. And as for Under the Skin ..."
And he knelt at my feet ... Sorry, I have to say that again. HE knelt at MY feet. Red trousers he was wearing, and his eyelashes pale and soft and his face open. I asked him what he was writing now and he said he couldn't write at all any more, that his creativity had been damaged by his horror at the Iraq War (as I say, not this year) and he didn't think he could ever write again.
But he has, of course. And I've read it. We talked for ages about creativity and inspiration and integrity and I'm just so glad that it all came back to him. I'm so pleased that I met him, that he gave that time to talk to me, which of course he won't remember. And that I dared
be in the Yurt that day and dared
tell him that one thing that all writers, from the most famous to the least, need to be told,
"I just loved your book."
That's what book festivals, all of them, are about. Just loving books and having moments of magic when readers meet authors and the connection is story, words, imagination, truth.
There's one thing I know
is magic (and if you believe otherwise, please stay silent): the disappearance of the Yurt into thin air when the festival is over. Because of course it's not stored in some dull lock-up somewhere. It couldn't be. And obviously it can't be used by anyone else. Besides, you can't just fold away miles of canvas that has soaked up the hopes and fears and dreams and passions of 750 writers and several bottles of whisky and wine; you just can't. It has a soul: you can't wrap that up. It disappears, I know it does. You wake up the next day and it's just not there, only a pale patch of grass that is far too small to have held so much.
But it will be back, next year, by magic again. Meanwhile, it is nowhere. Or at least not in this world.
All this blogging, Facebooking, Twittering, Linkedinning, Diggiting and other more arcane forms of apparently essential author-profile-building - gah, it's amazing we have time to write at all any more! Of course, if you do none of this you are either a) feeling guilty / inadequate b) that and paranoid that every other author must be becoming better known, better connected and therefore obviously more successful than you or c) being rampantly Luddite and proud of your organic writing life and acquired technophobia.
Let's unpick this a bit and then I'll tell you why I use the tools I choose and what they do for me.
Two clichés: 1) there are many ways to skin a cat 2) horses for courses. Building your "profile" as an author can be done in many different ways and we should only do what we want to do and what feels comfortable. We are, above all, writers. If we let ourselves spend more time "networking" than writing and thinking and dreaming, then our profile is going to have nothing substantial to base itself on and we will lose touch with why we exist.
So, my advice to all authors is:
- Don't panic, Captain Mainwaring. It's not even a commercial.
- Take your time to try various possibilities
- Each tool seems completely mad when you first begin - everyone's first "tweet" reads something like "well, I made it 2 twitter - WTF do I do now?"
- Doesn't matter whether you take it ultra-seriously or dip in and out - do it your way
- Don't let it take over your life, ever
- Enjoy it or don't do it
- People survive perfectly well without all of this
- BUT, every now and then you will make a fabulous connection with someone who could end up being a genuine friend, excellent colleague or very useful contact. But the same could be said of going to a party, reunion, meeting, lecture or supermarket ... (It's just somewhat less likely, statistically).
So, what do I do, how much time does it take and what do I get out of it?I think I am registered on most of those things like Linkedin
and a few writerly equivalents the names of which escape me. Which tells you how useful I have found them. As in not. So that takes me zero time and I get zero out of it. (There's a lesson there).I blog.
Obviously I blog because here I am. This
blog takes me half an hour a month to write, and 5-10 minutes every time someone else posts, so I can read and maybe comment. I get out of it the feeling of being part of a community (we email off-blog too) and being able to listen to other readers; some people may read me who otherwise wouldn't have; and the act of writing something is good practice. It's fiun and it's easy. No pressure. My other blog
(Help! I Need a Publisher!
) takes up a lot of time. Maybe an hour a day, often more. I blog on it at least three times a week, and reply to all comments - most posts get around 20 comments, sometimes as many as 50ish. People also email me off-blog (including agents, editors and publishing industry people). That sounds like a lot of work for no money and it is a lot of work but here's what I get from it:
- it's become a whole new career strand, with many invitations to speak to writers (on Creative Writing MA course, for example)
- it's taught me a lot, as more and more people contact me with their own views, knowledge and experiences; it's broadened my knowledge outside the UK
- I've been interviewed for or done guest posts on many other blogs, which would never have happened
- I love doing it, love the free style of writing and the instant feedback
- I've made friends, genuine friends, as in people I can phone, email and meet
- With one of these new friends, fellow blogger Jane Smith of How Publishing Really Works, I'm planning some exciting projects which actually will earn us some income from what we both do.
- I know I've sold some of my books, as I've gained readers who would never have heard of me
- people have brought me chocolate. Really. Three times. And people have recognised me by my shoes or boots. Extraordinary.
Blogging, then, can be very rewarding. But you have to want to do it; you have to know what you want to say, and be prepared to open up your personality (or I guess you could always invent one if you wanted - after all, the internet lies ...). It's a form of writing itself, very real, very good fun, very flowing, very instant. And it can lead to a greater "platform" or profile, too.I Twitter.
Twitter is very weird when you start because you're essentially twittering to yourself until people start to follow you. I could write a tutorial on how to get started on twitter but this is not the time for that. (Except to say that if you "follow" me, then I'll almost certainly "follow" you and then you'll quickly see how it works, and I'll help you along. Start your free account at www.twitter.com and in "Find people" put @nicolamorgan).
How much time do I spend on Twitter? Probably 10-20 minutes a day, split into half a minute at a time.
What do I get out of it?
What about Facebook?
- because I follow the Bookseller, Book2Book and industry experts such as Scott Pack, I know that I will get industry news first, before it's published, so I'm always informed
- it's easier for people to discover you on Twitter than on a blog, so people have come across me through the chain of twitterers
- Twitter is easily linked to your blog, so a) a blog post goes instantly to Twitter, where your followers can "retweet" to all their followers and b) vice-versa, so every "tweet" of mine goes onto my blog automatically, so blog followers see more informal messages than blog posts
- Twitter organises "tweetchats" - so you get to know that, for example, Mon/Wed/Fri, 9-10pm GMT, there's always "litchat", a load of people around the world chatting about a lit-based topic. There are things like writechat and amwriting and pubchat (publisher, not pub ...). Through this, I've made more contacts.
- I love the even greater instant-ness and public-ness. It's like Speaker's Corner except you can only shout 140 characters. (Thank goodness).
- I publicised some Edinburgh Book Festival events on Twitter and I know that a couple of people only heard about it through that. I know about a couple but assume there were more
- And in the last week I have twice been invited to speak, purely because of a message I put on Twitter
- It's fun
- It's free
I do that too, but less than I used to now I use Twitter more. For me, Facebook is purely social and relaxing, nothing to do with work-related "networking". My Facebook "friends" are more genuinely friends, though I admit I haven't physically met them all. How much time? Some days only a quick look; other days I'll get involved in a fun message thread (especially if people like Gillian Philip, Philip Ardagh or Bookwitch are on form!) and come back several times during the day. What do I get from it? Contact with friends. Fun. Relaxation.
People can be very disparaging about all this, and use the word "networking" in a very sneery way. Some people, I agree, do it very calculatingly and some do it unattractively. Some people on Twitter can be very boring - there's one person who just says "Morning all" every morning, but on the other hand isn't that what real people do when meeting other real people as they arrive in their offices? This is all, really, about new forms of human interaction. You can call it networking and be disparaging if you want. I call it making human connections. I like doing it and I get something out of it; I hope I give something too.
But, as with all forms of human interaction, it's all about doing what works for you and feels good for you. All I'd say, though, is if you don't try it you'll never know.
This blog post has been far too long - it's kept me from Twitter for at least half an hour.
I haven’t actually flipped a coin since I finished reading Nicola Morgan’s haunting new book WASTED. I haven’t had one on me at a particular moment, or I’ve been driving, say. But (and especially when I’m driving, as it happens) I have spent a lot of time thinking about the workings of chance and luck and fate. It’s WASTED that’s done it to me. It’s that sort of book.
Everybody has stories of what might-have-been, and there are some downright chilling ones at Nicola’s blog for the book, http://talkaboutwasted.blogspot.com/. (Have a look at the post for 4th May, Claire Marriot’s story of the lock that jammed on 7th July 2005, and say you don’t have shivers in your spine).
(On a less sinister note, I was remembering - because of election day - that had I not decided at the last minute to go to a party in 1987, where I met and fancied an SDP supporter, I wouldn't have gone to work for them at election time and I wouldn't have met my husband. And so the examples go on.)
WASTED examines concepts as diverse (or maybe as close; don’t ask me, it makes my head spin) as quantum physics and the myth of Oedipus. It’s the story of Jack and Jess, and Jack’s Game – the coin he flips to sacrifice to luck before he makes any decision. Jack has had two mothers, both of whom have died, and he can’t believe he hasn’t used up all his ill luck – so he trusts to the coin to make his decisions now, accepting its verdict whether it looks good for him or not. There’s a scary passage when Jack plays his game with street corners in the middle of the night, and ends up in a very dodgy neck of the woods, and so loses his ‘lucky’ coin. Contrarily, Jack doesn’t treat this as a message from fate, but finds a new coin... and so the complex game of luck and chance continues, with drastic results for both himself and Jess.
It took me longer than I expected to read WASTED, because I kept having to double back and re-examine an incident, a decision, a concept. It’s that kind of book – it makes you think, and it makes you shiver. Sometimes fate diverges into two chapters; the eerily omniscient voice of the narrator gives us the variables, and a tiny butterfly-flutter of chance is shown to lead to wildly different hurricane-sized outcomes.
It’s haunting because it makes you wonder, even as you make tiny decisions of speed or direction on the school run, just what parallel universes are splitting away from you at each second, and what’s happening there. I’m really quite glad I never seem to have a coin to hand, because Jack’s Game might be a little too tempting, and then what does one do? Defy the coin?
But if you read WASTED – and you really, really should – you have to play Jack’s Game at least once, because it’s how each reader must choose the story’s outcome, and it isn’t quite as simple as life and death. Honestly, WASTED is a corker. Try it.
Members of the Scattered Authors Society are performing at Edinburgh this coming week. Do come along if you can, or forward this to friends in the north …
On Saturday 21st August,
1pm, Mary Hoffman will talking about the latest volume in her best-selling Stravaganza series – City of Ships
2pm, Nicola Morgan will be explaining how to make publishers say ‘yes’.
7pm, Michelle Lovric will present her novel The Book of Human Skin and be discussing ways to write about Venice with Katie Hickman.
And on Friday 27th August, Gillian Philip will be launching her new novel, Firebrand.
Details of tickets and venues can be found on the Festival website
Everything we do changes our brains. So, if there's something we are doing differently now, compared with how we did it previously, our brains will be changing or have changed to reflect that. If readers' brains are changing and if reading behaviours are changing, surely this will matter for writers?
Reading behaviours have changed over the last twenty or thirty years, at least in parts of the world where the digital age has arrived. Almost all of us read a great deal on-screen, and we spend a certain amount of our day reading material on websites. New research at the University of California, San Diego suggests that the average person today consumes nearly three times as much info as in 1960. According to The New York Times recently, "the average computer user checks 40 websites a day and can switch programs 36 times an hour."
We quickly become better at scanning headlines to decide what we want, and we skip and flit about, gathering snippets of info and processing it very quickly. Our brains change to reflect new skills. Gary Small's fascinating book, iBrain, is based partly on research on a group of people who had never used the internet before, alongside a control group. The study suggested - and this is backed up by other research into time taken to rewire neural connections - that after only five hours' practice, the brain of an internet beginner has changed, measurably, to reflect new skills and experience. And more practice or use produces more change, apparently.
(For more on the science of this, I recommend iBrain, and The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr.) But for now I want to talk anecdote, not science. I want to ask you if your experience matches mine.
Maybe five years ago, I was about to start writing The Highwayman's Footsteps. I wanted it to be "rip-roaring adventure", thrilling historical drama, just like one of my favourite books as a teenager, The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas. I remembered that The Black Tulip had lots of gore and high tension and a very fast-paced story.
So, I took it from my shelf to re-read it, for the first time since I'd been a teenager. Well, I wasn't wrong about the gore. (Who says modern YA fiction is shocking? Blimey!) High tension? Well, maybe, but you had to read a LOT of words first and unpick reams of long paragraphs and complex sentences. It's turgid prose, with masses of subordinate clauses. The opening paragraph consists of a single sentence of 148 words.
Reader, I couldn't read it. Seriously.
So, what has happened in the intervening years? How did I turn from a teenager who could lap that up to an adult who couldn't keep her eyes on the page? But forget me - what about you? I'm guessing I'm not the only reader whose reading habits have changed. And it can't be to do with age, because surely a teenager would have if anything a greater need for pace than a middle-aged person? Are we just too busy nowadays to read slowly? Have we been subconsciously demanding faster books / simpler sentences over the last thirty years, so that now page-turnability is compulsory, whereas before (?) it wasn't? Has our definition of page-turnability changed?
If our reading habits, needs and tastes have changed, science tells us our brains have, too. There's nothing much we can do about this, although each of us in theory controls the mouse on our own computers. Besides, I'm not even saying that in terms of reading habits this is a bad change. (In terms of the arguments that people like Gary Small and many others are introducing regarding empathy and wisdom, that's a different matter.)
I'm just interested:
- Do you find it harder to concentrate on longer, denser texts than you used to?
- Have you had any Blac
I've been thinking about this a lot recently because some people I respect have contradicted a belief of mine. See, I think - thought - that writers should think of their readers. Of course we need to have confidence and belief in our own writing and to love what we do, feel inspired and fulfilled by it; but, for me, each sentence is there for the enjoyment of readers. Therefore, I'm thinking of them while I'm writing.
I also believe that the main reason I failed to be published for so long was that I was writing purely for myself, with little or no thought for the reader's enjoyment. I was so up myself with the beauteousness of my prose that if I wanted two glorious sentences where one would do, hell, I'd put them both in. After all, they were Good Sentences so the reader could damn well read them and enjoy them as much as I did. I was thinking of myself and my enjoyment way too much. I was being self-indulgent, which is what doing something for yourself is.
So, quite often on my Help! I Need a Publisher! blog I have blogged to aspiring writers about the importance of thinking of readers when we write. I don't mean that we should just give them everything they want, just as parents shouldn't give children everything they want. I mean that for me the desired end of a book is the satisfaction or excitement or inspiration of the reader - or whatever other emotion I happen to wish for in them - and that my own pleasure is only in achieving that. I have quoted Stephen King's thing about his Ideal Reader, the person he has in mind when he writes, the person he imagines looking over his shoulder. He talks about writing the first draft with the "door closed", in other words without too much thinking of readers, but the second and subsequent drafts with the "door open", very much with imagined reactions flooding in and affecting what he writes. And that's in a book on how to write - On Writing - so he is offering it as guidance, even a rule.
But I'm aware that this is not the only way to look at things. I recently interviewed Ian Rankin and Joanne Harris and asked each of them where they stood on this question and they were quite clear that they don't particularly think of their readers. Now, considering that they are both phenomenally commercially successful, I find that interesting.
So, have I got it wrong? Or does it just depend how you interpret the question? Are Joanne Harris and Ian Rankin just lucky that they've hit a way to write which indulges both them and their readers, so they don't have to think consciously about the reader? Am I too mired in YA/children's writing, where we have to do a bit of mental gymnastics in order to satisfy a reader who is patently not the same sort of reader as we are ourselves? Or what? To the writers among you: how much do you think of your readers, either as an imaginary generalised bunch or a specific group?
Yes, we write because we want to and because we love doing it, and it's therefore somewhat selfish, but to what extent is your actual choice of ingredients in each book for the sake of your reader more than yourself? What is your relationship with your reader when you're writing?
And take your time: I'm not thinking of readers or
writing at the moment because I've got a building disaster. Six days after my lovely plumbers started what should have been a
In the last week, two blog posts that I've commented on have found themselves in The Guardian. One was Lucy Coats' trenchant post on ABBA about A Certain Person and his unpleasant brain injury comment. The other was independent bookseller Vanessa Robertson's equally trenchant piece about World Book Night. I’m interested in what happened to them and the appended comments and in what this means for all of us.
After Vanessa's WBN post, I'd left a comment, among many comments from other people, and mine was picked up by a journalist and quoted (well, half of it) in her subsequent Guardian piece. No other comment was quoted by name. In the Guardian, my quote was prefaced by the statement, "Author Nicola Morgan was among those happy to air objections..." This implied that I'd been asked by the journalist. Actually, she had tried to contact me but my phone was off while I was doing school talks and by the time I got her message it was too late: her deadline had passed. One might think that because I’d commented, I was de facto “happy”. Well, yes: I was happy to comment amongst all the other commenters but the small but important difference now was that my comment had appeared on another forum, in print, with another headline, and taken out of its original discussion. It had been, in effect, re-contextualised by someone else. I am not annoyed, because I utterly stand by what I said, and the journalist's piece was good. But it got me thinking.
In Lucy's post, one commenter's remark was also taken and used in the Guardian piece on that subject, and later, on ABBA, that commenter expressed a similar surprise to mine. I’m not criticising journalists, by the way. There may be an issue of asking permission but I’m not interested in that just now. Ditto any copyright issues to do with quoting from blogs.
So what am I saying? I am saying that the internet has changed something about conversation. Blogs, unless actually private and hidden, are public, and when we comment, although it might feel like a discussion where we're all in the room, we are putting our views out there in a very public way. We cannot then control where our comments will appear. And it's permanent. The internet doesn’t forget. The internet has blurred the once clear divide between the spoken word and the printed word. It's more permanent than either and possibly more powerful.
In a good old offline conversation, you know who is there, who is listening - unless you are being bugged - and you know it is unlikely your words will find themselves discussed in public elsewhere. You can make mistakes, change your mind, clarify what you mean if someone doesn't understand. No one can take your words out of context because all those in the discussion know the context. The discussion is also moderated by those in it. It is controlled and yet can be wild and free ranging. There is little at stake other than the opinions of those present.
In an online conversation, the new conversation, all that is different. There is much more at stake, much more that can go wrong, much less control. You don't know who's listening and you don't know what will happen to your words, except for one thing: they will remain.
We also need to realise that Facebook and Twitter conversations are now watched by journalists. You make comments on Facebook and those comments can be quoted or passed on to people outside your FB circle. I have heard of people having to "defriend" others because they are worried that those people, not being actual friends, may use their comments against them. And I worry about the unguarded comments that some people make on Facebook, because FB sometimes feels like a party, with a
One of the problems with modern life is too much choice. Choice is offered as a good thing and, on the face of it, it is. Certainly, lack of choice is lack of power and the ultimate lack of power is slavery. But too much choice can be horribly paralysing and lead to great dissatisfaction.
There's an area of choice in which I think writers are becoming panicky and paralysed. It's the P-Words: Publicity, Promotion, Profile, Platform. Oh, and pro-active.
Time was when a writer wrote a book, waited for Publication Day, was wheeled out for a few signings and tottered back to a hotel for a claret-laden dinner with editor. (Actually, I have no memory of such days, but allow me some imagination.) Now, we have to be pro-active, partly because often our publishers don't do enough or we have better ideas, or simply because there are so many opportunities and our publishers rightly encourage us to use them. We see other authors Doing Stuff and want to Do Stuff too. For a pro-active, interfering, control freak such as me, this is, in theory, great.
In practice, it's a flipping nightmare, a feast of choices, incitement to wake in the night with Yet Another Stupid Wheeze Which I Usually Actually Carry Through. And then there's the panic when we hear what someone else is doing - why didn't we think of that? The blog tour, the sponsored marathon, the one-woman festival, the colour-coded Tweet-up, the mail-shotting of the fan database. What?? You don't have a fan database, in a spreadsheet, with the ability to identify each category of reader, by postcode? You mean you haven't set up a Twitter persona for each of the characters in your book? You don't have a special blog, posting every day for six months? You haven't organised a book giveaway throughout all continents of the world? Bad, lazy author.
NO! No more, I say, no more. I reject paralysing choice. I will not be panicked into doing stupid things that sound good but wreck me. Never again will I set a world record of school visits in one day, as I did for Deathwatch. Or organise a blog tour AND set up a new blog, as I did for Wasted. Nor will I ever lie awake wondering what mad things to do for the next book. I will reject panic. I will calm down, be sensible and moderate. We do too much, worry too much, glance in too much fear at other people, fret about what we're not doing instead of focusing on what we can do well.
So, here, for what it's worth, is my advice on approaching publication in a state of zen:
- Play to your strengths: do what suits you. If the idea curdles your stomach juices, spit it out.
- Focus not on the excitement of the Bright Idea but the feeling you will actually have when you have to put the idea into practice. Will you regret it? If so, stop it in its tracks.
- Choose a couple of things to do and forget the other possibilities. You have another book to write and a life to live.
- Ignore everyone else: no one is doing everything and most people are not selling as many books as you fear.
- If you wake in the night with a crazy idea, go back to sleep.
- Be strategic and time-focused. Six months before publication, make a plan (in conjunction with your publisher); then do virtually nothing till two months before P-day.Then, look at your plan and follow it. This planning eliminates the need to wake in the night in a panic. Besides, you're not panicking, remember?
- Remember that what happens to your book will depend mostly on luck and the book, more than how many hours you spent promoting it.
- You do not have to have a launch party - it's fun (for some people) but it usually doesn't sell books so only do it if it will make you happy, not if it will stress you.
- Do as I say, not as I do. But I'm trying - I really am.
By the way, in case my publicist is reading this, the book is called Write to be Published. But it's not published till June, so I'm doing nothing yet.