Tag Archives: writer

The silliest job imaginable

This week, I read an Alain De Botton book about work. What I found most interesting was the author’s evident belief that work was something he would have to observe other people doing – author, academic and philosopher not being normal or ’proper’ jobs. There was some comfort to be had in knowing it’s not just me who angsts over this.

I can make a case for the not-fiction work being useful. Not least because every now and then, someone comments to precisely that effect. I suspect a fair amount of time though, I am preaching to the converted – I think those of you who read my stuff already have a predisposition towards wondering and questioning. I may offer useful things to throw at that now and then, but you were already much of the way there. The difficulty is that so many people are not – especially those with material power. I am never going to get whole governments or business leaders to sit down and listen to my ideas, and therein lies the problem.

Most of the time, writing fiction feels like the silliest job imaginable. The fiction author invents that which never was and probably never will be, and spends many hours on this. Once thrown out into the world, the novel, (or other written forms of amusement for that matter) will entertain its victims for a few hours and then, for the greater part, will be forgotten, having done nothing more significant than used up a modicum of paper and time.

And yet… according to Neil Gaiman, China is now seeking to develop a fantasy and science fiction genre. Forms that had previously been banned (too decadent and bourgeois, I assume) are now required. The Chinese have made a link between the presence of speculative thinking, and the presence of innovative industries. They want the latter, therefore they conclude that they must have the former.

Fiction has a capacity to get in under the radar. It can prompt us to think and feel in unfamiliar ways, precisely because we do not take it too seriously. In many ways, a fiction work has more potential to change the world than a non-fic, because it can sneak in and travel further. Consider the relationship between Frankenstein and genetically modified food. Consider how a culture of space-opera-adventure feeds our collective desire to reach for the stars. Think about how Disney taught us to equate beauty with virtue and ugliness with being evil. Consider how JK Rowling has gone some way towards reversing that. There is power in those unreal things.

Religions are made of stories – often quiet implausible ones at that. All aspirations for the future are stories we tell ourselves, and we process the past into coherent narrative form, too, turning the chaos into meaning. We are story telling creatures, and we respond to narrative. So while writing fiction often feels like the most pointless, ineffective thing I could try and do, I also know that it is the thing I do with most potential for real impact.

I did not aspire to be an author because I craved fame and fortune. As a child and young adult, I wanted to write because I wanted to make a difference and I believed in fiction as a medium for delivering ideas. The trouble was that at that stage I didn’t really have any ideas, I didn’t know enough, hadn’t lived or thought or felt or empathised enough to have any clue at all about what needed saying, much less how to say it. For a while I stopped believing that I could write a book that would touch people. I lost faith in the process when I should have just recognised that I was too young and inexperienced to pull it off yet. I’m still probably too young and inexperienced. But I’m starting to think it may be possible after all, to do something meaningful that is made of fancy and impossibility. I’ll keep you posted.

Author seeks dirt

The trouble with writing is that it is often a lonely and abstract sort of process. It takes a person out of the world. While I have known authors who apparently spend all their time at the computer or writing desk, hammering out words, how or why anyone does this is a mystery to me. I can’t sustain that kind of approach, I fall all too rapidly into block and depression. I also have no desire to try it, any more, and not just because of what it does to me.

What are we going to write about today? No matter how rich your imagination is, if you do not feed it, then eventually you will run out of raw material to weave new ideas from. This can result in either writing things that are a lot like things you wrote already, or stopping. Does the world need you to do another book that is pretty much a re-hash of what was in the last three? Not really, although if you can sell it, there’s a real temptation. Authors like to be able to afford to eat, too.

It’s not just authors who need to consider this issue though. Many modern jobs are abstract, sitting in offices moving information around rather than doing anything tangible. Not all jobs confer much social contract, and the more rushed you are at work, the more alienated you can start to feel.

What we all need, in those circumstances, is a bit of dirt. There are many ways to seek it, but something real, earthy and tangible to ground us, and reconnect us to the rest of life, and to each other, is a wonderful thing. Simply getting outside can be a good answer to this one. Any art or craft that needs your hands, is productive. Anything that engages the body, or puts you in touch with other people.

Most of my housework happens when I am between ideas, or trying to loosen my brain up a bit. I like to cook, because the practicality of making meals for my family, using raw ingredients, really answers those needs to make something solid, useful and immediate. Books can be solid, but they are never immediate, there’s such a big gap between doing the work and getting the finished item that it all feels a bit unreal.

One of my other joys, is preserving – jams and chutneys, and another is brewing. I love getting out and foraging in hedgerows for raw materials to work with. I love turning those raw things into something that can fill a jar or a bottle. Later, I get to enjoy the consequences. Today I have not written much, but I’ve made a lot of chutney from foraged apples and set up some wine. I feel earthed. I got scratched and grubby, I did real things. There are times when I turn to needlecrafts for much the same effect. There’s nothing like getting to the end of a process and having a thing that you made, sat there.

Some people advise that if you want to write, you should try and write something every day. There is something to be said for expecting to make an effort. If you want to write well, and deeply, and in a sustainable way, it is not enough to write every day. You need to also get out there and live.

An idea for a book

Doing events always results in certain kinds of conversation. So, I thought I’d answer a few standard questions, both to relieve my frustrations, and as an act of public service.

1) I have an idea for a book.

An idea may give you a short story if you are lucky. Write it, because you will learn something. Please do not walk into a room full of published authors who have been doing this for years and assume that ‘I had an idea for a book’ puts you on an equal footing with people who write books. It just makes us grouchy. Also, nine times out of ten you sound like a pompous idiot when you start talking this way in public.

2) I’m working on my first book, should I look for an agent, or a publisher?

No. It is wonderful that you are writing a book, well done for getting that far. However, get it finished, make sure you can finish a book of a good 70,000 words or more before you get carried away. Then leave it alone for a while and come back to it. Most first books are rubbish. This is fine. You wouldn’t expect to sit down and just write a symphony. For the record, it took me three goes to get a book I thought was even worth sharing and that didn’t get published. So unless you come to this as a film writer, with a huge body of short stories, or otherwise prepared and experienced, please reconcile yourself, now, to the fact that you are going to be learning a craft and that the first thing you write probably isn’t publishable. If that’s too off-putting, you are never going to survive the publishing industry anyway, so bail now and spare yourself the pain.

3) Can you read my book/recommend it to your publisher/ help me with it?

No. Authors are often busy people, what with the writing, marketing, research, doing events, and many also have day jobs and families, and need to sleep occasionally. Unless you are a personal friend or we really fancy you, the odds are that we cannot afford the time. Plus, we worry that you will then decide we stole your ideas, even if we didn’t, and most of us prefer not to go there. Offer me a short story and I might be able to read that and comment. If you have a book with a publisher, it’s relevant to stuff I write, and I have time, I might be up for furnishing you with blurb – not all authors have time for this either.

4) What a great job you have, it must be like being on holiday all the time. Or, it’s not a proper job, is it? It’s just a hobby.

There’s a lot of work goes into writing. Research, planning, drafting, redrafting, edits, marketing… there is a lot more to being an author than having an idea, throwing it into a document file and waiting for the cash to roll in. The majority of authors are not well paid and work long hours. Yes, we love what we do, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult. Some of us write because we’d go crazy if we didn’t. Some of us have things we are compelled to share. The reasons are many, and creation, for some, is a tortuous act. Every author is different, it is best to assume you do not know what their life is like. But, unless your holidays reduce you to tears and sometimes make you feel like jumping under a bus, no, it’s not like being on holiday all the time.

5) My six year old child writes stories/ wants to be an author.

That’s lovely. We will make every kind of warm encouraging noises to you and your child. Just so long as you do not want us to herald your small offspring as a literary genius, or take them as seriously as we would the author at the next table. No, really.

6) I’ve written seventeen books so far but they are too difficult for most people.

Either reconcile yourself to not getting the same sales as Fifty Shades then, or change what you do, because you can’t have it both ways and there’s not much point bemoaning the uselessness of readers. Hey I’m a reader. I read stuff. No, actually after that sales pitch I am not desperate to get my hands on a copy of your seventeen masterpieces, all lovingly self-published because they were too difficult for the publishers as well, with cover art by your six year old child…

Most people at events are a delight to talk to. But there’s always one and if it’s been a long day, I fear breaking down into hysterical giggles/weeping. If that happens, you know you were ‘the one’.

Being vulnerable

There are limits on what you can do by playing safely. The person who does not want to expose themselves to risks doesn’t get much done. Any undertaking to do a thing, courts disaster. It gives us opportunities to fail, to be knocked back, humiliated, and made miserable.

I’ve been submitting works to publishers on and off for about fifteen years now. It doesn’t get easier. Granted, I now have more ‘yes’ letters than I did, but I still get a lot of rejections (mostly around short stories). Every time I send a piece in, even if it’s to a publisher I’ve worked with before, I’m acutely aware that ‘no’ is an option. It doesn’t stop there. Books get published, only for readers to hate them, and with the internet it’s really easy to take that hate to the author.
Putting things out in public invites criticism, and I’ve had some harsh ones over the years. One reviewer called an early piece of mine ‘repellent’ and that stayed with me. I don’t have a thick skin.

Bardic work means standing up in public and exposing your work, your inspiration, your soul, to scrutiny. Sometimes it goes wrong. The voice breaks. Words are forgotten. A string snaps. Someone in the audience undertakes to be rude. And again, it only gets slightly easier with practice, and performing always brings you into situations where people can really, seriously hate what you do.

Creativity is a very personal thing. A lot of self and soul goes into it, and not having that recognised and honoured can be agony. The cake that nobody liked and the epic cleaning job nobody noticed. The flowers that barely got a word of recognition, the ritual no one thanked you for… creativity is not just about obvious arty stuff, it’s about the making and the inspiration in all aspects of our lives. Sharing it makes you vulnerable. Not sharing isn’t an answer, because you remain untested, never confident you’re good enough, afraid of being knocked back, or of holding too high an opinion of yourself. We fantasies about the praise and applause, but it’s never enough. Imagining we could be good if only we dared becomes soul destroying itself after a while, just another delusion to cart about. No one respects the book you know you could write or the career you would have had if only…

So this week I answered some questions for OBOD about why I’d like to be a tutor for their course. I’ve exposed myself to being looked at, tested, considered by whatever means seems necessary or appropriate. Last time I did that (an editing job) I didn’t even hear back, not so much as a rejection letter. Well, I know the OBOD folk can and will do better than that.

The day I stop asking if I’m doing a good enough job, if I could do better, is probably going to be the day I stop breathing. The idea of resting on your laurels never made any sense to me. I always have to be pushing to do more, and better, on whatever terms I can. I don’t enjoy being tested, but it’s inevitable. The alternative is to create a little reality bubble in which I am the only person who judges what I do. Sure, that way I would never have to believe that anything I did needed work, but I wouldn’t improve much. I care more about doing things well than about being able to pretend to myself that I’m there already.

In the meantime, never under estimate the power of saying encouraging things and praising the stuff you love – the cake and the craft item, the story and the song.

Meta-blog meanderings

On her blog this week, Cat Treadwell described blogging as a sacrifice, giving time and work freely for the sake of making information available. It had never occurred to me to think of what I do here as ‘sacrifice’. I do it because I want to, and it conveys a number of benefits. I feel almost morally obliged to point this out now. I also think it might be useful to explain what I get out of this and why.

I’m a professional writer and editor. Now, the editing side comes in steadily, but writing requires not only inspiration, but research, discipline, development of ideas and themes. That doesn’t happen by magic. So, when I’m exploring a topic, I use the blog to hammer out ideas as I go – a useful thinking space for me. It is important that I write every day – part of the discipline, and part of my sense of self. If I am not writing every day, I find it harder to relate to myself as a writer. In periods of creative block, the blogging has been a sanity saver. Finding a topic, and getting something intelligible out in a blog sized piece, is a technical process, and a good writing work-out. That helps hone my skills.

Putting thoughts into a public space like this enables me to test them and get feedback. This protects me from the risk of slowly vanishing up my own posterior, or getting delusions of grandeur. If I’ve not thought a thing through properly, if I’ve missed something, or the logic is poor, this is when I find out, which helps me a lot. If I’ve not explained well, someone tends to say. And further questions take me deeper into ideas – again, all win for me here. I am absolutely blessed in you folk who stop by to comment regularly. The richness of ideas that others post in response to my words is a daily source of delight, encouragement and insight. I float an idea out, and all kinds of new, inspiring and sometimes surprising things float back to me, and this is wonderful, and thank you. So I am nourished by that process.

Every now and then I write something that resonates with someone else, or that proves helpful, and I get feedback to that effect too. This is of course a source of joy and ego boost, but it also tells me I’m doing something useful. This matters a lot to me. I did not set out as a writer with the main aim being wealth and fame. I’d be writing much more conventionally were that the case. I want to put something good in the world. I want to inspire others. So the writing has to do something, it has to be more than amusing me. If I know I’m doing that, it keeps me on task. Also, I watch to see what feedback I get on my work, what people like, or respond to, what directions are the most response-inducing, and I learn from that, so it all feeds the process.

I enjoy the exchange, responding to other people’s blogs, to things in the news, hearing ideas from whole new perspectives. Writing can be a lonely business, but blogging is all about interaction, and that is good for the soul. I don’t feel like I’m one special person alone poised to change the world, I’m one person who is part of a vast discussion, one thread in a great tapestry of tradition. I know myself to be part of something, but I have a sense of perspective that I think does me a lot of good. Lonely authors in high towers can, by the looks of some of the biographies I’ve read, get a very inflated sense of their own usefulness in the world.

Last but by no means least, I write books. The blog may be free, the books aren’t. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that writing a book does not lead to instant success. Selling a book is a job in itself. There are only so many times you can intrude into a space and say ‘hey, everyone, buy my book, it’s great and you’ll love it’ before someone takes you outside and slaps you about the face with unwashed socks. And rightly so. That kind of thing is dull. Blogging makes me a better writer, and I do it in part to lure people towards the stuff that means I get to eat. I’m not going to pretend otherwise, and occasionally I do post ‘here is a thing you can buy’ blogs.

So as sacrifices go, this isn’t one. I assume if you’re here it’s because you get something out of what I post, and that’s as it should be. I don’t want anyone coming round to witness the martyrdom and mop up the blood. If I get a day when I can’t be hassed to post, or I’ve had a better offer, I go do that instead. In the meantime, have I mentioned that there are books you can buy? (so much for a stealth marketing strategy!)

I also realise that how other people understand sacrifice is very different from my perception. I have work to do, on that subject.