Are ‘place’ and ‘pace’ mutually incompatible in a story?

It was a sixteen hour journey from Vancouver to Wellington and from northern hemisphere autumn to southern hemisphere spring, and now here I am on a glorious day, with flowers and blossom, blue sky, sunshine. Bliss. Rain in Auckland gave way to brilliant light on snow-capped Mount Taranaki and the Kaikoura Ranges as I watched transfixed from my window seat on the crowded plane.

I’ve been dreaming for a while about my return to New Zealand after a three year absence. The short plane trip from Auckland to Wellington this morning triggered a flood of memories of places and people and events, and made me cry, as it’s done before. I feel the same about the landscape of West Cumbria where I live, and have tried to portray this powerful sense of place in my writing, but inadequately. It’s hard to find the words to convey a passion for colours and contours and light without slowing down the pace of the story. You can infer what the characters see through what they say but real people rarely talk at any length about the landscape around them. The author’s own voice may be the only one available to carry the description, and the author’s voice should be heard rarely and only for a purpose. In ‘A Good Liar’ I used description of a hot languid afternoon to explain Jessie Whelan’s readiness for an erotic experience, and I think it worked, although no-one else seemed to notice. Oh how I yearn for some feedback about my writing at that level of detail.

Today, overwhelmed by my return to this wonderful place, I wonder if I can try again to capture the power of place in words that don’t intrude. The new novel ‘Cruel Tide’ is set in  late autumn. Maybe the next story should be set in a Cumbrian spring, and all the jewellery of this glorious day could be harnessed to enfold the characters: dark deeds in brilliant surroundings. Could be fruitful.

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Home thoughts from abroad on self-publishing

As soon as I get on a plane, this happens. In the days before actually setting off on a trip my head is full of logistical arrangements, blocking out the deeper bigger picture of what I’m doing and planning. As soon as the seat belt snaps on, the noise clears and my mind is free to roam again, with minimal distraction. It’s a form of mental hibernation, necessary to deal with the tedium of the journey itself.

Yesterday, it happened again, and by the time I checked into the hotel in Edmonton where I am now my head was busy with the decisions that I was rehearsing in the last blog post. In the past week or so, some of the picture has cleared a little, and the mental hibernation pushed that thinking along further. Realistically, my chance of finding an agent and surmounting the subsequent hurdle of a publishing deal, remains minimal. Infinitesimal actually, and as such probably doesn’t merit a major investment of my time. The submission to a potentially sympathetic agent has gone in, but my expectations remain very low.

I’ve also been prompted to re-think my use of an editor. My current editor has done a wonderful job for me, but she’s not part of the fiction publishing and bookselling network, and not a specialist in the genre I’m trying my hand at now – crime fiction. She knows a good story, but I suspect there’s more to the nuances of this genre that neither of us still know much about. We need to talk about that, and I might set out to find a specialist editor for feedback if not for further help.

Another chance encounter has also made me think about the stage of the paperback self-publishing process that is the most difficult for me – marketing and distribution. The two hang together of course: you need good promotion and marketing to raise the volume of sales to the point where the national distributors and bookshop chains are interested in putting your book on the shelf or storing them in a warehouse. The distribution deal I currently have covers only Cumbria, and what I need now is coverage elsewhere. More internet searches reveal a raft of ‘service providers’ who claim to be able to do that, but they’re expensive! Do I want to invest that much? Are my books worth it? The trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’, set in West Cumbria, benefits from local distribution, but the new title ‘Cruel Tide’ is aimed at a wider market, at crime fiction readers wherever they be, although its links to the north-west of England are strong. Maybe investing in this would be worth it. There’s be less profit per book, but that could be offset by selling more books.

The cost of the ‘service’ is for each book, putting the cost of involving all four books is well beyond my means. But if I employ specialist help for the fourth book, might this bootstrap interest in the previous ones? The main female character of ‘Cruel Tide’ is the grand-daughter of the main female character in the trilogy, and the trilogy provides the extensive backstory of ‘Cruel Tide’ although the new book stands alone, and will probably become the first book of a new series.

As I’ve found so many times before, writing about these choices is clarifying them in my mind. Writing takes the early shape of ideas and sharpens them into the next stage. That’s one reason blogging is helpful: writing for an audience makes you concentrate harder than writing a few rambling notes for yourself. Five more weeks of travel lie ahead. By the time I arrive home I should have it all sorted out. Yeah, right.

Trying -again – to find an agent; why bother?

Maybe it was thinking about my blog on the ‘fear of failure’ and how it applied to me. Maybe it was reading a post on Twitter from a literary agent, explaining her admiration for ‘commercial women’s fiction’, or CWF as she called it. Maybe it was thinking about the daunting amount of time and investment involved in producing a high-quality self-published novel once a year. Whatever it was, all of a sudden I asked myself whether it was time to try again to find an agent, something I hadn’t done since 2011.

It was so long ago, I can’t remember now which draft of my first novel ‘A Good Liar’ I decided four years ago to submit to various agents drawn from the pages of the ‘Writers and Artists’ Yearbook’. I didn’t enjoy the process, which varied from one agency to another, but I expected something to come of it. I wanted someone in the publishing world to take me seriously and write back, with comments perhaps, or encouragement or possibly an interest in what I was doing. None of that happened. After waiting the anticipated number of weeks I received brief standard responses that arrived with numbing regularity. None showed any indication that the submission had even been read. All had roughly the same wording, thanks but no thanks, not our kind of book, etc etc. I got the message loud and clear. No point in going down this route: a 60 year old woman writing family saga fiction in a place no-one in London has ever heard of has absolutely no chance of getting on the radar.

Life is short. It didn’t take me long to decide to self-publish and avoid further rejection, and I’ve done so for the past four years, with some success. Last week for the first time I considered trying the ‘conventional’ publishing route again. I followed the trail of the agent who wrote favourably about ‘CWF’, found the agency website, read and followed the submission process to the letter despite its inappropriateness for someone with books already on the market, and posted it all off. I could have used email but somehow a set of papers in an envelope felt better.

Trying again to find an agent may be a complete waste of time, for the same reasons as before. My work is not ‘fashionable’, if that’s what agents – and presumably publishers – are looking for. The novels in my trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ have characters and stories designed to draw the readers in and keep them there, turning pages of one book in the trilogy and on into the next: quarter of a million words that carry you along until the end when you feel bereft. Some of my readers tell me that’s what I’ve achieved. And now I’ve finished the first crime fiction story ‘Cruel Tide’, which looks promising, but who knows?

I’ve been on the courses where agents talk about the books they want. ‘What are you looking for?’ we writers ask. ‘I’ll know it when I see it,’ one agent responds. ‘I have to fall in love with the book,’ says another. We writers shake our heads. We are being told that the process is as mysterious as falling in love, all rationality suspended. Frustrated by all this, I gave up thinking about what agents might want and listened instead to the readers who talked to me, and to my own sense of what makes a good story, well-told.

And now, with three books out and another on the way I am weighing it up again. Writing is the most important thing for me: self-publishing is fun, and potentially more lucrative than earning tiny royalties, but only if you take the cheapest route or stick with ebooks, where the investment is minimal. That’s not really what I want. My books have to be high quality in both content and presentation or I won’t feel proud of them. Hence the daunting investment of money as well as time that I mentioned before. I could keep going down the self-publishing road, but just in case there’s another way I want to try again.

So far, just one agent submission. I know that’s not enough if I’m serious about finding a publisher to take my writing to the next level. I’ll do all the necessary research about which other agents to approach, but even so it feels like a lottery, and I’ve never bought a lottery ticket. Maybe I’ll wait and see with the first one, and then decide. Fear of failure is part of it, but only part. There’s something about putting myself in the hands of an intermediary that I’m not comfortable with. It’s the publishers I want to talk to, but they’re hiding behind the door. In front of the door, determining who is allowed to peek through, are the agents. No wonder many writers feel as ambivalent about them as I do myself.

Fear of Failure

Last Saturday I led my first ever workshop on self-publishing, at the Borderlines book festival in Carlisle. Considering I’ve been running workshops for twenty five years, and had been thinking about this one for weeks – I blogged about it at the end of July – I was surprisingly nervous. Could I cover in three hours the range of wants and needs that my participants might bring with them? Did I have enough experience? Would they want the technical guidance that is only really possible if you have a laptop and internet access available for each person, and did I have the skills for that anyway?

As I anticipated, each person in the group came with a unique set of prior experience, interests and questions, as was obvious as soon as they introduced themselves and began to talk about what they’d done so far. Predictably, one or two really needed the technical guidance through the maze of WordPress or Createspace or Lulu that we weren’t really geared up for, although there was another workshop the following day with that focus. Others came with a notion of how they wanted to proceed if they couldn’t find a ‘proper’ publisher. Some were optimistic about their chances of success, others less so, and each defined success differently, all as I anticipated. Some were quite reticent: why I wondered.

What was very striking was the number of people, and not the oldest, who were still coming to terms with the digital and online world. A few appeared to be very uncertain about how to use the internet as a resource to learn from, and were reliant on external guidance – from me in this case – about matters that they could have discovered for themselves with just a few clicks and a short tutorial on Youtube. Others had heard of Twitter or WordPress but the idea of an ‘author platform’ was new and nerve-wracking. I know it’s a truism that the under 30s are naturally more internet savvy than us oldies, but some of the over-30s seem to have forced themselves to catch up while others are still fearful, or dismissive, or both.

I’ve been wondering since then how I managed to learn some of this stuff myself over the past few years, despite my relatively extreme old age. I suppose it needs some spare cash to invest in ‘courses’ of various kinds, but it also needs a belief in eventual success, and a willingness to overcome the fear of failure. Faltering first steps don’t always feel good, but they are a pre-requisite if you want to learn anything.

Many years ago I was visiting a small primary school in Northland, New Zealand and noticed a poster on the staff room door, the inside of the door to be read by the staff not the outside to be read by the children. It said:

We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure.

It is a powerful obstacle to growth.

It assures the progressive narrowing of the

personality and prevents exploration and experimentation.

There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling.

If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on

risking failure – all your life.

It’s as simple as that.

I kept a copy and brought it home, and still have it twenty years later. Much of what we discussed and shared last weekend involved exactly this type of learning – full of ‘difficulty and fumbling’. Once that expectation was established, people were able to ask the ‘simple’ questions that had been confusing them and getting in the way. Different people had learned different things and were able to share them. No one had a monopoly of expertise, and three hours passed very quickly. Before we left I asked everyone to think about their next steps, write them down and then share them with one other person. I learned a long time ago that I feel more committed if I’ve spoken it, not just thought about or written it, so that’s what we did. The feedback was positive, but the real feedback if I could get it would be what each person managed to do later, on their own, with some of the difficulties eased a little as a result of our time together. ‘Fear of failure’ is a habit of mind that needs continual practice to be overcome. Practice may not make perfect, but It’s pretty important in self-publishing. The 4th self-publishing project I’m on now feels a lot less scary than the first one. Maybe it’s time to find the next challenge.

Am I on another treadmill?

I’ve worked hard all my life, because I had to support myself and my child in the early days, and more recently for reasons other than earning enough to live on. As a self-employed education consultant I worked because it was fun, and creative and occasionally provided magic when everything came together and was indescribably satisfying. And I got to travel too, all over the place, and not as a tourist. There’s nothing like working in a community for a while to give you a sense of what it’s really about, not just the superficial view you get as a ‘visitor’. There were downsides too: working alone meant that the quality was down to me and no one else. I needed to think and plan well ahead to make sure things went well, and there seemed no end to it. As soon as one job was over I was into the next, and rarely felt free of the responsibility that is integral to self-employment.

Up to a point that’s fine. But somewhere down the line I’ve lost the art of doing nothing, if I ever had it. If there’s nothing on my mind I assume it’s something I’ve forgotten that will trip me up later. Having one major thing on my mind, to the temporary exclusion of everything else – like when I’m writing – is easier than spinning several plates at once, but not when that one thing invades my sleep as well as my waking hours. And trying to focus on one major thing while keeping other plates spinning at the same time – well, that’s too hard.

Maybe it’s something to do with age. Or maybe after decades of plate spinning I would like it to stop. The problem is, I want my writing to be successful, and that means keeping on writing. A book a year, that’s what it takes to keep up the momentum as a self-published author, and just recently I’ve detected signs that this could turn my pleasure in writing into an obligation, or – worse – a chore. If it is an obligation, it is to no one except myself: how self-indulgent and ego-centric is that? I have what countless other people crave – a high degree of control over my own life, and here I am finding that difficult.

Sometimes I would love to go to bed knowing that there was absolutely nothing to do the following day, except walk, or read, or swim, or eat and drink or sit in the sun. When I took six months off a few years ago, that was the plan. But then I decided there had to be a project, which was to write my first fiction, and with that decision the treadmill began to turn again. And now it’s turning like crazy and I’m still on it. It may be a different treadmill than the education work I was doing before, but I have to reassure myself that I can get off it if and when I want to. I drive my writing, the writing should not drive me, and the treadmill needs to be dismantled before it becomes truly addictive. Or maybe I just need some warm sunny weather to justify a day on the beach, or swimming in the Duddon. What happened to summer?

The upcoming trip overseas could be just the ticket. I have work to do in Edmonton, and a little more in Wellington, but that’s only a few days in all out of the five weeks of my trip. For the rest of the time I shall indulge myself, seeing friends who are important to me on the other side of the planet, eating and drinking and walking and talking. It’ll be early spring in New Zealand and probably not swimming weather, but I’m looking forward to everything else.