Zen and the art of writing

Arriving on a Caribbean island is an object lesson in slowing down. It didn’t help that four planes arrived at once, but the line for passport and customs checks took nearly two hours. Inline_979198_4.3Friday night traffic jammed the road from the airport, and by the time we had walked to a local restaurant, the meal on the plane – surprisingly good – was a distant memory.

We were a large party and the young man serving us struggled to keep track of orders. He came back twice to check drinks, and three times to check the food order before anything arrived. You could feel people getting more fretful as the time ticked by. When it finally came, the food disappeared fast, but dessert was abandoned as we trudged towards our beds, four hours on from local time and more interested in sheets than sweets.

Today while the rest of the group went sight-seeing I stayed behind to rest my injured leg, and practiced doing everything more slowly. I swam in the pool slowly, did some slow washing, lay languidly on a lounger and drank a bottle of beer one small sip at a time. Delicious. And I also did something I haven’t done for too long – read my copy of ‘The Author’ (quarterly magazine of the Society of Authors) from cover to cover. Normally I skim the headlines and read whatever looks most interesting, but in the spirit of a slow day I started at the beginning and read on to the end. All sorts of unexpectedly good things revealed themselves, most memorably a piece by a Turkish author currently imprisoned about the life of the mind which nourishes him in the bleakest of circumstances. That helped to put things in perspective

More prosaic, but still important, were references in various articles to the choices that minor novelists like myself face. Fundamentally, what are we really trying to do? It’s a question I put right up front when I do workshops on ‘Successful self-publishing’: what constitutes success? Every author will have their own answer, and these days whether you’re self-published or part of the mainstream commercial publishing world, writing just for profit is increasingly problematic. We know that most commercially published fiction actually makes a loss, and even if you keep outgoings to a minimum by self-editing and going for ebook only, the result may not financially justify the hours of time and effort invested in the project.

zenFrom my slow reading of various reports of events, the advice to fiction writers seems to be ‘Be true to yourself; enjoy the reactions of readers, regardless of how many there may be; find a community of writers (and agents, publishers etc for those who have them) to engage with and be supported by.’ Nothing new there then. No blinding flash of revelation, just a message of internal efficacy and relatively low expectations. Of course  close scrutiny and replication of commercially successful books, and assiduous courting of the ‘blogsphere’ might pay off financially. But who wants to spend their precious time doing that? Not me.

The zen of the art of writing seems, ultimately, to be about doing what pleases and satisfies you, and letting go of the urge to borrow other people’s definitions of ‘success’.

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Goodbye and good riddance to the hardback ‘literary’ novel?

The papers this weekend are commenting on, and apparently bemoaning, the decline in sales of the ‘literary’ novel over the past two years. Some of the articles suggest that sales of this or that novel might increase when it’s published in paperback, usually a year or so after the hardback.hardback book

I read all this with some bemusement. Firstly, I’m struck yet again by the artificiality of genre distinctions that the publishing world seems fixated on. Who decides whether a novel is ‘literary’ or ‘genre’ fiction – I think that’s the main divide, before the ‘genre’ is further sub-divided? I’ve seen it defined that character drives ‘literary fiction’, and plot drives ‘genre fiction’, but surely these are points along a spectrum, not a dichotomy? It might be easy to identify novels at either end of the spectrum, but after that the distinction falters.

The ‘literary’ tag may have to be reconsidered, especially as it now seems to be connected to poor sales, which is increasingly the traditional publishers primary concern. We’ve all heard that a very high proportion of published books lose money, and that the business is rescued from financial disaster only by a few block-busters. Some of these massive sellers can be predicted – the ghastly Dan Brown, for example –  whereas others come out of nowhere, as predictable as a win on the lottery. Does any other business trying to make a profit organise itself like this?bella-literary-fiction

 

And if we’re talking about sacred cows in need to disposal, what is the point of  publishing novels in hardback form first and making anyone who doesn’t want a heavy expensive tome wait for a year to get the version they actually want to buy? This is a mystery, and clearly, it’s not working. This time next year, and the year after, will publishers still be fretting about poor sales of the hardback versions and still planning to keep on churning them out? I admit to be baffled about it all.

 

Many readers like a ‘real’ book – I do myself: the paperback format fulfils this need. Ebooks are also useful in some circumstances.  So who wants to read a hardback, besides a tiny number of picky traditionalists who profess to have ‘standards’ and probably insist on esoteric and expensive ways of eating and drinking as well as reading?

My recent and unsuccessful dalliance with ‘Unbound’ crowd-funded publishing came across this issue all the time. Many of my readers, keen to see the new book as soon as it comes out,were puzzled that they would have to pay twice as much as normal for a ‘special edition’ hardback when they would actually prefer a paperback, lighter to carry around and easier hold with one hand in bed, for instance. ‘That’s the way traditional publishing works’ I would lamely explain, and I had no answer to the inevitable next question – ‘Why?’

 

 

The positive power of feedback

feedbackAll my plans for meeting readers at the Lake District shows this summer went west the moment I fell down the stairs in mid-August and emerged with a ruptured Achilles tendon and damaged shoulder ligaments. Couldn’t walk for a while, couldn’t drive, couldn’t lift or carry books, couldn’t even use a keyboard without pain and handwriting was no better. What a mess!

Of course I was lucky, I could have died or sustained what are euphemistically called ‘life-changing’ injuries. As it was I was deprived of my precious independence for a while, but gradually I’ve got back to a semblance of normality and am well into the first draft of the new novel now, with every chance of getting the book to my editor by the agreed date of the end of January.

But during the past few months the lack of contact with readers has taken its toll.

I guess all writers doubt themselves, unless and until they’re clearly successful and maybe even then. However good your original idea, and however happy you may be with the plan in your head or on paper, there comes a point somewhere in the middle of the first draft when you wonder why on earth you’re doing devoting all your spare time to this project, and whether it’ll be worth it.

At that stage, it’s really helpful to have a way of refreshing your self-confidence, – especially that part of your self-esteem particularly linked to your writing. And that’s what’s been missing, because I simply couldn’t reach readers in person for quite a while.

Today was a chance to put this right. It meant a three hour return drive, and not long to talk with quite a small group, but I did so enjoy it. And when some of them began to talk about reading my books, I realised yet again how much I need that feedback.

One of the people asked me, ‘Do readers write to you, or let you know their reaction to your books?’ And the answer to that was ‘No, not much, and I wish they would!’ It’s hard to know how many people out there have read my stuff. Once the books have gone to the distributors and the shops they are beyond my view. I know that books get handed around : sometimes readers tell me with pride how many people they’ve lent my books to! I don’t know how many people get copies from the library. Simone-Forti-1024x576Nor do I know whether readers are more forthcoming with feedback for other writer’s books. I’m not myself, I realise. I may love a book, talk about it, delay finishing it because I’m enjoying it so much. But I never think of telling Claire Tomalin, or Hilary Mantel, or Ann Cleeves, or Andrea Levy how much I love their work, and why.

And there is another problem, of the relative isolation of many self-published authors like me. We rarely get reviews, or awards, or mention in the conversations of the regular book world. I could do something about this, I know. I could read and respond to more blogs and hope that the effort is reciprocated. I could actively seek more reviews on Amazon, although very few of my sales come through that route. I could be more active in the various writers’ networks. But time spent on all that seems like time off-task. My priority as a writer is to write.

As my life returns to normal I’ll probably get out more, and meet more of the people who read my stuff. Those direct conversations are obviously important to me, and I’ve been missing them.