The joy of talking about writing

As you might have gathered from my last post, and others over the past few months, I’m seriously weighing the positives of writing and self-publishing against the negatives, and there’s no certainty that I will want to continue.balance sheet dreamstime_s_114698015

But when I think about giving it all up, one aspect of the process keeps calling me back, and it’s something that many writers would be surprised by: I love talking about my books and my writing, to groups large or small. I love just starting to speak, without notes, and sometimes without a plan or direction, and hearing what comes out of my mouth. It’s different every time, and responds to the nature of the group, their reactions, and their questions. I watch and listen and adjust how I reply. It’s fun and interactive and engaging, as I imagine playing a video game might be, although that’s something I’ve never done.

The people I’m talking to seem to enjoy it too, and tell me so. They’re used to people having a set speech, and my ‘off the cuff’ approach goes down well. Does it sell heaps of books?business-money-pink-coins.jpg Who knows? People do buy books from me at these events, and often not just the latest one but earlier ones that I may have mentioned. All my six novels are linked, by setting and by some recurring characters, and some readers really want to start from the beginning, which I applaud.

If I’m talking to a group in a library, I sell less, probably because these people use the library rather than buy their own. If it’s a Women’s Institute audience, the ladies often team up, each buying one of the series and sharing them around – which makes sense for them but isn’t great for sales! People in readers’ groups tend to want their own copies – hurray. However many or few I sell, the money’s welcome and the pile of boxes in my garden room is reduced still further, but that’s not the principal satisfaction.

I really enjoy talking to readers, but if I wasn’t writing, what would be the purpose and rationale for these talks?

If the talks about writing didn’t happen, I’d miss the ‘charge’ I get from doing them. Is that a sufficient reason for keeping going?

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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.

 

 

‘Once over lightly’?

At one of the first residential writing courses I went on, many years ago, the special guest one evening was a published author – one novel – who was invited to talk to us about his writing process. He seemed quite grumpy and I wondered if he’d been having a bad day. From what he told us, however, it sounded as if every day was a bad day. ‘Writing is hell’ was the main headline of his remarks. ‘I don’t why I do it. Once the first book was out they were badgering me for another one, and it’s like pulling teeth.’ This is not verbatim, but that was the gist. I wasn’t the only one who wished he had stpulling-teethayed at home.

This miserable bloke’s writing process was as follows. Every day he would write a sentence or two, struggling over every word until he was satisfied with it. Then he would stop, presumably exhausted. The next day he would read over what ever he’d written so far, agonise over it again, and write another sentence. And so on until he’d finished. Really? To this day I suspect he was making that up. But maybe that’s truly the way some people write: intensive and painfully slow, as if they were writing a poem.

On the sixth novel now, if I have a preferred writing process it has probably by now established itself. Needless to say, my process differs somewhat from that described above. The bloke appeared to have lost the will to live, unless that too was a wind up, and I would have felt the same if that was my daily routine.

I’ve talked before about the planning process, but let’s assume that I have a rough idea about each chapter, the key points and scenes, and what it contributes to the whole story. (By the way, if the chapter doesn’t contribute anything, then what’s the point of it?) With a few pointers to the shape and focus of the chapter I’ll start to write, quite fast. Sometimes I correct typos etc as I go along, sometimes I leave them and correct them all on the second reading. If the ideas are clear I can rattle along for quite a while, several hundred words. Something will halt the flow and I’ll stop and go back. This is the first edit, checking for continuity and consistency, improving poor phrasing, finding better words, correcting obvious errors.

At this point I often go back to the plan for the current chapter, or possibly previous ones, noting that something will need changing. Or I look at future chapters which are now taking a slightly different direction. If there are past pieces to change, I tend to do them straight away, before I lose the detailed focus. That done, on we go, more fast writing and then stop, go back, adjust, edit. A four thousand word chapter might be written in sections like this, one after the other, and pretty fast. When it’s going well I can write a chapter in a day.

There’s a very strong tendency to feel dissatisfied with the whole thing as you get beyond Act 1, when the setting is established and the story should be driving forward. I always ask myself at this point, is this story worth telling? If I wallow in this indecision for too long, or try to get feedback too early, the enterprise could quickly grind to a halt. It’s all about confidence: without confidence there’s no energy, and without energy there’s no progress. So I tell myself to stop worrying too much at this early stage and just keep going. The time for serious reflection, feedback and discussion with ones-self and others is when this first fast draft is finished. In terms of painting a picture it’s ‘once over lightly’ and then stand back and look hard at the emerging work.

The fine detail can be added, in what is now the third, or even fourth edit. If greater depth is needed for a character this can be provided with just a few more or different words or actions. A potentially confusing piece of plot can be fixed with a sentence or two. Once the whole work is ‘visible’ all sorts of extra touches, colour, fine tuning – call it what you will – can be added. Details of weather, prevailing atmosphere, smells, details, all of these can be added, so long as they don’t affect the storyline too much. When all that is done, the work is clearly an improvement on what you started with, and probably pretty close to the final version, although more polishing will continue until the set deadline is upon you. Without a deadline, you could polish for ever and drive yourself nuts, or at least I could. Part of the art of editing is knowing when to stop.

The contrast with the painstaking misery of our guest writer could hardly be greater. I wonder if he ever finished that novel?

When is the author not really the author?

Two things are on my mind about this question: both of them were prompted by recent encounters with writers.

The first example comes from an author explaining his/her writing process. This writer finishes the first draft and gives it to three ‘readers’ for comment. Their suggestions are incorporated into the next draft, which then goes to the ‘editor’ for further suggestions, and here again some at least of these are used to produce the third draft.

writing-group

In this particular case, the text has now been developed by five people, but still it is considered to have been ‘authored’ by the original writer, who said –  in jest? –  that the names of all those who had contributed should perhaps be on the cover alongside the author’s name.

It may have been a throwaway remark, but it provoked my question about when the author’s apparent work is more, or less, than the author’s actual work.

In this particular case, the author is very well known and sells huge numbers of books all around the world. The first readers the author uses are people responsible for selling the author’s books in various countries. It is in their interests, therefore, for the book to be as attractive as possible, to increase the sales and their profits. They would not expect payment or acknowledgement for their work, as they are actually employed to maximise sales, and might even benefit financially from doing so.

The editor’s role is slightly different, one assumes, and concerned with the intrinsic quality of the book rather than only its commercial appeal. Prompted by the editor, more rewrites are undertaken by the author, and after some further discussion and polishing the text is sent for the final stages of editing and proof-reading. When it is printed and sold the author might/will acknowledge the role and assistance of all these people, but the reader will still believe that the author with their name on the cover actually wrote the book. In fact, it was most likely the author’s name, not the title, cover or subject matter, that made the reader buy the book. It has almost become a conspiracy of silence, to preserve the image of the author’s sole responsibility for the book’s final form.


The other nudge to my thinking about this issue was a recent journalistic fracas surrounding an article about a well-known British ‘celebrity’. This person had written a  new book and as part of the promotion was interviewed by a journalist. When the piece was complete, the celebrity and her agent leaned on the publishing editor of the magazine to change the article, to make it more favourable to the image they wanted to project and include more positive reference to the book. The journalist was outraged that this was agreed and her article was changed in this way, without her consent – so outraged that she insisted that her name be removed.

OK, these are different ‘genres’ of writing with different protocols. A key difference is that in the first case the author requests and welcomes amendments to her work, and in the second case the amendments were neither sought not agreed. But clearly the line between apparent and actual authorship is being blurred, and in each case the reader is probably unaware of what has happened behind the scenes.

Does it matter? Is the reader being duped?

How will I react to the first review of ‘Cruel Tide’?

I’m off to London this weekend so I’ll do this post now, and hope it doesn’t get lost in the Twitter and FB clutter that seems to fill my timeline and probably yours too.

I’m surprised to say that having waited years for a decent review of any of my books, I’m both looking forward to and dreading the review that’s been promised in February’s issue of Lancashire Life, which will probably be out in a couple of weeks. First, I wonder if it will ever appear. Editing a monthly magazine must be quite a job, and whatever’s been written might just hit the cutting room floor, as they say in the film business. But if it does actually appear, what will it say, and how will I feel?

One of the hardest things about self-publishing is the absence of professional feedback in the form of reviews. The national newspapers take their books for review from the traditional publishers, apparently, to avoid being swamped by unreviewable rubbish. Understandable, assuming that much self-published fiction is indeed rubbish, and therein lies the dilemma for those of us who have chosen to take that route direct to our readers. Apart from Amazon reviews and star ratings, which are mostly welcome but don’t represent considered professional feedback, authors like me have no way of helping readers decide what’s worth buying and reading. How do you pick from the plethora of stuff out there, except on the questionable criterion of price? You could use the star ratings as a guide, but they’re pretty questionable too.

I managed to get two very kind writers to give me a ‘quote’ about ‘Cruel Tide’ for promotion purposes, but I couldn’t ask them to undertake a full-scale review. Apart from that, and some mentions in the local press, nothing about this book or any of the others. I’ve asked for reviews, of course, but have been told repeatedly that they don’t have the time to read full-length fiction, or people to do it, or space to print them. One national organisation I’m actually a member of, which has a book page in its monthly magazine, claimed that they couldn’t review my books without upsetting other members who are writers. Really?

That leaves me with no experience of getting public written feedback on my novels from a professional who reads and writes critically about books as part of their daily work. The Lancashire Life  reviewer doesn’t live in Cumbria, so the ‘local’ flavour probably won’t be of interest. I assume that the reviewer will come at ‘Cruel Tide’ cold, without reading my preceding trilogy where some of the characters have been heralded, and she has been told that this is crime fiction, and will therefore have certain genre expectations, which may or may not be satisfied. Any of these factors could have a bearing on her reaction.

I can cope with specific criticism: I generate plenty of that myself about anything I’ve written. What I fear is overall dismissal, scorn, disinterest, or the suggestion that I’m wasting my time and should find something else to do. You don’t see reviews like that very often, but they do happen, and the author must be crushed, unless they’re far more resilient than I am. I don’t expect to be told that the book is badly written, but I could be told that the structure is poor, the characters unbelievable or the ending is a let down. I’m in the early stages of the next book, and specific feedback could be useful, if I can bring myself to accept and act upon it. Or I could have faith in myself and stick to my guns. I can’t anticipate how I’ll react until it happens, and I can’t do anything about it either, so I’ll just have to wait and see. How do other inexperienced novelists cope with reviews? Are they as nervous about them as I am, and does this anxiety wear off with more experience and confidence?

My first full day writing workshop

I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks, and anxious about it too, and last Saturday, January 17th 2015 at Kendal library I led my very first full day writing workshop. And I really enjoyed it, although I was pretty exhausted when it was over: partly the several hours of concentration and partly lack of sleep the night before.

There were eleven in the group, small enough for conversation and large enough to benefit from a range of people. The range was hard to deal with too, as each person came with different prior writing experience, and therefore a range of wants and needs. It was quite a short day as the library didn’t open until 9.30am and closed at 3.30pm. We took a short lunch break but even so it was only about 5 hours once we’d got organised and started, and the challenge was trying to cover the long list of ‘aspects’ that I’d made. Some things went by the board when they didn’t appear in the group’s list of priorities: we mentioned ‘dialogue’ only briefly, for example, even though to my mind it’s essential to the pace and depth of a novel, to drive the story and to reveal character. I could probably have skipped or truncated the focus on the interaction between character, setting and story, but that was the first session and it was only at that time that the importance of the prior learning became obvious. Or maybe we needed to start with relatively familiar stuff just to get warmed up.

What really delighted me was everyone’s willingness to contribute and be honest about the struggle of both writing and getting published. I felt as if I was among friends, and in that safety people were open to new ideas and developing their story plans really quickly given the stimulus of good ‘what if questions’. We laughed and encouraged each other, and that was great.

The part of the day that seemed to resonate with all of us was about ‘structure’, not just the protocols of the 3 act structure which I didn’t do well explaining I fear, but the business of seeing a full-length fiction as a whole before starting to write the first draft. That doesn’t mean that every last detail is mapped out and immutable, but it does give you as the writer a view of the landscape before you start your journey. Maybe I enjoyed discussing this because it was what I lacked so woefully when I started my first novel, and was probably the reason why it took four years to complete. I learned the structure lesson the hard way, and took much more care with planning the second book. Now on book 4 I’m planning ahead in even more detail, but this is the first foray into crime fiction and the intricacies of the story are demanding more care at this early stage.

I suggested that we need to see the shape of the work all at once, rather than sequentially. To this end I put my early draft outline on paper or cards and lay them all out on the floor, or pin them on the wall, taking in the picture all at once, moving pieces around, seeing connections and possibilities that I hadn’t seen when the work was on screen or in one continuous piece. ‘Simultaneous visual display’: maybe it depends what kind of mind you have. I’m an abstract random thinker by preference, at least in the first instance, and need that overall picture before I can sort the pieces into an order.

Most – but not all – of the group wanted to talk about publishing, and I’d forgotten how depressing the conversation can be as one by one we told our stories of disinterest from agents, prejudice against self-publishing, the financial considerations, the time and the waiting, ineligibility for competitions and so on, and so on. I don’t regret the decision to self-publish and to invest my time, energy and money in the process but for people with less to invest it looks a pretty bleak picture.

As we concluded, however we want to get into print, the most important starting point is to have a really high quality piece of work, and for that we need to welcome editing. Family and friends mean well but their feedback isn’t enough. Getting professional critique seems to cost so much that it becomes another hurdle that blocks progress. One or two people asked if I would offer a critique, and although I have a professional interest in feedback my own experience of writing is still limited. So I agreed, but won’t charge anyone until I feel I can offer a service worth paying for. Already I fear the siren call of writing-related activities – running workshops, critique and feedback, advice on self-publishing – when what I most need and want to do is write my own stuff.

I’m taking a break from everything for the next two months to pursue a long-standing travel ambition, so I’ve got some time to think about it. When I get back in mid-March it’ll be straight into the first draft of book 4 (as yet untitled) to meet the deadline of August that I have set myself. So I’m disappearing from Twitter, blogs and all that for two months at least. I’m not sure that anyone will notice!

Letters from readers

I’m sure more famous authors get loads of letters from readers, but for me it’s a new phenomenon: just a few, usually handwritten, in a card or on their own in an envelope. The writers tell me what they’ve enjoyed about my books. If they’re local, they say how they enjoy recognising places in West Cumbria – where the trilogy is set – and what they themselves remember about them. They talk too about the characters who live their lives in this setting. It feels like well-intentioned gossip, sharing details of what you’ve noticed with someone else. When the first book, ‘A Good Liar’ came out, I got an email, or was it a tweet, which said, ‘Oh that Jessie, I could slap her.’ I could too: Jessie has a tendency to come out with things carelessly at times, getting herself into all sorts of trouble. She’s a complicated woman, which is what I always wanted her to be, and not always likeable, although I still feel that she’s fundamentally a good person. Hence the title.

Other letters are less specific, just expressions of enjoyment and looking forward to the next book, which is due out in November 2015 by the way. I was in a local bookshop the other day and on the stand where my books are displayed was a little note, left over from the summer, which read. ‘Yes it’s here! Book 3 Fallout has arrived!’ I’m sure the queue was a little less long that those for the new Harry Potter books, but I was tickled by the idea of people I didn’t know waiting for a book to appear and wanting to get reading.

My readers sometimes tell me which of the three books they’ve enjoyed the most, and there’s no pattern to that choice, except that the quietest of the three ‘Forgiven’ seems to appeal to fewer people even though I think it’s the best of the three. What I’ve been waiting for and not had yet is something from people who personally remember the Windscale Fire of 1957, which features in ‘Fallout’, telling me that I’ve got it wrong. If I have, then no-one is telling me that, but maybe they just wouldn’t say anything at all. West Cumbrian communication can be a bit ’round-about’, and I am an ‘off-comer’ after all. If anyone’s reading this who has anything to say about any of my books, I would really love to hear from you. Feedback – it’s what keeps us going.

Generally, it’s hard for authors to get an idea of who’s reading what you’ve written, and how they feel about it. I read continually myself, and have never yet written to an author about a book, assuming that what I say about it will be immaterial and probably ignored. Now I wonder whether I should be more willing to write a note, or send a card. If you have a publisher, maybe it’s easier for readers to find you. Or maybe you just reach more readers and therefore increase the chance of communication.

Most of the feedback I receive is from the people I meet when I’m doing readings around this region, but unless I sometimes write down what is said it’s hard later to remember the specifics. When I’m struggling, as I am now, with the final versions of plot and sequences of events and a few relevant references to contemporary life, all the fiddly bits before the real enjoyment of writing starts, I have to stop and think that these details will be noticed and enjoyed, and that what I’m doing matters to someone beyond myself. I write to be read, not as a cathartic personal release. How the writing is received is interesting to me. It doesn’t determine how I write, but it’s certainly part of what encourages me to keep doing so.