A Melange of Musings

A Melange of Musings

September is a funny month; even now, more than thirty years since I left school, I can’t help feeling that “back to school” vibe that makes me want to buy a new pencil case and stock up on stationery. I did indulge in a very luscious Peter Pauper journal for a project that reflects the images on the cover; can’t recommend this range more highly. It combines great beauty, practicality with superb value; my only problem is that it can take me a while to bring myself to actually write in one, for fear of spoiling it with bad writing.

Which brings me on to my first musing: bad versus good writing. I’ve had to restrain myself from reading the several thousands of posts that come out on this topic, because it gets frustrating and upsetting. The majority of such articles are written for (and possibly by) new writers, and they often have me raging at the screen. There is a vendetta going on against the humble adverb that has been added to now by an equally vicious smear campaign against the adjective. Followed blindly, this leads to what might best be described as Spartan prose; if you know anything about the real Spartans, you’ll know this is not a compliment. Come back with your shield or on it: not actually the best philosophy for life, and certainly not a template for good writing. Leave the damned adverbs and adjectives alone, for heaven’s sake; as a part of normal, natural language they have as much right to be in a piece of writing as any other part of language. Obviously, you can overdo them; your hand can slip and tip a whole jar of cayenne pepper into the stew instead of a pinch (and yes, I did this once. Only my dad, bless him, ate it). I’ll get off my soapbox now. For me (and I can speak for no one else) good writing is a balance between powerful, authentic characters who stay with you after the book is done, a clear, well-executed plot, strong, elegant prose that challenges the reader with twists and turns but which still reaches the end point succinctly, and a deeper level to the story that will keep you thinking about it for a long while afterwards.

Which brings me neatly onto the second musing: themes and “messages” in fiction. Truth is, I’m ambivalent about this. For a book to really win my heart, there does indeed need to be a deeper level to it, above and beyond the “he said, she said, he did, she did” of a basic story. There’s something powerful, sacred even, about the concept of Story; Pratchett postulated several times in his fiction that Story is a kind of symbiotic life form that needs us as much as we need it. Yet I become very uncomfortable when it is clear that an author has set out to write a book with a distinct message or purpose (we’re talking about fiction here), from a philosophical, or religious point of view. I’ve sampled some of these sorts of books and in 99% of cases, it’s badly done. The book is preachy, or worse, and the Story is ruined by the banging on and on of the Message. As someone whose books do indeed contain what I like to think of as “deep stuff”, it’s something I’ve become acutely conscious of. To set out to write a book about X Y or Z or for particular purposes is something to be very wary of. None of my novels were written to consciously to express any agenda or beliefs, but by a process of literary osmosis, my own “deep stuff” is explored and expressed within them. Story has to come first; one must trust that the core of any message a book might grow to contain will form and express itself during the process. You cannot shoe-horn a message into a book that doesn’t want it. And not every book needs a message. Summer has traditionally been a time for reading beach and airport reads that are intended to just be a bit of fun. I’ve never managed to write one, yet, but I’ve read plenty. Sometimes you need a bit of a break from what Tori Amos calls, “really deep thoughts”.

Third musings: the ocean of books and the problem of visibility. Yeah, back to that one. It ties in with the summer slump. I noticed that many of the books in the top 100 of books on sale on the might Zon this summer had extra long bits added to their titles. Sort of like a subtitle, I suppose. Now this was something that was banned a few years ago when I first began. You weren’t allowed to use these explanatory sentences as part of your book title. People got ticked off for it and their books removed. It really bugs me to read these titles: who says it’s a powerful book, or that it’s heart-warming or uplifting, except the person publishing it? It’s a blowing of one’s own trumpet that makes me cringe ever so slightly. What bothers me is that it’s clearly being done to increase visibility in the search terms. Should I rename my novels in this vein? (suggestions in the comments, please!). I think not. I’m not that kind of person. I don’t like being on show, or having to promote my stuff. Lots of authors go to signings they’ve arranged at local bookshops and events, but frankly, for me, this is a waste of energy and time. I’d have to supply my own paperbacks (often at a cost I can’t really afford) and the idea of sitting at a stand in a local event waiting for people to come over and engage makes me shudder. I’ve seen some of these; at a mind body spirit fair this year, an author of a YA swords and sorcery book had a stall and I noticed that people gave it a wide berth. Shelling out ten quid or more for a book you know nothing about is not something most of us will do; it’s just too much. I had a brief look, and found myself pounced on by the author whose hard-sell approach turned me right off. It smacked of desperation, and a bit of entitlement. I don’t know that there is a right way for unknown authors to attend events to sell books but for me it comes down to this: there needs to be a bloody good reason why I’d shell out a tenner (or more) for a book by someone I don’t know. That’s why selling e-books has the upper hand: a reader can sample 10% at their leisure without ever committing to buying the whole book. I don’t tend to tell people I’ve bought their book until I’ve read it and can whole-heartedly recommend it to others.

Final musing: hope springs eternal. To follow on the musing about how to sell books, the oldest and possibly best advice, is to write more and publish more. I’ve not brought out any new fiction since The Hedgeway, published for Halloween almost two years ago. If I cast my mind back, it did create a small surge in sales of other books. August was my worst sales month yet; deeply depressing, yet from what I gather, completely in keeping with what most authors have been finding. Despite having a nasty case of writers’ burnout (which is to writers’ block what influenza is to the common cold), I do have a good number of completed novels tucked away on my hard drive. My crisis of confidence has meant they’ve stayed there; I’ve been paralysed by the process and the thousands of posts about how everything must be perfect or you’re hurting other writers blah blah blah. But, having had a couple of trusted friends take a gander at one, I’ve decided I’m not a bad writer at all. I’ve had some reviews recently that have expressed bafflement that I’m not a famous writer of best-selling books already, and gratifying as that is, it does tend to rub in my own thoughts on the subject. So, as every author does, I’ve begun to hope that perhaps the next book might be the breakthrough one, and I’ve started the process of getting it out. I’ve got some cover art sorted, and the first proof reader has begun. I’m going to write some blog posts (and hope that there might be slots for them on other blogs, though I don’t intend to do a proper blog tour) and I shall polish up the blurb and the back matter till it shines, and drop hints here and there to whet the appetites of readers. I’ve accepted I’m crap at all this promotional nonsense, and that’s not going to change. I am what I am. In the end, they’re books: nothing more and nothing less. To distort my true self, to become one of those authors who can insert their book(s) into any and every encounter whether online or in real life, in the belief that somehow that’ll get them readers, well, it’s not going to happen. My writing is just a part of who I am, not the whole. In the grand scheme of things (whatever that means!) it’s not really terribly important that I sell lots of books. What is important is that I stay true to who I am.

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22 thoughts on “A Melange of Musings

  1. With you on most of this, the writing police handcuffing adverbs like naughty children etc. Mostly on the last bit of knowing that the stratagems for selling books will end up humiliating. I oscillate from ‘should bite the bullet’ and sign up for courses I cannot bring myself to start and the hell of writer burnout aka influenza at the pointlessness of continuing to do the only thing that makes sense when it won’t be read.

    The self-publishing business model in which you are only ranked for your commitment to your business is the most depressing one of all. I am close to thinking that the only course is to write and make it available for nothing, just to be pleased to be read!

    • Here, here, basically, to Philippa! Esp on commitment etc: I have neither time, finances, nor energy to go hammer & tongs at writing – I am committed, and I have some original ideas, but I am not going to destroy myself or unbalance my involvement with friends, family, and the world at large and lock myself in a cage marked Indie Author – although I am one. Possibly ‘too old to become one-sided’. Take that as not a rant but an opinion – were I 25 I would probably try it.

      • I don’t know that age has much to do with it; I’m middle-aged and I don’t have the guts for it now. Or perhaps we can see better the folly of doing such things.

  2. With you on all points here, Vivienne. In particular, about shoehorning a Message into a Story. I’ve always liked what Tolkien said (which you probably know, of course) – ‘I am a Christian, and of course what I write will be from that essential viewpoint.’ Who we are, what we think is in important, will come through in our writing if we have any talent at all: and we just have to let it happen.

    Speaking of talent, glad to hear that you’re unleashing some more of yours! Sales may be dismal (I’ve sold two in the last month!) but that’s not a reflection of the quality of your writing. Let your words free, Vivienne: there are people out here who will be glad to give them a home.

  3. Thanks Vivienne for the melange/blancmange – much to consider. The idea of self-promotion is scary dare I say abhorrent to me – and using tricks like adding to the title to make its message clearer. And hammering home a message is a tricky one .. I have to be on guard all the time and your post is a good reminder thank you. Keep being true to yourself –

  4. Yep, Vivienne, good points (as usual with you!) I have come to detest the many blogs ‘about writing’ in all their forms, I can’t help seeing it as a very individual thing, and nobody has the same way of doing it. Nor should we believe that we can tell others how to write well. Read, read, read is just as good, or better, in terms of the learning and honing process. I would list you my ‘good writers guide’ with examples, and it would differ from yours. As for embedding a ‘message’ that’s cheating the reader, isn’t it? My books don’t embed one – though people might say ‘but you write about what you are passionate about’. I do. It’s not a message, though, it’s a viewpoint … Which did Dickens do? Write a good story or aim to reveal stuff about society of his time? I suspect it was write a story, but writing about his times a kind of message which can be found is there as well, if you are into social history … as, also, chick-lit and romance probably impart messages, crime can impart a message … but it hasn’t been embedded … am waffling so will stop – or someone will misunderstand me, and suspectI am saying that it is okay to deliberately put a message in a story book –

    • Haha. It’s all too easy in these days of internet short-fused people for folks to misunderstand because they haven’t read properly. Read read and read still more is surely the best advice anyway!

  5. I applaud you for standing up for the adjectives and adverbs! Let all parts of a sentence (remember diagramming sentences?) be used properly!

    As for book promotion, I would be glad to offer myself and my blogs to help you get the word out about past, present, and future books. I would be glad to review them for you as well!

    For a great place to connect with other authors that support each other, please come and join the fun at RAVE REVIEWS BOOK CLUB (https://ravereviewsbynonniejules.wordpress.com).

  6. Wow, that’s a beautiful journal, as it says, the ”Rolls-Royce” of bookbinding.

    “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
    Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
    ― Omar Khayyám

    • It’s even nicer in the flesh. I hope that when the ideas coalesce they’ll be worthy of it. The snippet of dear old Omar is entirely apposite here!

  7. I might be late to the party and still catching up on stuff, but whenever you want, you’re welcome to hop by my blog again for another chat or character interview…
    Happy writing and keep being you! 🙂

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