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.