Why I am self-published

Why I am self-published

(content note for VERY strong language)

Recently the whole self-published versus traditionally published wrestling match has reignited, following a post by Ros Barber in the Guardian online. I’m not going to address the article because that would be juvenile, petty and a waste of time. More than that, it would only be my opinion and that is of little real worth. I am no one of note, or of influence. I’m an author who self-published, which makes me mud on the shoes of many.

In the 90’s I spent a couple of years going through the rigmarole of jumping through the hoops set by publishers and agents. Combined with an absurdly low income at the time that meant affording printer paper and postage was a big deal, the whole time was intensely stressful. I got asked for full manuscripts many times, and some went through several readers and editors at major publishing houses. The fore-runner to Square Peg got to committee stage at one of the Big Six. They asked me to rewrite certain parts; I was about to sit down to start that when the worst headache on the planet descended on me and put a stop to it. I was rushed to hospital with a brain haemorrhage. After I recovered enough from that to carry on writing, I did what they’d asked with the book, sent it in and waited. A few weeks later, the Dear John letter arrived. Blah blah blah. It boiled down to this: we like it but you’re an unknown and we can’t quite take the risk if we don’t love it enough to have its babies. So, knowing the whole process had almost killed me, I quit. I quit writing altogether.

In 2003 I began writing again after a gap of eight years, because a novel was forcing its way out of me; rather than burst open like one of Ripley’s shipmates, I gave in and wrote the damned thing (it was The Bet, for what that’s worth) and was faced with being back on the submissions treadmill all over again. The explosion of creative expression I experienced (I can’t quite say enjoyed because it was so compulsive) lasted for three years and in that time I had a lot of feedback from publishers and agents telling me I was almost there, send us the next one, over and over again. I even had an agent (turned out to be less use than a chocolate fireguard). But nothing ever went the whole distance, not even the novel that kept an editor at Random up all night to finish. It always ended in the same way: you’re good, very good, but you haven’t yet written a book we think will be a break-out success, keep on sending us stuff and we’ll keep reading.

There comes a moment where your entire being says: Oh just fuck right off, and when you’ve got there, fuck off even further and keep on fucking off until you’re a speck on the horizon, and then fuck off some more.

That’s what mine started saying. Letting someone else, some other entity or organisation, hold you so firmly in the palm of their sweaty little mitt, that you cannot move, do anything, because they hold you so tightly in their thrall, is beyond BAD for the soul. It’s toxic, corrosive and suffocating. Publishers have authors exactly where they want them: bent over, subjugated and submissive. There’s always the awareness that if you, the author, don’t do what they ask, there’s hundreds if not thousands of other authors panting and eager to take your place. You, the author, are not a real living human being: you are a content provider, nothing more.

So I stepped away. I took back my dreams and my hopes and my soul, and I walked away. At that stage, self-publishing was in its infancy and I had no idea really that it existed. I equated it with vanity publishing. Some still do, and indeed, there are numerous so-called small presses that are really vanity presses. I came to self-publishing at the behest of someone else who offered themselves as a helper who would do it for me. That’s one of the reasons why now I find it difficult to trust anyone, because that aspect didn’t end well. It could have ended much worse, but I dusted myself off and got on with it myself, learning as I went. I made mistakes for sure, but I’d begun.

Since then, I have put out quite a number of books: four novels, a novella, two collections of short stories, a collection of essays on depression, a poetry collection and a little paperback of guided meditations. I have had many thousands of readers, some of whom read everything and buy it in both e-version and in paperback. Had I kept on plugging away at submitting to publishers that would not have happened. I would either be dead (probably by my own hand) or locked away wearing a fetching jacket fastened at the back. Publishing is a business; it’s primarily about the money; it doesn’t care that the Dear John letters can destroy someone, for a day or for all eternity. It’s a business transaction to them, nothing more. If a book isn’t going to have a good chance of making money, they don’t take it on, no matter their personal liking for a story. That way leads to losing your job. An author whose first book doesn’t earn out the advance rarely gets a second book through. Once, they might have had three or four books published, to build an audience, but now, you have six months MAXIMUM to make that first book a success.

I self-published because it was the way forward for me, because the road to legacy publishing was policed by entities that make Procrustes look like the perfect gracious host, and because I do not regard myself as a content provider or my books as products. Every book or poem I write is a glimpse of a world inside my head; it exists somewhere beyond this existence and being able to share it with others is a privilege denied to me and you by traditional paths to publishing.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch ~ on the rightful exchange of energies.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch ~ on the rightful exchange of energies.

I’ve seen a good deal lately about free books. If you buy e-books, you’ll probably have gathered a few freebies. Amazon allows its Select programme authors to make their books free for five days out of the ninety day exclusive period. Many authors believe that the exposure having a book available for free brings in sales later, especially if the book charts in one of the best-seller categories that run side by side, paid alongside free. When the opportunity to “sell” your book at the free option first came around, a lot of authors found that their books soared to the top of categories as people in their thousands downloaded it. As time went on, the numbers downloading became lower and the paid sales that came on the back of it dropped even lower too.

Today I came across Erika M Szabo’s blog post explaining how she has people messaging her and asking her when her books would be free  http://lovetotalkalot.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/free-book.html I’m certain her experience is far from unusual. It would seem that the plethora of books offered for free has meant that a lot of readers now expect books for nothing.

Some time ago I stopped downloading free books, just because they were free. In fact, I stopped doing it within a few months of getting my Kindle. Most of the ones I nabbed remain unread, lost somewhere in the hinterlands of my device. I realised that the books that got put into the folder named Freebies seldom came out again. I have occasionally picked up a book that’s been offered free, but it’s generally ones I might well have bought. Currently I am reading a non fiction book about food in the books of Jane Austen. I’ll probably write a review when I finish it, as a thank you.

I’m sure if people thought about it properly they would understand that while authors do want their books to be read, they don’t really want to give them away. There’s something more complicated going on, something subtle and easy to miss. Giving away books can be part of a strategy to gain more readers: either on the off chance that those who grab it when it’s free will read it (and even better, write a review), or because the book has been given as an ARC (Advance Review Copy) in exchange for an honest review later. I know from other writers than ARCs often bring in poor returns; many readers never get round to writing the promised review. I don’t generally accept ARCs myself either because the time factor is such that if it’s a book I want to read in the first place, I prefer to buy it because that gives it greater weight in the sliding scale of what I an afford to spend time on. In my mind, a book I have bought (exchanged money for) is likely to be read far sooner than one that I have been given in the hope that I will review it. If I have paid money for a book, too, I feel that the basic exchange of energies is in balance. Once I have read that book, depending on how much I have enjoyed it, there is then a possibility that I feel the balance has been upset again. A book I have adored creates in me the desire to share it, to review it and to make up the deficit in energy. So a four quid book that I loved requires something more to settle the scales.

Of all the commodities today, for many of us, time is the most valuable. I’ve read scathing reviews of books that often refer to the time they have lost reading a book they didn’t enjoy, and often it’s only the fact that it was free or cheap that has redeemed it. But my time too is valuable. To write a book takes time and dedication and while you can argue that writers make that choice to use their time to write (and no one is holding a gun to their heads) I do believe that demanding unlimited free books is an obscenity. The motto of my faculty at university was Haec otia studia fovent which roughly translates as This leisure(wealth) fosters/favours study; one could use the same basic sentiment to declare that this leisure fosters creative works. Without the time taken out of other activities few books would get written. There are few authors I know who can write full time. Most of us have day jobs. We write for all sorts of reasons and while there’s some who write in the hope of making their fortune, I think most accept that very few succeed in that way.

My own books are the product of intense, focused periods of creative energy, with all the concomitant hours of extra work to polish and prepare them for public consumption. I have never made any of them free on Kindle and I probably won’t. However, I do happily give away copies to individuals and I have my own code for this. I don’t send out ARCs out before a book is published (but I may do something of the sort one day when I get all my ducks in a row) because I’d rather not create obligation in others. If a book has given enjoyment that is worthy of the very reasonable price, then I think that’s all square. The reviews that come in give me great pleasure and I’m deeply grateful for them.

Every free book has been the product of a lot of work and hope too. It’s greedy to gobble them all up and demand more of the same without offering something in return. An author cannot keep on churning out more and more of the same product endlessly without something going back to feed them, and for readers to see authors as mere providers of their favourite mental snacks will create even greater imbalance. Authors will get discouraged and they will give up. Many already have.

If you enjoy reading, whatever your preferred genres, remember that exchange of energy, especially if you “buy” free books. Make time to review the ones you enjoyed, or buy a book by the same author if you liked their style, let others know about books they may also enjoy. 

Self-publishing, morphic resonance and why I’m never going to be a businesswoman

Self-publishing, morphic resonance and why I’m never going to be a businesswoman

I’ve been fretting about writing this for some time. It’s churned and turned and roiled and boiled inside me for ages and I’m never going to get any peace if I don’t try and sort my thoughts into order.

The last two years have been a very interesting ride. In that time I have published three novels, two short story collections and a non fiction book of meditations. I’m not counting the eighteen months where Strangers and Pilgrims was available as a paperback, because I had little or nothing to do with that side of things. For me self publishing began when I put that novel onto Kindle. As self published authors go, I’m doing quite well, I guess. Still mid-list, which is what you can generally expect for the kind of vaguely literary fiction I write. I have books consistently in the top 100 for their category; I have some excellent reviews. And I’ve had some fun.

But the last six months or so something has begun niggling at me, and the niggles have become more than occasional discomfort and have begun to really cause me some distress.

It’s this: the constant pressure to do better.

I don’t mean write better. I like to think I work hard at that anyway. I mean, to sell better. I spend a lot of time on social media, and I follow links and I read articles and it’s making me ill.

The nub of it is that self-published writers still generally wish to be taken seriously, to be counted as the equals of those who have a contract with a legacy publisher, and to sell as well and to live the so-called writer lifestyle. To do so, there is endless discussions about what you must do to compete with the Big Guns. Professional covers, formatting, editing, proofreading, book trailers, book tours, signing tours, being on every available e-reader format, having a professional website (God forbid you use a bog standard WordPress blog!) There are sites that shame amateur looking book covers. I won’t go on. I’m sure you’ve seen the same kind of things if you’re a writer. This constant pressure to show you are as good as a ‘proper author’. And in doing so, there’s a trap that’s become more and more obvious.

Equal and identical are different things. In the rush to prove we’re as good as authors who have a publisher, we’ve missed the point of the revolutionary nature of self publishing. We’re trying to do what the Big Guns do, reproduce the same sort of books, the same sort of covers, and sell at the same level. And get paid a substantial amount more for the work we’d have had to have done anyway in terms now of the promotion every author is obliged to do. (unless they’re Stephen King etc).

So, this has been getting me down. It’s been interfering with my creative flow like a bloody great dam. I can’t write now without the ghost of a thought of, “Will this sell? Will this be the one that tips the balance into making me a massively successful best seller?”. It seeps into the whole process, and I’ve only just pinned it down.

It’s not wrong to want to sell lots of books, make a living from them. It’s not wrong to want to share your words with thousands of people, entertain and inform them.

But surely it should not be that energy that is unconsciously directing my writing? If there were a formula to what will sell, and how to do it, believe me it would be a closely guarded and very expensive secret. There isn’t and there can’t be because it’s something so nebulous that it’s even harder to predict than long range weather forecasts for Britain.

When self publishing first began to be a phenomenon, there was a great deal of excitement about it. You might do anything, publish anything. Niche books. Experimental books. ANYTHING at all. There were endless possibilities, all waiting for people to leap in and try them. What has changed it is the need to sell, to make money, to make back what you shelled out to produce a work, to be compensated for the time and tears it took to produce a book. We all have bills to pay, debts too, and day jobs that can be stultifying and depressing; the dream that someday you may earn enough from writing to quit the day job is very seductive, and the thing that can make that dream a reality is MONEY. So morphic resonance kicks in: the path of self publishing has been set now to be like publishing but without the publishers. The lists are chocka with excellent and not-so-excellent books that are in the main, pretty like the books you might find in a book-store packed with the latest blockbusters, must-reads and the latest from your favourite mystery authors.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of this; please don’t get me wrong. But the whole drive for independence was originally about freedom. Freedom from the constraints of genre and of commercial viability, so there would be new worlds to explore.

I read with increasing dismay and depression the exhortations to be professional, to do things a certain way. To see writing as a business. To have five year plans and to keep to them. And all the many articles covering these subjects all end with the veiled threat that if you do not follow these paths, then your work will never sell, and you will never achieve your dream of leaving the day job behind. You’ll never be interviewed on breakfast TV with your latest runaway best seller; you’ll never mingle with the great and the good in the world of literature and books. You’ll never win prizes and accolades and be lionised as an example of how a self-published author can prove the nay-sayers wrong.

Well, bugger that for a game of soldiers. It’s not going to happen. I don’t want to chase a dream someone else (some tens of thousands of others in fact) seem to think I ought to be chasing. Even thinking about it is getting in the way of writing. And that’s all I am: a writer. I’m not an entrepreneur, nor a business woman nor a graphic designer or a marketing guru or any of the other things it seems one has to have some skills at. I write. I write stories that come to me, or which I chisel out of the bedrock of my being, and that’s it. To try and transform myself into this superwoman figure is wrong on some many levels. I was given gifts, which I have worked hard at honing and honouring, and they’re gifts that (without being immodest) many would sell their souls for. It’s entirely churlish to demand that somehow I turn my back on that, demand that I transform myself into another animal.

One of the most moving and powerful things in my life is the feedback I get from people about my writing (whether it is the books, the poetry or articles here). I know that my writing has made a difference, changed people’s lives in some ways, and the reason it can do that is because I’ve kept a hold of who I am and what I do. But the last six months I have felt my grip loosening, the compulsion to conform becoming almost unbearable. I imagine some might read this and think, “Oh poor dear, she thinks she’s a speshul snowflake!” . To those, I will say simply, yes, I do think I am a speshul snowflake and the reason I think it is because this is MY life and I get one chance to live it the way I choose to.

So I am choosing to live it (and to write) according to my own definitions of integrity and being true to myself and my gifts.

Bringing Dead Men To Life ~ a guest post by Richard Pierce

Bringing Dead Men To Life

( I  met Richard via Twitter and we got talking about all sorts of things, and when I heard about his new book Dead Men I was totally hooked. I’m a bit of a Boys’ Own sort of girl and any tale of heroism gets me interested. But the tragic tale of Captain Scott’s last days has always moved me to tears so I am looking forward to reading Richard’s take on the story when the book is released. I’m always fascinated too by what brings a book to the light of day and I asked Richard to explain this one. This is the result. Over to Richard. )

And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing; if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have the need to prove their bravery.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World

All that we experience we are. No biographer, no researcher, no novelist, painter or poet can or should be divorced from his or her experience, his or her life. It is what makes us, and we cannot stand in isolation from that which has shaped us. It informs our view of others, and others’ views of us. Biographers and historians especially should have to share their motives for covering their subjects. It might explain a lot. Interpretation doesn’t just creep up on us; we make it.

When I was a boy, an English boy in Germany, the text book I had to read to relearn English had a chapter in it about Captain Scott. It focused not only on Oates leaving the tent on the way back from the South Pole with the immortal quote I’m just going outside; I may be some time. It reprinted in whole Scott’s last, desperate scrawl, We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write any more. For God’s sake look after our people. For a boy struggling against his peers’ insistence that Messerschmitts were better than Spitfires, this seemingly magnificent act of heroism was an ideal way of standing up for a country he couldn’t even remember, to show how Englishmen had to be better than Germans, and that, anyway, we’d beaten them in two wars. How odd our childish defences are.

Almost forty years later, I was back to Scott, and Wilson, and Bowers, and Oates, and Evans. They had got under my skin, then, in the early Seventies, in a throwaway schoolboy fascination type of way, and burrowed their way into the core of me, but just sat there, unmoving, with no effect on my life, with no recollection of them on my part, even, because I never dreamed of following them, never thought of the Antarctic as a place I might go. And there were so many other things to distract me, growing up being only one of them.

We moved back to England when I was fourteen, and I made, at my father’s expense, very occasional trips to London. On one of those trips, I did find my way to the British Museum, and, by then fascinated by beauty and mystery, made sure I stared at Nefertiti’s bust for longer than I stared at the final page of Scott’s diary, though I bought postcards of both. And then I fell in love more often than I should care to recount, and forgot all about Scott and his men, all about Amundsen and his men, all about the imagined race for the South Pole that took place just two years after my father was born.

But I kept travelling, kept moving from one place to the other, not because of my parents any more, who, by now, were settled, but because some sort of restlessness drove me, in search of money and love, from England to Germany, to France, to the US, and back to my parents when my heart was broken too often for me to bear. On all those travels, there was one constant: the Olivetti portable typewriter my father had bought me when I was seven, because I’d always wanted to be a writer.

Fast forward twenty years, and I fell in love with a Norwegian, married her, had four children, and a year after the fourth was born, decided to move to Norway. Neither Scott nor Amundsen resurfaced, even then. Nor did they fight their way into my waking conscience when I drove past the Fram Museum on my way to fencing training in Bygdø. I was more interested in working my way up the Norwegian epee rankings than in history I’d forgotten. Shortly after that, my Norwegian wife decided she didn’t, after all, like Norway very much, and that we should move back to England. I, by then, was in love with Norway, and tried many subterfuges, none of which included Amundsen or Scott, to stay in our gorgeous wooden house near Fredrikstad. We left in April 2006, over a metre of snow still on the ground.

Settling back into England was heavy going, and the Antarctic was further from my mind than ever in my homesickness for the -28C of my first Christmas in Norway, my missing of the mountains and the sea I used to pass on my almost-daily run, my longing to roll the Norwegian words round my mouth again and talk to my friends in their farm garages, surrounded by half-built tractors and oily work benches. And then Sir Edmund Hillary hit the headlines, with his criticism of the lack of British support for the preservation of Captain Scott’s expedition base at Cape Evans on Ross Island, and the rest is history, history that means the world to me. Because I was lucky enough to be asked to spend some time in the Antarctic, and to help with the work on Scott’s Hut.

That’s when the reading started. Anything I could get my hands on. The first book on Antarctica I read wasn’t even about Scott’s expedition; it was Kelly Tyler-Lewis’s The Lost Men, sent to me by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, all about Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party who were supposed to lay depots for Shackleton’s Imperial Transantarctic Expedition in 1914, the ten men left stranded on Ross Island after the Aurora broke free of her moorings in a gale and was carried back out into the pack ice. Three men of the party were lost (contrary to the popular misbelief that Shackleton lost none of his men on that expedition), and the other seven lived what they afterwards called the “life of troglodytes”, mainly in Scott’s 1901-1904 expedition hut in McMurdo Sound. It opened my eyes to the sufferings of all those who ventured south during what is now so easily called the Heroic Age of Exploration, to the unsung heroism of those whose names all but a few polar historians had forgotten.

I inhaled the Antarctic, through research on the net, through the accumulation of what became a considerable Antarctic library. I have always been more of a fiction man than one who easily reads biographies and non-fiction narrative, but my heart and my mind were captured by these books, by these men (and their women at home), by the incredible bravery of facing the dangers not just of sea and mountain, but of tooth-breakingly cold temperatures, of crevasses and the madness of cabin fever.

And then I bought a copy of The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and lost my heart to it. It is written in such achingly perfect prose, with such soul and compassion, with such blinding clarity, that it must be the greatest travel book ever written. When I was a child, I always wondered how people could read books which had no pictures in them, and, even as an adult, I marvel at the strength of our human imagination, to be able to see pictures in books with nothing but words from cover to cover. And here was the perfect example. Cherry’s descriptions of his inner life and the outer scenery and dramas are nothing less than addictive, wondrously elegant and eloquent. The lines of his quoted at the beginning of this piece, lines I copied into the front of journal I started to keep for the whole of my Antarctic journey, made me cry, left an indelible mark, because he put his finger on a universal truth, that, deep down, we cowards can all be heroes. Just as he was.

In November 2007, I flew down to Christchurch, New Zealand, with great expectations and not a little trepidation. I left an envelope with a friend, with a letter in it for my wife, just in case something happened to me. For, even if I was to be not much more than a glorified tourist, the Antarctic was, and remains, a dangerous place, a part of the world not to be trifled with, one which will kill you off as soon as welcome you. I saw some wonderful things in Christchurch, including Canterbury Museum’s Antarctic Collection (which includes Frank Worsley’s logbook from the Endurance and that trip from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and Frederick Hooper’s diary which contains the harrowing description of the discovery of the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers). I went to Lyttelton Museum and sat on a saloon bench from Terra Nova, Scott’s ship which came back without him, and which was scuttled years after the ill-fated South Pole expedition. I stood on the hill that Lyttelton sits on and looked across Lyttelton Harbour to Quail Island in its centre, where Scott is said to have trained his dogs and ponies. Much of the countryside and buildings I saw here was destroyed in the February 2011 earthquake, which makes me miss it even more keenly.

And so the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his men began to unfold in front of me before I’d even set foot on the Antarctic. I learned more about him, his comrades, and their quests than I could have if I’d done no more than read the books. But this unfurling of the tapestry of history was borne also from great frustration; day after day after day we were what they call “bumped”, our flight south put off by bad weather, including extremely poor visibility and wind gusting at well over 60 knots. Night after night I’d look at the forecasts and the webcam images from Ross Island, crossing my fingers and everything else that it would improve and we’d get out there. It wasn’t to be, and after a week we had to admit defeat and return to England.

Other things I saw in that week in Christchurch were the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust’s store rooms, including the freezers in which they keep those artefacts that have been found in the Ross Sea huts and around them, and which are too fragile to defrost, but too valuable to leave to the vagaries of the weather out there, influenced more and more by global warming, a weather of extremes with warmer summers and colder winters, a signalling to the rest of the world that the abuse of the world cannot go on, that it must stop soon, for it threatens not only the blue planet’s heritage, it threatens its future, too. In one of those freezers there’s a reindeer sleeping bag, which may or may not be Cherry’s. I hope it is.

It was in that November that the mystery of Scott’s last ten days first scraped at my consciousness. It was not something I’d ever been aware of. How much do we learn at school of real history? That’s another question, because we can only ever scratch the surface of events we’ve not lived, and of their implications and outcomes. But it was only then I learned that science has shown that Antarctic blizzards can last no longer than about three days, that they normally raise the temperature, and that they are normally followed by a period of calm. My poet’s mind latched on to this, but even more so the tragedy of men dying far away from their wives in a time when there was no instant communication, when news took months to travel from remote regions to the populated reaches of the Earth, when wireless transmission was in its infancy. Scott could not, as he lay dying, make a satellite phone call to his wife to tell her one last time he loved her, before the last of his life was snatched from him by the cold. Such calls have been made in recent times, from the summit of Everest and elsewhere, and who knows what comfort they have given, and who knows what mysteries they have solved. If Scott had had a satellite phone, there would be no mystery, and hundreds of books would have remained unwritten.

But there’s more to this story than just that. On the second day of January 2008, I was on my way again. Because the trains from Suffolk to London had suffered yet another irretrievable breakdown, I drove across to Cambridge, caught the train down to London from there, and made my plane with a few minutes to spare. That was the only hiccough. From there, I arrived in Christchurch, to be met by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage folks, ready with the bags I’d packed in November 2007, and walked from International Arrivals straight into a USAF briefing about flying to Antarctica. I listened while getting changed, and, before I knew it (and after having managed one cigarette after a 36-hour trip), was on a bus headed for one of the far-flung corners of Christchurch Airport, on course to board a C-17 Globemaster for the very first time. Six hours later, I landed on McMurdo Sound, on a few feet of sea ice, was driven from there to Scott Base, a modern man retracing the story of the Heroic Age of Exploration.

http://www.ducknet.co.uk/general/title.php?titleissue_id=612

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dead-Men-Richard-Pierce/dp/0715642960/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1330590902&sr=1-1

 

Setting Sail For New Seas ~ Exploring The Uncharted Territories

Setting sails for new seas ~ exploring the uncharted territories

In my Twitter bio I set out to sum myself up in as few words as possible and managed to get it down to only four: Writer, Poet, Explorer, Mystic. To some degree all of these are slightly tongue in cheek but the one that needs most explanation is Explorer.

The word conjures up an image of a man in a pith helmet, wielding a machete and followed by native(of where ever) guides bearing parcels on their heads or on poles. Or possibly Ray Mears. It certainly
doesn’t conjure up a slightly overweight, forty-something English
teacher with slight tendencies to agoraphobia and a big problem with
depression and anxiety. To be an explorer requires courage, curiosity
and a fair measure of recklessness. People in real life would say the
only one of the three I have in abundance is curiosity. I’m one of
life’s natural wimps. I don’t even like travelling. But as fate(ha!)
would have it, I’ve ended up in not one but two jobs that require me
to travel. For the non teaching job I often travel to places I’ve
never been before, and show other people around. I discovered (to my surprise) I have a good sense of direction, and if you drop me in a foreign town I can usually find my way round quite quickly.

That’s not to say that going somewhere totally new doesn’t fill me with sudden and almost paralysing dread; it does. But I get through that. Preparation is the key, not to mention dear old Google.

But that’s just one aspect of exploration. These days, exploration of the physical world is a tame thing, filled with Rough Guides and blogs.
There aren’t many people who hack through unknown jungles to get to lost tribes; the lost tribes are usually wearing Reboks by the time
you get there. The physical world has shrunk; exploration is not the
same. Good job I was never aiming to be a real explorer; I’d be
weeping for more worlds to conquer by now.

Research has shown that our tastes in music, food, experiences have fossilised before the age of around thirty. It explains why parents seldom like their children’s music. We stick to what we know, what we’ve already tried, in so many things. But me, I’d got bored of books. Really, really bored.

Anyone who has ever visited my home will be shocked at that because apart from dust and cat fluff, books is what I have the very most of. Every available wall is covered with bookshelves, often double parked. The only rooms without permanent books are the bathroom and kitchen and then only for obvious practical reasons. I love books. I love everything about them (but the need to dust occasionally). So people were a bit surprised when I asked for a Kindle for my birthday. I was a bit surprised by it myself, to be honest. After three months, I am convinced it was an excellent move.

Let me tell you why.

I’d stopped buying books.

Yes, this book lover had been walking into bookshops that ten years ago I’d have come out of laden with books. For the last few years, it had become a rare event that I bought books. Or even borrowed them. Don’t get me wrong, I bought a few. And was almost universally disappointed.

Books had stopped thrilling me, surprising and delighting me. They gave me a sense of ennui beyond mere boredom. I was actually sick of them.The Kindle has changed all that.

One of the things I noticed quickly was that the books by my previously favourite authors were still often almost as expensive as the hard copies. There is no reason why this should be so. An e-book costs virtually nothing to distribute. As an independent author myself I have opinions about the whole sea-change in the publishing world, but basically the e-book means that authors can now reach readers without the intervening publisher getting in the way. They’re not subject to anyone saying “You can’t do that,” or “That doesn’t sell” or
“That’s not what readers want.” I had a novel rejected almost at
the last stage because the editor felt that there needed to be
payback for the baddies(I simplify) for what they did to the heroine.
I disagreed. Real life  rarely provides neat solutions and
resolutions; closure is seldom forthcoming.  Mark Twain once said
that truth is stranger than fiction and he was so right. Real life is
so strange and unpredictable and the fiction I’d been reading was
just that: predictable. It had become formulaic, to the point that
even if I didn’t guess the ending, I knew all the stages. It followed
the fads and fashions of the literary world to such an extent that
even reading the blurb was making me nauseous.

Where oh where was originality and daring? Where was risk-taking and being controversial? I’m not talking about the now-endless books about child abuse and rape. I’m talking about simply letting a story take you where it wants to go, not where the dictates of literary mores would have it go. I’m talking about Story as a living, breathing
symbiont of the writer, where templates, character outlines plot
conventions and other cookie cutters are instruments of vivisection
and torture.

Welcome to the world of the independents. Welcome to a whole new universe of possibilities. Sure, some will be rubbish. But so is James Patterson.

I’m going to be reviewing books I discover, and sharing my favourites. By and large they won’t be about already famous authors (except in a few cases) even though in terms of blog hits, those would bring me many. My post about Susan Howatch is my highest hitting post of all time. No, that’s not what this blog is about. I want to showcase those brilliant and brave authors who don’t have a Juggernaut of a publishing house behind them, or a phalanx of marketing experts whispering advice at every turn.

So coming soon(in no particular order of merit) will be:

Anomaly” by Thea Atkinson (the very first book on Kindle I actually paid for, having got hooked by the sample.)

The Butchered Man” by Harriet Smart

The Company of Fellows” by Dan Holloway

Those are just my starters. If you have an suggestions for must-read
indies, please let me know. Being semi-fossilised already, I really
REALLY dislike romance, not keen on fantasy(though I have
enjoyed some) and classic chick-lit (of the shopping, shoes and sex
variety) generally has me reaching for the razor blades.

Anyway, I hope you will set sail for new seas and start exploring a strange new world of literature that didn’t exist even a few years ago. This kind of exploring doesn’t involve insect repellent, native guides or
Montezuma’s revenge (or Delhi belly even) but it has a risk all of
its own that you might not like:

It may open your mind.        

500th post ~ some introspection, some retrospection but mostly peering into the future

 

I don’t always do a good job of celebrating. It doesn’t come naturally to me, in many ways. You’re talking to someone who is always braced for impact, expecting the worst and not anticipating the best. I mark my birthday as much to please others as myself, but as the years go by I find some pleasure in having survived another year. I also mark my blog-i-versary, though unlike many, I don’t throw a party at reaching certain numbers of hits. How many visitors I get here is not really anything to crow about; however large or small that number, it is no credit or otherwise to me. It’s not something I have myself achieved.

But today, I do wish to mark something that I feel deserves a big pat on the back.

This is my 500th post here at Zen and the Art of Tightrope-walking. That’s 500 posts in just over 2 years, made up of multifarious topics. Short stories, poems, photos, anecdotes, travel writing, articles on dozens of subjects often related to mental health, creativity, philosophy and spirituality and many other issues.

Many blogs never make it past their first year, or fizzle out after a few posts. I have no idea why; this is variable in cause. It may even depend why a person started a blog in the first place. Writers are encouraged now to use social media to build a platform; I had no idea of this when I started. I still don’t; the only platform I’d like to build is one in a nice big tree and then build my tree-house so all my friends can come and play. I guess that’s what this blog has become. I have made a lot of friends along the way, met a few psychos (you know who you are) and have found a side to myself that I’d been concealing.

That’s the side that is just beginning to stand up and challenge the status quo around the creative arts. You see, I am watching the way the world is changing and am astonished that there is so little vision. The digital revolution means that anyone can now publish a book, and make it available online. So what happens but people focus on doing things exactly the same as they have always been done by traditional publishers? Why is no one asking “What is a book? Why does it have to be the same form?” I hear the same stuff about editing and rewriting and polishing. I don’t mean I don’t want writers to work at their stuff, but are we focusing so much on presenting work that conforms to an accepted FORM because no one has woken to the thought that actually, we may be able to discard many of the forms because they came about to fit paper.

We take it for granted that a book conforms to certain preconceived ideas of what a book is, when many of those ideas have come about because of the physical constraints of a paper book. Length, too is something that has reduced because of shorter attentions spans and a desire for a less leisurely pace. Reading some Dickens’ lately I became aware of quite how different the pace of his novels was. The conventions of fiction are just that: conventions. They persist because the readers demand them: happy endings, resolutions of difficulties by the final pages, main characters that the reader relates to.

What if we could sweep away all the conventions and experiment a bit? Write stories where it ends without resolution, like real life? Or where the reader can suggest endings or choose them? What about turning things on their head and having a villain who becomes a hero, or a heroine who turns into a villainess?

I can hear people shaking their heads and saying, yes, but that’s not what readers want. No, it’s what publishers tell you that people don’t want. Do you know people who’d read something that challenged them, or pushed them out of their comfort zone? I do. There’s not vast numbers of them; it’s hardly a mass market, but then I gave up on the idea of being a best seller a long while ago. That’s about as probable as winning the Lottery.

Why do we insist on aspiring to BIG numbers all the time? Why are Indie authors always being told they’ll never sell many books? Is selling books the WHOLE reason why writers write? Is perhaps the pressure to tailor your writing to a market or a genre or even to the ideas of an editor or agent a thing that might be curtailing your personal exploration of YOUR voice, YOUR stories, YOUR art? Where would they go without that pressure? (I am aware that there are plenty of people who write for a living and whose freedom is curtailed by the need to sell and pay the bills; I am not one of them. Once I would have liked to have been; not sure of that any more at all)

Art, whether it is visual or literary or musical or whatever, is a living thing that thrives on experimentation and exploration. The digital age is offering all of us the most mind-blowing scope for experiment and exploring. You could do anything. ANYTHING. The possibilities are beyond anything we have so far encountered.

All you need is imagination and a bit of daring to take that step forward and just try.

When I began this blog, I really had no idea really what a blog was, but as a part of a pact with myself I set out to say YES to more things I’d once have said no to, and 500 posts later, I find myself here, on the edge of a new world where anything might happen.

Would you like to come along for the ride and help make things happen, for you and for me and for everyone who has ever aspired to be a creator? Or would you prefer to stick with what you already know, what others tell you works and stay within your comfort zone?

The combination of internet, digital publishing and the explosion of social media is a combination as revolution every bit as dynamic and frightening as the advent of the printing press, the postal service and the arrival of cinema all rolled into one. The medium of The Book could change utterly, evolve into a new animal.

I simply don’t know where all this may lead. But don’t let the men in grey limit the possibilities by chaining it all down to profit and loss and catering to the masses and to the mediocre and the humdrum.

Let’s be daring and take flight. My wings are itching to explore new skies and new horizons.

Society does not value its artists ~ an examination of systemic contempt

 

Society does not value its artists ~ an examination of systemic contempt

  

I made myself quite unwell over the last four days, gnawing at a festering sore of an issue without really understanding why it bothered me so much. If it had been on my skin, you’d have thought I was merely picking at a tiny scab and making it worse. But that tiny scab hid something much deeper, just as skin cancer lesions can seem unimpressive and fail to convey the threat they pose to health. I thrashed around, snarling a lot and feeling incapable of articulating quite why I was in such distress over what many other saw as a small thing, barely worth noticing.

To backtrack, I’d discovered that a project I had thought both nurturing of writers and of spiritual awareness had turned out to be nothing more than a run-of-the-mill attempt to make some money off the backs of writers and poets. No law had been broken as far as I know, but it reduced the whole thing down to yet another “send us your writing so we can publish it and you can buy your own work back from us as part of a book” scheme. Many poetry contests use this format and unless it’s for a well-known and prestigious prize, it is seldom worth bothering with; I got caught with one a few years back, and needless to say, I never bought the book they offered me at some exorbitant price. If you want to see your work in print, fine. I am aware that many of those who took part in this initiative are delighted with it and have bought multiple copies of the offered book, which had the merit of not being overpriced. But I would be willing to bet that very few people will buy the book who are not somehow connected to the project in some way either by virtue of having work in it or knowing someone who does.

There was something deeper at work in my obsessional worrying at this; there always is and troublesome as it may be to others to see me go through this process and deeply distressing as it is to me to do it, I do eventually dig my way through to the truth at the heart of the matter and this time it is a very ugly truth indeed.

It’s so ugly you may not be able to bear it. I know I can hardly bear to look at it now I have unearthed it.

It’s simply that not only do I see that my work with words is not valued by society, but that all the work with words by writers dead, alive, published and unpublished are viewed with a contempt that runs so deep that we are seldom even aware of it.

Do a straw poll today and ask people to think of the names of writers. Chances are the names you get will be Dan Brown and Katie Price unless you have a fairly literary set of acquaintances. Do the same for poets and I suspect you may find a dead silence and a scratching of heads before someone says, “Oh yeah, Shakespeare. Oh and Wordsworth.” Great results hey? Two beach read purveyors and two very dead poets.

The contempt goes into the industry; anyone who has ever submitted(now there’s a suitably bondage-orientated word to set your hackles rising) work to a publisher knows about the slush pile. Note the choice of word: slush, that half-melted mucky stuff you see piled at the sides of roads after a long period of snow, filthy and useless. If you’ve ever got rejected, the first ones you tend to get are without any sort of personalisation, a stock slip without reference to you as a person or the work you sent them. I have plenty of letters back praising me and telling me to keep going because I was good; they just didn’t have a niche, or they didn’t love it quite enough to take a risk or whatever reason they chose to give. Each time, it sawed at my soul and in the end, I’d had enough. Enough of being considered but rejected. I may have got further than many do, but it wasn’t far enough and the damage it did me was incalculable. That’s why I think this recent brush with more contempt hurt worse, because I’d begun to hope for better, especially among writers (the organisers of this were supposedly both writers and spiritual)

As a society we consume the work of artists (the words of writers) without paying any attention to the artist. We feel ourselves qualified to critique art without knowing anything about the process. Listen in at a gallery sometime, especially somewhere like Tate Modern; the sentence you will hear most is usually, “I may not know anything about art but I know what I like.” I’ve said it myself, which is a lie, because I do know something about art (but there’s another story) and while I understand that appreciation of the finished product is subjective, the understanding of the process of creation is not.

When it comes to writing, any moderately literate person can write. But to write well, that is another matter entirely. I think it may be this accessibility to the basics of the art that means that society has long since lost any sense of appreciation of it. We consume it without tasting it, without tasting the work that went into it. Writers are the milch cows of the media; if one withdraws there are thousands of others to take their place. If you buy books from Amazon, you get suggestions of what to buy next on the basis of what you have already bought. “If you liked Dan Brown, then why not try…” I’m sure you’ve seen this sort of thing. If the Dan Browns and the Katie Prices vanished, there’d be more of the same homogenised and sanitised crap to buy from the pen of someone else. There always is, and for good reason: the desire of the writers ourselves to have stab at immortality through our writing. Most of us know that the chances of winning the Lottery are better than the Best-sellers’ Sweepstakes, but we think, hey, buy a ticket, you never know. It could be me, it could be you. Yeah, well, I have never even bought a Lottery ticket. I’m not a gambler and hoping to make it big through writing is probably the biggest gamble ever, short of throwing yourself off Beachy Head and gambling on the rapid evolution of wings.

I’m not sure where this systemic contempt for writers and artists originated but it goes deep and I have no idea of how to reverse it. For myself, it may involve a giving up of hope for myself and my work. Because perhaps what holds me back is that hope that one day I may be up there in the panoply of literary gods, like Dan Brown and Katie Price (OK, so I was joking there but you know what I mean) and that hoping against hope in a market place so massive that ten years ago I wouldn’t have imagined it could exist outside of science fiction I might have a hope of being noticed. WordPress alone has over 400k blogs; hundreds of thousands of books are published every year. I am a speck of dust in the universe.

But even a speck of dust in the right place can be the start of a whole new world. Just look at the Big Bang.