“There’s gold in them there hills…oh, no, now wait a minute…!”

There’s gold in them there hills…oh, no, now wait a minute…!”

A couple of years ago now we worked our way through a dvd box set of the hit series Deadwood. Set in the town of Deadwood (a real place) and following the fortunes of various people (many of whom have the names if not the actual characters of real, historical and sometimes famous people), during the Gold Rush period.

At the time, it rang a lot of bells about the way the self-publishing world was going and since then, I’ve thought about it a lot.

I first began publishing my own books in 2011 (though Strangers and Pilgrims was first published by someone else for me, it was a false start about eighteen months before I finally took it back and began again). It was a time somewhat akin to the early years of the Gold Rush. A new, exciting and potentially extremely lucrative adventure awaited those who were willing to just get their work out there, battling the new tech and avenues the way the prospectors battled weather and mountains and so on.

But gold is buried deep, is hard to find and seams run out unexpectedly and anyone who made plans based on a first lucrative lucky strike were fools if they thought the gold would just keep on coming. I’ve seen it said that the entire amount of gold in the world would fill an Olympic sized swimming pool and no more than that. Gold is finite but hope is eternal. The cannier inhabitants of Deadwood became the suppliers instead of prospectors. They opened saloon bars, shops and brothels; they sold food and drink, shovels and pans, flesh and promises and treasure maps to the folks who flocked there believing they’d make their fortune.

You really can’t blame them. They’d been lured there themselves by the dangling carrot of unlimited wealth if you just dug long enough in the right places, and when they’d got enough to start a business of some sort, the wise ones quit prospecting. As long as people continued to flock or even trickle there, hope in their hearts and enough dollars to buy equipment and whisky, the legends would keep being retold. It only took the occasional lucky strike to keep hope fresh and new legends to be forged.

It’s the same with self publishing and probably publishing generally. We all hear tales of people whose work suddenly went viral and they sold millions; we all probably secretly still believe it could be us, if we just stay out there. But few of us are making any money any more. There’s a whole other debate about whether writing for money is a fool’s game anyway, and another about whether ethically and faith-motivated folks are allowed to ever admit that some of their motivation for writing is in the hopes of making a living or even a decent paying hobby or second job. I’m not going there today.

The people who have a chance of making a living are those who now run businesses selling to the writers. Whether it’s editing services, formatting, cover design or one of a plethora of services deemed needful for authors, aspiring or otherwise, there’s a LOT of canny people out there, offering it. Organisations like Book Bub offer dreams of success through their advertising services (which cost, and dearly and they’re choosy who they will take on for a campaign) bringing your book in front of an audience that matches the demographic your book is aimed at.

For me, I’ve realised that I’m a gold panner. I’m someone who goes out weekends and evenings, with makeshift equipment and warmly-padded waders, and stands bent over a fast-flowing mountain stream, sifting gravel and occasionally finding grains of gold. Once in a while, a nugget comes my way. Sometimes, the dynamite someone has used higher up the mountain has loosened more rocks that bear gold, and I find that the tiny specks come to me more often. But it’s the process of being out there, looking at the fish and the sparkling water and the occasional gleams of precious metal, and knowing that while I could have boxed smarter and found another way to garner my gold, at least I am still doing what I set out to do, and still have a tiny bit of hope in my heart.

Advertisements

What to do while you’re waiting for the postman…

What to do while you’re waiting for the postman…

About ten days ago, I wrestled my way through the long-put-off edits for Little Gidding Girl, excising any direct quotes from T.S. Eliot and adding in numbers for footnotes so that the discarded lines could be referenced by readers should they choose to do so. Then I did yet another read-through for typos and stuff of that ilk, before uploading the completed text to Createspace. After the usual twelve or so hours wait, I got the notification that I could now order proofs.

Said proof copies are due to arrive by the 2nd of June. All of a sudden, it looks like this book might actually be happening after all.

Truth is, I’m unprepared. My brain seems to have gone into a state of acute fogginess, and my psyche has become frozen and unable to respond. Everything feels like it’s been slowed down; holding a conversation feels like I’m talking on a satellite phone to someone half a world away. There’s a delay between hearing and understanding, and another delay between understanding and replying.

I know that by this stage in the game other (successful) writers have their strategies for launch day in place. Blogs have been written, giveaways organised, tweets scheduled, FB party invites sent out, interviews conducted and your Street Team are all ready with their pom-poms and chants. Me, I’ve done nothing.

This is the first full-length piece of fiction to be released since Square Peg was published in April 2013. Four years is a long time. Yes, I managed to get The Hedgeway out in the October of 2014, and I’ve got the book of essays out and two books of poetry. But I’m a novelist who hasn’t released any novels for four years and I worry that the momentum I’d built has long since dissipated and readers have found other authors to enjoy.

I’m not even sure what LGG could be classified as. Broadly speaking it fits into “Women’s Fiction” but only because the main character is female. It’s not a romance, though love is involved. It’s not a mystery, though mystery is involved too. It’s not paranormal, though elements of it veer into that area. It’s not magical realism, or fantasy or coming-of-age, though again, it has aspects of all of them. No wonder my unlamented agent never managed to place it with publishers; there’s not a single nice easy label to slap on it and shove it out into the world. I’d call it literary fiction but there’s a pretentiousness that many associate with that genre that I’d rather avoid.

So despite a lot of head-scratching and cogitating, I can’t find any niche where it’d gain any sort of prominence amid the countless thousands of books released every week. It may be doomed to sink under the weight of those thousands and of my incompetence.

You may already have read the blurb, here or elsewhere, but here it is again:

At seventeen, Verity lost the future she’d craved when Nick, her enigmatic and troubled poet boyfriend, drowned at sea. At thirty-five, in a safe, humdrum and uninspired life, she finds that snatches of the life she didn’t have begin to force their way into her real life. This other life, more vivid and demanding than her actual life, begins to gather a terrible momentum as she starts to understand that her un-lived life was not the poetic dream she had imagined it might be. Doubting her own sanity as her other life comes crashing down around her in a series of disasters, Verity is forced to re-examine her past, realign her present and somehow reclaim a future where both her own early creative promise and her family can exist and flourish together. Exploring the nature of time itself, the possibilities of parallel universes and the poetic expressions of both, Verity searches to understand why and how Nick really died and what her own lives, lived and un-lived, might truly mean.

It’s a book that I think might well strike a chord or two with many women, but if you’re expecting a kick-ass heroine like Chloe or Isobel, you might get a surprise. Verity is quiet, but they say it’s the quiet ones you want to watch. She thinks things she never says, and she lives under daily bullying without apparent complaint; she puts others before herself and she lives a half life that many women might really relate to.

So what am I doing while I wait for the proof copies to wing their way across the Atlantic? Not a lot. I can’t set a date for a launch party until I’ve seen those copies are what I want them to be. I’ve had too many false starts with this book to want to risk that. What I would like, though, is for friends here and on social media, if they have read and liked my books, to consider potentially hosting a blog for me, or doing an interview (especially after they’ve read the book) asking questions about the book and its themes, over the next few months. People have said that the majority if a book’s sales come in the first weeks, and that might well be the case, but I am hoping that enough folks have been waiting impatiently for this one for some sales to be guaranteed at least. The staggered approach means that more exposure is likely to happen once the initial surge (please!) has begun to ebb.

I’m terrified, to be honest. What if no one likes it? What if no reviews happen? Away With The Fairies finally made it to the magic 50 reviews a few months back after being out for six years, but realistically speaking, I think that getting lots of reviews in the first few weeks might well carry more weight in the mysterious algorithms.

And there’s a shockingly large amount of me in this book, too, so it’s a risk, sending it out into the world, because not only are some of my own poems included in the book, but some of my own, secret, never-spoken-about, history is too. I’ve not mentioned this aspect because, well, because it is secret and private. It’s entirely fiction, yet in many important ways, it’s not at all. I’d tell you more but then I’d have to kill you… (that’s a joke, by the way)

So while I wait for that familiar brown parcel, I ought to get my thinking cap on and write some more blog posts, for here and for others who might be so gracious as to host them. I seem to have mislaid that thinking cap, so perhaps a scarf might do.

Cause for celebration or commiseration?

Cause for celebration or commiseration?

(This is going to be one of those posts that might get on the nerves of the optimists among you, so perhaps bear with me rather than tutting. I could do with a bit of compassion and understanding right now.)

On Monday I completed a book I began more than four years ago. Coming in at a fairly slender 73k words, it’s provisionally entitled Belle Dame, and it’s the first full length work I’ve managed to finish in a whisker over six years. Someone said the other day that it’s the dream of many people to actually write a book and that finishing one is a cause for celebration, but I’m ambivalent about it these days.

But finishing this book is a bigger deal than that. Around six years ago, a variety of connected events pretty much ended me as a writer. They almost ended me as a person, and while I’m not going to go into details, they’ve left scars. Compounded with the insidious effects of Dexter my parathyroid tumour (now removed) and the effects of joint hypermobility syndrome (which is much more than being a bit bendy), I lost the flow and the joy of writing books. Belle Dame was a project that tied into my exploration of finding some healing for the original events and the knock-on effects, as well as more prosaically being able to say, “Yes, I am still a writer. I’m working on X book.” I’m actually working on about five other books too, but none anywhere close to completion.

Belle Dame was also a way of trying to find a kind of closure denied me in real life, and that function of the book meant that I could not think how to end the story that honoured my beliefs and philosophies, as well as being a satisfying ending to the tale itself. It was, to put it bluntly, a real conundrum. I set myself a final deadline of Monday, saying to myself if I did it, I would use birthday money to buy a special treat I’d been coveting for over a year. When I did type THE END on Monday afternoon, I felt flat. I’d seen over the last few years other writers on social media waxing lyrical about what a terrific feeling it is to type those epic words, and how fabulous it it. Yet I felt nothing more than a sense of relief, and a sense also of mild dread. No one has read it yet (except me of course and I don’t count) and I’m not sure I want anyone to. I can’t face even the well-chosen critiques of people who love me and love my writing. I certainly can’t face the idea of publishing it. To put it out there for anyone to read and rip apart, horrifies me. Equally, I’m not sure I can face the more likely reality of publishing it and having an echoing, deafening silence because no one buys it and no one reads it, because no one really cares (out there in the big bad world of books) how long a book took an author to write or what it cost them in terms of emotional angst and agony. The bottom line at present seems to be this: if it’s free, people might grab it but not read it, if it costs a few quid, a few might take a punt on it, and if it’s priced the same as a posh coffee, your friends might buy it to support you. There are too many books out there these days to have much of a chance of gaining attention if you don’t write in the really popular genres and if you’re not also an entrepreneur.

A friend made the suggestion that perhaps I should return to seeking traditional publishing deals, because getting attention and sales for my kind of books now is perhaps beyond the remit of self-publishing and my skills therein. That too I cannot face. I’ve been through that mill twice, with all the pain that entails. I’m also pretty anti publisher. I am, to quote the friend, between a rock and a hard place.

Little Gidding Girl is also stuck. I’ve decided that the only way of avoiding a whole world of trouble with permissions and copyright issues without basically supping with the devil, is to rewrite the last fifty pages so that they work without the quotes I’d originally used (believing at the time that a publisher would deal with that side of things for me. How naïve I was.) This will take more courage and energy I have right now. I suspect I’ll wake up one morning and think, today’s the day and just do it, but at the moment I cannot get my brain around it. Again, the feeling of dread persists. I don’t want to publish the book and after half a dozen kind friends buy a copy, for it to sink into the swamp of forgotten books. It boils down to this: people read for very different reasons from the ones I write for (if that makes sense). I’ve never written solely to entertain and while my books are entertaining, there’s more than that to them.

I bought my treat with some glee, but I don’t feel I have achieved any sort of inner celebration for this book and that’s dreadfully sad. This may be connected to the very persistent low mood aka depression I’ve begun to realise is probably my lot for life now; the inability to feel anything is a classic symptom of depression.

But all that not withstanding, I did it. I finished the book and next time you have a nice glass of wine, whiskey or whatever your tipple is, tip that glass to me and wink, and silently whisper, “Congratulations!” and maybe I’ll feel it too.

The fear of imperfection is a paralysing thing ~ some musings on the process of “settling”

The fear of imperfection is a paralysing thing ~ some musings on the process of “settling”

I’ve been stuck so long I thought I might begin to fossilise in the crevice between a rock and a hard place. Perhaps I have. Imagine me stretching and cracking and shedding lots of gravel as I move slowly into the light, a troll restored to pre-dawn mobility. Now to find a bridge to hide under and wait for billy-goats.

Where was I?

Oh yes.

A couple of years ago, I started doing a paperback copy of Square Peg. After the first proof copies arrived, I gave up. Analysing it now, I can see why I gave up. It ties in with my love-hate-love-loathe affair with books and especially book-shops. In the last few years I have walked round most bookshops in almost physical pain. Some of the pain is sheer angst and anger that my books will never be on the shelves, but once we get past that little matter, the pain is harder to pin down. Books are exquisite things. Truly. Even if you never open it, a new book is a joy to behold; the paper, the colours, the very scent.. all delightful. But I’ve had a sort of recoil: it’s all too much these days. In a bid to woo (woo, woo!) potential readers, publishers have gone to extraordinary lengths to impress. Shelves and tables in Waterstones are like courtship dances of myriad birds of paradise made paper. They dazzle, they en-trance, they entice… and then I sicken. What about the words inside? The blurbs do the same: blind you with careful and clever constructions, teasing and dancing with your love of intrigue and the promise of losing yourself in another world.

And I find myself withdrawing like an anemone, springing my tentacles back into my being, and feeling oddly stung and put off. I almost yearn for the Zen-like simplicity of the old Penguin classics, Spartan and uncompromising. I don’t buy books very often in person these days; when I do, it’s usually from our very excellent Book Hive in Norwich, or the book shop in Diss, and it’s often non-fiction and often poetry. I am bewildered by the choices on offer, and the creeping sense of being bamboozled into parting with hard earned cash for novels that nearly always leave me disappointed. It’s the same online, too: everywhere you look, someone is flashing you their books, bright, beautifully designed and presented, begging you to take them, take them NOW.

And I knew in my heart of hearts I cannot compete. I cannot compete with those book-birds of paradise gracing the front tables in Waterstones, clad in their wrappers embossed with gold ink and perpetual promise. I cannot compete with the array of books online, perfectly presented, designed, advertised and endorsed to the hilt with a thousand glowing reviews and (because everyone suspects ALL five stars) a smattering of 3s and 2s and a single one star (which we all know is malicious, don’t we?) I cannot make my books look like those; I do not have the resources, either in terms of skills or of money to hire those skills, and so I gave up.

Some might read that and think, buck up, stop whining. To them I would say… well, I won’t say what I would say. It would be rude.

I could not proceed because I could not emulate the perfection on display and so felt I could go no further. When I began publishing, it was OK to be a little home-made about it all. But in the six years since then, everything has become alarmingly “professional”. One is exhorted not to let the side (i.e. other indie writers) down by being less than slick in your quest to be as good as the traditional publishing industry. It’s even made me sometimes wish I actually had a publishing deal so that I could step away from the other side of being a writer. But the memory of how appallingly ill sending in submissions made me in the past, stops me going there again. I’m hanging on to the last shreds of sanity and dignity as it is.

So, today, I tackled that paperback again. I fiddled and messed and waited and fiddled some more, and right now I am waiting for an email saying the cover is approved. It’s not going to look like one of those astonishing book-birds on show in Waterstones, but it looks nice. It works. And moreover, even though I sell very few paperbacks, it needs to be out there, even if no-one ever buys it.

I also wrestled the new book almost to the point of conquering it, and making it ready to start the process of uploading, first to Createspace and a paperback version. There’s a few more bits to do, and I’ve had a very kind offer of some words of praise to put on the back too, from another author I respect greatly (once she’s had a chance to read it and decide whether she does want to endorse it, that is. I’m cool if she decides not to, after all). Little Gidding Girl is all about settling, too, of realising that what you have is pretty damned excellent, and that all the other paths you might have walked may not have been the sunlit, joy-filled ones you imagine them to be.

People speak of “settling” as if it is a bad thing, but it’s not. Sometimes it’s the only way forward, to accept things as they are and work with them, because solid reality is something one can live with, and work on, whereas dreams and moonshine and unrealistic ambitions keep you moon-struck and paralysed. It’s been my fear of imperfection that’s kept me locked in this glacier-like stasis, locked like a flattened mammoth stunned by a wall of ice; the fear of being ridiculed for the odd typo, for less-than-stunning covers, for daring to be a tiny bit rough around the edges and thereby tainting others by my lack of care. Someone, somewhere, will always find a comma out of place and throw the book at a wall. Every traditionally published book I have bought in the last ten years has had at least one little issue, be it typo or rogue apostrophe. In the end, my only way to break out of my crevice in the rock is to admit: I’m not perfect, I’m never going to be perfect and neither are my books.

So. Watch this space.

Permission to rest?

 

Permission to rest?

It’s almost the end of January as I write this; Imbolc/Candelmas will be upon me in a few days and I was thinking, I ought to write something. I ought to do another Cave post. I ought to celebrate the slow return of the light and the changing of the season. But I’m not going to. Not today, anyway. I may change my mind in the mean time but right now, I’m not going to do it.

It occurred to me that it’s nearly six years since I last completed a full-length novel (the third in the Ashurst series) and since then I have limped along with a number of works-in-progress. One is over 60k words long. I had hoped/intended to finish it last year. But every time I thought about opening the document to work on it, I had this sinking feeling and I thought, “Why bother?” and couldn’t find the impetus to start. It’s the same with four other projects.

I am so tired, so bloody tired, and I can’t let myself rest. I keep thrashing away, trying to recover my inspiration and energy for writing; I write the odd short story, essay, poem or add a few thousand words to one novel or another. I’m doing corrections for the new novel, after the first proof reader has gone through it; I’ve done around a hundred of the three hundred pages. It’s like squeezing blood from a stone (well, not quite like that; the blood comes from injuring your hand, not from the stone. Maybe a better metaphor than I thought). I keep feeling that if I stop entirely I will never get going again and all the hard work I’ve done to create a writing career for myself will be for nothing. If I let go, do I stop being a writer because I stop writing, or can I be like an actor, who spends time doing other things and calls it resting? And what would I do, what would I be, if I did?

I want to rest but I cannot seem to be able to give myself permission.

Writer Burn-Out and Other Things.

Writer Burn-Out and Other Things.

Writer Burn-out, and other things

Burnt-out.

Conjures images of forests devastated by wildfire, of cars reduced to shells of blackened metal and puddles of melted rubber and plastic, of electronics smouldering and going “pouf” before expiring in a spiral of evil-smelling smoke.

In the case of a writer, it’s often nothing visible. They just go very quiet. Or they become very noisy, bouncing around social media being terribly cheerful. But there’s a brittle nature to the good cheer, hiding an edge they’re often aiming to conceal at all costs. The edge is a sharp one, a foot sticking out of a shallow grave, ready to trip you up and reveal a horrible secret: you can’t write any more.

People suggest tips to get you writing again. Writing prompts, courses, a break away from writing, a holiday, time spent reading instead.

I’ll let you into two secrets. The first you may have guessed: I can’t write any more. The second: I don’t think I want to, either. It’s the second that’s the killer.

I stopped writing once before, stopped it dead in the water, in 1995. Following the stress of (among other things) trying to do rewrites of a novel for one of the Big Six (as it was then), I became almost fatally ill. Something inside my brain said, “Blow this for a game of soldiers!” and popped. When I recovered enough, I finished the rewriting as requested, waited, and after a committee discussed it, it was dismissed and that was that. Contrary to what I have believed in the years since, I don’t think I made a conscious decision to stop writing. I just…stopped. It became a memory, part of my past, something I didn’t do any more. I think now I shut down the vaster part of my psyche, because I couldn’t face it. I couldn’t face the inevitable failure and loss of hope.

You see, me and stories go back a long, long way. Pre-literate me wrote stories, in my head, and used my father’s typewriter to try and get them onto paper. Didn’t work, obviously, but full marks for trying, eh? My whole childhood and teens, I worked on stories. I didn’t do anything much between going to university and becoming a mum, but that was as much circumstances as anything else. My first round of trying to get published, I was in my late twenties. My second round, late thirties. There wasn’t and won’t be a third round. I still believe that self-publishing is the only route for someone like me; on a practical note, now I am in my fifth decade, publishers aren’t generally interested anyway. Youth is what interests most of them. I’m not sure if it’s because a young author has decades of writing ahead or whether they believe they can mould a younger person.

But my God, I am TIRED. Tired of trying to do things that I’m not cut out to do, of trying to understand things that are beyond me, and of the entire landscape. Books are mere commodities, nothing more. Or so you’d believe. I don’t. I believe that a book is a holy, sacred thing, a wonder of the civilised world, a joy and a gift. I’ve loved that the e-book means I can carry a whole library round in my handbag, but the down-side is that there are now millions and millions of books out there and no way to easily find ones I might value. It means that good books and great books whose authors (whether self published or not) are not able to do the right kind of hustling, schmoozing, and generally selling of one’s assets now required to get a book in front of potential readers, fail, sink and disappear without trace. Heaven only knows how many beautiful, life-changing gems have gone unseen, their authors losing heart and finally faith. My own did well at first but have started to sink and disappear and the only thing that has even a tiny chance of raising them is to put out more books. I’ve got more books on my hard drive, written in the productive frenzy ten years ago that followed the unexpected return of my mojo. Yet the process of polishing, of editing, of producing a cover, blurb, publicity and so on, daunts me more than it did, because it feels futile. I can’t kid myself that this one might be THE ONE; I’ve done so for each and every book I’ve published, and each time the results have been poorer than the last. The market is saturated and making an impression sufficient to not only generate but also to sustain sales is now impossible for me. I know I have wonderful people who buy and read and love everything I’ve ever put out. It should be enough. But it isn’t.

At this point, some are going to be thinking, just take a break, stop for a few months, do something else instead. These are things I have tried. Writing is not only part of me; it’s who I am. It’s so interwoven with my essential being that I will break if it is taken from me, even by my own hand. The picture here is of what happened when I stored a long thin vase inside a bigger one; when I came to need the smaller one, the glass had shifted ever so slightly, (glass is a strange thing) and it no longer slid out. In removing it, the bigger vase shattered in my hands.

Big vase little vase

Big vase little vase

Message in a Bottle

Message in a bottle

On Friday I managed to tick off an item on my bucket list. Except I don’t have a bucket list, but you know what I mean: a much cherished hope, dream or ambition. For some my little tick would seem a bit tame but for a book lover or any author, it was a real thrill. I went to a bookshop. Not just any bookshop but a world famous bookshop.

Shakespeare & Company in Paris, less than fifty yards from Notre Dame cathedral has been on my personal radar for some years now. Working in Paris several times a year for umpty-ump years, I’ve never had any personal free time where I’ve felt it was possible to slip away for half an hour. Not even for five minutes to just take a photo and look longingly at the window like a kid at a sweet shop.

But last Friday I did. I managed it. You aren’t allowed to take photos inside so I must tantalise you with a shot or two of the exterior.

DSCI0198

DSCI0197

They have a Lucky Dip selection where for five euros you can buy a book, sight unseen, boxed neatly in a cardboard box with their famous stamp on it. Books are more expensive in France than in the UK, so taking a risk for a small sum was all right. Alas, my Lucky Dip was not (for me) lucky, as I got a James Joyce.

But I went in and had a browse. Floor to ceiling shelving, slightly dishevelled by the number of customers who have taken books out and put them back only to pounce on the next offering, and the lovely smell of books old and new: paradise. I heard customers asking for specific books: “Do you have a copy of The Prophet?” “Yes, I believe we do!” “I’m looking for The Bell Jar…” I catch the eye of the assistant and ask sotto voce, “Do you supply it with Prozac?” and she giggles discreetly as she goes to help the customer find it.

I looked, and found I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of brilliance, of skill with words and with ideas, of the authors whose works surrounded me. I wanted to buy a book, a proper book, something I’d never normally find. Something different. After only a tiny bit of scanning of shelves I found a novel by George Sand, a little known work called Laura: the Journey into the Crystal. I had only a very short time to decide, so I bought it and the Lucky Dip and returned to my working day.

Yet a part of me remained with those shelves of books, those repositories of voices, some long, long dead. It made me realise my own voice was there, too, somewhere, on the shelves of those who have bought my books, and on the virtual shelves. George Sand would not have imagined that her books would still be being read more than two hundred years after her birth; she would surely have been delighted to see a modern woman seizing with delight one of her lesser known books.

My books are my messages in bottles, cast into the vast ocean of literature. Where they end up, I will never know. I’d like to think that they will pitch up somewhere rather than sink to the bottom of the sea. The act of casting a message in a bottle into the sea is an act of faith, and for the finder, an act of grace.

Perhaps I need a little more faith to keep chucking them out there, and believe that they may wash up on the right beaches, one day.