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Archive for July, 2016

writer pasternakGoodreads is an online social meeting place for the bookish. You read a book and you tell the world what you thought about it. You score, you rate and pontificate to your heart’s content. You even get to list the books you’ve read, are reading, or intend to read. Thus, like all good social media, it affords one a means of showing off to people who really¬†couldn’t care less.

As for the writers among us, you don’t have to be a proper published author to be listed. Even self published ebooks, hastily cobbled and given away, are on there too, so it’s an inclusive, impartial and non-partisan catalogue, which has to be good.

But before signing up and contributing to the heaps of unsolicited critique already on there, remember Goodreads is an advertising platform aimed at selling you stuff you probably don’t need. It also, crucially, has a business model of which we, the bookish, are an integral part, providing a vast quantity of free content, both the commentary, and (in the case of us self published authors) even the stuff that’s commented upon. In return it allows us occasionally to “share” in the success of selected famous authors by engaging in online Q and A sessions with them, but again, remember, this sharing is a means of advertising the said author’s works, or at the very least maintaining their profile at our own unpaid expense.

In short, Goodreads is pure genius.

But it doesn’t quite work for me, and the main reason is this: I’ve never been comfortable critiquing the work of another author. True, I do have a Goodreads account and have “reviewed” books I’ve enjoyed, but it’s rare I’ll take out the hatchet, because I don’t feel qualified, and would rather not say anything if I cannot say something positive. To say a work is rubbish, as Goodreads’ army of unpaid reviewers often do, tells us more about the reviewer than the book. This is perhaps the reviewer’s intention anyway, though with the reviewer perhaps hoping it will make them appear more intelligent, when actually all it reveals is their ignorance.

There’s something crass about denigrating creativity, be it from the pen of a master, or a teenage amateur just starting out in college romances on Wattpad. We all have it in us to be creative, but it takes courage to expose one’s self to public scrutiny. Many are put off by fear of the snide intellect tearing their work to shreds, pointing out spelling mistakes, poor grasp of grammar, or generally berating them as a shrivelling worthless fraud.

My English teacher used to do it with great panache; but it was his job. His caustic red pen and his tartly encircled “see me’s” were intended (I hope) to raise my game, but we needn’t take criticism from anywhere else at all seriously, especially amateur criticism from the likes of Goodreads or Amazon, or any other public bookish forum where people basically think out loud without a care for who they hurt in the process. This is just noise. People like to moan, and the angrier and the more depressed they are by life, the more they will moan about everything else.

The creative sphere, becoming as it is, increasingly de-monetised, need no longer be a battle of Egos for market share. De-monetised – literally writing for free – it has become more a sea of ideas, reflective of the collective turmoil of human thought in which anyone with a genuine and sincerely felt point of view is of equal worth and quite frankly beyond criticism. What creatives are about is the expression of the deeper human condition, feeding a hunger that comes from so far beyond the usual pedestrian measure of these things as to be almost paranormal. To create is the finest and most satisfying thing a we can do. To sneer at another’s work is not, especially when you’ve not paid for that work, and your opinion has not been asked for.

I have no reason to complain of my ratings on Goodreads since my average is 3.5 out of 5, which I take to be the sunnier side of middling, but I also note my early works score more highly than my later ones – my later ones scoring nothing at all. Is this a question of advancing apathy on the reader’s part regarding the time-line of my bibliography, or is it more an advancing senility on my own? Am I, in short, losing it? I’d begun to wonder about that, especially as I struggle to find my way with the current work in progress, but there is no worthwhile analysis to be had from the noise, and for the writer such a plethora of opinion can only be, at best, distracting, at worst discouraging. And anything discouraging for the writer is best avoided altogether because we’ve got enough to worry about as it is.

Writing for free, we must not allow amateur “ratings” or even the lack of them to guide our hand, and we should remember at all times the only person we need to keep on board is our selves. Trust only that if we have connected deeply enough with a piece of our own work – sufficient at least to finish it – the chances are others will connect with it too – not everyone for sure, indeed probably very few, but enough to make it worth our efforts. By all means chatter away on Goodreads, list the books you’ve read to show your friends how bookish you are, but remember, at the end of the day, like all social media, it’s basically meaningless to those it purports to serve, and of tangible importance only to those who control it.

I have been a creator of things all my life, and in that time have noticed also how non-creatives are quick to assume positions of power over us, finding ways to exploit the creatives for gains they are unwilling to share, treating us as second class citizens, milking us as unpaid cash cows. Goodreads and its ilk are the product of two decades of internetification – an evolution of sorts. This goes for my work too, though we come from opposing ideologies. Goodreads is about making something out of nothing, while I and others like me, in all our nothingess, rise powerfully from something the non-creative critic or self styled amateur marketing copywriter has any concept of.

So remember, dear un(der)paid writer, if you’re still smarting after that last semi-literate review of your heart-felt autobiography, or the novel you were sure would change the world, but which has yet to score anything at all on Goodreads review system, or indeed anywhere else, write on regardless because it’s always been that way. Have faith only in what inspires you and never mind the rest. It’s not much encouragement, but it’s all you’re going to get, and as any writer of experience will tell you, looking for encouragement beyond oneself is to take the world of idle chatter far more seriously than it deserves.

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lizardThe Internet has given us all a much wider view of the world than we used to have. Once upon a time, the TV and radio news broadcasts, and the newspapers were all we had. But events are treated so superficially by these media it’s impossible to know exactly what the underlying reasons are for a thing. Every headline is merely the tip of an iceberg of events, the details of which we never learn about in any depth. And it is always in the deeper understanding of events we find the truth, never the headline itself.

Control of such a limited bandwidth media renders it, and us, notoriously vulnerable to manipulation – the camera pointing in a certain direction, while ignoring others that may be inconvenient, embarrassing or decidedly off-message to powerful, controlling interests. Nowadays of course we have a much wider source of information and current affairs, courtesy of the plethora of online news and opinion. Indeed now you might say there are cameras pointing everywhere, and from every conceivable angle. There are facts a plenty for those willing to seek them out, but in seeking them we discover we also have fictions presented as facts, lies as truths, dreams as realities, indeed such a confused mish-mash of “content” we are still no more able to identify the underlying truth of a thing than we were before.

While controlled media has the potential to make us believe whatever the controller of that media wants us to believe, the Internet merely reflects back whatever it is we want to believe in the first place; it hides the truth in plain sight. The Internet grants the freedom to dream, to believe what we want, but what kind of freedom is that exactly when we are unable to tell the genuine article from the false? What we want to believe may well be the truth, but unless we bear it witness, personally, we will never know for sure, because for every story that says a thing is true, there are many others that say it’s not.

Let’s say I believed the world’s elite were descended from a race of lizards. Why would I believe such a preposterous thing? Because it’s what I heard; it’s what someone I respect told me was true, therefore I am inclined to believe in it as well, and there are plenty of Internet sources to support this particular belief. Or how about a global conspiracy to keep us all docile by spraying chemicals in the atmosphere? Sure,… I heard it said, and there’s plenty of stuff online to support that belief also. Ditto UFO’s, that the earth is flat, or the moon is made of blue cheese.

Whatever we want to believe, we will find convincingly corroborating sources online, and these will lend comfort to our beliefs. Whether this stuff is true or not is never clear for media of any kind does not constitute proof, and relies instead on our credulous support to render it a viable myth and myths are not truths. Myths are myths.

The same thing applies to world affairs. If we turn to You Tube, we get snippets of current affairs spinning at us from so many directions and angles now it’s impossible to know which is correct. In short, the Internet solves nothing, because from a medium of endless choice, we merely select those stories that suit our beliefs and allow our prejudice to reject the ones that don’t. Worse, the Internet tailors our searches to give us more of what it thinks we want, based on our previous searches, tending only to reinforce and narrow, rather than widen our views.

We need a fair arbiter of the truth, a voice that tells us which of the stories of the world are worth listening to. But how do we find such a trustworthy arbiter when any bloody fool can be a pundit on their own Internet news channel? Have we really arrived at the situation where we can trust no one’s judgement other than our own? But how can we even trust ourselves? How do I know I am not deluded in my beliefs, or that the person who passed on these beliefs to me was not himself deluded, ignorant, bigoted, racist, sexist, or just plain stupid?

There are those who know they don’t know a thing, and for them something might be done. It’s called education. But for those who don’t know they don’t know a thing, or worse don’t know a thing when they think they know all about it, education is of little use and most likely will be rejected anyway as a conspiracy to brainwash them of the truth. This is the way it’s always been, and the result is called the human race. And the human race, equipped with the Internet, is the human race as we once knew it but on steroids. It is a collective at the mercy of its own increasingly vicious, ignorant, unconscious maelstrom of thought and emotion.

Only education points the way to truth. Armed with a wide, general and impartial knowledge of the world, and an experience of life, you might eventually ask how likely is the truth of a thing, and thereby come to some sort of approximation of it, but even this is no guarantee, for there are many highly educated people who are also fools, lending their foolish opinions to the world of thought.

I’ve heard it said there’s no such thing as the truth anyway. It was probably one of those half baked puffball quotations you get from a self-styled self-help guru’s website, one that thinks it knows a thing when it doesn’t. But in an altercation between two individuals one of them clearly hits the other first. There is a definite truth to it, but when both cry foul, and in the absence of impartial witness, there’s no knowing who started it, no actual “knowing” the truth of their story at all. At school, in the days of corporal punishment, both would have their backsides tanned, both truth and falsehood winding up with smarting asses, the truth resentful at not being believed, the falsehood smug at having truth concealed.

So how do we get at the truth? Beats me. Age doesn’t help – the older one gets the wider only one’s view of the sea of untruth. This doesn’t aid navigation much; it results only in a gradual becalming, so progress turns in on itself, becomes contemplative and philosophical, rather than desiring to bring about change in the world, for without foundation all things crumble into dust, so where is one to begin? It’s tempting to believe all humans are mad, incapable of either telling or perceiving the truth any more, and that the only philosophy worth a damn, whether it’s true or not, is one that tries to stop us inflicting suffering on each other, or on ourselves, because, well, pain hurts, and it makes sense to stop it. But that’s life in general. You begin thinking you know everything about it, and wind up realising you don’t know anything at all.

And that’s the truth.

Dammit.

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man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885So, you’ve written a story. It might be a short story or a long story, or even a very long novel length story, and you’re thinking it’s the best of you, that others have only to read it in order to see the world differently, to be transformed, dazzled, blown away by this original idea, by this new talent, the talent that you are. It will be the vindication of everything you’ve ever worked for, it will be a poke in the eye for those who told you you were wasting your time, that you would never be published. But you’re also thinking it’s unfortunate, that after sending it out to magazine editors , agents, and publishers for years and years and years, it looks like the naysayers were right: you can’t get your story published anywhere.

Still on the upside, no one’s actually said you can’t write, that you haven’t the talent, the originality, the sheer imagination or whatever to write a proper story – the type others want to read, the type supermarkets want to sell, the type people pick up at airports to take on their holidays, the type hundreds of years from now people will still want to read while hailing you as a literary genius. No. Nobody’s actually said you’re no good, though at times you’re tempted to infer it from the fact of your lack any of success whatsoever .

I offer no opinions on the trials of conventional publishing at all, other than the fact publishing is, and always has been, the writer’s bane, and is becoming no easier an ordeal either to endure or survive, let alone succeed with. What I try to do instead, is ask the writer in this position what it is they want.

Michael Graeme has never published anything. He’s an online creation, as much of a fiction as the books he writes. His alter ego however, was active as a writer throughout the 80’s and the ’90’s, and by fluke published some short fictions in an Irish Magazine, but he has this to say of them:

If through publication it’s a vindication of your own self worth as a writer you’re seeking, you can forget it. You won’t find it in the first story to be accepted, nor the second nor any after that. There’s a moment of euphoria of course, but after that you’re thinking of the next story, and the next, and the next and each one trying to prove you’ve not lost your edge since the last. And publishers, magazines, whatever, they have a very narrow view of what it is they want, and what they want from you is pretty much what they had last time, so under no circumstances should you offer them anything ¬†different.

So you write to suit the guidelines until there’s nothing left you can say, and you feel like a dried out sponge unable to bear the thought of penning one more damned tale along those same old lines and within the crucifying limits of that same old word-count. But you’ll always have other types of stories you want to tell. You’re a human being, your psyche changes as you grow, you want to move on, but publication pins you down with a label through your heart that reads “successful formula, do not change”. This applies until the publisher’s criterion changes, and then you’re finished.

So you write other stuff, and send it off elsewhere, but this time you’re not so lucky, the market not so broad, it’s more competitive perhaps, and so your self worth is shot through once more and you’ve forgotten those earlier stories you’ve already had the stamp of approval on, because they do not vindicate the you that you are now. And the moral of all this is not to seek the vindication of self worth in publication at all. Publish yes, if you’re lucky, but do not pin your life’s worth upon it, because the odds are too long to be risking such a fortune as that.

Perhaps you already know this. Perhaps deep down you admit to yourself you just want to be read, because you believe in this story you’re writing and you want others to share in what you feel when you’re writing it. And actually, are you that bothered about the money? Apart from a few celebrity authors, the money in writing has never been worth counting on, so much so that non-celebrity authors have always had to get themselves proper jobs as well to pay the bills.

We’ve all forgotten that before the Internet, before Smashwords and Feedbooks and Wattpad, the writer had no choice but to deal with the world of conventional publishing, with the agents and the magazine editors, because they were the gatekeepers to the printing press and the distribution networks. But now you can be read in a heartbeat, provided you’re willing to give your work away. Interesting angle that: give your work away? Of course, you’ll be told it’s rubbish doing it that way, that your work is just as lost, tossed into a sea of semi-literate garbage, and that’s no place for a fine upstanding writer like yourself. But don’t listen. There are readers out there, looking for stuff like yours. They read it on their ‘phones during all those empty times we have to fill, like waiting in line for stuff, or sitting on a train, or surreptitiously at work when we should be shovelling data into spreadsheets.

Put a story on Feedbooks and you’ll have a hundred readers in the first week, maybe a thousand before the month is out. Things will tail off after that, and you may get a half dozen readers a week thereafter, but it’s more than you’d get by persevering with the printed press for years before giving up on it. And these are readers with an international distribution: America, Canada, the UK, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand to list but a few of the countries the stats indicate Michael Graeme has reached. Some will even get in touch and let you know what they thought; most won’t, but the muse does not expect them to, and neither should we.

The internet opens up a whole new landscape for the writer with the right attitude. And the attitude is this: If writing means that much to you, if it’s coded into your DNA and you’d feel worthless and lost without it, then you cannot afford to pin your self-worth on the whims of conventional publishing – and of ever seeing your book in glossy covers on the shelves at Waterstones. In fact, this is a bit childish. Ask yourself instead if you could bear to give your work away, to expect nothing for it in return except the occasional thank you from a stranger on the other side of the world. It’s not easy, I know, to break the expectation you should be paid for your work, but if you can bring yourself to look beyond it, the rewards are immense. If you believe in your work, the money is always secondary any way.

In writing for nothing online, we still complete the contract with our muse, our genius, our daemon – whatever you want to call it – that we cast the words it gives us on the wind. The rest is up to fate, and always has been. And then it’s from within we are granted our fortune, our rest, our energy and of course our inspiration for the next project.

That’s writing, and it’s rewarding.

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