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Posts Tagged ‘aspiring writer’

henry cordierReticent and uncertain; are my ideas any good? I’m sure it’s a question many speculative writers ask themselves. The writing starts in uncertain circumstances, notebooks under the pillows of childhood, then creative writing homeworks for school, which must pass the red pen test of one’s English Teacher.

Mine wrote poetry – good poetry, at least the snippets he read to us in class on the brighter of his days, the days when he was not so scowly-stern. I wanted him to like my writing too, my poetry. That I respected him, feared him a little even, it meant a lot to have him pen good things in the margins of my homeworks. And of course¬†¬†it hurt when the marks slipped below C for things I’d laboured long upon, while managing to miss the point entirely.

Mr. Jones. It was approval I sought back then from him. In my eyes he was a literary genius, benign sage, and caustic nemesis rolled into one. He was a man I could both hate and love, this man who whipped me through my English O Level. He was a God, or rather the channel through which I sought the approval of the Gods for my words – his red pen the arbiter of permission to think the way I thought.

But after the brightly coursing stream of education, one is discharged into the stagnant, murky mill-pond of life, and with no Mr Jones, the image of Godhead moves to the faceless publisher. For the next twenty years I sought approval there instead, but to no avail, for the God of publishing does not exist; it is therefore healthier to be an atheist in all our dealings with them.

In retrospect, I am glad now for the red pen of Mr. Jones, bright-curling round my spelling mistakes, even the pointed “see me” and the ensuing stern lectures on my use of grammar and punctuation, with ears burning, and the girls in class I adored all listening in. Oh, the humiliation! Could he not see how much I wished to be like him? that words for me were thoughts out loud, and my thoughts did not seem like the thoughts of other boys. Are my thoughts all right, Mr. Jones? Is it all right to think and feel this way? Why can I see the story of a man’s life in a worn out shoe, when others see nothing? Why is there pathos in a girl’s discarded bow? Tragedy in a rusted spring? What see you there, Mr Jones? And is that all right? Is that normal?

Revise use of comma, apostrophe and semi-colon, Michael. Watch your spellings!

But once you have the mechanics, what you think is what you think, what you see is what you see, and you need no approval to think or see, or write an account of it. Then writing becomes a matter of style and long practice, years of practice,… decades and decades in the dusty notebooks of adulthood. But the thoughts are yours and the fact of your existence alone is sufficient for them to be written. If anyone agrees or not, is moved or not, is a matter for the Gods.

You have no power there.

Mr. Jones never told me this. It’s something we have to work out for ourselves. Perhaps he did not know; perhaps it was approval he sought for himself, through us, by reading us his poems. With the benefit of long hindsight, I think this might be true, for I am much older now than he was then, and age, if nothing else, brings insight.

No.

Do not write for approval. Ask yourself only this: in seeking publication am I chasing validation of my ideas? If the answer’s yes, you’re labouring under a delusion. Nobody cares that much. If a publisher likes your work you are one lucky scribe my friend, but if he does not, it does not mean you cannot write, that your mind is dim, that your thoughts are third rate – only that the publisher cannot sell them.

So where does approval come from? One’s online readers? It helps if readers say nice things, but it’s as well to bear in mind they might not mean it – same if they assault you with brickbats. Of course the only approval that means a damn comes from you. Only you can give yourself permission to think out loud, to have the courage your thoughts are worth the writing down. It sounds complicated and crinkly-weird, but it’s really very simple. Just be yourself, sincere, then the Gods might come and speak to you, and ultimately through you.

Isn’t that right, Mr Jones?

Good poems they were, your poems.

Keep well.

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man writingRows keep breaking out between Amazon and the world of corporate publishing. It goes like this: Amazon squeezes the publisher’s profit margin by insisting on lower prices, the publisher bends as much as they can, keen for access to Amazon’s awesome distributive power, while trying to maintain a decent cut for themselves. And if Amazon’s not happy with the deal they switch off the “buy” button. If the reader wants that publisher’s titles, they have to get them from somewhere else, they’ll be harder to find, and more expensive. None of this is personal; it’s just business.

From my perspective the struggles going on in contemporary publishing are merely symptoms of a near extinct business model, and its inevitable demise at the hands of a scary new predator. Amazon has sharp teeth and is using them to reshape the way we buy books – or indeed anything else for that matter. The big publishing houses may yet find their balance and survive in some new shape or form, I don’t know, and I find it hard to care. What interests me more is what all this means for the aspiring writer.

Traditionally, a writer plugged away in obscurity for years in order to finish “the novel”, then they spent even more years debasing themselves in search of the beneficence of the notoriously mercurial literary agent. The agent then fixed it so a publisher would read their work. If the publisher liked it, then began the writer’s slow rise from obscurity to mid-list mediocrity – except in rare cases, where a chosen few were invited to the top table of celebrity authorship. Here, in exchange for getting their teeth fixed, they might at last sup from the publisher’s golden chalice.

For the aspiring writer, at the bottom of the money chain, this system left much to be desired. To be a writer, and happy, you had to be either pathologically deluded or well connected. For the publishers and the agents though, it worked very well, enabling them to exploit a limitless ocean of creativity on which they floated their luxury liners. When they were low on talent to stoke the boilers, they just reached down and pulled another one on board. It was obvious anyone who came along and threatened this centuries old system was going to be viewed in a dim light. But unless you’ve been living on another planet this past ten years, it’s impossible to miss the fact that something is changing. Many of the smaller luxury liners have now been torpedoed. The ones that remain have become overloaded with hangers on and are sailing pretty low in the water.

There’s no shortage of writers to stoke the boilers of course, but to stretch the nautical metaphor to destruction, there’s now a problem in the engine room, and it’s this: the route from writer to reader is no longer controlled by the gatekeeper of traditional publishing. That you’re even reading this is proof that anyone can publish anything now, for nothing and find an audience. Surf over to Amazon or Smashwords and you’ll find novels by unknown writers for free, or for a couple of quid. Most of them look and sound crap, as most blogs are also meaningless crap, but this new age does shed rather a clinical light on the traditionally published stuff, a light that strips these expensively marketed and slickly edited works of their mystique, and you know what? A lot of them are crap too.

So, anyone can publish anything? Isn’t that great? Well, on the one hand, yes, but on the other,whether anyone notices you or not is a matter of luck, unless you’re prepared commit some heinous act on the basis there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But by the same token, there’s been many a traditionally published book pulped long before the public has had time to wake up to it. As any aspiring writer with more than ten years experience will tell you, traditional publishing is no guarantee of making any money at all, let alone fame and fortune – neither is the fact of getting that novel miraculously published. So you’re published, so what? We’re still turning up obscure Victorian authors and lauding them as undiscovered geniuses, but who died penniless, believing themselves failures in their own time.

So, the question is this: does the “Amazon” way of doing things, torpedoing those fuddy duddy publishers and bursting the market wide open, make it any easier for your average unknown person to take up the pen and make a decent living at it? The answer of course is a resounding no – indeed, you still have to be slightly mad even to try it. Really, don’t do it. Get yourself a proper job and, write in your spare time.

I can shift a few hundred of my titles on Feedbooks and Smashwords each week, by giving them away, and that’s fine, I seem to be happy with that, but if I were to charge so much as pennies for them, that hit-rate would dwindle to a trickle that was hardly worth logging in to check. True, some authors have done well, financially, by self-publishing, and good luck to them, but then some authors always do make it big – it just doesn’t happen very often and the likes of Amazon won’t change that.

Publishing will always be about celebrity and the shifting of large numbers of catchy titles, crap or otherwise, at a tenner each. As profit margins are squeezed, those writers in the “paid but mediocre” bracket will find themselves squeezed out too as a bigger slice of the marketing cake is reserved for those authors with the perfect teeth. More and more writers will be joining the scruffy ranks of the indy scene, self-publishing for peanuts, while scratching a living doing minimum wage type jobs. It’s not a rosy picture, but then it never was. Creative individuals will always be at the mercy of patronage, wherever it comes from. Yes, things are changing drastically at the money end of the book business, but for your average aspiring writer, it looks pretty much like business as usual to me.

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