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The morning draws on and the sky becomes a deeper grey, while the air drifting down the valley grows cooler and not so humid. A change is coming. The sycamore leaves in the deep of the wood begin to show their backs, a paler green lending contrast to the shadow, and I smell centuries of life rising, centuries of decay and renewal. There will be rain.

I descend the bank to a narrow ledge by the river, along which there runs a sketchy path. I follow it downstream, nosing through low branches to a hidden bend, half remembered, and to a broad shelf where there lies a ring of rounded river-washed stones, and the remains of a recent fire. It’s hard to believe it’s still here. I built this ring as a boy, here on this dry bank – nothing combustible close by, nothing to risk a fire getting out of hand in the dry season.

I’ve thought of this place over the years. In the meantime, some other soul has adopted it, a sympathetic soul too; there is no litter, no orange peel, or chocolate wrappers to disturb the harmony of the wood – just the scent of those centuries, and the ever present rippling of the peaty Rye.

I gather dry grasses and twigs, then set them in the ashes contained by the ring, and I light them, then add more fuel to the flames and while the fire grows, I take out a screwdriver and dismantle the gun. The stock comes off easily and I lay it across the fire. It steams for a while, as if in disbelief, then darkens suddenly and begins to burn. Before removing the barrel, I cock the spring to make sure time will ruin it. Then I take off the telescope and unscrew the focusing lens to expose the delicate graticule and its adjustment.

The river runs slower here, bulging out to a hundred feet or more, and slowing to a ponderous glide as it takes the bend, so that towards the far and inaccessible bank there is an almost stagnant pool bottomed by deep silt. I toss the telescope into the middle of it, then the mechanism of the spring and cylinder. The barrel I lay between two rocks and strike it with a hefty stone, bending it. Then it follows the rest of the gun into the silty pool,… and is gone.

I remember the gun as an accurate weapon. More than that, the gun represents for me the lore of the wood. It belongs to a time beyond the ken of today’s children. But the days of guns in Durleston Wood are over, and it’s better it should meet its end here by my own hand, than be sold on, perhaps to fall into the hands of a misanthropic teenager, to become corrupted as a breaker of windows and a killer of cats.

Guns mean something else entirely to people these days.

It’s partly this sentiment that has brought me back to the wood, but there’s something else, something in the ritual I do not immediately understand. It is a sacrifice of course, an offering. It is a letting go, the sending of a ripple into the past, so the past might offer something back to me, now.

It’s then, glancing up from the flames, I realize I am being watched. It’s a woman, dark skinned, gaunt, crouching perfectly still among the sleepy balsam on the opposite bank. I had thought myself alone. Suddenly though I’m looking across the silty waters of the Rye into a pair of eyes, watching me.

How long has she been there? What must she be thinking?

I call over : “Hello?”

But she takes fright and is gone, snatched back into the shadow of the wood. And for a moment, above the thickly lapping sound of the river, there comes the sound of a chain being dragged.

From In Durleston Wood.

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detail - girl writing by daniel garber 1917There’s a lot of ignorance regarding the kind of people who self publish (losers) and those who have conventional publishing contracts, and sign their books in Waterstones (proper writers and gurus of all things literary). If I were ever to make the mistake of bragging about my writing to strangers, the first question to come back at me would be “are you published?” and by published we mean the glossy paperback in Waterstones. The answer would be no, and the conclusion would be that I was not a proper writer, just a “yakker and a bragger”, as a famous American writer recently opined.

But my figures for the past three years tell me my books have been downloaded around a quarter of a million times, so I think I can safely say that, although I’m not published in the conventional sense, my work has reached a wide audience. It also receives generally positive feedback from readers. So, perhaps it’s our definitions that need to change. Perhaps it’s those who insist on conventionally published glory at any price who are the yakkers and the braggers – they who are responsible for perpetuating the myth that the conventionally published form confers upon its neophytes a greatness that self publishing does not.

The publishing industry has now congealed into just a handful of big companies. Like the rest of commerce, it’s all gone very slick and corporate and image-conscious. Books and their authors are cosmetically modified into marketable brands – even those authors who speak out against such things. When we buy a conventionally published book from the highstreet, we are buying into the myth of the author and their brand, but like with those toothpastes that slowly dissolve your teeth, we can sometimes be disappointed, even with what we thought were household names.

Writing is of course the perfect medium for the shy, the introspective, the wall-flowers and the pathological limelight dodgers of this world – but I’m not describing your typical branded author here. The type of personality who takes well to writing is not necessarily the type who takes well to publishing. I recognise, in my case, it’s more of a blessing I was never invited to join in with that world, that indeed self-publishing is exactly my sort of medium. But we self publishers must also grow up, shed our insecurities and accept we’ve as much idea what constitutes proper writing as anyone else.

Through self-publishing or blogging or even tweeting, the process of publishing has become – for want of a better word – democratised; anyone can do it, anyone can add their voice to the cultural milieu. Indeed, I think talented writers who were formerly denied their voice have now begun to move writing on, through self publishing and blogging. They are shaping the milieu, and wrestling the lead away from that quaint old system that used to dictate what was considered proper writing in the first place.

Perhaps it’s not surprising the world of corporate publishing and their branded authors are busy demonising the online world, trying to make out that it’s content is so puerile it will rot our brains. But don’t listen. The internet does not have a monopoly on poor material, just as the corporate publishing world does not have a monopoly on intelligent debate.

One of the greatest strengths of self-publishing is its interactivity. You put something out, people comment, you learn from it, form new ideas or reinforce old ones, and you comment on their stuff. This is how ideas grow and flow, and shape the world. That has to be better than having a handful of branded authors and critics dictate what is and is not best practice, or best thought. That just seems old fashioned.

I do not possess a sexy publicity photo, and I have yet to be shortlisted for the Man-Booker prize. My ideas and my themes may not resonate, and they might never feature in the firmament of collective human thought, but as ideas go they’re as good as anyone else’s. And so are yours. How to be an independent author?

Sit down. Read. Think. Write. Self-publish.

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DSCF3061In a recent article for the BBC, the playwright Mark Ravenhill lamented the steep decline in funding for the Arts. He warned that under the current paradigm of austerity economics, funding could disappear altogether over the present decade and that it didn’t matter who won the next general election here in the UK, that all parties were equally committed to the “ideology, and plain wrong mathematics, of austerity”. He then went on to argue that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for “Art”.

If an artist wants to make a living by their art, they rely on someone paying them for their work – obviously – a publisher, a gallery, a wealthy patron, or an art’s council grant. The danger in this is that the artist will stop being truthful to themselves and their vision, and instead begin to produce work they know they can simply sell. They start writing for “the market” and are less likely to produce work they know is going to suffer an endless round of rejection, or worse actually offend the people holding the purse strings.

It might be said then that only the artist with nothing to lose can be trusted to tell the truth about the world as he sees it. As funding becomes more difficult to obtain, so artists will have less difficulty in being critical of “the system”. Austerity = integrity, and that’s a good thing.

As an independent, unfunded author who gives his fiction away on Feedbooks, it’s easy to see why this struck a chord with me. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary or anarchic about my own work – it’s far too other-worldly for that – but the fact I can self-publish, for nothing is actually a very powerful thing, and if it were in me to be a political or a social agitator, I wouldn’t need to worry about biting the hand that feeds me. It’s the same with blogging – so long as what we bloggers say is within the law we can say what we like. That’s why blogs are powerful – perhaps not in terms of the “celebritification” of the individual blogger, but more importantly, and collectively, as waves of comment and discourse that surge on the blogsphere and which inform general opinion.

The counter argument to this of course is that the artist giving his work away is simply the one who couldn’t find a buyer for it, which is hardly a glowing recommendation for the intellectual and artistic quality of the work. In other words it’s probably rubbish. But art doesn’t have to tell the truth or be “good”, or “clever” to be successful. The most successful art is that produced by an artist who is merely honest to themselves and sincere in what they do. It doesn’t matter then if their vision is debatable, dubious, or just plain wrong, because so long as the art is sufficiently engaging it produces a reaction in the beholder, good or bad, attractive or repulsive, it has served its purpose in inspiring the beholder, even if it’s in completely the opposite direction to the one the artist intended.

So because something is available for free online, we mustn’t assume it has no merit – it can be very open and honest and untainted by “patronage”. Conversely if the art is riding upon an ocean of dollars, like for example the latest Hollywood blockbuster movie, it should make us pause and ask the question: who provides those dollars? We also need to understand that what we’re seeing is something the dollar holder likes. We may like it too, but there may be other art we would like more, but we’ll never see it if the guardians of taste, critical acclaim, political correctness and above all funding, are the ones dictating what we see in the first place.

I don’t like austerity economics either. I think it’s laid a noxious and depressing vapour over the land these past five years. It puts me more in a mind for hunkering down and counting the pennies I’ve got than for striking out, investing those pennies and making a difference in the world. That’s not good, it’s socially destructive, and I fear it will end badly, possibly in political chaos, even in those countries that seem rich enough to avoid the devil-take-the-hindmost collapse of their poorer neighbours.

But the silver lining in this is that we all have a voice now, and nothing to lose by using it. It’s not much, I know, but it’s better than nothing.

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adrienneAllow me to introduce you. This is Adrienne Divine. She’s thirty five, British, and a former university lecturer now working as an estate agent in Carnforth, Lancs. Two years ago she had a serious car accident which left her in a coma. When she came round some weeks later, she discovered her husband – whom she’d not been getting along with for a while – had decamped to his native America, taking their two children with him.

In the movies, she would have flown over there straight away, engaged a ruggedly handsome lawyer and, after a dramatic legal battle, plus a threadbare sub-plot involving lots of guns, drug dealers and high speed car chases, she would have taken her husband to the cleaners, had her sweet revenge on him, rescued her children and brought them safely back to Blighty. She would also probably have fallen in lust with the lawyer enabling the inclusion of a  fairly tame boobs and butt love-scene – her stretchmarks and his bald-spot being expertly fuzzed out by CGI of course.

But this isn’t the movies, and Adrienne’s broke. She’s currently moving from one low paid job to another, barely able to cover the rent, let alone jet off to the States for an uspecified period of time and pay a lawyer thousands of dollars by the hour in order to untangle a messy affair, none of which is her fault. So she does what most ordinary people would do – they absorb the devastating hurt, and just get on, day to day, as best they can while hoping for a miracle.

Then Adrienne meets Phil, who’s not exactly the miracle she was hoping for, but it’s just possible he could be the next best thing. He’s a prospective buyer for a house her agency is trying hard to flog, but it’s a flat market and there’s something about the house that makes it even harder to sell. It’s remote, stuck out on a tidal island where it gets cut off by the sea for twelve hours out of twenty four. No one in their right mind, other than a hermit or a recluse, would ever consider buying it.

Phil is an oil and gas-industry geologist, struggling to adjust to a mainly desk-bound job in Manchester. A decade ago, he was involved in an accident flying out to a rig in the Atlantic which left six of his colleagues dead. Still suffering from PTSD, discontented by his bureucratic post, and perhaps even a little menopausal by now, he’s looking to buy somewhere really cheap, then quit the job and live frugally off his savings until the company pension kicks in. He doesn’t care what he does, so long as it’s different and he doesn’t have to explain himself to anyone while he’s doing it.

Phil and Adrienne meet when he turns up at the office and she’s delegated, against her will, to drive him out to the house. He falls in love with her at once – well, who wouldn’t? But he also finds her cold, prickly and remote. She thinks he’s a boring, faceless corporate drone who talks too much. Plus he’s ten years older than she and her life’s complicated enough as it is without getting involved with another man.
They aren’t the most likely of lovers then.

The house doesn’t really suit him. It’s too close to the sea for a start which has a habit of irritating his neuroses, and he’s decided too much solitude wouldn’t be good for him anyway, that living out on a tidal island would be like casting himself adrift. But he goes along with Adreinne to view the place because he doesn’t want to come across as a prat and a time-waster. There something listless about him – he’s ambivalent about the house, confused, and looking like a man becalmed, waiting for a stiff wind to fill his sails.

As unlikely as it seems, these two will become lovers at some point – indeed their unfolding story seems contrived by fate in such a way as to make it almost inevitable; while they’re out on the island, the tide comes in earlier than predicted, on account of a  storm surge, trapping them there overnight. They’ve no choice then but to find a way  of getting along and after a shaky start, by morning both have got more than they bargained for. Less inevitable however, is the degree to which Phil and Adrienne discover in each other the catalyst for triggering a shift in mental perspective, enabling them to suddenly transcend their personal demons, and kindle fresh meaning for their lives.

Adrienne once wrote poetry, lectured in English Lit, also Psychology and Philosophy. As a girl she also dabbled in bedroom witchcraft, a practice through which she finds increasing comfort now as means of self empowerment in a world that appears to have otherwise stripped her of everything else. And Phil’s not the corporate drone he appears in his plain grey suit and plain grey rep-mobile of a car. He sees things, hears things, imagines things that inform his intuition in a way that goes beyond the rational.

He also draws pictures like the one he did of Adrienne, and posts them on Flickr,…

Having grown up in a society that frowns on the “irrational”, the emotional, and the intuitive, they’re both embarrassed  to admit this side of themselves in public, yet both begin to see their salvation depends not only on admitting their true inner natures, but embracing them – that only when envisoned through the lens of a romantic, mystical and even a magical perspective, can the world begin to mean anything again.

Okay,…

I’m writing this down in precis form because I want to get at the essence of what their story is about, and sometimes you need to get outside of it to do that, just like you can’t always see where you’re going for the lay of the land. And it’s beginning to make sense, what Phil and Adrienne have been telling me.

I’ve been trying to solve the puzzle of their story for about a year now, since they first came to see me with their unlikely opening scenario and persuaded me it would be worthwhile running with it. Sure, there’ll be several more drafts to go before I’ve wrung every last drop of meaning out of it, but the majority of the work is done. I can sit back and enjoy the ride now, without the worry of not knowing where we’re going any more.

Just because I talk to ghosts, it doesn’t make me insane, and I’m no longer ashamed to admit it. They dictate my stories for me, and I learn a lot from them. And Adrienne, a very particular ghost on this occasion, is telling me there’s no such thing as a small life, that we’re all heroes because to paraphrase the song, our skins are so soft and even supposedly ordinary lives can sometimes be very, very hard.

Thanks for listening.

Michael

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I have a problem with my memory. It isn’t that it ever fails me – quite the opposite in fact. Indeed, my recall of events from all but the earliest years of my life is truly photographic, so there was little doubt in my mind the woman before me now was the one who had stolen the book….

So opens my short story, The Man Who Could Not Forget. It was an early foray into the so called speculative genre and began doing the rounds of the print markets shortly before the turn of the century, but without luck. I eventually gave up on it and put it on my website in 2002, then as an ebook on Feedbooks in 2008. The reason I mention it now is it’s coming up to a bit of a milestone and will at some point this week achieve 100,000 downloads. I just wanted to take time out and celebrate that fact, to thank all those readers who have made this possible, and to dwell a little on what it means both to me as a writer, and potentially to you as well, if you write fiction, but despair of ever seeing it published in a proper magazine.

Those proper magazines I submitted the story to were generally obscure with limited circulation figures.  As a rule they paid little, indeed usually nothing at all beyond a free copy of the magazine itself, and though it might have bolstered my ego a little to have seen “The man who” as a featured story in one of them, none would have carried my words very far or for very long, so I wonder at my obsession with trying to gain their favour now. Indeed, with the clock about to click over those 100,000 downloads, I look back upon it as a kind of madness. Regardless of their supposed merit as bastions of literary taste, and learned guides to what is currently “hot”, as simple vehicles for the distribution of any kind of written word, good or bad, let’s face it, they were actually quite poor.

The editorial staffers on all those “proper” magazines passed my story by without comment, but in spite of their discouraging indifference, thanks to the internet, a lot of people have now read it, at least a hundred thousand of them, and some of them have been kind enough to say nice things about it. The story has still not achieved “printed” fame, it’s not won any competitions, and it’s never been reviewed in literary magazines. But apart from that, it has been read lots of times – not because it’s any good (I’m hardly the one to judge) but because the number one distribution medium nowadays is the internet. It’s global by default.

It’s this sense of having “connected” with an audience that’s made all the difference to my writing. I write to suit myself now, to express myself, to entertain myself, to explore myself, and to heal myself. I’m free to do this, but you can’t do it if you’re constantly distracted by thoughts of trying to gain the approval of an editor, before your work can see the light of day. That’s when writing becomes less of an art and more of a chore.

Which is a pity.

In writing to suit our selves we are free to indulge our selves. We don’t need to worry about writing like someone else in the mistaken belief it will make our work more “marketable”. Our most important asset is our individuality, indeed some might say we possess nothing else of any real value, so it’s important we’re free to express ourselves in a way that reflects our essential selves, whether that makes us a marketable commodity or not.

If you’re a writer and you’re struggling to connect, be aware the readers are there online. If you’re happy to work for nothing and can forgo the debilitating ego trip of seeing your work in print, then I think it will open a lot of doors for you if you can simply make your peace with the day job, and start giving your creative work away. I know it’s hard. You’ve invested a lot of time in it. It’s the best of you. It means a lot to you. But what good does it do gathering dust in that bottom drawer? You can kiss goodbye of course to becoming an international bestselling author, but on the upside it means you no longer need to chase your tail studying the so called market ever again, and trying to second guess what will make an editor’s eyes light up.

Really, life’s too short for that.

As an interesting aside, since going up on Feedbooks, “The Man Who” was picked up by Adrian Ionita of the webzine Egophobia, and translated into Romanian. If your Romanian is up to scratch you can read it here. My thanks again to Adrian  for making this possible. “The Man Who” and “Rosemary’s Eyes” make me a translated author, and that feels really cool.

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