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man writingInteresting article, here, about the “highbrow” literary genre and a lament that writers of this kind of stuff are abandoning the basics of story writing in favour of a kind of avant garde expressionism. By basics we mean any semblance of plot structure.

It’s a vulnerable niche, this highbrow stuff, it being economically worthless, but there are Arts’ Council grants to support it, I presume because it’s still considered culturally important. This amazes me – I mean that grants for any sort of writing exist at all, and how the hell do I apply for one? But why should we subsidise stuff hardly anybody reads, and aren’t those arty writers all just taking the Mickey anyway?

Being an amateur hack this is all well above my pay grade of course, but it does seem to be expecting a lot of the poor reader. Tackling a book void of plot is like ploughing through heavy seas without sail or tiller. It has me wondering if actually reading such stuff is no longer the goal, that the target market is the more the kind of person who prefers simply to own a work by an edgy writer so they can say so at posh parties.

I prefer a story myself to a mere assault of words. If a writer has a “literary” point to make, better they do so by sneaking it in under the radar, so to speak, than hitting the poor reader over the head with it. Stories rest on a framework we call the plot. A plot simply means we have some characters, and they start out in one place, then set out to get somewhere else, but things happen along the way to prevent them. Success is thwarted, calamity drawing ever nearer until it seems all but impossible we shall ever have our denouement. Psychologically speaking, plots rise from the archetypal bedrock of humanity, a phenomenon that gives rise to mythic culture, which is why stories have a universal resonance, so they shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s also why machines will never write good stories.

The plot rules, as I learned them in the long ago, are simple enough: get things going in a certain direction, then set up the conflicts and have the characters fall into them. How the characters handle themselves, how they resolve the conflicts and get on with the story is where a writer gets to say whatever else they have to say – the moral, the literary points, whatever; they are also the hook that keeps the reader turning the pages.

Soap opera plotlines are an endless chain of conflict and resolution, almost comically so – every long awaited wedding morphing seamlessly into adultery, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve missed a dozen episodes or drop out after the next one because there’s never going to be a conclusion – the psychology of the plot drives the whole thing endlessly. Soaps are, literally, pointless, yet still manage to hook millions of viewers for a couple of hours every night. Such is the power of the plot!

Unlike Soap however, with a piece of fiction, a reader expects a conclusion, so we give them one, the conflict/resolution thing having a sort of trajectory, aimed towards a climactic moment when all seems lost and then,… bang! The murderer is revealed, the baddie gets their comeuppance and the good-guy/gal either gets the good-girl/guy,… or they don’t.

I suppose the counter argument is that plot rules make for formulaic fiction, that it’s a dumb way to write, and allows for little by way of airy fairyness. But they’re only guidelines, not really rules, and while I make no claims for possessing sufficient intellect to handle the airy fairy heights of contemporary “edgy” literature, I’ve found traditional plotting allows for endless subtle interpretation, enabling any means of expression while still respecting the reader, leading them in with guile, even shamelessly seducing them with a bit of romance and adventure, rather than standing there for two hundred thousand words, roaring like a lion and hurling bricks. The latter approach might lend us a fearsome reputation among literary critics for a while, but it only takes one of them to call us out as a pretentious old windbag and we’re sunk.

I don’t know what passes for high-brow fiction these days, but I can certainly understand some of the stuff I’ve read in the past struggling to get a look in when most of us would rather fiddle with our phones of an evening. But if it’s culturally important something is written it shouldn’t matter that it’s no longer economically viable in print form, and the obvious place for it is online. Publication is guaranteed, but an audience is less certain because it’s a sea of words out there and easy to find yourself becalmed.

It doesn’t have the same author-in-a-tweed-jacket vibe, I know, but the times they are a-changing, and if attention is switching from books to smartphones – that’s where the words should follow because that’s where the readers have gone. We abandoned papyrus scrolls and vellum, and typewriters each in their turn, long ago. Perhaps we should not be so squeamish about abandoning paper too.

But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

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the sea view cafe - smallMy latest, possibly my last novel, is finished and up on Wattpad now for free. It’ll shortly go up on Smashwords from whom I’ll blag the free ISBN, then put it up on Free Ebooks who seem to be doing a good job of shifting downloads at the moment. And there we are. Finished! About two and a half years – the Sea View Cafe years. The small blue car years, the Scarborough years.

It’s a cliche I know but as ever I’m genuinely grateful to anyone who’s read me or commented on my stuff. Even had it been conventionally published, the Sea View would have made relatively nothing, financially, yet already it’s rewarded me tenfold with those readers who’ve picked it up on Wattpad and commented as I’ve posted chapters piecemeal.

It’s a novel written against shifting times, a story swept up in another iteration of the myth of Britannia’s idiocy and decline and, by association the  decline of the west. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s been an all pervasive narrative for as long as I can remember, and probably for centuries. Yet more than any other, the Sea View Cafe is a story that found itself distorted almost daily in the writing by yet one more headline in  rejection of the progressive ideals of strength in the collective of nations and a fall into a petty nationalism, into racism and bigotry.

Yes, these have been the pre-Brexit years. Years when we have wrapped ourselves snug in the native flag, covering all but our faces which are by turns ugly, pompous and hate filled – ejecting spittle with every sentence uttered. Our collective soul stunted by the recurrence of all manner of shadow complexes.

Some of the most brilliant minds working in Britain are of non-white, non Christian, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-Anglo Saxon origin. We are a multi-cultural society, product of our history – not all of it good – but I’d dared to hope we were on the cusp of a rapprochement with our chequered past. Such diversity might have informed our spiritual nature, our secular philosophy – things to be celebrated, built upon, for there can be no surer path to greatness, than by the hybridisation of faith and ideas. And what did we do? We chose the path of the tabloid, of the angry old white crustacean.

Or was it more a case of two fingers to a plutocratic establishment that had done nothing to solve the problems of a lost decade, and looked willing to sacrifice a whole generation of non-privileged youth upon a bonfire of perpetual austerity?

The reasons are complex, but tending in the same direction and manifesting in abject poverty for millions.

And what of women? That much maligned species, scorned, dismissed, defiled by the repugnant male ego. This is strange to me, for I have only the experience of women in my own circle to go on, and they are of strong character, organising, nurturing, building, and gifting love.

So, in the Sea View, we meet strong female leads, not out of any gender political motives – I wouldn’t dare go there – but more simply because that is my experience of women. They are my my aunts, my sisters, my mothers, my grandmothers. Helena Aynslea, Hermione Watts, Carina and Nina and Anica. These are tough women, while remaining entirely feminine, and I hope I’ve done them justice. They carry the Sea View, as they have carried my entire life.

And so what if two of them take a fancy to the same guy, and each other? Let them both have him, and themselves  – all at the same time and be damned – because I hope this is more than a romance, more than a trite polyamory fantasy on my part.

Thus we move beyond the conventional narrative, explode the hell out of the world in order to find ourselves anew. We have to hard-wire it into the collective that it’s okay to be different. Gay, coloured, bisexual, Muslim, Christian, Jew. Female. Intellectual. Shy. Red-haired. In short, diverse. And what we have to code out is the idea we can in any way advance ourselves at the cost of others, that anything which increases ourselves at the cost of diminishing someone else is not only wrong, it is also, ultimately, self-destructive. The young seem to get this and it’s in them I dare to hope.

These are strange times. They haunt me, as they haunt the Sea View. Either they are the end of times, or they’re the rallying call to radicals and progressives everywhere to seriously challenge the archaic and archetypal evils that seem to have snuck in under the radar.

The answer? It’s with all of us.

Awaken.

Oh, I almost forgot, do read the Sea View Cafe if you can bear it! Unedited, unprofessional, and riddled with sneaky typos. It won’t change your life, but it might cheer you up in the mean time! I know I’ve had a lot of pleasure from writing it.

 

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the masterOkay, let’s be careful with our terms here. When we say ‘crisis’, what we really mean is even celebrity authors can’t make money writing literary fiction any more. Book buying is in decline generally, but literature especially. What’s literary fiction? Well, roughly speaking it’s what’s left when you take out all the other stuff people generally prefer reading – the genre stuff: thrillers, chick-lit, crime, horror, sci-fi,… whatever. It’s the kind of stuff written against the odds of anyone actually being interested in it. Sounds a bit grim, and it can be, but on the plus side ‘research’ suggest literary fiction is the genre most likely to improve a reader’s soul. But who cares about that these days?

I hesitate to say it’s the kind of stuff I write because that would grant me airs I’m not sure I’m due, but since my stuff won’t fit into any other genre I suppose that’s what I must call it. And that’s a pity because according those who supposedly know – all those book publishy types – literary fiction is finished. Kaput! It’s really so ‘over‘ darling.

Hmm, story of my life.

Except:

What saves me from oblivion is the fact I already don’t make my living at it, and never have so it’s a bit of a moot point to me. I’ve always had a day job, though to be frank for as long as I’ve had it – some forty years now – all I’ve ever wanted to do is quit it and write. Thank heavens for common sense then.

So, bottom line, it’s harder now for those who used to scrape a living at writing high-brow fiction – facts of life catching up and all that. But it doesn’t mean that kind of fiction’s dead. It just means you won’t find it in Waterstones any more. And at fifteen quid a pop guys, I mean, come on. There are some  who have to feed themselves all week off that. Oh, yes, seriously. So you need to get out of London and go visit some provincial towns. Maybe then you’ll be surprised to learn hardly any of them can muster a bookshop any more. They’re all Pound-land and charity shops, and thank God. Me? I get my literature from places like Age Concern and the Heart Foundation. So it’s no wonder the bottom’s dropped out of the market.

The starving artist in his garret? Yes, that old Romantic trope still exists. He might have a Masters’ degree in creative writing or literature now, or some other highbrow thing, but if he wants to live he works sixty hours a week in shop, or a warehouse earning £7.25 an hour, slaving for a grumpy old philistine who makes his life a misery. Then he goes home to his mouldy old flat, the rent on which takes most of what he earns, and he pens a literary line or two before he passes out. Then he submits them blind to a publisher who hasn’t a clue who he is. And you know what happens? Well, let’s just say he finds out soon enough there’s no money in literature, that indeed there never was for the likes of him, which is a pity because his story is the story of our times and worth listening to.

So that’s not to say there’s no need for it. It’s just a question of who needs it most and since the influential are deaf as a post to the cries of suffering heard all about us these days I still maintain the person most served by such work is the writer himself. Readers are a bonus, but hardly to be guaranteed, and not necessary anyway. So stick it online and be damned. If there’s no money in it you might as well, then move on and write something else because that’s what writers do. Isn’t it?

Can’t make a living at it? I know, it’s sad. But if stories are important, and the writers really mean it when they say they’re writers, rather  than posers in tweed jackets, the stories will get written anyway by someone not so proud. And this internet thing will disseminate all the unprofitable literary stuff and preserve it for eternity – unless of course this net-neutrality business gets a look in and then we’re all stuffed.

But that’s a story of a different kind, possibly much worse, and I’ve yet to get my head around it.

Maybe next time.

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booksI’ve heard this question asked a lot over the years,  and several times just this week by professional writers plugging their upcoming novels in the national media. It’s about attention span, they say, the average reader no longer able to focus on anything for more than five minutes. We’re addicted instead to the click and swipe of instant gratification, shunning the immersive print experience in favour of the video game and the TV box-set. It makes us all sound quite dumb, actually, doesn’t it, with only the writers managing to retain their literary virtue.

It’s true, I do spend a lot of time clicking and swiping on my ‘phone – get all my news from there these days, also endless snippets of trivia that informs my world view. I’ve also spent a long time playing video games and bingeing on box-sets – nordic noir being a particular weakness. But I’m not reading fewer novels. In fact I think I’m reading more these days. The internet broadens our awareness of what books exist, tells us of the lives of writers, and the critical appeal of certain works, so when I encounter books in the wild, so to speak, I am more likely to buy them. But what I’m not doing is buying them new. I buy older fiction, and I wait for new fiction to become old before I take the plunge. In short, I have forsaken the bookshop for the charity shop where books are abundant and ever so cheap.

Assuming I’m a typical buyer, then, I suggest the main reason for the novel’s decline is simply how much it costs to buy a new one. Measured as a monetised commodity, and judged on sales, your new best-seller may well be in decline, but it’s wrong to assume this suggests reading is in decline as well. And then there’s always this class thing at work in writerly circles, where the aristocratic top one percent earn most of the money – the so called A-listers – while the rest can’t earn a living at it any more. The vast bulk of published material is no longer lucrative enough for your average artist to justify toiling at it. Fewer books are being written for money because, simply put: there’s no money in it now. So it is writers themselves who are losing their faith in the novel, and blaming its decline on the readers and a shrinking market that’s not our fault.

The last time I looked even a moderately successful also-ran author was earning less than minimum wage, so there would be no point giving up the day job. As for your amateur sending stuff in on spec, the financial rewards for beating the stupendous odds and gaining acceptance for your book are looking pretty shoddy now, not much better than giving it away online. Which brings us neatly to self publishing.

Nowadays anyone who has a story in them, and that’s most of us, can self-publish and be damned, and a lot of us are still doing it, damned or not. Yes, we’re a shambolic and eclectic bunch, us self publishers, careless of genre and spelling, and yes, we could probably do with the cut and trim of a professional editor behind us, but the novel, the short story, the novella, even the poem, as a means of artistic expression seems, from my perspective, a long way from dying out. It’s just that most of us doing it now aren’t even recognised as writers at all, and especially by those who think they still are.

It’s professionals then who are fleeing the field, leaving amateurs like me to man the barricades.

The novel is not dying, it’s just changing tack.

Be not afraid, oh you lucky people!

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the master

Things move on. Gone are the days of Feedbooks when any old noob indy could self publish on there for free and have a hundred downloads by morning. Feedbooks is still going but for the self publishing indy it died ages ago. Stats suggest very few readers find their way to my stuff any more so I do’t bother with it – might as well stuff it in a drawer for all the good it will do.  But all is not lost: there’s always Free Ebooks.

This is another of those sites you can load your fiction onto. The model is a simple one – thousands of writers provide free content around which the site owners serve advertising and marketing packages which pay for site’s upkeep. Like Smashwords they want your manuscripts in MS word format, but don’t seem as fussy over the formatting – or it may be that I’m submitting stuff that’s already passed the Smashword’s meat-grinder test.

Downloads are encouraging – quite a spike early on, levelling off to a few clicks per day thereafter. I suspect it’ll be like Smashwords in the longer term, eventually flat-lining at a thousand clicks or so with only the occasional flutter thereafter. Yes, they want you to sign up for their marketing packages and all that, but I’m not going to advise you to ignore them because you know it’s a cardinal rule writers never pay publishers anything, don’t you? As for Free Ebooks paying you, well, there is an option for readers to donate through Paypal, but I wouldn’t expect more than the price of a cup of coffee now and then, and it’s certainly not worth giving up the day job.

Smashwords is still very much alive and well of course, and well worth submitting to if only for the free ISBN, and Wattpad is picking up in a strange kind of way too, though it requires a bit of engagement on your part, being more of a community thing, but that’s cute and I’m finding it has a nice feedback vibe for stuff you put on there piecemeal. I’ve been trying out the Sea View Cafe on it for a while now – at least up to the point where it got quagmired in my usual three-way polyamory trap – more on that in the next blog. I can recommend it for early drafts, but again it’s not going to change your life much. And once a story’s done on there, well,… it’s done and you might as well delete it.

So yes, things move on, but they’re not dying out. Online and digital are still the only way to go for the majority of unaffiliated wannabe writers. I predict the only bookshops in a decade’s time will be charity shops selling increasingly dog eared and spine busted samples of that old paper-tech, that actual books will have become an upmarket thing, paperbacks costing thirty quid a go. And us ordinary folk will have no recourse to libraries anymore, so this mad bagatelle of free online stuff will be our daily fayre.

So don’t despair, you young uns might have robots to contend with for your day-jobs by then, but at the end of it you’ll still be able to kick back of a night inside your cosy plastic nano-pod, with whatever passes for a mobile phone, and read, and think how: quaint, those days of paper. Hopefully some my stuff will still be around, scraped up by the content farming sites. And maybe amongst my writings you’ll discover a lost world where people fell in love face to face rather than dialling partners up via an app, a world where our dreams still meant something and we used to laugh at the idea of cars driving themselves.

So, anyway, if you’re a writer looking to share some ideas, some stories, do check out Free Ebooks! It’s like Smashwords, and a bit of a dead-zone as far as feedback’s concerned, though I have picked up a couple of four-stars. But if you want people to talk to you about what you write as you write it, go to Wattpad. Whatever you do though don’t get hung up on the mechanics of self publishing, on the clicks and stats at the expense of,… well,… writing. Just get your stuff on the Internet any which way you can and whoever was meant to read it will find it.

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the sea southportI began my last piece with the intention of waxing lyrical on the notion of loneliness, of isolation, and the apparent meaninglessness of life. But I ended up putting the world to rights on several tangential fronts sparked by the current political situation, and the picture of a gold plated motor car that somehow tipped me over the edge, puncturing what was left of my magnanimity. This is still relevant, but what I’d hoped to touch upon also was a way of seeing the world in which our current preoccupations with the state of it become in fact unimportant.

What I wanted to talk about was Between the Tides.

This was a book I wrote some years ago now, a novel, a story about two strangers, stranded on an imaginary island off the coast of Lancashire. Both protagonists have been damaged by life, both feel isolated, lost and alone. Phil likes to draw, likes to put his pictures up on Flikr. Adrienne writes poetry, keeps a literary blog but both have come to understand how futile such things are at least in so far as they reflect the Facebook generation’s fallacy, that the undocumented life is a life not worth living, that we are only as successful a human being as the number of followers we can boast.

between the tidesWe pass a stranger in the street. They are of infinite worth to themselves, occupy the central role in the drama of their own life, a life that is in each case a miracle of creation. Yet when we pass them by, only rarely do we remember them for long afterwards. As an individual then we are worth little to others, our lives irrelevant them. So what’s the point of being alive if no one really knows we’re there? This is the nihilistic end-game of the material world view. And we know it’s not true. Phil’s drawings and Adrienne’s poetry are important, but not in the way they originally believed.

What makes each of us important, and how can we return to that realisation, and rest easy in it, even if no one else knows we’re alive?

Both Phil and Adrienne are visionaries in that their lives are haunted, literally, by visions. Phil sees things out of the corner of his eye, overlays imaginary entities on reality like Pokemon Go, and receives intimations from them, suggestive of another, hidden dimension to the world. Adrienne has suffered a life changing accident, one that triggered a near death experience so profound she is confident of the reality of the continuation of her life after death, though what that means is no less confusing. She is also developing as a neopagan witch.

Both, in their separate ways are colouring the world through the lens of their imaginations. They see patterns where others see nothing. They can view a landscape, both seeing it, visually, and feeling it, emotionally. In the brief time they are stranded together, each learns not to fear their visionary experience, more to trust in it, and to take it forward. Phil and Adrienne are extreem examples, but we can each follow their lead, since we all possess the faculty of imagination.

In the material world we try to describe the meaning of the universe, but in a language that is entirely inadequate, a language lacking the vital dimension of insight. Contrary to belief, however, through the visionary experience, the world makes even less sense, descends into a kind of incoherent anarchy. But we lose also the childish need to make sense of it. Instead, embracing the ambiguity, we realise at once each our own meaning and our importance. This is our true and real celebrity.

So forget Facebook. It’s doing your head in and those mysteriously apposite little adverts will one day have you dropping your trousers in public. Instead, like Phil and Adrienne, try seeing the world through the lens of your imagination a little more, and don’t be afraid of where it takes you.

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the sea view cafe - smallSo,… what do we have so far?

Man leaves wife, flees his life and his dope-smoking offspring, wife has affair with her boss. Man meets woman, the woman meets a woman, the man discovers feelings for a woman-friend from way back. He loves all these women, even the woman who loves his woman, but he can only actually be with one woman because,.. well, he’s an old fashioned kind of guy. So who, among all these women will he choose? Or, more to the point, who will have him? Or,… actually,… does a man need a woman at all? Is he not better living on his own, sorting himself out instead of running round changing light-bulbs for women, arguing over the washing machine, and who makes lunch?

Given all the upheavals in the world and the stuff I could be writing about, this seems a bit trite, a bit “domestic”, and I don’t know what these characters are trying to tell me, if they’re trying to be funny, profound, or if they’re trying to tell me anything at all and I’m not just making stuff up as I go along, heading nowhere that means anything. It’s the usual creative impasse. To be original you have to write what you’re given by the voices in your head, not simply copy something else you’ve read. But to be original, doesn’t automatically mean you’re creating something worthwhile. I mean, after all, anyone can make stuff up.

But let’s think about it. No, I’m sure my characters are talking to me in the context of more weighty world affairs, and what they’re saying is this: our love triangles and love squares and love scares might seem trivial on the surface, but at least we’re seeking love in both its broad and narrow senses, rather than power. We’re also seeking a modest means of surviving these coming decades, rather than scoring grand fortunes at the expense of others less fortunate. And you know, it doesn’t matter to us, they tell me, what race or gender our friends and lovers are, or even if they’re like they say in the popular media: damned foreigners comin’ over ere and takin’ our jobs, because really that kind of language belongs to the stone age, and we’ve moved on, even if you haven’t.

My characters see through the machinations and the manipulations now; they laugh at the purveyors of “fake news” and “alternative facts” as at the antics of a newly discovered species which, although now the dominant predator on the planet, is actually of only passing interest because they (my characters) accept they cannot alter the way things are, that in order to survive they must make alternative arrangements than the ones apparently on offer which would otherwise do them harm. They are all refugees, economic migrants, waifs and strays, some native, some not, all washed up just the same on the shores of economic ruin, their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations gone. They are all stateless, in that the state on which they formerly stood is disappearing so rapidly beneath their feet it might as well not exist at all, and in any case will not be there for their children.

Yet, they do not turn to drugs, or violence – I mean not like they would in the movies. Nor do they tumble into a twisted aspiration of an Endtimes, where we shall all be saved by “The Rapture”, nor a post apocalyptic future where we shall be saved by nothing. They reject the language of hate and despair, they do not conform to the media stereotypes of the ruined middle class, nor the workless working man, nor any of the million vain conspiracy theories. Nor are they racist, bigoted misogynists, so whatever the world throws at them (and it’s thrown a lot) the Sea View Cafe dares to tell a positive tale of plucky survival against the odds, of cleanliness and dignity maintained against an oppressively murky background.

They take stock, they brush themselves down, they bind their wounds, paint on a smile. Lacking kin they gather into improvised families, seek survival for themselves and the ones they choose to love. They remain steadfastly human in a dehumanising world, a world that sees people not as people, but as economic units of varying viability, to be switched on and off as the market demands, even if half of them starve to death in the process. They are Romantic figures, also pragmatic, but most of all they are Romantic. And I’m talking Samuel Taylor Coleridge here, not Mills and Boon.

Put it like that, the Sea View might sound like one of those worthy but laboured literary texts that’s trying to change the world, but it’s not. It accepts the world as its stage, even if it might not be the world you recognise, and it says: okay, so how do we work with this? And the characters do what they must in all stories, they start out in one place and end up in another, and in the process they either grow or they die, and the only weapons I’ve given them are compassion and a stubbornly infinite capacity for love. I know, I know, Helena Aynslea has just kneed Squinty Mulligan in the balls for being a lecherous misogynist, but no one’s perfect. And I’m sorry but he deserved it. And I rather like Helena’s fiery spirit.

We’re a hundred and fifty thousand words in, and there are doubts about direction as there always are at this point with so many threads running this way and that and all wanting their resolution before the novel can be steered safe into harbour and a new story begun. So I talk to myself, and I talk to my characters, like I’m doing here, and the way becomes a little clearer.

Hermione looks up from the counter as I walk in: “So, what can I get you darlin’?”

“Um,… Americano, please.”

She turns to the coffee machine, bangs the scoop works the levers, makes steam.

Whoosh!

Did she just call me darlin’?

Thanks for listening.

*The Sea View Cafe,… a work in progress. To be completed,… well,… sometime,… possibly.

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