Friday, 29 June 2012

The Chaos of the Universe

I don't believe in fate or destiny. I don't believe that everybody has a purpose – beyond the basic Darwinian mechanics of birth, procreation and death. I believe that we make our own luck (within the constraints of the world we are born into). So this is why the process of getting published and staying published is so confounding to me, because the governing mechanic seems to be pure chance.

Can anyone really explain why Fifty Shades of Grey is selling a gazillion copies right now? You can talk about untapped subject areas, savvy marketing and reader awareness reaching a tipping point. But it still doesn't explain why a fairly poorly-written novel is rushing off the shelves while others languish at the back of the shop. But that doesn't stop agents from taking on clients with erotic novels and trying to sell them while the trend is hot.

So much in this business seems to be about timing. If you send out your work a week too early or a week too late then you may get a very different response. Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles - in which a massive earthquake shakes the planet - was the subject of a huge auction just days after the Japanese earthquake last year. I'm not saying that the book wouldn't have been acquired if it had been sent out earlier, but I'm sure the advance would have been a lot less. I remember a converse example where we were about to submit my Undiscovered Voices novel and discovered that one of our key publishers had acquired another teen zombie novel just the day before.

We are all also at the mercy of the whims of business – look at the example of Frances Lincoln's parent company suddenly deciding to close their YA list. It was as if a trapdoor had opened underneath the editors and writers, who were left with no jobs and cancelled contracts respectively. Even if your book makes it through to publication, there is no guarantee that it will be one of the lead titles that receive significant promotion and advertising. Sometimes, it all seems like an impossible lottery.

So, how do we fight back against this chaos and try to impose some order on the universe? Grinding persistence seems to be the major strategy that writers employ, surfing waves of rejection in their quest to reach the right person in the right place at the right time. You could self-publish of course, which means you get to grab hold of the process almost to the end. Unfortunately, you will at some point have to throw yourself on the mercy of readers, who will most likely totally ignore you. Right now, though, I'm trying out the strategy of just letting go and seeing what happens. As a massive control-freak, this feels rather like admitting defeat, but there's also been a huge reduction in stress from not trying to manage the unmanageable.

There are forces in this world beyond my control. I just hope they're having a nice day when my manuscript lands in their inbox.


Friday, 22 June 2012

Dead Books

I found this book lying in the road the other day. Cars had been driving over it, breaking the binding and ripping the pages. It wasn't anything literary, just a mass-market crime novel of the type that millions of people read every week. But emotionally, it affected me as strongly as seeing a piece of roadkill. If it had been an iPad or Kindle lying on the tarmac, all smashed up, I'm sure I would have wondered how it ended up there and thought what a waste of money that was. But because it was a book, it got me right in the gut.

What is it all about, this emotional connection to the printed work? Clearly, none of the other drivers who ran over the book on their way to work gave it a second thought. But for some reason it was me who stopped and gave the book a decent burial in the nearest recycling bin. Perhaps I'm just stupid and sentimental, feeling sorry for an inanimate object that has never known joy or love or pain. And yet, aren't these the same emotions we feel when we read books? To us, can't a book be as alive as the real breathing person that wrote it? A book can summon up the spirit of an author who is long dead, or characters who never existed in the first place. Think how many lives Shakespeare has lived since his death, or Dickens.

This is why writers find it so hard to adjust to the stark modern mindset of simply being content generators, people whose job it is to provide the Apples and the Amazons of this world with an unending supply of SKUs (Stock-keeping Units). The creative process is brittle – it doesn't obey the rules of manufacturing or business – and the techniques we evolve for one story may not transfer to the next. In order to keep doing what we do, with the necessary levels of enthusiasm and emotional involvement, we need to believe that we are doing something special. Otherwise, what's the point?

It wasn't a huge jump to see that dead book as metaphorical of what we all fear as the digital revolution gathers pace. With so much "content" in the world, delivered so quickly and anonymously, don't we risk becoming immune to its charms? What reason is there to give any particular value to a 99p e-book over (to use Gerald Ratner's infamous example) an M&S prawn sandwich? Both become bland and interchangeable, quickly consumed and just as quickly disposed of.

Succeeding as a writer in the digital world will require more than just creative talent and a flair for marketing. We will need to become evangelists for the importance of craft and inspiration, showcasing the work of our peers as much as we promote our own. People need to be shown that here is a thing worth doing and worth paying for. This writing thing we do is hard and hard work should be rewarded. Together, we can keep the spirit of the book alive, even as the book itself is crushed beneath the wheels of progress.


Friday, 15 June 2012

Nothing to See Here

There isn't, really! OK, perhaps there are these few words, but unfortunately, I don't have the time, energy or (most importantly) the inspiration to write a blog post this week. This must be the first Friday I've missed in over a year, but I'd rather that than to give you something half-baked. This week has been an object lesson to me in what happens when you aren't given enough headspace to just kick back and be creative.

But fear not, I shall return next Friday!


Friday, 8 June 2012

I Blame the Parents

I'm a great believer in "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The book, to my mind, isn't broken – it's a very efficient way of delivering written content in a compact, often beautiful form. Humans can interact with and manipulate it very easily – it's simple to find your place (almost anything flat can be a bookmark), you can see how far you are through a book with a single glance and it needs no batteries or power source. True, if you have a lot of books they take up space in your house and some books can be heavy if you want to commute with them (blame Stieg Larsson and Stephen King here!) Yet, for a linear reading experience, I don't think anything beats it.

For all this, it seems like the book is in crisis. 1 in 3 children in the UK do not own a book of their own - in fact they are more likely to own a mobile phone. Left, right and centre, people are trying to reinvent the book for a generation who apparently value technology far higher than words. The Society of Authors is lobbying government to safeguard school library provision, which is a worthy goal. But I'm going to come right out and point my finger at parents.

I guess, to a certain extent, this line of argument requires me to stand on the moral high ground – which isn't a position I'm all that comfortable with. But, here goes and you'll have to stop me if I get too Daily Mail. I think many parents are fundamentally failing their kids by giving them too much of what they want. Games consoles, smartphones, TVs in their rooms – kids are fed a diet of entertainment with little or no oversight. We have become a culture of taking the easiest path through everything, and in parenting terms that seems to mean indulging your kids so they'll like you more. The need for approval is a very human weakness, and we live in a consumer society that operates by making us all feel constantly insecure and then offering us a product to make it better. Sometimes, the things we are made to feel insecure about weren't even a problem in the first place! The term "dead tree books" is a classic example. So what if they're made from dead trees – we can grow some more, and at far less impact to the environment than manufacturing an e-reader. Why not dead cow burgers or slaughtered pig sausages? Can't see those catching on any time soon.

My daughter was whinging last week about the fact that her friends all have a Nintendo 3DS and she doesn't. Sorry, but it's just not going to happen. I know that as soon as she has a games console that she can take and play anywhere, the book is going to lose out. I'm not against video games by any means, but I prefer a system where all gaming is done in plain sight and to agreed time limits. That might sound draconian, but how are kids going to learn willpower if we don't teach it to them? Heaven knows we have little enough of our own.

Am I being too regressive, clinging to the book while all around me people are abandoning them for a bright new digital future? I don't even have Sky TV for heaven's sake! But I think it's easy for kids to learn technology skills and hard for them to manage far more basic stuff like reading, writing and thinking independently. I believe children really respond to the time that adults take to personally help them, and see right through our guilty attempts to win their favour through gifts and bribery. Yes, we all have bad days and yes, technology is an excellent babysitter. But if it becomes the norm then we fail the very people we're supposed to be helping.


Friday, 1 June 2012

The Introverted Extrovert

It’s a generally accepted notion that writers are introverts. There’s plenty of evidence for this: they spend long periods alone, are greatly prone to introspection and have an apparent preference for the company of the characters in their heads, rather than real people. But there are several paradoxes in this line of thinking, for instance: in order to write believable characters, one must spend time observing and interacting with other people. Most of the writers I meet are also rather personable types and often revel in social situations. Is this really the behaviour of the true introvert?

A recent book has reignited the discussion about how introverts and extroverts are treated in society. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain argues that business, in particular, is organised in favour of extroversion. Open plan offices, brainstorming meetings, networking parties – these activities are all extrovert in design. I certainly felt rather oppressed at a recent technology conference when there were explicit "networking breaks" built into the schedule, and I knew literally no-one else there apart from Kate Wilson from Nosy Crow (who is apparently contractually obliged to attend every event where publishing apps are discussed). For all my defence of networking I still find it a tough activity and not something I would always consider to be fun. But my fear of being a wallflower is apparently greater than my fear of being rejected by complete strangers!

I’ve been lucky enough to meet quite a few agents, editors and other publishing people at various parties – I believe very strongly in making personal contacts because then you both have an idea of what the other person might be like to work with. But an author friend of mine said something very interesting to me recently, that many of the editors who connected with her latest novel were introverts, people who deliberately stayed off the publishing circuit. This was a revelation to me, because I realised that my personal contacts were largely extroverts; would they be the ideal group to respond to my deliberately introverted main character? Clearly, this is an area where an agent might really help me to unlock that fabled "right person" for my writing.

So am I an introvert? I certainly need to be by myself on a daily basis. It doesn’t have to be time spent writing, just something to clear my head from the noise of the world. But I also can’t spend a day without significant human contact. Getting the balance wrong between these two competing activities is a key trigger for me to slide into a low mood and eventually depression. Much as I’d like to consider myself unique, I can’t believe I’m the only person who needs to alternately run from people and then towards them again.

Perhaps this problem with classifying myself (and many other writers) is simply down to a general love of binary thinking, a need to divide the world into two discrete categories. Thus you are either a Lark or an Owl. A Plotter or a Pantser. A Thinker or a Feeler. So it is with introversion and extroversion. But the finer grained truth is that we are all somewhere on a scale between the two, shifting with our mood and responsibilities. But does that make me an introverted extrovert or an extroverted introvert?*


* Quiet does have a term for this category of person – they’re called an ambivert. But that isn’t half such a good name as the alternatives.