Thursday, 29 May 2008

Agents and publishers

I have oft been berated for speaking my mind about agents and publishers who allow garbage to be made into books. It has, metaphorically, been whispered in my ear that I might be banjaxing my chances of getting into print. Don’t care. Can’t be made to care. The fact is that garbage gets into print and makes some people a lot of money whilst a huge number of very good writers never get a chance because their face doesn’t fit, or they live in the wrong part of the country, or they simply don’t have the right connections.

I know there is good stuff in print. After all (NB – tongue is firmly in cheek here) I have had stuff published. I read good stuff every day. Not much of it is from mainstream publishers or represented by the big agencies, but that is as much to do with my taste as anything else. But there is bad stuff in print as well, driven not by literary merit (and I don’t mean ‘high’ literature, just good writing), but by how much money agents and publishers think they can make on the deal.

We have silly chases after the next J K Rowling (as if one wasn’t enough) with daft advances being made that could actually have been used to start a dozen or more new authors on their careers. We have celebrity titles still being poured onto the market like a poisonous slurry. We have the mainstream driven by profit and dividends to shareholders. We have an industry stuffed with people who, frankly, haven’t the faintest idea what they are doing.

Now I know all the arguments in favour of the things I think are wrong with publishing. Celebrity titles bring in the money to finance riskier projects. Except of course they don’t. They either bomb or the money goes to recouping the stupid advances, paying for the outrageously unnecessary marketing, and paying for yet more ‘branded products’ (did you hear me spit?). And money is necessary. Businesses have to make a profit. Well, duh, yes. But when people get books rejected on the sole grounds they wouldn’t make enough profit for the company, something has gone seriously wrong. And, yes, publishing is as much an art as it is a science; but let’s have artists who understand books and selling books, not piss artists.

Banjaxed? Probably. Caring about it? No. Because there are ways of seeing my work in print that don’t involve traditional publishing routes. I can get it peer reviewed, professionally edited, and into print without needing to go anywhere near London, anywhere near an agent or a publisher. I can do it without it costing me a fortune. And I get to keep all the proceeds. True, I am not likely to get big film deals, book signing tours, and fancy lunches. But I don’t want those things anyway. Nor do a lot of other writers that I know. They want to be able to write, improve their craft, see a reasonable return for their hard work, and go on doing that. And they are beginning to wake up to the fact that they can do this without the need for access to the traditional routes.

Gatekeepers, beware. If you don’t shape up and take note of what is happening, you could be out of a job.


It is a sad fact that some writers are tossers. You get them in all walks of life and there is no reason why writing should be an exception. But there are tossers and there are tossers. There are some people you do not like, be it ‘chemistry’ or the fact they are a yob, but in the end you have to accept they do their job well. And then there are those who are complete arses and incompetent (and sadly there are all too many incompetent writers who seem to have no problem getting and staying in print). And finally there are those who are just plain nasty.

Particularly nasty are those writers who are successful, yet who cannot resist the temptation to put the boot into other writers, especially those who have yet to make it or who are struggling on the fringes. I have nothing but contempt for such people and would not cross the road to piss on them even if they were on fire.

And the reason for this outburst? Well, it bubbles under the surface all the time. A few years ago, I was astounded when a best selling author of children’s fantasy, in his position as head of a large organisation, had the gall to criticise writers for not being inventive and adventurous enough. I suspect he actually meant he couldn’t understand why more people didn’t write like him. Well, it’s because a lot of writers aspire to good writing, not derivative polemic. But that is beside the point. His criticism was aimed at authors. Well, excuse me, but how the hell does he know what gets written? All he can judge by is what gets published. And stuff only gets published on the say so of agents and publishers. Now, if you want to know how good they are, go into any bookshop and look at all the drivel that gets into print.

Granted, a lot of good stuff gets into print as well. There are thousands of writers out there who work their creative fingers to the bone to improve what they do. They talk with other writers, they read other writers, they learn how to critique their own and other’s work. They bust a gut to find the money to put food on the table and then spend every last spare minute on their craft and their art. Some people even attend creative writing classes so they can learn in a structured way in an attempt to improve what they do. They are professionals and feel they have a duty to the public who buy their books as well as to the profession as a whole.

Only to have the following utterly charmless comment thrown at them: “writing courses, particularly when they have the word ‘creative’ in them, are the new mental hospitals”. This from a writer who has not only made it, but who also teaches on a writing course. This is this rank hypocrisy; it is to treat your students, and anyone else striving to improve their work, with total contempt. If I was a student at that institute, I would demand he be sacked immediately and that teachers who care about their students are hired in his place.

It is petty, small-minded, infantile, and the mark of a shrivelled intellect to behave in this way, not to mention showing further contempt for people with mental health issues. This same author also once said: “The job of the writer is to create argument and dissent… That’s one’s integrity and it’s an integrity that involves letting other people down.” That, Mr K., is a whole lot of shit. And now it is leaking out of you, I suggest you go and get yourself into a nappy before it gets over anyone else.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

To be read - the sequel

To all my blogging friends. Sorry I haven't been round recently, but Charlie seems to be a permanent house guest at present and I dare not waste the time I have with her. She could be up and off at any time.

I promise to be more attentive when she has finished her tale (until the next one).

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

To be read...

I took this at the weekend to show that I had taken a big bite out of my to be read pile.

It is now Wednesday and the gap, as you may have guessed, is already filling up. I found a pristine second hand copy of Milton's English poems yesterday (which isn't strictly for the tbr pile as it a replacement for my ancient paperback). It's just that the postman will keep bringing me this brown cardboard packages.

The ones on top of the CD rack are either completely or partly read (as they are omnibuses and box sets).

Monday, 19 May 2008

Making space

On reading some crass (and self-contradictory) comments by a best selling author, I began thinking about the way in which writers of my acquaintance work. Said best selling author wittered on about making space for your work, taking it seriously, with another bs (yes, that was intentional) author chipping in about ‘respecting your work’.


When I become a bs author (may all the gods and goddesses forbid), I too will be able to afford someone to look after the kids and pets, someone to answer the phone and open the mail, someone to fix the leaky tap and help paint the shed. In the meantime, I will write alongside real life.

Of course, these same bs authors who were talking about putting their writing first actually went on to say you make time for your writing by getting up earlier, or re-arranging your day, or writing on the train. In other words, do what most writers do. Write along side real life.

This got me exercised (no difficult task), because it was being used to promote bs author’s book on how to write a best selling novel. Another one. One day, in the not too distant future, when you walk into a bookshop, it will be full of students on break from their writing degree, looking for the latest tranche of books on how to write. There won’t be any novels in there that aren’t written to some dull formula, produced by students of writing courses and guided into print by agents and publishers who, you guessed it, took the parallel degree in publishing.

This came floating into the ether at the same time as some drivel about the Booker of Bookers.

Double please.

The last thing we need is the insufferable self-congratulation and earnestness that goes with celebrating such pompous, mediocre books.


Making space.

To work.

We all do it differently.

Some need silence, a room of their own. Some can work at the kitchen table with the kids baking up a storm around them. Others go to the library, or a cafĂ©. I drafted my first published book in a small shelter in the Botanic Gardens in Durham (mornings in one of the University libraries, lunch and afternoons at the Botanic Gardens – all very civilized).

The real point is that we each have to find our ideal working conditions. And when I say ideal, I mean the ones that work best taking into account the fact we might have kids/pets/spouses/rent to pay/day jobs/noisy neighbours. Any writer who tells you to lock yourself in your study and pound out three thou a day is basically telling you to write like them. And you can’t. You have to write like you. It might take some time to find what that is, and there is no harm in trying other people’s methods, but they’re not gospel.

Writers are lucky in that all they need is a decent notebook and a pen or pencil. Anywhere you can perch the notebook on your knee, you can write. It might be for an hour in the bathroom with the door locked; it might be on the train; it may even be in the luxury of a study. But wherever it is, the most important space is the one you make in your head.

I find that if I am in the right frame of mind, I can write anywhere. I haven’t been able to put that to the test in recent years as I rarely get out of the house, and I do confess to preferring my study with all my books around me. But I have written in all sorts of places. On beaches, trains, buses, in lectures, in bathrooms and bedrooms, attics and cellars, gardens and libraries, theatres and drama studios, in lighting boxes, stone circles, on hilltops, in a castle…

If there is any point to this, it is that if you cannot shut yourself away or re-arrange your life to put your writing in the centre (much as you would love to), don’t despair. Don’t think you are not or cannot be a writer because you don’t have a study. Make the space in your head and keep your notebook with you at all times. Take advantage of whatever time comes your way. Writing is a pure magic and can be conjured in any circumstance. Be a magician.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Back again

Well, I’m back to where I was at the end of January before I had a look at the structure of the w-i-p. That is, about 60% of the way through. It has been an interesting journey and is beginning to pick up speed. I’ve even figured out the detail of a very vague section up ahead, a bit like hurtling along at 200mph and seeing the dense fog ahead of you begin to lift.

Of course, this is just the ‘first’ draft. I put that in inverted commas because the first draft committed to paper/machine only gets there by a weird process in the strange space that is the inside of my head. I have walked through a scene with the actors until I can see it from all directions. In the process, I have knocked a lot of the really rough edges off, leaving it ready for detailed editing.

I used to look at editing as a necessary chore. I suspect that stems from the amount of non-fiction I’ve produced. While editing is necessary to achieve clarity, it is also necessary to remove all ambiguity and layering. These are the very things that, if used properly, make a piece of fiction interesting – to read and to write. I am really looking forward to getting my teeth into this.

At the moment the text is both text and a series of notes to myself. In trying to conjure up an atmosphere for example, I will pile on the adjectives in the first draft. They are there to guide me. When I come back, the challenge is to find a word or phrase that will encapsulate the section of thesaurus I have thrown at the canvas. The trick also is to keep all the links to other bits of text that will work on the reader at a subconscious level so that one scene will echo another through mood, scent, movement or whatever other device is appropriate.

I’m currently reading a master at this sort of thing - John Sladek. I’ll post a piece over on grumbooks when I’ve finished, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across such a text that makes such enormous leaps. It’s wonderful. What seems a throwaway line in one chapter emerges a few chapters down the line as significant. Things going on in the background suddenly flower elsewhere. And all told in a fresh and engaging style. Brilliant. Inspirational.

And the real beauty is that my own work has developed into a four book cycle. Hard as individual words and sentences sometimes are, I am still so excited with the project and so much looking forward to the other three books.

Friday, 2 May 2008

So much for...

…planning. All that time sorting out the final chapters of the w-i-p and I sit down and write one that just wasn’t there. It fits the story very nicely so was clearly mean to be written. However, I now have to rejig the rest. It’s a hard life.

I also clearly have to get to grips with the ‘putting in of photos’ thingummy.

Or I could just go and play a few rounds of Age of Japan.