Don’t just do it, do it properly

Chuck Wendig wrote about self-publishing and it’s the best thing I’ve read on the internet this year.
You see, I have a problem here on Write for Your Life. Most people who read the site know that I have an agent and that I’m trying to get my novel published via the traditional route.

Which is smashing, but it does makes things tricky when I want to talk about and have an opinion on self-publishing. There seems to be an assumption that I am naturally anti-self-publishing. But that’s not the case.

Anyone who’s been paying any attention over the last couple of years can see that, for some writers, self-publishing is a fantastic option. The best option. And that’s totally aces.

The problem I do have is that many writers are being sold a dream. New, inexperienced writers. I can’t put it better than Wendig does in his piece:

Self-publishing ain’t an easy road to walk. Oh, it’s sold that way. A lot of the self-publishing advice out there amounts to all the fucking wisdom of a Nike slogan: JUST DO IT, they say.

So when I have concerns about the average writer’s technical skills, or when writers are encouraged to write novels in no time at all, it’s because I think the Just Do It approach is disingenuous.

If you’re going to publish anything, on your own or through a publisher, you need to do it properly. You need to care about and cover every single detail to make sure your work is presented in the best way possible.

You can’t, and should never, Just Do It.

Anyway, go and read Wendig’s post in full. He is published traditionally and has self-published. He advocates both and says lots of sensible things. Like I say, it’s the best thing I’ve read all year.

Don’t forget to buy books

Great post by Jody Hedlund:

However, in all of the book giveaways, let’s not forget ONE important thing: We can’t stop buying books. Writers and readers alike can’t become so enamored with getting free books – either for reviewing, endorsing, on our e-readers, or just because we can — that we forget to actually purchase books. Most people don’t understand exactly how underpaid the majority of authors really are. Sure, there are the couple dozen authors who are making millions. But the rest of the masses of talented authors are not even making minimum wages on their books.

I can’t emphasise enough how important it is for you to buy books and buy them regularly. I know a lot of readers and writers are being told that free is great and flogging books for less than a cup of coffee on Amazon is the way to go. As in other industries, consumers these days want something for nothing. Like it’s their right. The way things are.

And that’s all good and well, but as Jody says in the quote above, for every bestselling author raking in the money, there are thousands more who are barely able to get by. Most writers I know, and believe it or not I do know a few with relatively handsome publishing contracts, are not rolling in cash. They all have other jobs that allow them to write and sustain their career.

That said, it’s not just authors and books that have been published and found their way to market that rely on you (me, us) spending money. It may be that you are rather pleased that the publishing industry is on its arse – many writers are – but chief executives aren’t the only ones who are feeling the pain.

Spare a thought for those brilliant but powerless writers who either don’t want to self-publish or don’t have the technical skills to build a sodding audience. The fact is, great books are going unpublished because no one has the money – or permission – to take risks. Investments in talent are not being made. And that’s a huge shame.

Allow yourself to be bored

From the excellent Bobulate:

I thought of this recently while in a traffic jam: the sort where a two-hour drive took more than six hours. These unavoidable moments are a complete standstill of hope and forward emotion. And for those who choose not to ride the shoulder, wander the median, make friends with fellow maroonees, we are bored. We daydream. By default, our minds wander.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.

Like the rest of the developed world, I’ve fallen into the habit of checking my phone when I have nothing to do and generally filling my spare time with stuff. Rarely do I allow myself to sit and be alone with my thoughts. I have free time, but I am never bored.

Which is ridiculous, because my best ideas come when I allow my mind to wander, or when I really do have no other option but to think. Like in the shower. Walking to work. Falling to sleep. In those moments, I am physically forced into boredom.

And that’s when the magic happens. No distractions. No technological temptation.

It’s bloody marvellous.

I want you to stop speed reading

I want you to stop speed reading. I want you to not worry about how many books you’ve read and focus on the one that you’re reading right now. Speed reading is for panicking students and literary agents. It’s not for the likes of you and I.

On your marks…

I tried speed reading a few months ago. I’d never done it before, but I was worried about having not read enough this year and thought it might help me tackle my backlog of books. I got some advice off the internet. Hints, tips and techniques.

And then I set to it with gusto. I started reading and, it turns out, the internet was right. Before I knew it, I’d sped read my way through more than half a novel. It was incredible. Like lightning.

The problem was, I hadn’t a clue what was going on. Okay, I’d got a gist of things, but I was sure I must’ve missed out on some of the novel’s subtleties. Yes, I’d turned the pages, that much is true, but I didn’t feel like I’d really read the book. Not properly. Not like the author intended.

Speed reading felt like cheating. Speed reading is cheating.

It does neither reader nor author justice. What you end up with is an impression of something having happened. Pale paragraphs that you can never fully recall. Silhouettes of broken sentences.

That’s not how I want to read. It’s not how I want to be read.

Good reading = good writing

As a writer, it’s not enough to have read lots of books. You need to understand them too. More than that, you need to learn from them.

In an interview I did last month with prize-winning author, Edward Hogan, he described how he makes constant notes while reading, because: ‘I like trying to work out how good things are done.’

That’s exactly it. That right there.

Some writers feel like they can’t switch off when they read. I say why on earth would you want to? You’re not a normal reader. It’s your job to analyse and dissect other people’s writing. Go with it. Accept your fate.

Writing is craft and craft can be improved. Practice will help, of course, but so will quality reading. Reading that has your full attention. Reading that you care about.

There are many great books in the world. You’re not going to read them all. However, you can make sure that the books you do read get the time and focus that they deserve.

Don’t rush. Don’t speed. Enjoy.

Edward Hogan: writing about villages, literary versus genre, and coats with big pockets

Edward Hogan is the author of Blackmoor, his first novel which was shortlisted for the was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, the Dylan Thomas Prize and won the Desmond Elliot Prize. His second novel, The Hunger Trace, was published earlier this year and his first YA book, Daylight Saving comes out on 12 February 2012. In 1996, we played for the same football team. This is less relevant.

You can follow Edward on Twitter, check out his profile on the Simon & Schuster website or buy one of his excellent books from your local independent bookshop. Or one of the links above. But mainly the bookshop.

I kicked off our conversation, as follows.

So we’re both handsome, worldly-wise young men, yet we’ve both written about the ins and outs of living in a small town or village. Why do you think that is?


Very good. The idea of writing about ‘where you’re from’ is actually quite complicated, isn’t it? The worst review I got for Blackmoor was from my hometown paper. The day before the announcement of a prize for which the book was shortlisted, they went with the headline: ‘Author Paints Bleak Picture of County.’ (!!)

The suggestion was that I was a fraud, and how dare I suggest that Derbyshire has some complicated problems. In my defence, I did also write about the rare natural beauty of the area.

Blackmoor is set in two fictional villages. One is a comfortable semi-suburban place called Church Eaton, which is close to Derby, and hosts only the odd reminder of its industrial past. Church Eaton is very much like where I grew up. The other is Blackmoor, a former coal-mining village which is brought to its knees by factors such as physical isolation, the end of an industry, and the brutal treatment it receives at the hands of governments and institutions. I suppose villages are always about the tension between an individual and a community. They’re lovely places – as long as you fit in.

I was aware that there was this huge historical and political shift (the miners’ strike and its aftermath) that had happened in my county when I was young, but I wasn’t directly touched by it. I wanted to know about that. I was 21 when I started, and writing the book was a process of finding out where I was from. Funny that you can live somewhere pretty much all your life, and still have to do five years of research to write about it. I think you feel the responsibility of getting it right more keenly when you’re from the place you’re writing about.

You’re from further north, no? Chesterfield? Anyway, I guess you lived closer to places like Arkwright Town. Blackmoor is a fictional place, but the strange story of Arkwright – the village that crossed the road – was a big influence on the book.

What was it like for you, writing about villages?

Who’s the interviewer here? Oh go on then.

Not Chesterfield, but near. I was born in Alfreton and we moved to Swanwick when I was about six or seven. Basically, one of a cluster of villages and towns sat between two cities, Derby and Nottingham, and without any real affiliation with either. I bear no malice towards the place I grew up in, but I do remember that all I ever imagined was getting away. And I think that most of my friends felt the same.

At the same time, the idea of being anywhere else seemed (and seems) quite ludicrous to my parents. The generational gap in the villages and towns of England strikes me as less about the difference between vinyl and iPods, more about staying and going. It’s like our parents experienced what used to be there (mining, opencast, other industries), and we can only ever know what’s left. And it’s typically unappealing. So we leave.

Anyway, I think that small places make for great stories essentially. But this isn’t about me, so here’s another question. You say you did five years of research. How did you go about it? What’s your advice to a new writer who just wants to get cracking?

I suppose that was a bit misleading. I was researching as I went along. It was all trial and error with the first book. I wrote six or seven drafts before I even wrote about Beth, who is a central character.

In terms of research, it was fairly haphazard. I spent (and continue to spend) quite a bit of time hanging around local studies libraries. For Blackmoor I read medical textbooks and first person accounts of puerperal psychosis, diaries of women during the miners’ strike, science books about mining, anthropological studies about new-style housing estates, and I also went down a mine at the mining museum in Huddersfield, after which I immediately wrote one of the chapters.

They say write what you know, but I didn’t know anything. In some ways Blackmoor was my first book, but in other ways I rewrote it so completely, so many times, that you could also say it was my third or fourth book.

That’s fascinating that such a central character wasn’t in your first few drafts. Does that mean you subscribe to the ‘get something down then edit like mad’ approach to writing?

It wasn’t something I did on purpose. My first two books grew in a parasitic way, using a bad idea as the host. Similarly, I didn’t write Louisa, the main character in The Hunger Trace, until I was well into the truly awful first draft of something else. She became the driving force of a very different book.

I’m not sure I’d describe it as an ‘approach’, though! I’m still a beginner, and there are a lot of things I haven’t worked out yet. That’s why I’m wary of giving advice. “Do this and you’ll end up like me,” could easily be a warning rather than a recommendation!

One thing I like to do is wake up early and write down anything for a while before I start on the work-in-progress. It’s a way of trawling the depths before I’m properly conscious, to see what muck I can dredge up.

It was during such an early morning session that I came up with the idea for Daylight Saving, my first YA book. I approach those books differently, because there is a genre element. There are certain conventions that have to be dealt with in a thriller (even if you choose to subvert them), so I plan the YA books a bit more, beforehand.

I find your humility just as fascinating. I reckon most people would assume that with two successful novels under your belt, it would be fair game for you to toot your horn a little. It’s something I bang on about a lot on Write for Your Life – the need to stay grounded.

Tell us more about writing for young adults, or the kidz, as I think they’re known these days. Why the change in direction (or slight diversion)? How are you finding it?

I love it! I’d re-watched some of my favourite movies from when I was young. Back to the Future, E.T. etc, and I just thought: well these are obviously brilliantly constructed stories with fantastic central concepts (if there’s a wasted second in Back to the Future, I haven’t found it).

I also noticed, watching them as a 30-year-old, that they are very moving stories about families. Marty McFly has to get his parents to fall in love, and in E.T., we’re watching a broken family come to terms with caring for – and losing – another member. I wondered where such stories were on the bookshelves.

Turned out they were in the YA section. Since then I’ve been reading a lot of brilliant stuff by people like David Almond, Patrick Ness, Tim Bowler, Alan Garner, Louis Sachar, Siobhan Dowd, B.R Collins. These novelists often confront big, philosophical ideas, and take quite a lot of formal risks.

I also noticed a lot of generic conventions that in some circles might be sniffed at, but I found myself really excited by: big hooks at the starts of chapters, cliff-hangers at the ends, humour. I wondered if I could do that. So I had a go, and we’ll see what happens.

See, I’ve never really got why those things – hooks, cliffhangers and whatnot – have to be something separate to literary fiction. Good writing is good writing isn’t it? (now there’s a question for you)

Uh-oh, are we talking about readability?

I think there’s room on the shelf for everything. Slow, fast, experimental, conventional, intellectual. Let’s not dismiss an entire sub-genre, but let’s not dismiss formal ambition, either.

When I’m writing, I find that the idea, the material, the mood, suggest the form rather than the other way round. The Hunger Trace is about two women dealing with the loss of an important man in their lives. In the beginning, Maggie and Louisa are sort of frozen by loss, and the writing reflects that. The pacy narrative devices aren’t appropriate until they thaw out.

In terms of literary vs genre, I find all that fascinating. I just read an interesting essay about the borderland between the two, by Michael Chabon after which I happened to re-read a very smart thriller by Susanna Moore called In the Cut. It’s about language as a weapon, and it’s absorbing and complex and political and stylistically interesting.

I haven’t resolved any of these issues, writing-wise, but in terms of reading, why limit yourself? There’s nothing that says you have to choose between Dubravka Ugresic and Nick Hornby. You can read both!

I wasn’t talking about the dreaded readability specifically, but as everyone else is…

Anyway, let’s take a final diversion. How do you write? I mean literally. What’s your process? Paper and pen? Some fancy app on your telly-phone? Gosh, the options, the options.

Again, I haven’t quite settled on one approach. I find that the process tends to change with the project, and also with my living/work situation.

These things, however, usually play a part:

A notebook (I always buy coats with big pockets, and it ain’t because I’ve got loads of money). I find, when I’m working the day job, that the walk to and from the station can be fruitful for ideas.

Index cards. In the early stages of a novel, I write ideas for scenes and events on these, and keep them in a little box.

Pen and paper. I have a nice fountain pen with thick black ink.

Computer. I’m not eccentric. They’re good.

I find there are usually bits of paper on my desk with complex systems of numbers and letters on them, and the events of novels (sometimes mine, sometimes those of others) boiled down to short sentences. At the moment, the 30-odd scenes between the two central characters in the brilliant film Fishtank, are scrawled in note form. I like trying to work out how good things are done.

Speaking of good things, let’s finish on what you’re reading right now. Or have been reading recently. Any recommendations?

Yes, I’ve had a good run of reading, recently.

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews, is a funny and beautiful and strange book. I reckon it’s her best yet, and she’s always brilliant. I laughed and cried within the first 7 pages.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is, as most people already seem to know, ace.

Breath by Tim Winton really shook me up. So disturbing and frightening.

And After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, by Evie Wyld, is an immense book. A shocking and careful study of what war does to people.

Huge thanks to Ed for giving up his time for such a smashing interview. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter and buy his marvellous novels from your local bookshop.