Sunday, 18 September 2011

The continuum from failure to success

A while ago Sarah Duncan blogged about the struggle many writers have with failure. (You can read her interesting blogpost here. And do trawl the rest of her blog for useful writerly things here). She started me thinking.

I struggle with the term 'failure'. It suggests we can divide endeavour into those who achieve, and those who do not. Some years ago I tried to climb Kilimanjaro. I was within six hours of the top before giving up. Was that a failure? Surely even trying was something to be proud of. And altitude sickness had stolen my appetite, so I was unable to consume the 4000 calories a day needed to keep myself warm and carry on climbing. Although I drooped with disappointment at the time (even, at one point, forgetting how grim it was and wondering if I should try again), looking back it doesn't feel like a failure. I didn't do badly, given that I was fifty at the time, and my fellow 'failures' included a marathon runner and PE teacher.

I wonder if it all begins in school. Teachers smothered my sums with red crosses; I believe I'm hopeless at maths. We had terrible 'team-choosing' times for games, with the sporty girls as captains selecting equally sporty friends to join them leaving the lumpy and unco-ordinated (me) to be one of the last. (Tell me they don't do that any more?) Failure had a very public meaning then.

Is writing, or learning to paint, or taking exams, or playing golf - so very different? Okay, there are pass marks, there is evidence of not doing so well, but I don't think we can separate ourselves so crudely into those who achieve and those who fail. There are degrees of not doing well, of not really trying, of being defeated by circumstances. And sometimes there comes a point where giving up is the sensible, realistic, or timely thing to do.

Surely what's important is to try, and to enjoy the trying.

And, as for the writing - like most, I could paper the bathroom with rejections. This is not, I would argue, evidence of failure, but rather than I carry on trying. That, I hope, is something to be proud of.

Or do you see it differently? Does the idea of failure leave you weeping? And how do you define success?

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Holidays - don't you just love them.

Well, I do - love holidays. And I make a distinction between holidays and travelling. My book is about travelling. This week I'm on holiday. (Well, I'm not actually on holiday as I write this - but I'm drafting it at home so that I can spend my holiday doing, well holiday things. But if I can pretend I'm away, I'm sure you can.)

I'm in Devon. Which is not far, and not hugely different from Wiltshire - except Devon has the sea, and the moor, and cream teas. I've not come here for difference; rather to be away from my own washing up, the grass that needs cutting, remembering which week they collect the recycling. I need an interruption to those realities.

For the joy of holidays, for me, lies in its being just that - an interruption. When I'm at home my days have a rhythm. I live alone and so the rhythm is mine to control. I don't have to think about the shape of days. I can even get a little tetchy if there are major challenges to that rhythm. But comfortable rhythms can lead to complacency.

And so I come on holiday. To surprise myself by doing things differently. I might take a boat trip up the Dart. I might tramp across the moor and pretend to be a brigand. (I am alone; nobody will know.)  I might eat a cream tea at coffee-time. I will eat unexpected food, at unexpected times. I will not listen to The Archers, nor organise my evenings to watch the News. I will ask myself new questions.

(Not so different from travelling, then? Yes - it is very different. Travelling is an expedition, and requires significantly more planning. It needs me to interact with my surroundings all the time if I am to keep myself safe, meet great people, catch the right bus. And it doesn't stop at the end of a week.)

But how much of an interruption will this week be to the writing? I can't imagine a day of writing nothing. Of keeping all those words locked away. So I'll write - I expect my journal to be the dumping ground for far more sentences than it handles at home. And I shall read, of course. So - you are saying - this holiday is no interruption to the writing. Surely it's like taking your work away with you? But writing doesn't feel like work. It feels like breathing. I can no more stop writing than I can will my heart not to pump. I am even ready for the holiday to throw up short story ideas, thoughts for this blog, or even snippets of inspiration that will ferment for a while until I find the right home for them.

Why do you go on holiday? What do you hope to find there? And does being away tilt your world at all?

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Working with a copy editor.

Well, I found a copy editor. That bit wasn't difficult. They advertise in the back of writing magazines, pop up all over the Internet.

I chose to work with a big editing company in London. They are reputed to be constructive and highly professional. I found no negative reviews. And so I sent a sample, we agreed an estimated bill, and off went the tome.

Thumb-twiddling time? Not exactly - there are other projects on the go. A short story nagging me to edit it; a life writing competition that tempts me. But there is a corner of me still with Over the Hill. Is there a sense of story? Have I managed to describe the exhilaration of swimming in the Barrier Reef, or flying over Mount Cook? Should I ring her, ask her if I've overdone the discomforts of Nepal?

And then I make myself stop and think about why I can't, quite, let it go for a couple of weeks. What do I really want from this copy edit?

I want two things. I want her to find the mistakes, the wobbly grammar, the cumbersome sentences, those moments when I've followed an idea and become tedious. I expect the manuscript to come back covered in red marks, an ugly reminder of just how much work this still needs. She is professional and I expect her to be thorough.

And then I want her to like it. It is, of course, not her job to like it. Indeed, as long as she finds all the mistakes it doesn't really matter whether she likes it or not. But that doesn't stop me wanting her to like it, to make a brief comment about how working with my book was, well, entertaining, or fun, or - well, anything but boring. I have trusted her with something I've treasured for years, my precious efforts, my book.

Dissonance is never easy. But by recognising my all-too-human hope that she will like my work as well as improve it, it is easier to live with these waiting days. She will do her job. I'll get the report - and yes, I shall probably scan it for hints that she might have enjoyed this project - and then settle down to work with her recommendations.

Has anyone else worked with a copy editor? How did you negotiate this split between needing constructive criticism of your work and the gut-wrenching fear that she might cast judgements on your baby?

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

There is good, and then there is popular.

Blogs are wonderful. They begin being about one this, and then comments lead them in a different direction. A couple of posts ago, Mark made a comment about the distinction between work that is good and that which is popular. That'sfFar too interesting a thought to hide among the comments. I happen to know that he is a fab photographer, but his thinking is apt for every corner of the arts.

But I shall limit myself to the writing context, as that's the only one I know anything about.

It's hard, being on the outside and looking in, to get a feel for how publishing is these days. All I have to go on are the articles in newspapers and publishing press (such as The Bookseller), and comments from writers in blogs. There seems general agreement that the industry is squeezed, that the big publishing houses control much of what is reviewed in the papers (and what makes it to the tables at the front of Waterstones), while the small publishers are bravely swimming against the tide and bringing out books that are daring and different but might not make the huge profits demanding by the likes of Harper Collins.

For it is the books that make most profits that are seen to be popular. I don't, personally, like reading Dan Brown, but his publishers must love him.

Meanwhile, the small publishers have to sift through the deluge of submissions from writers whose work slips between the confines of conventional genres, or uses unfamiliar forms and structures. Somehow they have to find enough good-enough books to make enough profit to keep going.

Propping the system up are the readers - and writers.

Not all writers want to win the Booker Prize. Nor find their book heaped among piles of holiday reading. Nor even be particularly rich. They simply want to write the best book they can, and hope that enough people are entertained by their efforts. Some simply don't have the energy to survive the submission process, or the emotional resources to withstand endless rejections. Some want to control whole writing and publishing business themselves. They just want to be good at what they do.

And, from among this group, we hope to find self-published gems. There may not be many treasures among the self-published eel vomit, but they are there if we hunt for them. Books that are different, and exciting, and ask unusual questions. They may never be popular, but that doesn't mean they aren't wonderful. And often they are wonderful in a different way from the books piled in bookshops.

Or are they? Do you equate quality with popularity? If not - what criteria do you use the decide if a book is 'good enough?'

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Why I'm going to get a copy editor.

In my last post I mentioned that my book is almost the best that it can be, and now I'm into seriously researching the Next Steps. I'm beginning to unpick this self-publishing business. And trying not to drown in conflicting messages.

For instance, the advice about finding a copy editor. I've read blogs telling me I must use one. It's not always clear why - some don't get far beyond the 'because I say so' message, which is guaranteed to send me into the opposing camp. I'm not good at being told what to do. Then there are those who insist that a copy editor will make my book 'better.' What does that mean? What does 'better' look like - and will I like it when I get there? They will, I am assured, go through it line by line, make sure I'm saying that I think I'm saying. That I've got my facts right. That my grammar isn't total rubbish and I can tell the difference between past and passed.

Then there are a core of self-publishers who insist that copy editors dilute the message. That the great strength of going it alone is doing without the trappings of conventional publishing and presenting material which is fresh and original, even though it may have occasional wobbles in the grammar or factual department. These books are not trying to be replicas of those conventionally published, but are different, exciting, immediate. Readers who enjoy these books know that, and enjoy it.

So what is a woman to do?

My book has already had some serious help. Paul (my mentor - you remember him?) took it by the short and curlies and threw common sense at it. (Sorry, mixed metaphor there.) He helped me look at it from a different perspective, give it a new shape. And it is, I know, a better book. And here I know what I mean by 'better.' It is more personal, funnier, and the tedious bits are in the bin. So - here I have some experience of what it means to have help with the book. Paul has, in effect, nudged me into a huge structural edit. And the book is significantly improved as a result.

Which makes the copy-editing decision so much easier.

Of course I'm going to get it copy-editied. Not because anyone has told me to, but because I have already seen the benefit of working with a mentor, and am now looking forward to someone else helping me make this book even 'better'. I still don't know what that will look like, but it will be exciting to find out.

But you - where do you turn to for advice? Who do you listen to? And who ignore? And why?

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Self-publishing. Just because we can . . .

Doesn't mean we should. Self-publish, I mean.

(Yes, I know I leap from one topic to another. I'm back in the self-publishing camp today.) One way or another Over the Hill and Far Away will be a book.  Which has led me to play around on a self-publishing site or ten, and drown in blogs, and to read a couple of how-to books which explain the awkward bits. Maybe it's not so daunting?

This looks almost easy, I thought. Print on Demand - what could be more straightfoward? Typeset, sort a cover - and presto, a book! And putting books onto Kindle, onto Smashwords - yes, it looks fiddly in places, but it costs so little! Anyone can do it! Maybe I should put some of my short stories there -

STOP RIGHT THERE! Yes, it might be not-so-hard. But that doesn't mean my short stories are good enough. Oh, there are one or two that aren't bad; even a couple that might be reasonable if I could only - well - make them more interesting. Make the plot a bit more, sort of plottish. Find characters that I don't want to smack at the end of 2000 words. There is a reason they are sitting in the 'not really good enough' folder on the computer.

In her book Write to be Published Nicola Morgan (find her fab blog here) describes much self-published material as 'eel vomit.'  No, it isn't very nice, is it? But, being honest with myself for just a minute, most of those short stories are eel vomit. They have taught me things about plot, and characterisation, and making settings work (or not). So they have a value for me. But when it comes to literary merit, well, they are rubbish.

In contrast - I am proud of Over the Hill. It is, now, almost the very best book I can make it. (Almost - yes, there is still work to do.) But I must resist the temptation to play with making other books, just because I can. Better to have one book to be proud of than piles of eel vomit.

And you - tell me I'm not the only one with eel vomit hidden in a bottom drawer?