On being interesting

Interesting
Part of writing is selling yourself and part of selling yourself is being interesting. This is not easy. Not for me, at least.

Should you have the great fortune to be picked up by an agent or somehow manage to inveigle a publishing contract you become a commodity. The publishing industry needs a package, an angle, a way to attract attention to your work. That might just be you.

You won’t immediately be dispatched to do interviews with the great and the good. Journalism is an overstretched industry and most interviews you see are self-written: the tired journo will give it the once-over, maybe cut a few key sentences and shove it in, a way of filling up a column that otherwise she’d have to think about. Here, done and gone.

Occasionally, though, your life will chime into the zeitgeist. Said tired journo will be struggling to fill her pages and something you mentioned as an aside will strike her as worthy of deeper exploration. Maybe you’ll get that elusive personal chat (sometimes in person, sometimes via Skype or telephone) and what you said on the spur of the moment will be unpicked, stretched, your viscera unravelled in front of you.

This is good. This is what you (or at least your backers) want. It’s your job to think of something you’ve done, seen or been that might attract attention – no matter if you wanted to talk about it; no matter if you’re forced to examine some aspect of yourself you wish was left so far in the back of the closet that it might as well be in Narnia.

More likely you – as a newbie writer – will be mining the ‘local interest’ seam. It’s not the Times Literary Supplement you’ll be aiming for, it’ll be the parish magazine. Think about all the places you’ve lived, all the great bookshops you’ve frequented, the library in which you were raised: that’s your target market.

Example: my parents used to take me to Bingley library every week, until I was old enough to go on my own, and until I was old enough to go to Bradford Central Library on my own. Thus I’d be looking to the local Telegraph and Argus for publicity. They’d find me a lot more interesting than the Shetland Advertiser, especially as I just made that up.

Note that people are interested in people, not work. Unless your story is truly fascinating, a hot-button-clickbait-zeitgeist-relevant-to-everyone-world-shaker, it’s you, not your work, that sells.

Everyone is interesting. I’ve never yet met a single person who hasn’t at least one good tale to tell. And if you’re reading this then you’ve got something I’d love to hear about, be it your achievements, your ambitions or your frustrations. Not yet had the moment to do what you really want to do? The story of why you want to do that one thing, or your reasons why you haven’t yet done it – well, the key word there is ‘story’.

Think of it this way: if you were in a novel, what would you accentuate of your own life? What would you hide? What would people want to read about you?

And then forget all that. Because all people really want to know about is where you grew up.

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On honesty

truth

Mikko Kuorinki: ‘Wall piece with 200 letters.’ Quote from David Foster Wallace

If I have a unique selling point it’s this: I’m honest. This blog isn’t about my perfect world. Writing is hard and I don’t mind sharing my struggles with you, my lovely bloggee.

But honesty isn’t always the best policy. I can’t, for example, tell you of every interaction I have within the publishing industry. It would be unprofessional to discuss current dealings, and to criticise an individual agency or organisation is not only rude but might damage my chances with other bodies in the future. Publishers, agents, editors – they talk. A hastily-worded blog-post may not see me blackballed forevermore but it certainly might flash some red lights somewhere. They’re on social media and they scan the profiles of prospective workees. They don’t have the time or inclination to work with arses.

Similarly I’ve read too many horror-stories of writers popping up to argue with reviewers. Nothing good can come of that. Your comments will only drive off potential readers.

I also can’t tell you every little thing about my past work. My best writing is always in the piece I’m working on*. My earliest works are never going to be as good as the last I did and none will be as good as the Ghost of the Novel Yet-To-Come.

And that’s good – great, in fact – but I still want to publish older novels. I still hope for a publisher and still actively consider self-publishing as an option. So to dissect older works in a public space like this – where I want things to be read – is self-defeating.

Honesty is wonderful but has to be balanced by both self-interest and the interests of others. All the thoughts you read here are self-censored; they’re not the unconscious outpouring of genius. I get things wrong. I misstate. And I’m careful about just what I reveal about what I’m doing or plan to do.

Hopefully a little caution now will allow me to be more open later. Sometimes a hesitant or held-back blog-post (I don’t publish everything I write, sometimes for reasons of quality, sometimes because they cut a little too close to the bone) will help me work out how to make my point later, when the issues are in the rear-view mirror. An example is this recent post, which was very hard for me to share. Also, now I read it back, I can feel myself swerving away from and euphemising some of the real issues.

So my advice to you is to be honest, be open, and share your experiences – just not all of them. And not whilst you have an empty bottle of gin by your side, the last remnants of which are still burning in your gullet. Be honest, but be aware that whilst you’re contemplating the void, the void might just be staring right back at you.

 

 

*This is not necessarily true, but a good enough lie to stand here.

The time-traveller’s strife

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Should you ever get a book published you’re going to have to do a fair bit of promotion. And what you’re going to have to promote isn’t going to be very good.

That’s not actually true. What you’re pushing might actually be brilliant, a masterpiece – but it’s likely that you’ll already be neck-deep in another project by the time the book hits the shelves. And I’m willing to put money on your new work being better. Suddenly you’re dragged back to something you’re already feeling a little embarrassed about. Were you really so naïve as to write that? All those adverbs!

You can’t say that, though. You’re a writer, and writing is a business. You have to show belief in your work or no-one else will. And your publisher won’t be too pleased if the message you’re sending out is half-hearted.

Say, for example, that suddenly a forgotten submission for Chivalry came back with an offer of publication. I wrote the novel nearly a decade ago. There’s a lot I still like about it, but I’m damn sure I’m a better writer now. Suddenly I’m in a moral quandary: can I honestly do a book launch and say how great the work is? ‘Yeah, it’s okay, I suppose’ ain’t gonna shift copies.

And that’s before the questions about inspiration, character development and specific plot motifs are raised. Blimey, I can barely remember last week, let alone an idle piece of speculation nearly a decade gone.

Of course, this is all assuming I’d have a book launch, or that people would be asking me questions. But the same issues arise in more singular surroundings. I want people to read my books. I want people to buy my books. To do that I’d have to muster all my social media resources – this blog also – to promote my work.

I’ve said before that shouting on social media is no way to make friends, or sales, or garner even the most flickering of interests. But telling people I have a (still theoretical) novel on release is basic and acceptable. Which means I might have to adopt a more outgoing face than I would otherwise adopt; a positive pitch with no caveats or “I’m actually more interested in this’s” is the least I could provide.

So this is the tightrope the writer must walk: they must be able to promote a work they no longer see as word-perfect without lying. They must be able to answer questions they’d never considered about a book they may not have seriously contemplated for months.

And, of course, they must be prepared for reviews that make them squirm, whether they’re good or bad.

Writers are time-travellers. They must exist in the present, in the past – and also in the futures of the work they’re currently creating.

And they must do this without losing the essence of who they are. And who they were. And, just possibly, who they’ll be this time next week.

Nothing doing

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I’ve done nothing, you say? Nothing at all? Tish and piffle. Here’s what I’ve done this week:

  • Learnt the difference between a rook and a crow: “If it’s ‘crows’ it’s ‘rooks’. If it’s ‘rook’ it’s ‘crow.’” (The point being that rooks are social and crows solitary.)
  • Continued my studies of comparative suburban architecture by dint of walking for tens of miles through various estates, trying to identify the basic ‘house’ beneath years of alterations
  • Studied the interactions of homo sapiens sapiens in a variety of habitats: a greasy spoon in a middle-class town, for example, or the chitterings of parents in the back of a small car
  • Learnt of the longevity of Fen-management techniques and of the benefits of flooding
  • Critiqued a stranger’s décor
  • Was judged on appearance and attitude by strangers
  • Lay on the floor for a while and contemplated the futility of human existence
  • Fought with the NHS switchboard and its plethora of Kate’s
  • Led the expedition to conquer the many roundabouts of Milton Keynes
  • Was deposed from leadership of expedition to conquer the many roundabouts of Milton Keynes
  • Explored the origins and implications of the Tribal Hidage
  • Dithered over the costs and benefits of childcare
  • Studied mothers and children
  • Pined for social media
  • Ruminated on the nature and necessity of tact

A writer doing nothing? Impossible. What you may think is wool-gathering, or prevarication, or honest-to-goodness laziness is, in fact, method acting: assimilation of source material; an exploration of perspective. What might appear to be idleness is merely necessary research.

So be wary when contemplating the writer. It’s rare that the observer isn’t also the observed.

Caveat scriptor

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The Distrest Poet, Hogarth c1736

“A writer is a writer not because she writes well or easily, because she has amazing talent, or because everything she does is golden. A writer is a writer because, even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Junot Diaz, Becoming a Writer/The List, O Magazine, November 2009

This quote is only one of many from many people: you know you’re a writer when not writing is impossible. It’s an image that conjures up the image of the starving artist in their garret, frantically creating because it’s the only thing they know. It’s romantic. It’s persistent. It’s dangerous.

I’ve not been well recently. I’ve hinted at it in previous blog-posts, but perhaps it’s time to be more open about it. A major life-change occurred and suddenly I was unable to write. My inability to write made me ill, or at least more so.

I hadn’t realised that writing was part of my self-protection, my survival strategy. I didn’t realise just how much my routine had been insulation from depression and self-hatred. Of course I knew of my propensity for mental illness – I’ve had it since I was eight, so I’ve had a lot of time to come to terms with myself. But I didn’t realise that writing – and more specifically my writing routine – worked as a defence. Writing, for me, is as much self-preservation as it is an act of love.

So, for the first time, I really feel I understand these quotes. But I don’t see them as romantic, aspirational ideals: instead they have taken on a darker hue. Beware, writer, for you are so embedded in your work that you are simply a madman with a coping strategy. You are Dr Jekyll. Beware the unleashing of your Hyde.

And beware also these pat statements that seem to glamourise suffering. Be reassured: your writing isn’t going to get any worse if you’re well-fed, well-supported, well-balanced. We should be telling ourselves that the healthiest way to write is to do so as a hobby or as a business, not as a part of our very being. Necessity has a way of sabotaging you when you least expect it.

I’m taking steps to restore balance and to claw back some of the defences I once had. But caveat scriptor: there is nothing romantic about madness. If your happiness is so entwined with writing then at least acknowledge this and ensure you have some sort of safety net should the unexpected sweep your feet from beneath you.

Or is it just me?

The beginning of the end

Calvin
I’m writing a short story. I am, in fact, writing the same short story for the fourth time. I’m not editing – changing one word here, switching a character there – but actually writing the story over, from scratch, for the fourth time.

There are reasons for this lunacy. The first is simply that I can. I have no pressing work, no great inspirations, no editor beating down my door for work as yet undelivered. I have lacuna-ed and I’m just taking a quiet moment to do as I damn well please, thank you very much. Sometimes it’s fun just to write.

The second reason for all the rewrites is that this story is teaching me even as I try to get it down. The original idea was of a terrorist attack and its immediate aftermath from the point of view of one of the attackers, but as I wrote it I realised that the event itself wasn’t very interesting. The escape is where it’s at.

So I rewrote it, losing the first half entirely. I got it down, knowing it wasn’t very good (get the ideas on the page then endlessly refine, that’s the writing way), and printed it off. But as I mulled it over I realised the location was wrong. I’d set it in a church, but it needed to be in a museum. And that I needed another character as an interlocutor.

So I started a third draft. And it was going fine until I started to think about how the story would end. And it occurred to me that this was the interesting bit. The aftermath of the aftermath. The characters. This was the story I wanted to write, not some faux-action cliché with dull people and dull arguments. I wanted an exhausted survivor with her hostage on public transport at night.

So this is what I’m writing. Not an all-action balls-out sausage-fest but a quiet, reflective piece on the nature of belief and causes, and let’s just throw in a little fake news there as well.

What I’m not writing is a novella. You might be reading this and thinking that I’ve been building and building and building a story and that I should just tell it all. But what I’ve done is tell myself the background (though that background has shifted somewhat from my first attempt), and this is incredibly useful: I know, in detail, how my characters got where they are now.

But my readers don’t need to see that background. Not because it isn’t very good – I have confidence in my abilities to make it good, with the help of my friendly neighbourhood writing group – but because it’s not the story I want to tell.

Maybe this tale will turn into a novella, but it won’t go back to the beginning; if anything it’ll extend from where I thought the end was. Or maybe I’ll just realise that I still haven’t found the right beginning and I’ve another start to find.

So I’m writing a short story. Maybe one day I’ll find where it ends.

Seeking inspiration

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If you’re in a hole, stop digging. Unless you’re trying to find water, in which case pause to check you’re in the right place, wipe your brow, and dig on.

Should your well run dry, there are two possible solutions: you could read, or you could talk to writers. You should also try not to be too hard on yourself, but I’ve never been good at that one.

The great August of Doom is over. Life rolls on. I achieve little. But talking literature (in its broadest sense) is always an inspiration, so last night I made one of my periodic excursions to my writing group – less regular that I used to, thanks to sproggage and associated exhaustion – and I now find myself somewhat recharged: still frustrated by my lack of personal progress, but a little less empty, a little less flat.

The experience of experience and evaluating the work of others is always rewarding. Ideas spark ideas: a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. This is horrendously trite but no less true for that. So I return to an old piece of advice: if you want to write you should join a writing group. Even if you feel you have nothing to contribute, do not miss the chance to be inspired. Do not miss the chance to learn. To not miss the chance to improve, even if you never share your own work and just listen, absorb, and swell with literary power.

I suppose this is just another way of saying that I’ve achieved nothing this week. But that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and maybe – just maybe – it’s not an onrushing train.