Actual Glamour

For the last two years, I’ve come onto this page, posted something (usually moaning about writers’ money) and promised to post regularly.  Then I’ve disappeared again…for months at a time.

I have shame.

But the fact is, things are going well. My books are being reviewed and are actually selling (I got a royalty cheque – I thought they were fictitious). I’ve got a new job…I’m now Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Bristol…and I wrote a new book over the summer.

In the photos, you can see me hanging out in Soho, signing a stack of Coyote Summer at the Bristol Waterstones and attending my last graduation at Bath Spa University in my doctoral robes from the University of the West of England. (In case you didn’t know, your official academic robes are decided by the last place that awarded you a degree. Academics spend all their time at graduation examining each other’s robes and talking about the ones they like, wishing they’d thought about this when they’d decided where to do their PhD.)

And then there’s the photo of the most glamorous thing of all – hanging out with eminent children’s authors and discussing how to help families re-wild themselves using our narratives. Julia Green, Gill Lewis, Nicola Davies and Jackie Morris were there as we discussed the #mywildworld initiative… and I even got to meet Karin Celestine and her wee felted animals. There’s a chance that some of these authors may come onto this blog and talk about their glamorous literary lives soon.

But let’s keep it real. I spent my summer holiday mainly at the tip as my hoarding family finally decided to declutter. I wrote my book so quickly because I had a stomach bug and was pretty much tied to my bed and the loo for two weeks. My royalty cheque is going to  stop my shower from leaking through the kitchen ceiling. Then it will go towards repairing my kitchen from the deluge.

I’m still not rich and I’m still not famous. But I do love my literary life. And it is, sometimes, actually glamorous…

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On ‘Am I Getting Rich?

The writer’s life: Hard days, lots of work, no money, too much silence. Nobody’s fault. You chose it. ”

― Bill Barich

Short answer: (spoiler alert) No.

Author’s incomes are actually going down, not up. Publishing is a perilous enterprise these days and one way of trying to make it pay is giving most authors a great deal less than they got ten years ago. This week a bestselling Irish author decided to go back to his full time job, so that he could pay his mortgage. Most of us survive (as Ros Barber explains eloquently) by cobbling together part-time teaching jobs, school visits and other paid work.

But what do we mean by ‘getting rich’?

I think we mean feeling comfortable. Being financially secure. Even…and this almost never happens to writers: becoming financially independent.

I don’t feel comfortable or secure. If I get ill or I lose my job, my family will be in trouble. But looking at it from the standpoint of cold, hard income and outgoings, evidently my personal financial position isn’t as precarious as it feels.

Because when I research it, I’m already rich.

Looked at from a global perspective, I’m in the top 14%. In the UK, my family are in the top 26%. Trust me, if you could see my 13 year old car, my IPhone 5c and my two-up, two-down terraced house, (let alone my haircut) your first thought wouldn’t be: there goes someone rich. But clearly, I am. So, why don’t I feel rich?

So why are writers moaning about money?

I think it’s because, compared to other professions, it is so poorly paid. If you study Law or Medicine or an academic subject for years and work hard and become a success – if you become a QC or a Consultant or a Senior Lecturer/Professor, you make a very good wage. If you study writing for years and work hard and become a success – you make less than minimum wage and have to do other work to supplement your income. In the end, that means we all get less writing and writing that is less imaginative, free and inspired. Because in the back of our minds, writers are wondering how we’ll pay the mortgage if we get ill.

 

In Between Tangoes

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I’ve talked about failure and rejection. I’ve talked about despair. I’ve talked about lethargy and procrastination.

But I haven’t talked much about joy.

This post is about the joy in a writer’s life.  I have joy to spare today.

For the first time in quite a long time, I wrote a book my agent simply loves. A simple, uncomplicatedly good book, which easily fits into the market’s requirements. It will be going out to publishers soon.

And that’s heavenly. That’s such good news, that I’ve been tangoing around the house, literally dancing around in utter glee. The dog thinks I’ve gone mad, and I’ve had to go to our new Waitrose in order to make myself sit down properly and write this post.

My new novel is a wonderful story, about a girl who befriends a wounded grizzly bear…but I won’t go any further than that. You’ll just have to trust me. It’s a cracking tale, and it’s set in a spectacular part of the world that I know quite well. The setting is so strong, it’s almost another character, and it gave me a great deal of excuse to let loose with my inner poet. I loved writing this book – I wrote 33,000 words in 11 days.  The ending made my husband (a hardy Northerner) cry.

thought it was pretty good, but Sophie had reservations. I’ve overcome her reservation with the polish-up, however, and she’s now just as keen as me.

And that feels…amazing. Out of all the people in the world, this story came to me. I got to write it, and I did a good enough job that other people can now experience it for themselves. Before I sat down last spring, Darcy and the bear and her father did not exist. Now, they live in at least two readers’ minds. Where there was nothing, now there is something.

All the stuff that comes after; money and reviews and (please God) award nominations and etc, that’s not the reward for the world. The reward is this moment, when I know I’ve made something good.

Excuse me. I’m just going to tango around the produce.

Ten Things I’ve Learned Playing Bubble Witch Saga

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I’ve been writing. No, I have, really. I’ve been away for a fortnight, travelling on my own, and I’ve been logging in the hours.

But I’ve also been thinking. Writers spend a lot of time thinking. It’s often called procrastination…but it’s not, really. The fact is, the part of your brain that does the writing needs time to just…think.

Philip Hensher watches (often quite crappy) television. On a recent school visit, he told young fans that his partner says, ‘Why don’t you do something?’ and he says, ‘I am. I’m writing.’ And then his partner says, ‘You’re not writing. You’re watching Deal or No Deal.’

Fay Weldon, this autumn in conversation with Hilary Mantel, says she has written a book a year for…forever. But she spends most of the year, ‘Sitting there, not doing anything. I have to do that.’ She said, ‘I sit and mess about for about eight or nine months and then do the rest in a huge rush.’

Right now, I’m playing an awful lot of Bubble Witch Saga.

I’m thinking. I’m thinking about my place in the publishing industry, about what I want this book to do, about what kind of writer I really want to be. And I’m thinking about the nuts and bolts of the writing. And I’m thinking about things I’m not telling myself, but will come out in the writing.

And these are things I’ve learned while playing it:

1. ‘They’ want you to do something…in this case, pay for extra bubbles or lives or other help to play the game. ‘You’ want to play the game, but not spend your family’s hard-earned cash on Bubble Witch Saga. Your play takes place in the overlap of those two desires. This makes things more difficult, but you can’t help that. It’s all about integrity and who you are.

2. It’s never a good idea to start a ticking bomb. Sometimes it seems like an adequate shortcut, but it’s usually not. Shorting yourself on time is not a good strategy.

3. Sometimes you will lose. If you didn’t, it wouldn’t be any fun and you wouldn’t be pushing yourself hard enough.

4. If you quit a game, the witches get all upset. That doesn’t mean quitting isn’t the right decision.

5. The goal of the game is to burst the bubbles at the top. If you spend time doing anything else, no matter how satisfyingly creative, you will not win.

6. Sometimes you can’t win, and should use your time to get better at playing that level.

7. Fiendishly difficult situations are difficult to engineer, so once you find a way around them, you can get around them again.

8.  Sometimes you can play beautifully but, because of the ways the bubbles bounce, you might not be awarded stars. This is about the bubbles and spiders, not you.

9. If you think about it, you can get your spiders lined up when your bubbles are ready to drop, giving you more of a chance at stars.

10. Friends are helpful. You need three to travel to a new level.

Happy thinking….

Other Writers II – Finding Your Tribe

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Here I am at AWP in Seattle.

AWP is HUGE. Think of the biggest conference/exhibition you’ve ever seen and double it. Now imagine all the attendees are writers…scary, isn’t it?  I talked to staff in a big restaurant across the street from the venue. They’d never seen anyone eat like the writers. They’d never seen anyone drink so much, either (they kept running out of Jack Daniels and Pinot Noir). ‘And you talk so much,’ one waitress said, as everyone else nodded. ‘You’re always talking, and you interrupt each other to talk some more.’

With an estimated 14,000 writers in town, you do tend to see certain similarities in dress (some hip, some smart, most dishevelled) and behaviour. Most of us normally work alone, in a room, so we’re a bit overwhelmed and over-excited to be in such a big crowd. Some soon rather sort themselves into roaming packs. The memoirists and poets form big clubs and have long-running discussions in which sides are passionately taken.

But the fiction writers don’t do this…there’s too many of us. We go to many of the same panels and events, but we wedge ourselves into rooms designed for fewer attendees, sitting on each other’s feet to hear the speakers. And then we hide more, skulk in our hotel rooms.

There are so, so, so many of us. All publishing, or trying to publish novels this year, next year or the year after. Thousands and thousands of us, publishing novels. It can feel a little disheartening.

Talking to the many publishers present can help. The small and university presses, in particular, have to have a strong sense of mission. They know what ‘their’ kind of books/stories are and that’s what they look for. Other things might be good, but it’s not what they do.

That’s the attitude you need to have as a fiction writer. You need to know what you do and what you don’t do. You need to know who is doing the same kind of thing you are doing. You might admire and enjoy other kinds of writing, but you should have a good idea of your home interest, your tribe.

When you do this, you can build relationships with the writers and publishers that are working in your area. You can even club together and promote  the whole concept of your tribe. Genre writers – in particular romance writers and science fiction novelists – are brilliant at this.

It’s easy to feel like a voice in the wilderness in this game. Or else, like at AWP, one wildebeest in an enormous herd of wildebeests. When you find your tribe, it gives you power. Now you are a pack of wolves, making each other bigger and stronger by working together.

With what I am writing now, I am finding more and more people I recognise as part of my tribe…I’ve never fit well into one before. I’m looking forward to hunting with them and seeing what, together, we can bring down!

 

More On Why We Write

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I’ve been working on my fictionalised account of dying in a car accident. It wiped me out yesterday, writing about dying again. I felt sick and shaky and in describing my PTSD, I nearly started it up again. I had a few flashbacks, but then had a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit and they stopped. It must be good, I thought, to be that powerful. I took Dog for a walk just to be on the safe side.

While I was walking Dog, I ran into a lady from church and Dog played with her dog while we chatted. I said something about my day and she said, ‘That must be very cathartic, writing it all down like that. You must feel soooo much better.’

Well no, I didn’t answer. I feel a whole lot worse, actually.

I  know writing can be therapeutic, but it can also be destructive. Obsessively looking and reliving any event can be less than useful to building a healthy psychology. And writers are often sickly people anyway. They start noticing things because they are sitting quietly, out of the way. They have time to write because they didn’t get chosen for the hockey squad, or (like a surprising number of our MA students) got injured by horses, or have a kind of shyness that almost amounts to an injury. We are, generally, just the kind of people who need to get out more in the fresh air and worry less.

Shelley’s idea that we are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ might also be true, in a way, but we legislate for lots of different parties. In my bookshelf, Jane Austen sits next to William Burroughs (it’s not that I don’t have any Balzac, etc, I just roughly alphabetise and there’s room for both of them on that particular shelf). I worry about it all the time. I know they’re not getting along. Depending on what you think is right and wrong in this world, you will find great authors who are actively promoting what you think is wrong. Writing does not tell us how to live…if we are looking for it to do that, we have gone seriously astray. If we think we are supposed to do that for other people, we will be very disappointed.

Both of these concepts take the emphasis actually away from the writing and put it on what the writing is about. But what the writing is about isn’t nearly as important as how the writing is. When we read creative writing, we are able to inhabit the sensibilities of another person – the writer- who, themselves, might be writing in a way that they, too, are attempting to inhabit the sensibilities of another person. The writing itself, the how-good-is-it-ness of the writing, enables us to do this spectacular thing; bridge out of our own consciousness.

When people ask me why I write, I always say, ‘To serve God.’ That’s me, as a Catholic, as someone who promises every morning that ‘each word, each deed, each thought of mine shall be an act of love divine’, and every evening acknowledges my failure to accomplish the morning’s promise. I don’t mean that I’m writing religious tracts. I mean that I’m writing as well as I can, to make these bridges.

It’s great work. Sometimes it’s even rewarded.

But that’s another post.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/08/literary-fiction-improves-empathy-study

Riding the Just-broke Horse

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I’m waiting.

I had a phone call with Editor O’ My Dreams this week and we talked about what she wants from the beginning of my fictionalised-memoir-of-dying-in-a-car-accident. What she’s asked  is going to be quite challenging. She wanted the fiction to show more than the memoir about my life before the accident, about what I lost when I lost my voice. But now that she has that, she misses the immediate sympathy and hook of the original beginning, which took you just to the moment when I was struggling to stay alive. Somehow, I now have to weave both into the beginning.

I tried to work on it yesterday, but my imagination wouldn’t come when I called.

It’s like that.

And I really wouldn’t want it any other way.

One of my first jobs was as a cowgirl. Well, I could ride and we’d all had to leave the ski hill where I was working early because the snow just…stopped. In Montana. In January. It wasn’t like there were tons of jobs waiting for us. I could string fence and I could ride and I knew how to move cows around. I have no idea how I knew how to move cows around. I’d never done it before. But on my trial, I motivated them through a gate as if I’d been born doing it. The rancher ‘s wife was impressed and I was hired.

I also got involved with training horses (and, later, mules, but that’s another story). I was working as a waitress in an all-night diner on the graveyard shift and feeding cattle and riding fence in the early mornings. I slept from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, but then I had some free time. I was also usually still wearing my jeans and boots, having collapsed on top of the quilt. I thought I might as well make some extra money, so I took on the training.

Some of the horses were just-broke. You could get them to come to you, eventually, and you could get the saddle on, usually. What happened when you got into the saddle was not predictable.  There was only one thing about them of which I was certain. They loved to run.

They were still young. They could still remember the freedom of the big fields and ranging the mare/foal pastures. They couldn’t wait to shake the fidgets out of their legs. I stopped riding not long after that time, after a bad fall which dislocated both arms and my nerve. But back then, I was still totally fearless with ten or twelve years of riding under my belt. I’d raise up a bit in the stirrups (I’ve always liked them a bit short), lay down on their necks and just fly.

The mountains were high and snowcapped. The air was angel-pure and burned your lungs with cold. It was, I suppose, about as close to heaven as we mortals get.

And that’s just what it’s like when the writing comes. I lose track of my fingers and what they’re doing. I forget that I’m making a world with pixels on a screen. I just fly.

But first, I have to catch the horse. It will come to me, eventually. And I’ll be able to get the saddle on, usually. But sometimes I can’t and sometimes it won’t come when I call.

It’s like that.