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We Need To talk About Self Publishing

              I’ve read the blogs, been to the talks and even read a few of the books, so it’s time to talk.

What are we to do? What are we to do?

We know all the facts, all the stuff about how books that sold gazillions were rejected by every publisher in town until one brave soul stuck his head above the parapet; about how books that have become literary classics were self published because no one would touch them. And then there are the perceived truths: how can we really trust traditional publishing to work as a quality filter (some may say ‘a censor’) when there’s so much badly written, badly edited dross out there, and if you ‘have’ to self publish then your book can’t be up to much, can it?

So who, if there should be a decision at all, decides what has value?

When all hell let loose and every second person became a writer with a downloadable novel or short story or poetry collection to sell, and mainstream publishers pounced on the occasional success and offered mutually lucrative deals to those authors (we know who I’m talking about), a sensible few (those who refused to accept the end of civilization as we knew it) predicted that out of this carnage of poorly executed literature something good would come. They drew parallels with the music and film industries’ indy scenes and said that those with real talent, the innovative, the avant garde, would find their place. Small independent publishers would become the home of interesting, exciting work and social networking sites will provide the mouth from which the words of praise (and promotion) would spew.

And so it (partially) came to pass.

What actually happened was self publishers renamed themselves as ‘Independent’ publishers and every second person with a downloadable novel (etc) to sell went on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and tugged at our sleeves like a child trying to get our attention:

‘Buy my book’ ‘Buy my book’ Buy my book’.

              ‘I’ve got five stars on Amazon *****’

              ‘Like my Facebook page’.

              Now we find that there is a whole new enterprise in which authors can buy 5 star reviews.

(I don’t know about you, but I’ve never trusted the five star review, I always skip them and go straight to the three or four starred ones. There you will often find a far more honest appraisal in which flaws, which can be forgiven, are highlighted and I can make a choice as to whether I’ll accommodate them or not. Nothing worse than buying an exclusively five starred novel and finding it lacking. All that does is rouse suspicion about who the reviewers are and what their relationship to the author might be.)

There are many small publishers out there (who of course use social networking sites) who are publishing interesting books.

But there always have been.  

The change, I think, is that the truly discerning reader (the one who is willing to throw off that irritating child hanging on their sleeve) will go to these places first because they are as discerning in their choices as the reader is. Yes, they will act as a quality control and reject what doesn’t come up to scratch. But the sad thing is those that don’t come up to scratch will still get themselves into the marketplace.

Ok. You may not like it but I’m going to come out and say it:

As a writer, I want the validation of someone who stands as an arbiter of taste. I want to be accepted by someone in the industry who believes that if they publish my novel they stand a chance of being able to pay their mortgage or feed their children. I want someone to take that risk.

Is it gutless to pass the risk on and not want it to be me? I don’t think so. To be a successful self published author I need to be writer, copy editor, typesetter, graphic designer, accountant, distributor and marketing professional. And you know what? I don’t have those skills.

I’m a writer.

             And I would much rather be bothered on Twitter by small publishers whooping for joy because one of their books has made it on to the Man Booker longlist  than have you, on autotweet, several times per day, telling me about your sockpuppeted five star reviewed novel available for download, because however much you nag, I’m not going to buy it.

On Matters Tautological

My father is remembered through his sayings.

“If you don’t go to Manchester, you don’t have to come back,” was a favourite, oft repeated when anyone, know matter who they were - criminals, politicians, his daughters – got into any kind of trouble.

A self-educated man, leaving school at thirteen and earning pennies by returning empty drinks bottles to sweet shops, he built up a serious collection of references books. I still have copies of, among others, his Fowler’s Modern English Usage and Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.


He had a particular aversion to tautologies and we learnt to recognize them from a fairly young age.

“In actual fact?” he would scream at the television or radio if anyone dared to utter the shameful phrase. “Facts are actual. That’s what it means. That’s a…” and three little voices would pipe up, “a tautology!”

What turned out to be a momentary tension diffuser, and was possibly designed as such, was barging into a sibling squabble with “Stupid idiot! Idiots are stupid. That’s why they’re called idiots. It’s a…” And we would sigh, “a tautology.” And get back to the matter in hand.

He was forever banging on about antidisestablishmentarianism not being the longest word in the English language, claiming it to be floccinaucinihilipilification, (coming in at two letters longer) which, ironically, means ‘the action of estimating as worthless’, a habit that my father clearly relished in.


Now a grown up writer, I can hear his words screaming in my ears, as I too have become peculiarly sensitive to language aberrations.

“You can’t qualify ‘unique’,” I shout, generally during The Antiques Roadshow. “There are no degrees of uniqueness, it either is, or it isn’t.”

But I too have developed a tautological pet hate (“in actual fact” barely touches the sides anymore).

The one that causes an immediate tensing of the shoulders and a slight rise in blood pressure is “Changed forever”.

The problem is partly its ubiquitousness. Hardly a book is blurbed without the proclamation that events within its pages will either have changed the characters’ lives forever, or will change the readers’.

Now, I may be getting a touch metaphysical here but as soon as something changes it can never go back to what it was, therefore any change is forever. Even if it changes back to what it was – I’m thinking the classic Three Act structure here: Order, Chaos, Order – it will not be the same as it has gone through a change. The same applies to the equally misused, ‘Her/his life will never be the same again.’

Of course it won’t.

My life will never be the same again after every minute that passes, every breath, every morsel of food, every kiss, every spoken word, and neither will yours. Please don’t offer me that as a motivation to reading a story. I take it as a given. It’s what engages us in literature in the first place: something happens, what’s the impact? A change is what I’m expecting.


For a birthday (my fourteenth, perhaps) my father changed my life (of course it was ‘forever’ and it honestly adds nothing to this anecdote to include it) when he bought me Roget’s Thesaurus because I was forever asking, “What’s a word that means the same as (fill in blank)…?” I received it with delight although it did come with a warning from The Great Stickler (aka my dad):

“And when you find words that mean the same, don’t put them together in the one sentence.”

“Yes, I know,” I said. “That would be a repetition, duplication, reiteration, redundancy or a superfluity.”

Hateful smart-ass that I was.




Another Visit From the Lazy Writing Squad

It’s a problem I have, like the taste of coconut, or the feel of synthetic fabrics. I simply can’t stomach certain phrases.

The main contender is ‘mind’s eye.’ Even writing it – something I have sworn I would never do – makes me feel a little queasy which is not far from the reaction I get when I read it.

As a description of a particular way of imagining (why not just say ‘imagined’, it’s what is meant), it is much over used. My heart sinks every time I read it. Some writers (and when I say ‘some’ I include on that list many an author who would draw crowds at any given Literary Festival) like it so much they use it over and over again, in the same book, sometimes in the same chapter, sometimes in the same scene.

There are two problems for me here. Firstly, there is the use of the phrase itself. I don’t understand it. Your mind does not have an eye. It is meaningless. When you see something that isn’t there what you are doing is imagining it from somewhere in your brain (presumably the part where you perpetrators believe the mind keeps its non-existent eye). But I will say it again. YOUR MIND DOES NOT HAVE AN EYE.

Secondly, effective writing depends on not repeating your tricks. So why would you use a phrase (meaningless or inspired) more than once? Isn’t the idea to dazzle your reader with your fresh way of describing what many other writers have described many times before? (The answer to that question, by the way, is an unequivocal ‘Yes’.)

Other words/phrasings that make me want to shout at them for their laziness and inability to get up and do a decent job:

1                   ‘Remember’  - Please note it is possible to write a complete story/novel on the current popular (and when I say ‘popular’ what I mean is ‘over used to the point of cliché ‘) dual themes of memory and loss, without actually ever having to use this word. Only exceptions are for use in dialogue eg ‘Remember to put the bins out’ but not for use as an action. Ditto:

2                    ‘Decided’ – It is not necessary for anyone to decide to do anything that they haven’t given a lot of thought to, or weighed up the pros and cons of. In fact that is what the word means. So any random ‘deciding’ to perform any action is completely unnecessary. For the most part the action can be performed without informing the reader of the decision to perform it.

3                   ‘Suddenly’ – Do I really need to voice my objections? I may just forgive ‘sudden’, but not its adverb form by anyone older than eight.


So remember, if you suddenly decide that what you see in your mind’s eye is a cliché laden, unimaginative, tired old sentence, you will be losing at least one reader – me.



Musing on dogs and story

So I was throwing the ball for the dog in the park today (yes, I know, again with the dog, but clearly he is some sort of muse…) and he ran and caught it and threw it about a bit and brought it back. We play this game every day. In fact my dog is so finely tuned to the passing of time that if he doesn’t do exactly the same thing at the same time every day (think Rain Man) he gets, what we call, a bit ootsy.

At 7.14, one minute before the alarm goes off, he is there by the side of the bed doing his little ‘wake up and feed me’ whine. Around 10.30 he starts following me around and looking hopeful as I collect all props needed for the daily walk. Once out, il fait son toilette in the same order in almost exactly the same places. We get to the park and commence ball throwing and it struck me today how like this chap I once saw at a Rocky Horror Show participation event* he is.

This chap looked great. He was all made up as Frank N Furter, complete with corset, suspenders, feather boa and platform shoes. The effect was ruined only by his Tesco carrier bag that held the various objects needed to fully participate. And when those moments came, out came the props. Rice for the wedding scene, a newspaper to place over his head, which he managed to juggle successfully with the water pistol he fired, flashlights, party hats, confetti, the lot.

Thing is though, he didn’t really seem to be enjoying himself. It was all so routine. There was little joy on show, he wasn’t laughing or even smiling and certainly not sharing the occasion with anyone else. And there’s my dog doing almost the same thing, at this point I do this, then I do that. (Can you see where this is going?)

While there may be great comfort in doing the same thing every day, reading the same story (yes, that is where I was going), writing in the same way, it doesn’t, as far as I can see, provide a truly fulfilling experience.

This isn’t knocking genre fiction – I pass you over to Mr O Wilde who has something to say on most matters and on this one he says, “Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” I’m not even knocking formulaic fiction. (Not the same as genre fiction, by the way.) My belief is that the formula approach spouted by various writing gurus is less a How To Manual than an explanation of how story works.

All I’m proposing - and it’s hardly radical – is if you think you’ve heard it before, try something different. If the writer you’re reading doesn’t surprise you, put the book down. If the sentence you’ve written sounds familiar, highlight and delete and write it again. Try something new.

(But don’t tell the dog. He’ll probably start reciting ‘Who’s On First.’**)


* Personally I find the whole RHS participation thing an abomination. But I can say that because I was there in the Kings Road in 1973. And I was only at this show because someone I knew was in it. And I wasn’t dressed up. And I didn’t throw anything. (Although I may have joined in The Time Warp.)

**That’s a Rain Man reference.



On sloppiness

There is much blogging on matters to do with submitting to agents, whether a missing comma, or several, is enough to have your manuscript placed on the reject pile, when to stop editing and ‘what do agents want?’ (otherwise known as, ‘What do I have to do to get my book published?’) And it should come as no surprise that the, not very useful, response informs us that agents are looking for ‘A good story, well told’, which if writers were to put themselves in the position of readers (are there really any who don’t?) would be the same qualities we are looking for in a book.

Life’s too short to read a bad book, but I am more than willing to give many authors a chance. I feel duty bound to keep up with contemporary fiction and hoping to be published again, it is of utmost importance to have a read of those books that agents consider being good stories told well enough to sell to publishers.

So, my reading is a healthy mix among a handful of genres (ok - mostly contemporary ‘literary’ and classic crime) of writers I know I enjoy and (perhaps lazily) new writers that are getting positive attention from the various sources I trust.

For the most part I have satisfying enough experiences.

But there are two books recently that I have left unfinished and it bothers me. It bothers me that what has failed to keep my attention are small editing matters that could have been fixed, had someone been paying close enough attention. And then I get cross. And then I get even crosser and rant about agents, publishers, editors who are selling sub-standard products, who seem to be telling me that to achieve commercial success (outside of genre fiction), a little sloppiness here and there is quite acceptable.

Well I’m sorry – it’s not.

Where does all this start, though? One of the books had a device of beginning a chapter after the main event then going back to relay it. Fair enough. Can work. But EVERY chapter? Beyond tedious. Who read the novel along the way? (I would look at the acknowledgments but my copy is already in the Oxfam shop.) And then it gets submitted. A reader will read it, recommend it to the agent, who sends it to an editor. Everyone agrees this has commercial potential- marketing, booksellers, everyone – and they ALL fail to see how irritating a device this is?

So maybe it’s me. Maybe my standards are high.

The next book I haven’t got very far with at all. Seven pages in I came across a small paragraph that changed point of view after one sentence. It was a very short paragraph, about five lines. A character performed an action. Ok, you think - let’s see what he does next. But he does nothing, or rather, we don’t know because having performed this action he is left where he is (and not returned to) while we are told what others say about him. And we never go back to that moment.

Pretty basic stuff. The kind of problem I would point out to any of my students to whom I would explain the lack of cohesiveness leads to a lack of clarity and when that happens you’ve lost your reader.

But clearly not, as another set of ‘professionals’ were quite happy to overlook this and not only get the novel on the shelves but get it enough attention to lure the likes of me into buying it.

I don’t think my standards are too high - I just don’t want to read sloppy fiction any more than I would consider writing it.

Yes, I will make sure every comma is in place. Yes, I will edit until I am satisfied that I haven’t committed any basic errors – ie my manuscript will be cohesive and clear. I will share it with my harshest critics and even (if necessary) take their advice. And I will write a good story, which I will tell well.

And if that’s not enough…..?

Ideas and Dogs


            It is not uncommon for published writers, when faced with ‘questions from the audience’ while promoting their books at literary festivals or readings, (and to us lesser mortals who may be called upon to reveal how we pass our hours in other less commercial circumstances) to despair of the oft asked “Where do you get your ideas?” (You may place the missing ‘from’ at either end of that sentence depending on your levels of pedantry in adhering to grammatical conventions.)

            For a non-writer this is the basic problem. Obviously. If you don’t think like a writer then how would you know what to write about?

            But if you are a writer you surely never need to question this of yourself. It is, it must be said, an affliction to be looking at the colour of the sunset and instead of merely enjoying it, to be thinking of how best it could be described in words; to be overwhelmed by an emotional experience and find yourself trawling the thesaurus for its name; to be constantly, endlessly, like you’ve been cursed, searching to find the phrasing that reveals the everyday occurrence in a way that has never been used before.

            When the ‘WDYGYI’ question was put to author Howard Jacobson, he replied, ‘By keeping my eyes open. A five minute walk to the newsagents to get my paper will give me a lifetime of stories to write.’


I was talking with a woman I meet on my dog walk. She told me of a Welsh folktale about a prince who killed his dog, Gelert. He did so because the dog had blood around his mouth and the prince’s baby son was nowhere to be seen. After the dog was dead the prince heard the baby crying and found him hiding under his crib near the corpse of a wolf.

Gelert had killed the wolf to protect the baby.

I was told this because my dog apparently resembles representations of the tragic beast.

And yes, he does. This could be my dog.

 But surely the prince was full of remorse? And what happened to the baby? Did he grow up hating his father? Was his father’s sacrifice in vain? Was he left both childless and dogless once the son knew what his father had done? Maybe the son developed an unnatural dependence on his father that meant he could never be self sufficient? Or did this early exposure to cruelty to animals ensure that he grew up into a violent bully? Whichever way you look at it that father/son relationship is pretty much doomed.

The teller shrugged her shoulders. Her interest in the story was entirely different.    

Apparently this story was invented by a hotelier who thought if he could convince that his resort was near to the burial site of the poor hound, his rooms would forever be occupied, and his coffers forever overflowing, by those wanting to see the grave.

So he exploited man’s innate compassion where an animal’s unnecessary suffering is concerned, and by doing so vilified a fictional prince for his stupidity and brutality in the guise of the love he had for his son.

            There are layers of narrative complexity going on here. There are so many stories to be told in so many different ways.

            And which layer you choose to investigate will tell what kind of writer you are. Are you one that is interested in myths? Are you interested in the propagation of myths? Or their debunking? Who will be at the centre of your story? The prince? His son? The unscrupulous businessman? The woman who tells the story? Gelert?

            And no one can tell you are wrong.

            It isn’t difficult to find ideas.

            It’s a walk in the park.




Trust in me

A man falls out of the door of his trailer home. He is dirty, dishevelled, has slept in clothes that he has probably not changed for days. He stumbles; he may still be drunk from the previous night’s revelling, but there is something about the way he lurches on a stiffened leg, right hip slightly elevated, that tells of an old injury. He is filthy, he stinks. Into a loud hailer he hurls abuse at the authorities, all of them, but particularly those of the local council who will be evicting him the following day.

We recognize this man, or at least know his type; the man we always avoid wherever we might come across him, shouting outlandish tales that most of us close our ears to because it is not the way we have been taught to hear them. We have learned to receive them wrapped cleanly between covers, set out in neat rows of type on pristine paper, not spluttered, however articulately, by someone we distrust for rejecting all we have embraced. Everything about him tells that he is not like us but what we are about to discover, over the next three hours, somewhere inside us, we crave to be even a little like him.

Rooster Byron, the anti-hero of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, is a master storyteller. He uses his tales to side step responsibilities, to hold those close to him even closer and to send away those whose company he no longer desires. Those who live in the supposed ordered world dismiss his tales, attempting to wound him by suggesting that the group of young people who hang around his forest home are there for the drugs, not the stories. He doesn’t mind. They are the third generation to come to him and even if they abandon him for the conventions offered by bowing to authority there will always be more coming up behind them.

The stories he tells are skilful constructs of believable beginnings, middles that meander off the path of credibility and which ultimately build to farfetched finales that threaten to destroy any hope of his being taken seriously.

And this is how he holds the magic.

In the programme notes, Jez Butterworth relays a series of incidents that apparently happened to him (they are told in the first person, so they must be true, mustn’t they?), roaming between 1981 and 2003, in no particular order, all of which appear in the play, some told by Rooster Byron, some told about him and the remaining divided between other characters. (This is how he built the play, over almost a decade, as the memories of these events dropped like broken eggs into a vast frying pan until all the whites joined up to create a whole which became Jerusalem.)

‘The next day,’ Butterworth concludes, ‘on the A30 outside Upavon, just past the Little Chef, I met a giant who said he built Stonehenge. That is, if you believe him…’

This is the challenge of Byron’s  (Butterworth’s, all) stories. At what point do we stop listening because they have become impossible to believe? The success of the play, however, is that when Rooster is at his lowest we are urging him (silently of course, this isn’t Pantomime) to bang the golden drum, given to him by the giant, who had worn it as an earring, because that would call the giants to his aid. And Rooster Byron can only be saved by his belief in the stories he has told for they are the only truth he knows.

Preposterous? I don’t think so. We are in the hands of an expert in whom we have unshakeable trust –we trust him, of course, because he is expert; a position that all of us engaged in the practice of writing must aim for, making the reader believe.

Trust me, I’m a storyteller.





Why I write

‘Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap out crude rhythms for bears to dance to while we long to make music that will melt the stars.’

Gustave Flaubert


Once upon a time, the day before yesterday, in a far away land, in a house around the corner, a family lived happily and sadly ever after.

They were happy because they had all they needed. The father had his business, mother had her weekly visit from the chiropodist and the three sweet faced, curly haired sisters had a stream of au pairs to care for them in languages they couldn’t comprehend which naturally led to many misunderstandings which could always be righted with the words “Helga/Olga/Daja/Renate [insert appropriate name] told me to do it,” when in fact Helga/Olga/Daja/Renate had said nothing of the kind.

But they were sad because one night the goblins had broken into the nursery and stolen the middle daughter’s voice.

It wasn’t her actual voice, you understand, but her inner voice. This meant that for long periods of time she spoke no words at all, (her inner voice having disappeared taking with it her thoughts) although she always managed to find the words to insist (after writhing with stomach pains due to the early signs of a later developing lactose intolerance) that it was Helga/Olga/Daja/Renate who said she could eat all the cheese.

The absence of her inner voice was particularly noticeable amongst the ‘The Aunts’, thus earning her the nickname ‘The Schtummer’.

For three silent years the middle daughter kept her mouth shut and her mother and father showed little desire to fight the goblins on her behalf to recover her voice. Perhaps they preferred it that way, the noise of the two other sweet faced curly haired daughters being quite loud enough.

It was only when the family moved home (on a date that heralded a new era in which the incoming government not only promised but delivered increased access to learning for all, including a new schooling system under whose curriculum our heroine would spectacularly fail) that the inner voice awoke.

It was no accident that this coincided with the middle daughter learning to read. In the pages of a thousand books she recognized a thousand other inner voices playing and laughing, talking and telling, loving and learning, and knew that this was a place that the goblins never dared to venture.

And even though her inner voice then allowed her to communicate verbally with new friends and old family members (and yes, ‘The Aunts’) she only ever really felt her own honest truthful self when setting words to paper (and later on to screen).

From time to time the goblins would attempt to recover their heist, but she had learned how to fight them: she would put words together to form sentences and hope to melt the stars.

Editing Puppy

I took Puppy to the vet yesterday for the chop. It had to be done. Apart from it being the socially responsible thing to do, he was becoming uncontrollable. Having become a teenager (at a mere seven months old) he seemed to have forgotten all his training (to which he was previously impressively responsive) and was determined to 'do his own thing' which generally involved running off and investigating shrubs, picnics and other dog's bottoms.

Naturally this simply could not be allowed.

Puppies are adorable. They're cute and fluffy and full of love and provide a thousand laughs a day but when they start to assert their independence (personality, natural proclivities  - whatever you want to call it) they must be stopped. You see, there's an accepted narrative that puts us in charge and Puppy subservient. In return for obedience Puppy gets love, food, cuddles, walks, treats, a warm bed and a safe home. And we get lots of laughs. That seems to work for most people.

If Puppy were not a delightful bundle of flesh, bone and fur but a story idea and the owner was the writer, should he have had the operation?
Should we let our stories roam around undisciplined, creating chaos and refusing to be tamed?
Well, of course.  Story has to be allowed to be adventurous, who knows where it might go. But we must also act as emasculating vet, keep it in check and permit a narrative.

Puppy is, of course, still Puppy. He hasn't lost the essence of himself.
He's merely been edited.

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