Who You Gonna Call? Writing Myths Busters!

Over the past few days, I’ve come across several items of received wisdom about authors and writing which made me cock my head to one side and wonder… I can’t claim to be an expert in publishing, but I’m an obsessive reader. So all I can do is give my slightly-keener-than-average reader opinion on writing myths which might be holding some potential writers back or causing publishers to underestimate the markets for a certain type of work.

Productivity is expected.

Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash.

Gillian McAllister, a respected crime fiction author, asked recently on Twitter: ‘I‚Äôm thinking a lot about longevity of writing careers and those authors who have amazing staying power at the moment. And so here‚Äôs a question to you, readers of twitter: if you‚Äôve stopped reading an author, why? And on the contrary, if you‚Äôve stuck by an author, why?’

There were some excellent responses to this question (you can catch the thread on Twitter), but my honest reaction was that if they start producing at a rate of 1-2 books a year, I feel I cannot keep up anymore. I read between 120-150 books a year, but I also want to discover new authors, read widely, participate in challenges etc. So I’m far from waiting hungrily for the next book in the series. This has happened even with favourite authors such as Ian Rankin, Nicci French, Andrea Camilleri. I am always glad to see a new book by them and will usually add it quickly to my TBR pile (at least mentally), but I may leave them to dangle there for months or even years. I just don’t have the time to be quite so committed to a single author, and it’s getting worse with old age, unless I’m writing a dissertation (or feature article) on them. So perhaps less is more, contrary to what publishers seem to think. And may give the author a much-needed break to invent to replenish the well and invent new things.

Reliable vs. surprising.

Photo credit: Yvonne Lee Harijanto, Unsplash.

I call it ‘comfort food reading’ – those days when you want to revert to an author whose stories you almost always like, because they follow a predictable pattern. But¬†it doesn’t quite satisfy your hunger. Once you’ve wolfed down these books, not much of it stays in your mind. Formulaic can certainly wear thin after a while. I am changing and developing all the time (or I like to think I am) and the authors I enjoy most always seem to grow and develop as well. Perhaps not always in the same direction as me, but in ways which will surprise me. And one direction which we will always have in common: we are all getting older. Louise Penny understands this well, and I’m always willing to follow her blend of the expected (the village of Three Pines) and the unexpected (books that are more about art and grief and belief than about crime).

So please, publishers, allow your authors to experiment, play with genres, take a break from a series, even fail on occasion. Yes, the sales might go down a bit, but who knows, they might also gain the respect of new readers!

It’s tough out there for white male authors right now.¬†

This is partly in reaction to the recent article in Quillette (a publication that seems to delight in stirring up controversy and boasts about its increased readership as a result of this article) in which a soon-to-be-published white male author complains just how difficult it is to be published right now if you are … you guessed it, white and male. He claims that political correctness, left-wing liberalism and diversity have gone too far, despite all the recent evidence to the contrary, demonstrating that publishing is still not as diverse as it could and should be. Both racism and inflated egos are at work here.

I’ve organised agent and editor meetings for writing groups and have seen first-hand the breathtaking self-confidence of the mediocre writer who does NOT agree with the agent’s opinion of their work. I’ve not seen many flaunting their sense of entitlement quite so blatantly and quoting from their own (clunky) work without any sense of irony. However, I’ve heard others moaning that all the literary prizes are going to the outsiders right now, that you don’t stand a chance if you’re mainstream (by which they mean white and male, in most cases). You know what? That is fine with me! After centuries of dominance by the same old, same old, don’t you think it’s time for others to shine? It’s not like their work is of inferior quality (yes, I know that’s what those complaints are getting at, but it’s simply not true).

Friday Fun: Sheds of Famous Writers

It seems that you don’t have to have an all-singing, all-dancing, all-mod-cons shepherd’s hut to write a book. Who’d have thunk that? Here are some garden sheds where magic happens.

Roald Dahl’s well-known writing shed in Buckinghamshire.

Philip Pullman seems to be working in your average garden shed from B&Q.

Cressida Cowell’s writing shed seems a little more romantic and airy. From Booktrust.

The interior of Neil Gaiman’s treetop shed, complete with dog.

Unnamed writer’s retreat from bobvila.com

Charles Dickens started the trend, with his Swiss chalet themed shed. (In spite of having an enormous library/study in the house as well).

Mark Twain’s octogonal shed was designed to resemble the pilot house of a Mississippi steam boat.

Joanne Harris often mentions her shed on Twitter, although it’s the imaginative rather than the physical one. Here it is on the Shedworking site.

 

Friday Fun: Vaucluse/Provence – Things to See, People to Meet

While my Provence retreat was a working holiday, I did also go out to do the touristy thing on occasion. [I have to add that my laptop died on the very first day Рthe third gadget in three months to do that, so perhaps that contributed to my lack of progress regarding my WIP.]

I was going to spend the morning in a café in Roussillon, working on my novel, but it was surprisingly busy (it was a sunny day after several cloudy ones), no seats to be found, so instead I bought nougat for the boys at the weekly market and wandered through the picturesque streets.

Like all villages in the area, Roussillon was built on a hill, with a view of potential marauding hordes.
Like all villages in the area, Roussillon was built on a hill, with a view of potential marauding hordes.

This area was a major producer of ochre pigment for approximately two centuries, and if you look at the cliffs surrounding the village, you can understand why.

wp_20161027_11_52_29_pro

There is a lovely trail around the former quarry - full of tourists in summer.
There is a lovely trail around the former quarry – full of tourists in summer.

The village itself ticks every box in the quaint category.

Narrow stairs leading to the upper part of the village? Check!
Narrow stairs leading to the upper part of the village? Check!

Terrace with a great view from the top? Check!
Terrace with a great view from the top? Check!

Le tricolore flying on the town hall? Check!
Le tricolore flying on the town hall? Check!

Cute little houses and artist's galleries? Check!
Cute little houses and artist’s galleries? Check!

Villas for sale? Check!
Stone villas for sale? Check!

On another evening I accompanied my hosts to an event at the beautiful Dora Maar house in M√©nerbes. The villagers of M√©nerbes were originally flattered to be featured in Peter Mayle’s series of books set in Provence, but he turn was not always flattering about individuals (and did not believe in anonymity), plus it led to it being completely overrun by tourists. Not hard to understand, when it looks like this.

From sablethome, com
From sablethome.com.

The Dora Maar house was bought by Picasso for his mistress when he was trying to get rid of her (he himself never lived there). It had fallen into disuse, but in 1997 an American philanthropist and friend of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston bought it and renovated it. It now offers midcareer artists, writers and film-makers the opportunity to work in peace for up to three months on a project of their choice.

doramaarhouse
I don’t know about you, but I would happily have given up Picasso for the sake of this house…

Street view of the house.
Street view of the house.

I had no battery to take any pictures (the pictures above and below are from the website of the house), but it was an unforgettable evening, featuring readings and film excerpts from two film-makers (from Australia and the UK), a Mexican writer and an American poet. My favourite place was the cosy living room/library, of course. The evening was animated by the charming Gwen Strauss, who is the director of the fellowship programme but is herself a writer, so knows all about artistic temperaments.

doramaarallianceofartistscommunities

So you know where to find me when I am more … mid-career, shall we say?

I also made the acquaintance of Canadian artist Wally Ballach, who has been living in nearby Gordes for 25 years. His paintings (some of which you can see on this site) are unusual, rather dark and¬†disturbing, full of artistic and literary¬†references,¬†but Wally himself (like most crime writers) is a lovely, sunny personality. Provence is full of artists and authors who take advantage of the quieter winter months to work really hard… but they also socialise and the cultural life in this rural area is amazing.

Finally, here is an image of Gordes, the golden hilltop town that I only passed through in the car. Next time (and I’m sure there will be a next time!), I will be sure to stop.

From Avignon-et-provence website.
From Avignon-et-provence website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Setting Is Switzerland

gildedchaletPadraig Rooney: The Gilded Chalet

This was one of my Christmas presents to myself Рa reference book of writers who have made Switzerland their home or source of writing inspiration. A combination of biography and personal travel memoir (on the tracks of these writers), it is effortlessly erudite and charming, while also pointing out many shortcomings of Swiss society. There is something for every kind of literature lover in this book. From Rousseau and Voltaire, to Shelley and Byron, from Conan Doyle and Thomas Mann, to cross-dressing Muslim convert Isabelle Eberhardt, James Joyce and Herman Hesse, the Fitzgeralds and even the chalet school stories of Elinor Brent-Dyer. The spy novels of Graham Greene,  Ian Fleming, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Le Carré, and the founder of Swiss thriller Friedrich Glauser.

Patricia Highsmith in front of her house in Ticino, from slashseconds.org
Patricia Highsmith in front of her house in Ticino, from slashseconds.org

Nabokov in a hotel in Montreux and Patricia Highsmith living in the most uncomfortable, poky, dark house in the world in Ticino. The self-conscious and self-critical Swiss writers such as D√ľrrenmatt, Max Frisch, Peter Stamm.

Switzerland took writers in, sometimes grudgingly, often with good grace. It gave them a room with a view and a place at the table – maybe not the Stammtisch, but you can’t have everything. Service was brisk and efficient, the wine not too bad, the food rough and ready but nourishing… And the writers responded by doing what they do best… They bit the hand that fed them. They pointed out the dry rot. Suggested there’s a smell under the floorboards. Often enough writers just got on with it – up some secluded valley… What would the world be if there were no chalet, no refuge, no little lifeboat?

OkriBen Okri: The Age of Magic

A strange, hypnotic journey searching for Arcadia in a Swiss mountain village. A film crew stop in a formerly trendy resort on a lake in Switzerland on their way to the real Arcadia in Greece – and each crew member has a profound transformative experience. It’s more of a meditation on life and art, on personal fears and quests, rather than an actual novel. Some beautiful phrases and thoughts worth pondering on, worth rereading. The Bad Sex award seems a bit harsh, especially as there is only one half-explicit sex scene in the whole book. A book which will appeal more to poets rather than readers, difficult to describe, with no real narrative arc as such. Oddly satisfying in parts; not sure I understand it at all in others.

wallcreeperNell Zink: The Wallcreeper

What is it about Switzerland that drives bored expat wives to take up adultery as a hobby or as extreme cries for attention? This is the second one published in 2015 (after Hausfrau) to deal with the topic. Many readers complained in the case of Hausfrau that the main character was too passive and self-pitying (I thought it described depression pretty well).¬†In this case, it is the voice of a young person,¬†completely self-absorbed, with an¬†utter lack of concern for consequences and a strange disconnect with other people’s feelings.

The story starts off in Berne and then moves on to Berlin and other parts of Europe. The narrator’s husband becomes involved in the ecological movement, they are both birdwatchers and there are some forced analogies and heavy symbolism throughout the book about the harm humans do to wildlife, to the planet, to each other, but it feels largely aimless. An opportunity for the writer to display her wit and erudition, it feels like it’s trying a little too hard: everything I hate about American MFA writing. However, I have to admit:¬†in spite of this overall coldness and lack of empathy which I felt that most of the characters displayed, it was witty, funny, readable in the way you enjoy hearing an acerbic tongue being exercised on other people, although you wouldn’t necessarily want it in your own life.

 

Friday Fun: Writers and their Writing Dens

A day early, but just in time to build up a little book(shelf) envy for the weekend: a peek around the studies or home libraries of famous writers. Some impress us with their tidiness…

Colson Whitehead in his study. From New York Times website.
American novelist Colson Whitehead in his study. From New York Times website.

British writer Ali Smith takes a more relaxed approach to bookshelves…

Ali Smith at home. From The New Statesman.
Ali Smith at home. From The New Statesman.

Others excel in collecting precious items not just in the kitchen, but also in their study.

Food writer Nigella Lawson at work. From Buzzfeed.
Food writer Nigella Lawson at work. From Buzzfeed.

One might expect¬†Karl Ove Knausg√•rd to dedicate a lot of time and thought to his books. Sure enough… and he smokes too!

Knausgaard in his studio. From The Guardian.
Knausgaard in his studio. From The Guardian.

Of course, you expect a trendy office for fashion journalist and co-founder of Clique Media, Hilary Kerr.

Hilary Kerr's office redesign. From Domaine Home.
Hilary Kerr’s office redesign. From Domaine Home.

But then again, simplicity is best. Here is Louis de Berni√®re’s garden shed – things don’t get much simpler than this! Proving that all you need to write is willpower.

Louis de Berniere's outdoor study. From The Guardian.
Louis de Berniere’s outdoor study. From The Guardian.

 

 

 

Friday Fun: Writers’ Studies

I’ve been struggling with a poetry assignment all this week, so no time to be clever, or poetical ¬†or witty today. Instead, I wish you a happy weekend and leave you with this pictures of the studies/workrooms of famous authors. Today I opt for the glitzy, glamorous and rather tidy…

Michael Pollan, American journalist and foodwriter. From tobeshelved.com
Michael Pollan, American journalist and food writer. His writing hut from tobeshelved.com

Hilary Kerr, fashion writer and stylist. From domainehome.com.
Hilary Kerr, fashion writer and stylist. From domainehome.com.

Colson Whitehead, American novelist. From Tmagazine, New York Times.
Colson Whitehead, American novelist. From Tmagazine, New York Times.

Roddy Doyle, Irish novelist and dramatist.  From Tmagazine, New York Times.
Roddy Doyle, Irish novelist and dramatist. From Tmagazine, New York Times.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950), American poet. From Writershouses.com
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950), American poet. From Writershouses.com

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

Our heads contain worlds. Or is it just the one over and over?

People pop out to smoke cigarettes,

simper, gossip, fuck and pray.

Maggotty ideas fester ‚Äď let them die ‚Äď

voices assault us daily.

What is real I cannot say.

He’s tried to flirt with the mainstream.

His world always out of kilter

at an angle only he can measure,

drumming beats no one will follow.

There is no shared vision,

yet we wish horses of belonging for us beggars.

Come inside, ladies and gents!

If only you’d discover that underneath I’m much like you,

a gentler man of erudite barbs.

One read and you’ll be captivated.

I know I’ve worked so hard for this:

how can I share that knowledge, that wonder with you?

 

How do you keep your balance as a creative person? ¬†That is the question that Joe Hesch would like us to consider at Open Link Night on dVerse Poets. Always a sore point with me…

Sunday Escapism: Where Would You Go to Write?

New Forest Tree House Study Centre, www.cet.org.uk
New Forest Tree House Study Centre, http://www.cet.org.uk

What inspires you most?  A tree house?

Or maybe a house on the water?

cabanesdesgrandslacs.com
cabanesdesgrandslacs.com

A castle with a garden for all the five senses?

Chateau, Yvoire.
Chateau, Yvoire.

A book-lined garden shed? (Don’t think about damp and other practicalities for a moment!)

portejardin_200

In my grandiose moments, I dream of escaping to the old Royal Salt Mine designed by that mad visionary Nicolas Ledoux. ¬†It may be architecture on a huge scale, but it’s soothingly remote.

Saline Royale, Arc-et-Senans
Saline Royale, Arc-et-Senans

In the end, though, it will have to be sofa. Or maybe my garden deck.  Still, it could be worse, right?

Terrace

All I Want for Christmas…

… is peace of mind and a bit of rest, if I am honest.

If that is an unlikely proposal, then here are some alternatives that this writer (and maybe other writers you know) would appreciate.

  1. Adopt a book at the British Library and help fund the conservation of rare and precious books.
  2. One year’s membership of the Poetry Society in the UK or its US twin
  3. Mslexia’s fabulous Writers’ Diary for 2013 – or even an annual subscription to Mslexia
  4. For writers who are also Formula One fans, this beautiful Ferrari pen in red – although, to be honest, for writing smoothness, I prefer the simple gel pens you can get 3 to a pack at supermarkets. (I personally have supported McLaren since I was knee-high, but their pens are just not as cool.)
  5. Sample of notebooks

    Notebooks.  One can never have enough of those.  My current favourites are the incredibly smooth, practical, yet luxurious Rhodia orange-and-blacks.

And, since I don’t expect my family to come across this wish-list on my blog, I have to admit that I have gifted myself a couple of the above for Christmas already…

What have you got your writerly eye on this Christmas?  Other than books, obviously, which make the best presents of all!  Oh, and by the way, I have not been paid to advertise any of the above products or websites.

Who Needs Writers’ Groups?

Like Murakami, I tend to draw parallels between running and writing.  I did quite a bit of running when I was in school, but then forgot about it for years and returned to it fairly recently.  I am a long distance runner, not a sprinter (and I see myself as a novelist rather than a short story writer or a poet).  I am an avid consumer of magazines and books about improving your running and writing skills.

But, despite all advice to the contrary from these magazines, I do not have a running partner.¬† I prefer to run on my own.¬† Maybe it’s because I use running as a way to clear my head, maybe it’s because I am too embarassed that I may not be able to keep up with other runners, but I have steadfastly avoided running clubs. And the few wild stabs at running with a partner have ended in miserable defeat: one got pregnant, one fell and dislocated her hip, one ran off in the woods without me… and I have sprained my ankle three times on such occasions. Must be the multitasking (running and talking at the same time)!

Same with my writing.¬† I was doing fine on my own, thank you very much! No need to share.¬† However, in running, I did notice after a while that, if I did not have a race deadline or an accountability partner (a coach or a knowledgeable running partner), I began to slacken.¬† I began to find excuses for not running. I suffered from injuries. I stopped entering races.¬† You can see how this analogy is going.¬† I began to fear that my ‘ivory tower writing’ was making me self-complacent, self-absorbed and completely cut off from the realities of writing life.¬† A crippled, lazy, eternally unpublished, armchair runner/author.

I had been too afraid, too ashamed, hyper-sensitive and nervous to join a writing group.¬† Until I started this blog, I had hardly ever shown my work to anyone (and I made sure that I told no one how to find this blog at first).¬† Then the readers, the likes and the comments started coming in.¬† I began to think: ‘There, sharing your work with others is not that bad after all!’¬† Now, I know you are all nice folk out there, who bother to comment if you have something nice to say.¬† Otherwise you just move on to the next webpage or website. So it’s not representative of the ‘real’ world.

But I had made a start.¬† I was no longer quite so private, quite so timid.¬† I thought it was time to face my demons (and no, I am not referring to the other writing group members here). There is a rather well-established writers’ group in my area, one that organises conferences and invites well-known writers to run workshops, but I’m still working my way up to that level of public scrutiny.¬† Instead, I found a very local sub-set of this group.¬† We meet at someone’s house in idyllic conditions: a converted blacksmith’s cottage with a sunny terrace overlooking a stream. It’s a small group and each of us has about 20 minutes for reading and debating. It was my first proper meeting this weekend just passed, and perhaps they were all being especially nice and friendly, so as not to scare off the newcomer.

What I had feared most (other than being ripped to shreds upon reading the first paragraph or stanza), was that the experience would be useless.  In other words, that the other participants would be too polite, making all the right noises, nodding and agreeing, but giving me nothing to work with, no constructive feedback.  Or else that they would just like or dislike something at a visceral level, offering no reasons, no suggestions for improvement.

So, in other words, I feared blandness and rejection.

Instead, I discovered some interesting people, fascinating stories and poems, beautiful images and language…¬† and really helpful remarks.¬† Such as: ‘I’m stumbling a little when reading this line, is it the punctuation mark that makes all the difference?’¬† ‘How about breaking the lines down this way, would that open it up?’¬† ‘If you cut the first sentence out,¬† or even the first paragraph, would this story lose anything?’

Yes, that’s the kind of nitty-gritty advice that makes one leave with a (good) furrow in your brow and a sizzle in your belly.¬† Especially when it’s followed by a ‘I love the joy, the sound, the colour of this piece.¬† I want to read more!’¬† I look forward to reading and listening more.¬† Here’s to conquering your fears and to continuous improvement!