Why do you write?

That question was posed by the wonderful Jackie Mallon (http://jackiemallon.com/2014/05/25/why-do-you-write/) as part of what I’m reliably informed is called a “blog hop”.  Now I’ll be honest, I don’t usually hold with this kind of stuff, but I love Jackie’s writing, and I enjoyed her answers to the questions and so…

The thing is, Jackie sent this to me back in May.  And while I’m the first to admit to being a bit of a lazy cow on occasion, I have to ask myself why it’s taken this long to do anything about it. After all, we all get to the point when those blog topics aren’t exactly tripping off our fingertips – am I right? And here’s a subject that’s relevant, tried and tested, that other people have written and commented on already but where the personal perspective is mine for the taking – and yet… almost two months on, and I’ve yet to put virtual pen to virtual paper.

I have a whole pile of reasons.  They’re nothing particularly original: I didn’t have time; would anyone really be interested; wouldn’t it be better to write a poem about the plastic lid on a takeaway beverage cup instead.  They’re easy enough to trot out.  But they’re not real.  The real reason is simple and strangely embarrassing.  The truth is – deep breath…

I don’t think I know the answer.Why write

I wish I could sit here and say that I have an urge to write. It’s something deeply ingrained in my very being.  That if I go for more than a couple of days without exercising my creative muscles, I become listless and irritable and unfulfilled.  That my poor, tortured artist’s soul needs the oxygen of the written word in order to survive. (Okay, I know souls don’t need oxygen. Jeez – everyone’s a critic.)

If only that were true! At least I’d feel authentic.  I could tell myself that I didn’t really have a choice. That my muse could not be denied! That loafing around in my pyjamas, drinking endless cups of green tea and arsing around on Twitter was an inherent part of my creative genius – rather than, say, just a strong preference to having to get out of bed with the alarm clock.

I’d try and stake a claim to altruism – I just want people to enjoy what I write – and that would be true, up to a point.  But it’s no good pretending that the idea of anyone other than my husband actually reading anything I’d written didn’t bring me out in a cold sweat until well past the point of completing the first draft of my novel. And let’s face it, in the continuing absence of my six figure book deal, the chances of more than eight people actually having an opinion on my writing one way or another are slimmer than Kate Moss on the 5:2 diet.

I could say I write because I enjoy it: I enjoy playing with words and the pictures they can paint. And every so often, that’s true too.  It’s true for those times when it feels like the story is flowing, and I can hear my characters’ voices, and some idea has just popped into my mind and I don’t know where I came from but I’m suddenly absolutely certain that that’s just the way it has to be. About ten per cent of the time, in other words.

And it’s true that I like thinking of my writing as something that will outlive me.  I mean that in a very practical sense – I don’t have delusions of Shakespearian grandeur, little twenty-third century school kids poring over the collected works of the Yak, the teacher misting up her personal visi-screen and adjusting her face mask as she suppresses quiet sobs over the beauty of my prose. No, I just mean that there are a few hard copies of my manuscript out there somewhere, and that it’s possible someone will one day come across one whilst cleaning out an elderly relative’s loft, and might be curious enough to spend a few minutes leafing through it before they go back to sorting the recycling from the charity shop pile.

But I also think there’s a bit of magic in writing. No matter how hard the words come sometimes, no matter how disappointing the results.  There’s something amazing about clicking your fingers and bringing a little clay figure to life: his name’s Neil; no, it’s Andy. Click.  He’s a mechanic, but he dreams of being a professional footballer. Click. He’s got sandy coloured hair that falls over his forehead and gets in his eyes when he’s leaning over a car bonnet.  Click. He’s planning to murder his brother.

Click, click, click.

Layer upon layer, clothes and gestures and expressions, impulses and secrets and lies – lies to themselves, lies to others.  I add something here, take away something there.  There are no secrets from me.  I know it all. I create it all.

So maybe that’s really why I write: not because I’m an artist, or an altruist, or just a plain, old-fashioned egotist, dreaming of immortality.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a massive Nosey Parker.

 

Comment below and let me know what drives you to put pen to paper!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ode to a Pumpkin – the poem Twitter didn’t want you to read

So, I’m on one of several trains that make up the ridiculously convoluted journey from North Devon to my dad’s home town in South Wales, and I find myself channelling Pam Ayres.  I get taken like this from time to time and I know it’s not a good thing. But still, it’s writing, right?

I fish out the bit of paper on which I’ve scrawled the times for the four (count ‘em) different trains I need to catch for my four (count ‘em) hour journey, and I start to scribble.  The result was posted in a series of tweets – but it appears that Twitter disapproved, possibly on grounds of taste or decency. The first time around, two of my lines disappeared into the ether; the second time – the new, improved and expanded version – a different couplet was lost.

I refuse to bow to such censorship! So here it is, the full uncut version of Ode to a Pumpkin.  You’ve been warned Twitter – I will not be silenced…

Ode to a Pumpkin* (or Too Much Time on My Hands on the Train to Wales)

How I love Google images! But wait: there's no sign of the plastic lid in this photo! Could it be that the good people at the Pumpkin Café are already alert to the health and safety tightrope they're treading? Are they avoiding drawing attention to the potential death trap that is this shape-shifting container cover? I hope not, dear reader. I hope not.

How I love Google images! But wait: there’s no sign of the plastic lid in this photo! Could it be that the good people at the Pumpkin Café are already alert to the health and safety tightrope they’re treading? Are they avoiding drawing attention to the potential death trap that is this shape-shifting container cover? I hope not, dear reader. I hope not.

O Pumpkin Café, tell me why

Whenever I your hot drinks buy

And take the plastic lids off so

That I can drink more in one go

The lid transforms immediately:

Can’t force it back upon my tea!

And as upon the train I ride

Hot liquid splashes side to side,

Risking burns with every sip -

The health and safety guys would flip.

 

Please sort it so I once again

Can drink my cuppa on the train.

 

 

I thank you.

 

*For readers outside the UK, Pumpkin are a chain of cafés found exclusively – at least as far as I know – on the platforms of train stations up and down the country.  Sampling their food and drink “offer” inspired the muse – and I’m fairly confident I’ll be the only person ever to have said that.

Eagerness, envy, hope and gratitude – an evening with Julie Cohen

Not that Julie Cohen will need it, but feels like giving "Dear Thing" a plug is the very least I could do...

Not that Julie Cohen will need it, but feels like giving “Dear Thing” a plug is the very least I could do…

A few short days to the European and local elections, and the prospect of voters giving their verdicts in polling booths up and down the country appears to be creating a few jitters among our elected masters.  I suppose it’s the political equivalent of learning you have a benign tumour: there’s no immediate danger, but the sudden whiff of mortality inspires a keen sense of carpe diem all the same.  Suffice it to say that the week has been filled with “creative” ideas, deadlines for new advice measured in hours or even minutes, and a creeping paranoia about who’s been saying what, when and to whom.

All of which meant that this week’s London Writer’s Café outing to hear the brilliant Julie Cohen talking about pacing your novel provided some much-needed stimulus for my poor, neglected Right Brain.  I’d planned to tell you all about it, but Mr Phipps has got there first (see http:/misterphipps.com/2014/05/18/picking-up-the-pace/ for a summary of Julie’s wise words). So instead I’ll give you the Yak version – the emotional journey that was the two hours spent in a crowded room in the basement of a London pub.

I arrived straight from work, in good time to get a restorative glass of wine before heading to the downstairs room where our gatherings take place.  Expecting the usual variable timekeeping of LWC members to mean I’d have my pick of seats I was surprised – nay shocked – to discover that instead I had to pick my way around a veritable horde of punters, already dug in with notebooks and iPads, pens poised to record the secrets of keeping readers interested all the way to the back cover. There was a buzz in the air and, as so often at LWC meetings, I got a kick out of just being out of the office, doing something with my evening beyond collapsing in front of the telly with a tray of food; felt the excitement of being in a room with a bunch of writers, the thrill of waiting to hear something I was pretty sure was going to be good.

And so it was.

Julie opened by setting out her credentials.  Now here was a woman who’d written a lot of books, including in some seriously unusual genres.  Knowing how hard I found it to finish my first (and only complete) novel, it was hard not to be impressed by someone with that kind of creativity and work ethic.  But that wasn’t all…

Because that day, Julie had learned that her most recent book, Dear Thing, was going to be part of Richard and Judy’s Summer Book Club. Or in other words, her sales figures were about to rocket like, like – well, like a really whooshy rocket. This woman was on the verge of stardom!

The room was fairly dim, so I hope the green glow my skin took on at that point didn’t distract any of my neighbours.  I mean, Richard and Judy?!! Julie wasn’t trying to hide her glee – she told us she’d been into every WHSmith between Reading and Liverpool Street taking photos of her book next to R&J’s grinning mugs.  Quite right too. If that had been me, I’d have found a busy branch and stayed there all day, accosting unsuspecting customers until the management kicked me out: “That’s me, you know. Yeah, I wrote that.  That one. That one there.  Yes, the one NEXT TO THE PHOTO OF RICHARD AND JUDY!”

I tried to concentrate: clearly this was a woman worth listening to.  I couldn’t let the acidic envy seeping into my bones get in the way of picking up some top tips!

And dammit, she was a good speaker too.  Funny and interesting and as self-deprecating as someone on the verge of having a best-seller could possibly be. And not only did she have loads of useful things to say about keeping up the pace, she also talked about giving herself permission to slow things down.  She talked about her transition from 60,000 word romances to her first 120,000 word novel, about the editor who had told her “It’s okay sometimes for your characters to reflect.”

And that’s when it happened: one of those moments. I’d thought there weren’t going to be any more with my first book.  In fact, I’d spent so long on the rewrites, trying to address the various ill-defined bits of feedback from publishers who liked it but just not enough to offer (everything before the “but” is bollocks, right?), I thought every last idea I could ever possibly have conceived had been either used or discarded.  But after a three month stand-off with my agent in which I’d tried to persuade her I was absolutely, entirely, at the end of both my creative powers and my tether as far as that bloody book was concerned, it happened.  Julie talked about letting your characters reflect and that little light bulb went “ping”.

Of course, in strict accordance with the Law of Sod, the next day I had an email from my agent telling me she was about to re-submit my manuscript. I still can’t quite believe I told her to hold off, but there it is.  The changes were small and they’re done now. I only hope they don’t initiate another three months’ wait while she waits for me to wail and gnash my teeth and then think of something else…

But back to the workshop.

Julie went on to talk about rejection.  About having got an agent, and being really excited, and having her manuscript sent to loads of publishers, and then having them turn it down. “And,” she said, “They all said different things!” But her story had a happy ending: she heard of a new line being launched by a Mills and Boon, got in touch with the editor herself, trimmed her 90,000 word novel down to 60,000 words in a weekend (yes, you read that right) and got herself her first book deal within a week.

Now there are lots of morals to that tale if you sit and think about it for a bit – the importance of keeping up with what’s happening in the publishing industry, being prepared to edit viciously, not being too precious about your work (I’m trying, but I think I’m still on a journey with that one). But the thing I felt when I heard her tell that story? It was hope.  Just a glimmer.  A little, fledgling thing, fluttering its tiny wings inside my chest.

At the end of Julie’s talk, I joined the crowd of admirers wanting to speak to her.  I’d been too embarrassed to ask a question in front of the whole room and now I was there, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to say.  But then out it spilled, a garbled account of my manuscript’s unsuccessful tour of UK publishers, the difficulty I’d had with the rewrite, how I hadn’t thought I could do any more with it except now I thought perhaps I could after all.  Julie stood there patiently, letting the gibbering loon in front of her get it all out.  At the end, on an out-breath, I said, “…and it’s 15,000 words longer than it was and I’m just so anxious that it isn’t tight any more!”

I don’t know what I expected her to make of it.  I thought, “She must think I’m barking.”

What she said was, “Well, of course you’re anxious.”

She said some other things too, and they were reassuring and perspective-giving, and kind.  But it was those words that made me want to give her the most enormous hug.  Because no matter how supportive and lovely The Husband has been, no matter how positive my friends and family, picking yourself up when you’ve had a knock and telling yourself to keep at it, and work harder, and just do the best you can – well it’s not easy when it’s something you want that much.  And having someone who’s done it, who’s gone through the rejection and stuck with it and then not only found a publisher, but carved out a brilliant career – having them tell you it’s okay to worry sometimes…

Well, that was a pretty amazing thing.

Thanks to the London Writers Café for another brilliant event, and thanks to Julie Cohen for giving a bigger boost than she could possibly have known to someone who’d been struggling more than she’d realised. Thank you.

 

Left brain, right brain: on the fundamental incompatibility of creativity and paid employment

Hmm, I wonder which bit of my brain is producing the irritation that it's almost three hours now into the appointment window and the telephone engineer still hasn't turned up?

Hmm, I wonder which bit of my brain is producing the irritation that it’s now almost three hours into the appointment window and the telephone engineer still hasn’t turned up?

Bank holiday Monday and it’s an ungodly hour of the morning – 8a.m. to be precise.  The kind of time my body clock would turn its nose up at and refuse to acknowledge it even existed if it weren’t for the tyranny of the mortgage.  The fact that I’m conscious and typing on a non-working day is the price I’m paying for a moment of ill-considered generosity of spirit towards the end of last week when the Husband arranged a morning visit of an engineer to try and get our phone fixed. He’s having a stressful time at work, I was full of good cheer at the prospect of a four day weekend; there may have been a glass of wine involved.  Before I knew it, I’d volunteered to be the one to haul myself out of bed – a fact he gleefully reminded me of as we got into bed a mere six hours ago after a Game of Thrones box set marathon (him) and an obsessive internet search for antique brass two light ceiling spotlights (unsuccessful – me).

So here I am, half asleep and waiting for the engineer who, according to the Law of Sod, will no doubt arrive at the end of the four hour slot we’ve been given, if indeed he arrives at all. What better time to attempt to breathe some life into this poor, neglected blog of mine?

It’s been seven weeks now since I returned to work.  Time enough, you might think, to have settled into a rhythm.  Time to have reprioritised and reorganised and rearranged.  Time, in short, to have sorted myself out and found a way of fitting in full-time work and writing groups and book clubs and blogs and reading, and perhaps even a bit of writing.

You might think that. But I’m sad to report, you’d be wrong.

What have I managed to do since my nose has once again been pressed firmly against the grindstone? Well, here – in numbers – are my achievements of the last seven weeks:

  • Episodes of PTSD involving sobbing into the Husband’s t-shirt, melodramatically declaiming that I Simply Could Not Do It Any More: 1
  • Moments of realisation that I could, and in fact, had to: 1
  • Blog posts: 1
  • Book club meetings attended: 0
  • Writing group meetings attended: 1
  • Emails to agent: 6
  • Rewrites: 0.1 (based on how much rewriting was actually done)
  • Publishers to whom manuscript has been resubmitted: 0
  • Bottles of champagne not drunk at Christmas and which I’ve promised myself I will open when I eventually get that book deal: 1
  • Bottles of champagne still unopened: 1
  • Words of second book written: 0.

I’m forced to conclude it’s not looking great.

But why is this? Why the creative paralysis? Is it simply the restrictions of the number of hours in the day? Or is there something more going on here?

I was talking to another frustrated writer the other lunch time (honestly, it turns out that the civil service is full of them – if people ever start reading more, Ministers will be hard pressed to find someone to make them a cup of tea, let alone advise on policy). Her theory was that she switched to the right hand side of her brain when she was in “creative” mode, and that she was simply incapable of using her “left side” analytical, reasoning skills at the same time.  The result was that she found herself sitting in meetings musing over her colleagues’ hand gestures and psychological drivers, instead of engaging with whatever happened to be the substance of the discussion.

Is this true for the rest of us, I wonder? Do I have to switch off my creative self in order to do what’s essentially an analytical job? Does my imagination limit my efficiency?

It’s true that my mind has been known to wander at work.  One of my junior Ministers – the previous administration, I hasten to add – bore a distractingly close resemblance to 80s comedy schoolboy Jimmy Krankie. I spent many a happy hour trying to work out what a former line manager reminded me of when he leaned backwards in a peculiarly stiff shouldered way and waggled his hands as he spoke, before realisation dawned that it was one of those puppets in Stingray or Thunderbirds.  And which of us hasn’t occasionally wondered where one or other of their colleagues sits on the psychotic scale?

But everyone does that, right?

In the case for the defence, I wrote 80,000 words of my first draft whilst working full-time; and, about half of that was written after dad had his stroke and I was trekking back to Wales most weekends to see him.  Surely it’s a bit much now to be claiming that I can’t write anything half decent without a three week run up of clear minded, distraction free, Creative Time?

And yet, there’s something in this left-brain, right-brain thing all the same.

I remember very clearly the moment when my return to work suddenly became less painful. It was Wednesday lunchtime in my first week, the day after the t-shirt-moistening snivel fest referred to above.  I’d just finished a meeting and was walking back to my desk and I felt something click into place – I realised I felt different.  As my one and only blog post to date since returning to work noted, “I felt like a civil servant again”.

I’ve no idea what triggered it. It might simply have been a defence mechanism to stop myself feeling so bloody miserable.  But whatever it was, it was absolutely real to me.  From that moment on, it felt like being back at work wasn’t the end of the world. It felt like I could cope.

There’s a corollary, though, to feeling like a civil servant. No matter how hard I tell myself it doesn’t have to be this way, I feel like less of a writer. I can feel it, that idea: the one that’s creeping back in, slithering through the crack under the door of my subconscious.  The idea I thought I’d almost got rid of when I was on leave.  The idea that writing isn’t serious.  My writing, anyway.  That it’s nothing more than a quaint little hobby I turn to when I’ve got nothing more important to do. That I ought to grow up a bit, give my intellectual energy to the thing that pays the bills.  That I’m too old to be playing at make believe.

And maybe that’s what it really comes down to for me, this left-brain, right-brain thing.  Maybe it’s about believing that it’s okay to spend time on something creative; and more than that, that I shouldn’t be embarrassed about taking it seriously.

I re-read the post I wrote when I was preparing to return to work earlier today, the one that tried to set out what I’d learned in my time on leave (http://mrsholderslegacy.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/goodbye-freedom-its-been-fun/).  It said that I’d realised I didn’t need validation through a performance marking for my day job. Perhaps now Right-brain Me needs to make the same journey. Perhaps I need to make myself believe that I don’t need validation through a publishing deal. That I can take my writing seriously without having to be paid for it.

Or then again, maybe that’s just a way of feeling better about admitting defeat?

 

 

Slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails

That’s what little boys are made of, apparently.  Not a very nice rhyme, when you come to think of it – though also rather a confused one.  I mean, puppy dogs’ tails are nice things, aren’t they? All waggy and cheerful.  And snails can be quite pretty when you look  at them, and very tasty with a bit of butter and garlic. Slugs – okay, there’s not a lot to be said for slugs. Sorry.

What’s this got to do with anything, I hear you ask.  Well, as I may have mentioned in passing, this week was my first week back in work since taking unpaid leave at the start of July.  A degree of excitement at the change got me through Monday, but by the end of Tuesday I was a miserable wretch, unsure how – or indeed if – I was going to make it to the end of the week.

“I don’t belong here!” I wanted to shout at my colleagues.  “I’m not the person you think I am. Can’t you see it? Can’t you see I’m A WRITER NOW?!”

Some time on Wednesday something clicked back into place.  I don’t know how it happened, but it did. One minute I was bewildered and miserable and ready to beg The Husband to sell up and move to the Orkneys and keep goats; the next it all seemed – well, fine.  The job was new, yes, and frantically busy, and I didn’t know what I was doing – but it all felt  manageable.  I knew I’d learn what I needed to. I believed I could be useful.

I felt – dear God, I can hardly bring myself to write it – I felt like a civil servant again.

And that made me think – what is it that makes us think of ourselves as one thing or another? Is the need  to define ourselves innate to our nature, starting even before those rhymes that tell us we’re made either of molluscs or cooking ingredients? And if that’s the case, what happens somewhere along the line that makes some of us feel we want to claim the badge of “writer”?

I’ve seen enough posts about this topic to know that the question of whether or not we deserve to call ourselves writers is something that exercises many of us. Do we qualify before we’ve had something published? Does self-publishing count? What about pieces in magazines?  Is it something about sales?

The obvious question in response to all this soul searching is, why does it matter?

The somewhat circular answer seems to me that it matters because we want it so much.  We want our efforts recognised.  Somehow, being able to call ourselves writers legitimises the hours hunched over a keyboard or notepad; the solitary, often painful process of choosing, arranging and rearranging words that, for the vast majority of us, will only be read by a handful of sympathetic friends and family – and that only if we can steel ourselves to expose our souls and share our writing with anyone at all.  It’s behaviour that could almost be a definition of madness – but give yourself the label of “writer” and it’s suddenly reasonable, admirable even. You are one of a tribe: a creative.  An artist.

Our sensitive little egos both fear and crave the title.  It’s so personal and important we can hardly bear to talk about it.  Defining the label seems crass and fatuous.  But never fear: that hasn’t put off one Rachel McCain who, confident that she bears the mantle of “real” writer, has written an epistle on what we all need to do in order to emulate her: http://www.litro.co.uk/2014/02/the-write-life-definition-of-a-real-writer/#comment-35355

Just so we’re clear how impressive she is, Ms McCain spells it out for us:

I’m a writer. Not a nonchalant blogger or a self-published author who lacks writing skills. An actual working writer. A journalist, essayist, creative writer, scribe. Call it what you will, but I am a professional nonfiction wordsmith.

(Heaven preserve us from nonchalant bloggers. )

She then goes on to explain what this requires, which seems to amount to writing in a notebook at unsociable hours, using a thesaurus and reading (second-hand books, apparently, which as we all know are morally superior).

Hope he's been accredited by Rachel McCann...

Hope he’s been accredited by Rachel McCain…

For someone who claims to be “passionate” about plot structure, Ms McCain’s argument is a little difficult to follow.  There’s something about caring about your work, being keen on punctuation, having churned out stuff for a long time and having a degree (goodness knows how all those eighteenth century writers managed to produce classic fiction without the aid of a Masters in Fine Arts).

And then she gives the game away:

My issues center on those who lack substantial credibility and a modicum of talent – but still call themselves writers, still feel they can start from the top, so to speak. Unskilled self-published authors, brain-dead bloggers, lifelong townies who are given a literary soapbox: If it wasn’t for technology, you probably wouldn’t have a page to write on.

Here’s someone who’s stamping her little foot because writers like E.L. James can publish work that isn’t going to win any literary laurels, but – gasp! – people nevertheless want to read it. And she’s made a packet doing it!

It’s just not fair! There’s poor old Rachel, on her second writing degree, and former deputy editor, no less, of Home Town Media Group  (a “small community newspaper company in New York”), scribbling away for over a decade and still working on that manuscript (it’ll be ready any day now, I’m sure) – and NO-ONE CARES! No-one’s given her a badge to say how wonderful she is! No medal of honour to distinguish her from this dreadful woman who’s just come along and written a few books millions of people have enjoyed reading!

The world’s gone to hell in a hand basket.

Hmm, I smell something a bit pungent here. It must be the odour from that veritable vineyard of sour grapes.

Well, here’s one nonchalant, brain-dead blogger who’s about to upset Ms McCain and others of her ilk.

Yes, I’m a civil servant. And you know what? I’m a writer too.

And you can stick that up your MFA.

Goodbye freedom: it’s been fun.

Well, here it is at last: the final week before I return to the daily grind, the rat race, the spirit-sapping, temper-testing, stress bucket that is paid employment.  And what better way to celebrate this milestone than to throw myself out of the nearest window? Return to work

Sadly, however, the nearest window is right in front of me and a mere seven feet or so from the ground.  And there’s a plant pot just underneath and I’d be bound to end up crushing the miniature daffs.  And they’ve only been out for a week.  It hardly seems fair.

So fie to window jumping! Instead, I thought I’d use this post to look back over what I’ve learned over the last eight months.  Here it is, pop pickers, one last list before I go over the top…

1. I am not my job.  I’ve always suspected as much, but it turns out it’s really true! I don’t need validation through a performance marking. I don’t need to feel like a failure if I haven’t listened to the Today programme. Guess what? Lots of people don’t! Lots of intelligent people! I know some of my colleagues won’t believe this, but honestly, it’s true. I’ve met them!

2. My writing is not a complete dead loss. I’ve finished a book. A whole one. And I’ve got an agent and everything.  And a publisher! Okay, a French one not a British one, but still.  That means I can’t be completely rubbish.  It does mean that, right?

3. How I love praise! I love it. I love  it, I love it, I love it.  It embarrasses me too, and I never really know how to reply – but oh, how it motivates me!  If only someone had told me I was good at my job – unequivocally, mind, without any of the ands or buts – in say, the last five years, I might still care about my career in the civil service.  I only say “might”.

4. It’s not all about me. No matter how “self-directed” I’d like to think I am when writing, if I want my work to see the light of day – at least through the traditional publishing route – the time comes when I have to place the product of my blood, sweat and tears in other people’s hands. I may be closer to being mistress of my own destiny, but I’m not its absolute dictator.

5. That thing about perseverance over talent? Oh yes.  Okay, it’s hard to judge talent, but there’s absolutely no doubt about the other bit. The emotional see saw of the submissions process is like nothing else: from the kind of happiness that makes you wake up with a smile on your face each morning (the editor’s taking it to acquisitions!) to feeling like a deluded, talentless, idiot (they’re not making an offer). There’s only one way to deal with it: cry like a baby, then dry your tears and get on with the rewrite.  Happily, though…

6. There are a lot of lovely people out there. There’s a vibrant, passionate community of writers at all stages in their careers ready to offer guidance and support.  There are bloggers, and writing groups, and book clubs, and insightful people who love to read. And they’re all producing a wealth of content, all that wonderful stuff to learn from, accessible in a few clicks of a mouse.

And that brings me to you.

When I started this blog I did it because I’d heard that it was important for aspiring writers to have a “platform”.  I didn’t realise that it would help me find my voice as a writer, or that I’d come into contact with so many people who were prepared to give their time to read my work, to give me their thoughts, and even to come back and do it more than once.  I didn’t realise how much pleasure and stimulation and kindness I’d find in my own little WordPress family.  It’s been a blast.

I’m going to have to parcel out my time more sparingly in the months ahead, so there’ll be fewer entries here.  But I’m intending to post at least once a month, just to whinge let you know how I’m getting on. And I’ll be spending my evening commute catching up on what my fellow bloggers are up to.

And there’s one thing I’ll be holding onto when I’m standing on that platform on Monday morning.  It’s not rocket science, and it sounds annoyingly like one of those irritating posters they stick up on the walls of gyms with some smug sod climbing a rock face or surfing a massive wave. But still, it’s what I’ve learned.

I’ve walked away once and the world didn’t end.  And I can do it again.

 

Qualification shmalification: who needs an MA in self-publishing?

What’s the point of a qualification?

If anyone had asked me that question before today, I would probably have answered something along the lines of it being a combination of a) proof for an employer either that you already have the knowledge and skills needed to do their job, or that you’re generally bright enough to pick them up; and b) a sort of pat on the back to yourself for spending time and energy learning something new. It can be both of those things, or one or the other, and either is fine. But basically, that’s what it’s all about.

"To Amazon!"

“To Amazon!”

That was until today.  Because today I heard about the University of Central Lancashire’s new MA in – wait for it – self-publishing.

Now I’m not going to come over all Michael Gove here.  If someone wants to do a doctorate in the evolution of the daleks, or the plot structure of Hollyoaks, or how that fairly thin woman without luggage managed to take up the entire corridor all the way between the Jubilee and Bakerloo lines at Baker Street this morning, that’s fine with me.  Hell, my degree was in Egyptology, so you’re not going to find me throwing stones in that particular glass house.  All of these topics come under the general heading of “self-fulfillment” in my book, and if you can afford the time and money, why not?  Who knows, you might even stumble across a shiny new logarithm to prevent tube station corridor-hogging by skinny women in leggings.

But self-publishing? Really?

I mean, presumably the way you demonstrate you’re up to the requirements of the course is – I don’t know – to publish something? And if you’ve gone to the trouble of writing that something, wouldn’t getting it out there for the world to see be reward enough?  Wouldn’t wanting people to read the thing that you’ve pored over and sweated over and drained your very lifeblood into be kind of the most important thing?  And wouldn’t the best possible indicator of how well you’ve done the job be, not a certificate and a photo of you wearing a silly cap, but the number of copies you sell?

As for impressing a potential employer… Imagine the conversation – sorry, monologue:

“Well when I’d finished writing The Amazing Adventures of Millicent Muckraker, I naturally considered self-publishing. So I took myself out for a coffee, and I was really impressed with my vision for the book.  I was nice enough too, and I obviously had my best interests at heart… But when it came down to it, I just wasn’t happy with my credentials. Anyway, a year later, I got in touch with myself again and this time I had this great qualification – oh yes, from the University of Central Lancashire – and I thought: yes, this is the self-publisher for me!”

And before people tell me I’m underestimating the new market in assisted self-publishing, that’s not how this course is selling itself. There’s no mention of “assisted” in the title; no reference to dealing with authors who refuse to have their work edited, or to accept that they might not meet with the success of Fifty Shades of Grey.  Needless to say, that doesn’t mean the marketing team haven’t mentioned E.L. James in the blurb, for they have, the not-so-subtle implication being that fame and riches await those prepared to shell out a little upfront investment in the other UCL.  After all, says course leader Debbie Williams, gamely attempting to maximise her market, “Everyone has a book in them.”

A course in self-publishing I can get behind.  Everyone I’ve spoken to who has any experience in it says it’s bloody hard work, and giving people the skills to do it well seems a perfectly legitimate endeavour. But the idea of self-publishing as an end in itself? An MA – a post-graduate degree, no less – not because you’ve managed to produce anything worth reading, but because you’ve got something, anything, published on Amazon? That seems a pretty hollow enterprise to me.

Let me know what you think! Am I being narrow-minded? Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with a self-publisher getting an extra couple of letters she’ll never use after her name when she’ll be doing all the work anyway?  Add your comments below…